“Going through the town of Lindenhurst was like entering what I imagine a war zone would look like. There was debris blown everywhere, the National Guard stood in clusters and a huge sign flashed, “Curfew In Effect Dusk Till Dawn.”
by Cynthia Cone
The Monday night that Superstorm Sandy made landfall, we lost power around 6:00 P.M. After failing miserably at trying to remember the difference between Seven Card Stud, Five Card Draw and Texas Holdem, Mike and I decided to turn in our chips and head up to bed early, with hopes that all of our big oaks would make it through the night. The winds had been brutal, but so far we had gotten less rain than was originally anticipated. This was good news, as saturated ground could wreak havoc on our trees. When we woke up the next morning we were pleased to discover that, with the exception of an occasional limb, all of our trees remained standing, and there was relatively no damage to our block. We both joked that the “Frankenstorm” the media had been promoting was nothing more than a lot of hype. With no TV, no computer and no newspaper, we really had no way of knowing otherwise.
Having nothing else to do, we decided to take a walk and see how the rest of the neighborhood had fared. As we turned the corner of our street and headed onto Maple Ave., we were shocked at the devastation that surrounded us. Every block or so we had to divert our route due to downed trees, poles and power-lines. There were crushed cars, sidewalks lifted out of the ground and occasionally we would spot a tree that had crashed into someone’s house. The faint smell of gasoline was everywhere, and an orchestra of chainsaws hummed from block to block.
We continued zigzagging through the streets until we finally made our way to our favorite neighborhood deli—also without power, but still open for business. Customers appeared shell-shocked as they stood in their pajama pants waiting for their morning coffee and egg sandwiches. The staff looked frazzled beyond belief as they took orders from the mob of people who were entering the store in droves. With one small light perched on the counter, they did what they had been doing since the 1970s—served our neighborhood. I was instantly reminded of Hurricane Gloria and how I was in this very place right after it hit. It was the 1980s, and the exuberant owner of the deli, Artie Weinisch, was doling out ice cream to the neighborhood kids along with his famous one-liners. The generator was not strong enough to power all of the freezers and, rather than give the meat away, the ice cream had been the obvious, less expensive choice. This time, however, the mood was not nearly as jovial in the deli. There was no free ice cream, and our beloved Artie had succumbed to cancer earlier in the year.
As we made our way home, coffee in hand, all we could say over and over was, “this is REALLY fucking bad.” It seemed to be our mantra for the day. Thankfully, Mike had had the foresight to comb the island days before the storm, looking for a generator. By the end of day one, our house had become like a command center. Our closest friends were staying with us, some out of necessity and some out of convenience, but everyone knew they were welcome. The first night we had a blast. We got drunk, listened to music, told great stories and ate like kings, but as the days wore on—still with no power and gas becoming an issue—patience began to wear thin, and the house was starting to feel a bit too small for the five of us living in it. With no work, nowhere to go and nothing to do, we were beginning to get restless. When our friend Ed called at the end of the week to ask if we wanted to volunteer in Lindenhurst with him and his construction crew, we were like, “Hell, yeah.”
Going through the town of Lindenhurst was like entering what I imagine a war zone would look like. There was debris blown everywhere, the National Guard stood in clusters and a huge sign flashed, “Curfew In Effect Dusk Till Dawn.” As we made a right onto Shore Road, there was a hand painted sign that read, “If you are not from this neighborhood you will be shot.” There were docks on lawns, boats on porches, and people aimlessly wandered the streets looking like the walking dead.
The first house we worked on was nowhere near the bay, yet the bay had traveled to it, settling in the first floor of the home somewhere at the three to four foot mark. Most of the houses we worked on were blocks away from the water, but due to the tides and the full moon, they seemed to suffer as much devastation as the houses that had been right on the bay. One man told me how he had sent his wife and kids to his in-laws while he stayed behind to make sure everything was “safe.” Unfortunately, everything was not “safe,” and he could see white caps crashing at his front door by nightfall. He fell asleep on the couch, only to wake up to water coming through the floorboards. The next time he drifted off, he woke up literally floating in his living room. It was too late to leave, so he was left in that house with nothing to do but hope the water would recede. At that point, it was almost four feet deep. Thankfully, the water eventually did recede, but not before it destroyed most of their possessions. Why did he stay, I wondered? But as I stood on his lawn, I realized I could not even see the water from his home—his was the farthest house from the bay that we worked on. It was then I realized the media had been right all along, and that “Frankenstorm” was not an exaggeration at all.
One of the other homes we worked on was owned by a charming older Italian couple who spoke broken English; in some ways they reminded me of my old bosses, Carmine and Rose. It was my job to gather their unsalvageable items and throw them away. As we went through the closets, everything was still drenched, and it was obvious that after days of soaking in salt water there was not much worth saving. I was trying to be respectful, asking the woman what she thought we should do with each item, when she broke into tears. She wasn’t crying for the loss of the stuff, she explained; she was crying because this had been her son’s apartment, and these were his belongings I was throwing away. She told me she had lost him six months ago quite suddenly, and that Sandy was forcing her to do something she was not quite ready to do—say good-bye. It was heartbreaking.
At the second house, I noticed a woman sitting at the curb with her head in her hands, sobbing. I assumed she was one of the owners and continued on with my job, even though I really wanted to go over and give her a hug; but somehow I thought that would be weird. As I entered the last room for demo, I knew right away this had been a young boy’s room. The walls were a deep blue and lined with pinstripes, and right in the center of the wall was a huge New York Yankees emblem. It was the coolest kid’s room I had ever seen. I took a deep breath, and we started to demolish it. By that time, the owner of the house had come in to help us, and I heard him muttering, “We will rebuild it,” over and over. It was almost as if he was trying to convince himself of something he did not truly believe. Between Tropical Storm Irene last year and now Sandy, it seemed like the South Shore and its people had finally reached the brink.
As we finished the day, I stepped onto the front lawn and was greeted by the sobbing woman with one of the biggest hugs I had ever received. She whispered in my ear, “You are the only ones who cared.” As it turns out, she was not crying because she had lost her things; she was crying because she was so touched that strangers had come to help.
We spent several weeks down in Lindenhurst, and met many more amazing people. There was Pat, who promised us a big barbecue over the summer once he rebuilds, and the couple whose names escape me but whose stories do not. The woman is referred to as “The Christmas Lady” because she out-decorates everyone in the neighborhood around the holidays. She lost all of her beloved decorations with the exception of her most treasured item, the manger her mother left her. Had it not been for Sandy, my path may never have crossed with the paths of these extraordinary people. I am not saying the devastation was a good thing—it changed their lives forever, and continues to do so.
As I type this, there are still families without power, people who are displaced and some who have not received any help at all. But there are also people who are still out there volunteering, helping strangers and caring for them as if they were family. To me, that is the beautiful side of Sandy. She crashed into this island and altered the landscape forever, but she also changed my life for the better. I have always loved the phrase “one human family” and, while it may seem like the notion of an idealist, I remain hopeful that anyone who doubts that possibility one day receives a hug from a person they do not know. It can be life changing.
About the Author: Cynthia Cone is an Ex Con with no college education and very bad punctuation. She is currently living in Long Island, NY where she pays extremely high taxes and likes to drink.