Before today, I had not visited Staten Island properly – only a couple of times on the final leg of the popular Five Boro Bike Tour in the spring. The truth is that Staten Island does not get much positive hype in New York from the other four boroughs. It’s often derided as the weakest link, if it’s even acknowledged as a borough at all. But the news is dire from there. NY1, New York City’s much-loved 24-hour news station ran a story about an emergency relief center at Miller Field (marked as New Dorp Beach above) and they needed volunteers. I knew I could do something and took the Staten Island Ferry this morning. It was another cold crisp day, perfect for pictures of the city. I biked south on a rolling road, past brick houses and closed gas stations before going under the Verrazano Bridge and arriving at the northeastern shore of the island, the area that has been most severely hit. The wreckage is absolutely overwhelming: poles, stairwells, signs twisted and broken,entire sidewalks and yards vanished, remarkably neat rows of debris piled in front of house after house after house, and the trees and debris piled in parking lots, the abandoned cars, and the garbage piled together along the shore.
I came to Miller Field, driftwood dotting the landscape, and went to the emergency center. I found a woman in charge who told me to work in the clothing tent. I was asked to make sure that people didn’t leave clothes on the ground, that they collected only one bag each and stayed no more than 15 minutes. I wasn’t very good at that and sort of wandered around instead and picked up the loose clothes and shoes and then finally got into what I’m good at: consolidating. (My mother ingrained this into me at a young age. ) I went at the piles of boxes and garbage bags and moved the coats and blankets outside, piled the boys and girls clothes separately as neatly as I could and got the garbage outside. There were quite a few of us there – another seven or eight volunteers just in this one tent – and we soon had the area in much better shape. The people were incredibly focused, direct and hard-working. This wasn’t about being nice and pleasant; this was about getting something done. I got stupidly emotional thinking about what wonderful people they were and how I was such an ass for participating in the bad-mouthing of this, the distant borough.
I had pizza and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and worked for another couple of hours. Someone called out, “If there are any extra volunteers, the blanket lady needs help!” Somebody else arrived and announced, “Any volunteers out there? We got to move a boat out of a living room.” But I had to get going and beat the dark. I biked along the beach, much of which has been moved further into shore
and is wind-swept and oddly littered. The ride was easy, and it was cold going back to Manhattan. I stood on the bow of the ferry and imagined that I was the surge of last week’s storm, that I was coming at the city like that, relentless, constant, unstoppable. I actually spooked myself thinking like that, focusing on what it might be like to be an unconscious force that just goes on and on until it is spent…and then thought about this week’s forecast of a storm moving in, the dreaded Nor’easter, and wondered what the people of Staten Island would be doing to prepare for that.