It was an exceedingly odd day.
I cooked a bunch of food for a dear friend who I couldn't reach by phone, who lives in Canarsie—not only in a flood zone but near a water treatment center. She keeps kosher, so I cooked the entire vegan dish in the one pot I have never before used, and stirred it with utensils that Josh went out and bought for me. After I cooked the food, Josh and I dropped a bunch of donations with Nina and Mickey to bring to the most central distribution place in Brooklyn, and then went to pick up Marjorie for a day of service. We headed out to Canarsie first, and when we got to my friend's place, I was surprised to find we were at a big building instead of a house. I thought maybe it was her son's place, so Marjorie went up to the apartment, expecting pretty much anything but to find her there. I thought I was going to meet her son and ask him where Lisa lives, but instead, I knocked on the door, and Lisa opened; she was home eating shabbat lunch with her husband. She had been away for the entire storm, and had just returned. Then ensued the most awkward and dear interaction I've had in years. She invited us in and hugged me, her husband, who speaks very little English, had no idea who I was and certainly didn't know Marjorie. Lisa wanted to know why I was there and how I knew how to find her. (The computer.) She invited us to sit with them and eat some lunch. I called to tell Josh that they actually lived there and were home. Josh came up. As soon as he got there, Lisa's husband brought him to wash his hands and put on a yarmulke. We pulled the table out. We had more awkward talking. We got Josh to talk Russian with Lisa's husband. Everyone was sort of confused and delighted and embarrassed and out of place and we three tried not to stay too long and Lisa tried to make us feel incredibly welcome even though we barged in on her with a giant tub of hopefully kosher enough food. After a while, we gave more hugs and left, and Marjorie was added to the invitees list for the Shabbat dinner Lisa and I have been planning for a while.
We stopped at Dana and Kathleen's, to pick up some more of my items that flooded in their basement, and it was the first time Marjorie and Josh had seen their place after the flood. We didn't stay too long, because it was getting later in the day and we wanted to get to Brighton Beach to volunteer with elderly Jews.
We couldn't find the elderly Jews. We couldn't even find the building that was supposedly the home base of all the Brighton Beach relief efforts. But just as we discovered this, we got a text from Naomi who told us where to go to volunteer on Coney Island. So we drove down to Coney, and pulled up at Tom's Restaurant on the boardwalk, and immediately got briefed on how to go into an extremely hard-hit neighborhood and get out information about shelter, safety, food and water supplies, FEMA, insurance, and medical care. We went door to door with flyers, but we had also brought our own supplies of baby wipes, toilet paper, and granola bars -- and we handed them out to people who needed them. We asked people if they were hurt. If they had immediate medical needs. If they had electricity, water, and heat. If they needed to go to shelter. People showed us their destroyed homes. They showed us where looters had broken in when they were gone. Where the foundation was caving and making their house unsafe. The water line. The entire contents of their home on their lawn. We met a woman who had been without her blood pressure medication since the storm washed it away. She said she wanted to go to shelter, but we couldn't get through to 311. We took her to the FEMA lot, and got on a city bus with a city worker who spoke with her, and she decided she really didn't want to go to shelter. Naomi figured out how to get her her medication, and placed the refill order. We drove her over to the RiteAid that hadn't been shut down (although when we got there it smelled flooded.) She got her medication and popped a pill in her mouth immediately, and within 5 minutes said she felt better. She looked better too. At that point, she decided to go back to the FEMA lot and talk with them about how she filled in an application but whenever she calls they say they can't find her in the system.
I'd like to take a step back and tell you that this woman is one woman in a city filled with displaced people in a region filled with displaced people in a much greater region that extends beyond the United States filled with displaced people. She is a former city worker, an African immigrant, a very together-seeming woman with three kids and a small house and a community, and she was just done in by this storm. She was terrified by the rising water, and the fear it would sweep away her skinny daughter. Her home flooded, and when the water receded but she was out, it was looted. Her car (or maybe her friend's car—I didn't exactly understand—was destroyed. Her medicine was swept away. She's cold. She couldn't stay in line long enough to get blankets. And here we were, Saturday, the first people she'd seen who could offer any kind of help. She told us that it's hard to know what's rumor and what's true, because they've been cut off from real information. She told us her neighbor died in the storm. She was simultaneously traumatized/in pain/in need/ and incredibly appreciative of our help. And she was just one person. And we were just untrained volunteers. And we hung in there together figuring things out as best as we could. She kissed me tenderly when we parted, and she hugged Naomi, and then Naomi and I went back to join the others.
We eventually got cold and ready to stop for the day, and we drove back into the heart of Brooklyn, where the street lights work and the streets are not covered in beach sand, and I dropped off Naomi and Marjorie, and Josh and I thought to go to the Food Coop to buy food to cook for donation tomorrow, but it was a zoo, so we headed to the Golden Farm Market on Church Avenue. It's a store I've grown to love for its produce and tea and smoked fish and pickle and nuts selections. But it's also a store, we discovered upon arrival, that's being boycotted now going on 2 years, because the owner was only paying $4/hour, no sick days, etc etc.
So we left there too, and ended up in the fancy health food store near our house. We picked up our few things, and then headed home. At this point I was wiped out, and hungry, and cold. We heated up some dinner, and Josh tried to find a movie on TV, so we could just curl up and relax, but something didn't work with the TV. He trouble shot it while I got some caramelized onions started in the slow cooker, and when he determined that there wouldn't be a TV movie I looked around to see what the joy-seeking part of the day could bring. A bath? A good book? A game? And then I got it. I pulled out a Michael Jackson compilation that Rupert made me one year for my birthday and popped it into the CD player. At the end of this long strange day, we took off our shoes and danced the night away. An MJ dance party! And it worked—I was transported to that place that only MJ can take us—and I do think it was a place of joy.