We don’t visit my in-laws enough.
Though we are only separated by a 4-hour drive, life, work, school, and weekends tend to get booked up quickly. They don’t come to visit during Thanksgiving because they are busy serving meals to those who are hungry, and we don’t tend to drive there during Christmas because of the weather.
When I do visit, usually in the warm heat of the summer time, my favorite Rockaway moments are when I caress the outside of my cup of Bustelo coffee and feel its warmth against my palm, make my way onto their small balcony, breathe in the sea air, and look out onto the beach that feels just within reach of my 11th floor view. Sometimes, I admit, I glance at the high rise building across the way and wonder what the hundreds of other people are doing in their apartments, too.
Though my view each morning is peaceful, I am always reminded of the view my brother-in-law saw when he was just 9 years old. The flames of lower Manhattan on fire, the thunder of fighter planes racing across the skyline, and the smell of smoke so thick it turned the 9:30am horizon into darkness.
This time, as I made my way into Far Rockaway, at 1:00pm on a Saturday afternoon, the chill was colder than the early November snow that had fallen-then-melted. It was a chill of silence. Of deafening emptiness. Of thick loneliness.
Four hours earlier, my husband and I loaded up our cars with boxes of donated items that were collected by family and friends: diapers, blankets, formula, water, food, medical supplies, garbage bags, face masks, pillows, cleaning gear. Even before we dared to cross the New York border, we waited for 15 minutes in the line for gas, assured that once we hit New York, we might risk closed stations, rationed portions, and even longer lines.
Driving into Rockaway has always been an adventure — it’s where the “driver” in me usually gets annoyed. Folks crossing the streets with no concern for their lives, cars weaving in and out (usually, nearly hitting the folks who were crossing the streets with no concern for their lives), long lines that led to the local hand-dried car washes, and the disappearing of sky as small homes were replaced by towering apartment buildings. But, driving to Rockaway also makes me smile. The sounds of beats and bass coming out of car speakers, the melodies of men speaking Spanish outside of the convenience store, and laughter of kids on the local playground give a sense of a community.
This past Saturday was the first time I returned back to Rockaway after Hurricane Sandy. And, this time, my senses were hit with a different emotion. My smile turned to tears. Playgrounds were empty. Stores were closed.
When I did see groups of people gathered, they were in church parking lots making use of what little assistance was available. As I drove by in my car full of blankets and food, I braced myself for what I would see when I pulled into my father-in-law’s church.
Needless to say, it took us three days to collect and gather donations; it was all gone within just a few hours. “Come back tomorrow,” I kept repeating. Come back tomorrow. But, what was going to be there tomorrow?
Each day was lived for that day.
I was so thankful for the many volunteers who came to Full Gospel Tabernacle Church on Beach 42nd street that day. Volunteers ranged from a well-organized church who brought community members to a well-organized mother who had brought bags of items from Whole Foods. The Whole Foods mom also brought her two daughters with her, and as she left, I heard her say to them, “Girls, see. This area isn’t getting the kind of help that other areas are getting. We need to start coming here.” Whole Foods mom may never read this blog, but, if you’re out there, thank you.
Slowly, individuals are making a difference. But, where were the bus loads of volunteers that I had heard about on Facebook? Where were the rows of tables of hot food that I had seen restaurants post photos of on their pages? Where was the music, the fun, the games? Where were the “mobile units” where people could charge their cell phones and check their email? Where were the generators I had read about that had been donated to the relief efforts on Rockaway?
They weren’t at Beach 42nd Street. And, they weren’t in the 20 streets I passed to get there.
Where were the armies of volunteers with trash bags and face masks? With brooms and mops? I managed to take a photograph of the three volunteers that I saw.
Where were the community organizers who were helping those displaced by the floods? I saw one that day.
Where were the electricians? The volunteer medical teams? The “we need help sorting items because we are overwhelmed with donations!” tables?
Where. Are. They?
My car didn’t travel far enough to find them. But, I can tell you that they weren’t in the streets that I drove on. They weren’t by the bodega that I once saw men laughing at on my last trip to Rockaway. They weren’t near the playgrounds. They weren’t handing out dinner rolls. They weren’t there when I had to tell an 8-year old boy that I could only give him 1 muffin and not 2, even though he hadn’t eaten all day.
My husband and I had to eventually return back to Massachusetts, where we have already begun collecting items to take on our next drive back to Rockaway. We will fill up our cars, unload them once again, and watch as our massive donation is handed out within an hour.
Earlier today, I had a conversation with a friend who said, “It’s so great to see that hundreds of volunteers and donations are in the Rockaways!”
“Parts of Rockaway,” I reminded her. “Not all of Rockaway.”
Let’s develop a common (i.e. shared) sense of community and get some relief and support to all areas of Far Rockaway.
Peace, love, and common sense,