I broke my rule about leaving the house without makeup today and the universe soundly spanked me for it.
The reason was that New York had a visitor this week—you probably heard about her on the news. Hurricane Sandy. Or, as some who don’t care if they sound a wee bit sexist said, the Bitch.
Now, as a fully paid up member of Bitches Inc, I don’t particularly care about being called a bitch. I think the word should be reclaimed. And it is indisputably true that like bitches I have known, Sandy treated New York City in a distressingly careless and haphazard manner.
In Park Slope, enjoying all of the benefits of elevation, we arose the night after Sandy breezed through town and did what Park Slopers do best—queued for brunch.
Swathes of Queens woke up homeless. Gigantic blocks of lower Manhattan and the lower elevations of Brooklyn queued for water and food. The entire borough of Staten Island, slammed and abandoned, was left waving their arms in the air and wondering if, there might possibly be some time in the far distant future when they might be regarded as bone fide members of the New York City family.
Not to make this all about me, but what the hell. It’s, like, my blog.
I’ve been struggling a bit lately. Not with like water or power or death or any of the important shit. Just stuff.
My emotions are in a squalid state. And three days of Sandy-induced solitude did not help. I thought about calling my father, but I knew what his advice would be. It’s been the same my entire life. “Feeling hard done by? Then get off your backside and help somebody else.”
My father is a practical man.
So on Saturday I rose earlier than normal, makeup-less, and ventured forth into Red Hook, eager to make my contribution to my stunned, bruised and beloved city.
I came prepared to schlep food to those trapped in high rise buildings. I brought a flashlight and Park Slope approved sensible footwear. (Danish clogs.) Also, I’m Pilates trained. I can do stairs. In the dark. I was ready.
The folks at the Red Hook Initiative sent me instead to the Red Hook Community Farm.
A week ago the farm was submerged under three feet of toxic storm sludge. It’s quite near the Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn’s favorite super fund site. (A super fund site is American for something so vile, so polluted, that it’s unwise to even draw breath near it.)
The farm is, not to put too fine a point on it, a mess. Toxic chemicals, salt water and soil do not play well together.
Along with dozens of others, I spent hours pulling up plants, shoveling soil and hauling bags and bags of organic matter that’s too polluted to be composted, to the curb. It was tedious, exhausting, heart-and-back breaking work. The folks who run the farm, dazed and overwhelmed, kept thanking us for coming. Over and over.
I’m a gardener and I could tell how much care, how much time, had gone into building that soil. To look at, it’s perfect. Coal black, the consistency is correct. Utterly correct. It’s just friable enough. As all conscientious gardeners do at this time of year, they had mulched their raised beds and planted clover—a cover crop that returns nitrogen to the soil. It’s an essential practice for gardens that don’t have the space to rotate their crops.
It’s dead now, most likely. The soil will have to be replaced, most likely.
Yet the community depends on that farm. It sells food to local businesses. It teaches the kids who live in the projects where food actually comes from.
So, the no makeup part of my story isn’t really relevant. The point of my story lies elsewhere, but I’ll get back to that. I only mention the no makeup part because it seems kind of funny.
So I’ve spent hours in the freezing cold, shoveling toxic shit. I’m caked in it. Toxic shit is all over my shoes, my jeans, my hair. My nose and eyes are running because of the sharp little wind that’s whipping in off the harbor. Oh, and because no good deed ever goes unpunished, I have hat hair and windburn.
And I run into my ex. Yes, I do. We’re hardened do-gooders. It used to be one of the things we had in common. World needs to be saved, and yes, we were there. Together. Used to be.
And you know what? I didn’t give a flying weasel. I didn’t care. I’m proud of what I did. I’m proud that I was able to offer some solace to my neighbors. I’m proud to offer them some evidence that they are not alone. That none of us are.
My dad’s advice is, as always, sound. Stop thinking about your own problems and think about somebody else’s and you’ll make the world a little smoother, a little easier to bear.
Because there was one, perfect point in the day. A perfect moment. It was lunch time and we were hungry and the wind was whipping and we were frozen almost solid. A woman came over to where we were working and told us that there was plenty of food and we should eat. There was plenty of food. There was pizza and pasta and soup and frittata and rice and bread and hot coffee. I asked a woman who was serving where it had come from. “Brad Lander put out a call,” she said. Brad Lander is our local go-to guy, politically speaking.
And then I looked up and I saw that not only did we have plenty of food, but there was more food coming. People came on bicycles. On foot. On skateboards! People walked with backpacks containing food. It was like that scene at the end of Field of Dreams, but without the cars. It was a perfect New York moment and it brought tears to my eyes.
As one of my fellow gardeners, the one who kept thanking us for coming and working, put it. “That’s how we make sense of things. We go out there and we do the best we can.”