I’m not exactly sure when you officially become a New Yorker. It might be like religion, where you need to be formally converted, or something like working your way up the ranks from corporate mailroom to corner office. I’ve heard you have to have a 212, 718, or 347 area code for at least 10 years; that you have to live in Manhattan to be a true New Yorker; that you have to spend every day for three straight years eating bagels and drinking coffee from Anthora coffee cups; you have to read every issue of The New York Review of Books when it comes out; have at least one sighting of Tom Wolfe wandering the streets in his white suit; had a small non-speaking cameo in a Nora Ephron film (now an episode of Girlsis a sufficient replacement); and/or an apartment in an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. I’m not totally convinced any of that renders you a true citizen of the Big Apple, but if it were up to me, I’d say that living through one catastrophic event in the five boroughs surely verifies your New York resume.
I’ve lived through the Blackout of 2003, the late December '05 MTA strike (it shut down the city’s trains and buses during our busy season) and I watched Hurricane Irene graciously spare my neighborhood from my window last year, even after spending the day chasing hot leads on where to get batteries and enough dry food to fatten up my cats so we could ride them through the post-apocalyptic landscape outside of the small apartment we shared at the time in lower Manhattan if need be.
But Sandy wasn’t so forgiving; not to me, and not to the millions of other people who are used to a fairly punishing lifestyle to begin with, like unexplained fare hikes and the New York Knicks' flip dismissal of our beloved Jeremy Lin. Sandy caused significant loss of life, an unfathomable amount of damage, and brought catastrophic flooding to our underground transit and electrical infrastructure. Everything below 34th Street is still dark, still powerless.
HOWEVER YOU BECAME A New Yorker, get a handful of us together and we probably fulfill all the key stereotypes: we pay a ton of money for small apartments, we throw our trash out in front of those apartments, we kvetch (a word known here whether you’re Jewish or not) about everything, and we eat while we walk through crowded streets because we’re always in a hurry. But so much of this—the stereotypical-but-true stuff—gets stripped away during and following a disaster. You see our ability to come together, our ability to make light of crazy situations, and in the bars and apartments that have electricity after Sandy, our ability to drink.
“Tending bar the day after Sandy struck was unlike any other weekday shift I've ever worked,” Rosie Schaap of South in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood told me. Schaap is a keen observer of people in bars; her book Drinking With Men (forthcoming in early 2013) chronicles her own experiences drinking in pubs and taverns, not only in her hometown of New York City, but also places like Vermont, Montreal, and Dublin.
We had watched as the storm raged through Monday evening, tearing large branches off trees, sending traffic cones flying, and ripping a large street sign positioned above traffic off its post, turning it into a major hazard for the cars that were still on the road or the person who felt it necessary to be outside during a storm. By Tuesday afternoon, after the storm subsided, my wife and I finally emerged from our apartment, and needed a drink or two. We decided to meet up with some friends at South, where Schaap was tending bar. One of our friends had been staying nearby with other friends because her Williamsburg loft was in an evacuation zone, while several others simply lived in the general vicinity and had all planned on making South their drinking destination. Since all of them had mentioned it on social media, we decided to go where almost everybody knew our name, deciding to walk the 1.8 miles for some much needed exercise, and to survey the damage. We counted at least 10 large, uprooted trees along the way; some had landed on top of cars, others were wrapped in colorful tape to warn pedestrians that the massive trunk could shift at any second. One woman stood laughing at her SUV, which had a tree branch through the windshield, telling her acquaintance, “It’s no big deal.” Half a block up, two men with hatchets hacked away at tree branches; they told me there were bigger things for the authorities to deal with in other parts of the city, so they took it upon themselves to clear the debris here.
Once we arrived, the bar was packed. Schaap, working by herself, told me, “I was way deep in the weeds, but customers were patient.” she gives credit to her barback and off-duty coworkers who pitched in when things got really rough. While I waited for Schaap to make her way down to my end of the bar, one of the many bearded men in attendance told his friend, “I don’t usually like [New Jersey Governor Chris] Christie, but I’d be glad to have a governor like that for something like Sandy.” Other conversations focused on our neighbors and, specifically, the mayor of Newark, Corey Booker, whose Superman-like dashing from crisis to crisis during the storm was documented on his Twitter account. One patron told me that he had been to the local Park Slope Armory to help evacuees whose homes were in the most vulnerable spots in the area, but was turned away because there were so many volunteers, "So I just came here to unwind,” he said. “I was in Long Island just the other day helping my parents put boards on their windows. Then when the storm started picking up here, I couldn’t get any sleep.”
MY WIFE AND I kept drinking until dinnertime, realizing the rest of our provision snacks just wouldn’t do. We made our way to the Gowanus neighborhood, where just hours earlier, Buzzfeed noted the “particularly bad situation” the neighborhood’s residents faced, thanks to the possibility of the disgusting toxic waters of the Gownaus Canal flooding. Aaron Lefkove, a friend who co-owns the popular “classic New England-style beach side seafood shack,” Littleneck, situated in the heart of the neighborhood, beckoned. Situated on the border line of Zones A and B, Lefkove told me that even though the restaurant doesn’t normally open on Tuesdays, he’d try his luck and see what happened. “We really didn't start out with a whole lot of food because we couldn't get any deliveries that morning, so really it was just the burgers, the mussels—and we only started out with a bushel and a half of those to begin with, chowder, and eight or nine lobster rolls."
We arrived at 7 p.m., and there was Lefkove and one of his employees, running around an entire floor that is usually manned by at least triple the staff. While a table at Littleneck is usually tough to come by, Lefkove was a little taken aback by the crowd, and told me that, “I let everyone know we were running on a very skeleton crew as they were seated—I was bartending and waiting on tables, and we had our manager Pascal running food and one guy in the kitchen pumping everything out—so if everyone could just be cool we would get everything out as quickly as possible.”
While a few of us came hoping for oysters or the popular full-belly Ipswich clam rolls, we were just as happy to eat the burgers and chug bottles of Miller High Life alongside fellow New Yorkers who were either born and raised in the city we all love or had been baptized a few hours earlier by the devastating winds that tried and failed to rattle the spirit of a place that shows its true greatness in times of crisis—be it while lending a hand clearing debris or raising a pint glass. For a day I saw the part of New York and the people who live here that I truly love; a sense of camaraderie before figuring out what we collectively do next, and then having a drink together afterwards.
We’ll do it all again—and next time, hopefully, it won’t be because we’ve got nowhere else to go.
Jason Diamond lives in New York. He has a wife, a dog, two cats and a Twitter account that can be found at @ImJasonDiamond.
You’ve all heard it. No doubt, you have. New York is just different. We’re a special breed. It’s the Big Apple, Madison Square Garden, (fucking) pizza. It’s the subway, the cabs, and the honking melody that buzzes behind daily life—not a soundtrack of anger or anything like that, but just the hum of people needing to get where they have to be and the impatient men and women leading that charge. It’s just New York. You don’t know it until you come here, and if you leave, it’s because you can’t handle it. But that’s OK, because it’s New York. And not everyone can be a New Yorker.
I was born on Long Island, spent four partial-years in Massachusetts for college, then lived in Brooklyn before moving out to Santa Fe in July. So, by whatever definition you go by, I’m a New Yorker—and fuck you if you say otherwise. (See?) And, honestly, I hate the way we talk about ourselves because it makes us sound like a bunch of assholes.
New York is great. It’s home, and I love it. But everyone’s different for all the reasons that make anyone uniquely human. Santa Fe is not New York. That’s obvious when you look up and see a mountain, then look down and see an old couple emerging from the woods without a walker. It’s obvious when all of your food is green, red, or Christmas. It’s obvious when you breathe. It’s obvious everywhere. But people live here because it’s what they want, it matches up with who they are, it makes them happy—which, happiness. Giving and getting it: the point of being alive, right? And you find that in your own way, put yourselves in whatever conditions you need to be in for that to happen. Believe it or not, that doesn’t include New York for, well, the majority of society.
We’re not better; we are different. But everywhere is, isn’t it?
NEW YORK WILL BE forever-different next time I go back, once the water from Sandy gets pumped out and dries up, once the sand’s pushed back to the beach on the Islands, once the salt-and-wetness damage is done and the subways re-start that always-moving tangle we all take for granted, once it gets itself out of it’s own way—picking scabs that have to leave a scar—and starts to look like the place I knew when I left.
I’ve watched it all happen. Updating out site by the minute for the first two days, dialing it back but still going from then on. And I feel like I’m watching myself go through it all. Out of body experiences happen to some people, I guess? I don’t know, but it’s kind of like watching yourself get punched in the face—except you don’t feel a thing, you’re just really angry because some asshole just hit you in the mouth. And then you’re guilty you couldn’t take the punch—even though you should probably shut up and be happy you can open your mouth without wincing.
And that’s how it feels, covering the storm-of-all-time as it hits and thrashes and forever changes the place that’s always been home. I’m in my office looking out to the courtyard with the red-green-and-yellow leaves against the mandated adobe walls—there’s fall here, too—posting photos of the crane on 57th Street dangling over the city, looking at the West Village under goddamn water, seeing that tree crush the shed in my parents’—and my—backyard, lucky one closer to the house didn’t fall but still staring at it all, knowing the picture on the screen isn’t fake, but never coming any closer than clicking command-plus and zooming in, which only blurs it even more. The closer you try to get to it, the realer it is that you’re not there.
I’m not, and I can’t not feel like I should be—at the same time knowing this shit is real and that I’m lucky to be out of the way of falling trees, electrified water, and the rotting food that I’m sure my mom and cousin and friends and everyone else I know forgot to throw out.
None of this is fair—it’s an inherently stupid idea anyway, fair, that certain things should happen, and it’s maybe pointless to even think about it all like that, but it’s also impossible not to.
AND YET, THE CITY is still standing, with a tragic number of people dead, but a number way lower than what could’ve been. Long Island’s still there, too, somehow back to a steady creep despite the number of people with electricity amounting to just a couple of full-finger hands. My parents are fine; no one’s hurt. And so is the rest of my family. One of my closest friends is back home for med school, and he’s OK—along with his family and everyone else I grew up with. My cousin and most of my friends in Manhattan can’t use their phones because cell service is down and their computers don’t work because you need electricity for the Internet and what’s a computer without that? My old neighborhood in Brooklyn couldn’t make it through a West Indian Parade without anyone dying, but they seemed to weather—man, terrible pun—Sandy without any deaths. Things are totally and currently fucked, for sure. From Montauk to Midtown East and West, but it’s all still hanging on, promising for a come back just from the sheer fact that it’s still there. That it’s New York.
Could anywhere else still be standing—definitely wobbling, but still up, ready for a return—after something like Sandy clamped down on it, tossing the “fuck yous” and “go to hells” surely shouted from the ground as the water rose and wind got heavier right back on top of it? I don’t know—and it doesn’t matter. New York, though, I do know.
Or I did. The place will be different. It has to be, both in case something like this ever happens again and because it just did. After 9-11, Colson Whitehead wrote, “You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.” Whether moving to Santa Fe right before a hurricane made me into a True New Yorker isn’t the point, but what was real and solid to me—the place I left and hoped to return to soon—probably isn’t there anymore.
“One day the city we built will be gone,” Whitehead writes, “and when it goes, we do.” And I’ve gone—it’s clear and 60 and sunny where I am, the only water coming from machines and sinks and refrigerators. Each photo, each tweet, every update I clicked and published helped me see the city and state I’d left, let me know that it was still there, but that I wasn’t. Despite the storm and despite all the reasons for things to change, New York keeps going on without me. Those assholes.
It was a bad week. Hurricane Sandy struck New York with great force, destroying thousands of people’s homes, killing dozens, and bringing our nation’s greatest metropolis to a halt. As of this weekend, half the city is still without power, everything is wet, and, as a special bonus, New Yorkers will now be inundated by a plague of giant, disease carrying rats (on the plus side, there were no tourists in Times Square for five minutes).
When disaster strikes a place like New York, a city of transients, the effect is far reaching. The flooding of the Greatest City on Earth is global news. It transcends that place. As pictures of crumbling sea walls and violent storm surges disseminated, worried parents, brothers, and sisters around the world, from New Zealand, to Pakistan, to Kansas, picked up the phone and called their loved ones.
But even those that suffered loss can take solace in knowing that this disaster will not, like so many others, be meaningless. If there’s an upside to such a high-profile disaster, it’s that it forces change. In this case it’s the realization, in circles where power resides, that the Earth is changing, and that it probably has something to do with us.
New York’s own mayor, Michael Bloomberg, announced on Thursday that he is endorsing Barack Obama for a second term as a direct result of Hurricane Sandy. “The devastation that Hurricane Sandy brought to New York City and much of the Northeast,” he begins, “...brought the stakes of Tuesday’s presidential election into sharp relief.” The endorsement may seem like an obvious attempt to show his concern to the citizens of New York, but for Bloomberg, a noted political independent and capitalist suspected of having larger aspirations of office, it represents a serious political risk on his part. Perhaps he simply foresees a future where people are voting with their planet instead of their tax returns. Or just maybe, he sees this not as a political issue, but one of survival.
Anyway, without further depressing reflection, here’s your Weekend Reading!
Climate change is becoming increasingly hard to ignore in a world filled with overwhelming scientific and statistical evidence. So why can’t politicians talk about it? Paul M. Barrett, Bloomberg Businessweek.
“Mitt Romney has gone from being a supporter years ago of clean energy and emission caps to, more recently, a climate agnostic. On August 30, he belittled his opponent’s vow to arrest climate change, made during the 2008 presidential campaign. ‘President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet,’ Romney told the Republican National Convention in storm-tossed Tampa. ‘My promise is to help you and your family.’ Two months later, in the wake of Sandy, submerged families in New Jersey and New York urgently needed some help dealing with that rising-ocean stuff. Obama and his strategists clearly decided that in a tight race during fragile economic times, he should compete with Romney by promising to mine more coal and drill more oil. On the campaign trail, when Obama refers to the environment, he does so only in the context of spurring ‘green jobs.’”
Celebrate the return of basketball with an extensive oral history of the 1992 Olympic Men’s Basketball Team. Lang Whitaker, GQ.
“It was always a silly rule. According to international basketball guidelines in place for decades, professionals from leagues all over the world could compete for their countries at the Olympics—but NBA players could not. The effect was to balance out America's towering advantage in the sport. You know, give the poor bastards a chance. The rule was dropped in April 1989, though, after the United States finished a humiliating third at the previous summer's Olympics in Seoul. Parity, everyone learned, wasn't nearly as captivating as dominance. And make no mistake: Dominating was as important as winning. The idea was to dazzle, to put on a display of American might so awe-inspiring that the best our rivals could hope for was a silver medal. Or even better, Michael Jordan's autograph.”
The Information Age is destroying what it means to go somewhere you’ve never been before. A meditation on the importance of being in the moment. Robert Kaplan, The Atlantic.
“I get off a 15-hour flight from North America and turn on my BlackBerry at some Asian airport. Instead of focusing on the immediate environment and the ride into town, I am engrossed in the several dozen emails that piled up while I was en route, a third of which require a serious response, and one or two of which relay worrying news. As if that isn’t enough of a distraction: throughout all my journeys, because of the 12-hour time difference, each morning in Asia begins with a slew of emails from the East Coast, again requiring responses, again relaying crises to deal with. Wherever we are, we are all always available, and everybody knows it. The media tell us how lucky we are to live in the Information Age. I believe we have created a hell on Earth for ourselves.”
“One day in 1999 Sutherland, an Arctic archaeologist at the museum, slipped the strands under a microscope and saw that someone had spun the short hairs into soft yarn. The prehistoric people of Baffin Island, however, were neither spinners nor weavers; they stitched their clothing from skins and furs. So where could this spun yarn have come from? Sutherland had an inkling. Years earlier, while helping to excavate a Viking farmhouse in Greenland, she had seen colleagues dig bits of similar yarn from the floor of a weaving room. She promptly got on the phone to an archaeologist in Denmark. Weeks later an expert on Viking textiles informed her that the Canadian strands were dead ringers for yarn made by Norse women in Greenland. 'That stopped me in my tracks,' Sutherland recalls. The discovery raised tantalizing questions that came to haunt Sutherland and drive more than a decade of dogged scientific sleuthing. Had a Norse party landed on the remote Baffin Island coast and made friendly contact with its native hunters? Did the yarn represent a key to a long lost chapter of New World history?”
Entrepreneur and privatized space travel pioneer Elon Musk sits down with Wired for an exhaustive interview on his plan to get us to Mars within his lifetime. Chris Anderson, Wired.
“Since 1989, when a study estimated that a manned mission would cost $500 billion, the subject has been toxic. Politicians didn’t want a high-priced federal program like that to be used as a political weapon against them.... So I started with a crazy idea to spur the national will. I called it the Mars Oasis missions. The idea was to send a small greenhouse to the surface of Mars, packed with dehydrated nutrient gel that could be hydrated on landing. You’d wind up with this great photograph of green plants and red background—the first life on Mars, as far as we know, and the farthest that life’s ever traveled. It would be a great money shot, plus you’d get a lot of engineering data about what it takes to maintain a little greenhouse and keep plants alive on Mars. If I could afford it, I figured it would be a worthy expenditure of money, with no expectation of financial return.”
Men in hoodies splashed through knee-deep water in galoshes, shouting, trying to start a chainsaw. They worked at DeGarmo’s Boat Yard in Babylon, New York, on the south shore of Long Island. The yard was a wreckage heap of hulls and masts, boats on top of boats. The men were trying to get a swamped, broken dock out of the way—probably it had washed into the yard from somewhere else—so they could begin to salvage their destroyed boats.
It was Wednesday afternoon, two days after Hurricane Sandy made landfall, and I was driving around the south shore near Babylon, which took a direct hit from the storm buffered only by Fire Island, where journalists are not yet allowed and where recovery efforts are still underway. My guide, Chris Padden, a Long Island wilderness search-and-rescue team leader, leaned out of his Ford F-150. “You guys need a chainsaw? I got a chainsaw.”
“This guy’s got a chainsaw!”
Padden, who is 39 and has a military-style buzz cut, hopped out, threw on camouflage waders, grabbed the chainsaw, and sloshed through shin-deep water to hack up the dock. I watched, as did 20 or so marina employees around me. I had my tape recorder and notebook with me, and, feeling a sense of obligation to my job, I asked a tall man standing near me what his name was.
“What’s this for?” he asked.
“I’m with Outside magazine,” I replied.
He looked down. “I don’t, I don’t want to—”
“I’m so sorry,” I said and went back to Padden’s truck, where I ditched my notebook and recorder. We heard sirens; a fire-department chief rolled up in a new SUV. Crew cut, tan. I approached another of the dockworkers and offered to help. “There’s nothing to do,” he said. “We’re getting shut down.” The fire department soon arrived in full. There was a gas leak in a nearby house, and the DeGarmo’s guys were ordered to stop their salvage mission. Padden’s saw went silent; he’d finished cutting up the broken dock, but no one would be getting to the boats anytime soon. Another dockworker, who looked to be in his forties, sloshed through the water in rubber boots. I asked if he was doing OK. He didn’t turn to meet my eye.
“Trying like hell,” he said.
Padden and I left. An obese firefighter wearing a Planet Fitness T-shirt directed us away from the scene, and we drove north, inland. Within minutes we were in a bustling area of strip malls and retail stores.
IN THE POST-SANDY recovery, these juxtapositions are truly alarming. Downtown Brooklyn is alive and happening; Coney Island, seven miles away, is a set from The Day After Tomorrow. North of Montauk Highway, which runs west-to-east on Long Island, it’s business as usual—bagel shops, blue skies, box stores—only with less gas, dark traffic lights, and more kids on the street, since schools are closed. South of Montauk, where numerous canals and inlets divvy the shore up into miniature peninsulas, trees lie on power lines, boats sit askew in yards, and the National Guard stands watch. On Wednesday, in many places, standing water still surrounded houses.
Padden and I had spent the morning driving around, looking for someone to help. He occasionally made apologies for the lack of action and was clearly frustrated that he had no official role in the recovery. He’s a career rescue worker—a fireman, hunter, and skier who grew up on Long Island—and he has two master’s certificates, one in homeland security and one in emergency management. Immediately after the storm, I’d called the offices of emergency management in Nassau and Suffolk counties, which would be coordinating rescue and recovery efforts in the area, to see if I could join a team. They were busy, and I didn’t hear back, so I called Padden, who runs Long Island Search and Rescue. I’d heard that he arrived on Long Island with an Everest-grade tent, fishing waders, a spare tank of gas, and enough energy bars for a week. He met me in a strip mall in his home town of Medford. The power was on, and the bagel shop was open and busy.
“You ready for an interesting day?” he asked. At first it wasn’t so interesting. Padden drove around, snapping photos of downed trees. He’s been a volunteer with two fire departments, but he isn’t affiliated with one now, focusing instead on the 15-person search-and-rescue team he leads. Firefighter buddies of his had spent the first day of the storm pulling people out of flooded homes. He’d spent the day after it had passed clearing fallen brush to help emergency vehicles get through, but not in any official capacity. His phone wasn’t ringing.
“Out here we have so many resources, and we’re not all being used,” he said. “It’s a little-fish, small-pond kind of thing.”
We swung through the town of Mastic Beach, a working-class neighborhood that had been torn up by Sandy. Trees and power lines were down everywhere. I asked if any of the lines were live; Padden said they weren’t. I’d read that between 60 and 70 percent of Long Island is without power; some of the substations on the south shore had been damaged by seawater, and according to one report, it would take more than 10 days for power to return in some areas. (The Long Island Power Authority’s media-information line was busy when I called.)
We came to an area near the ocean where the road was still full of water. At one home, men in Jets sweatshirts were sifting through the rubble that used to be their garage. The air smelled like oil, and there was a sheen on the water, the result of busted or flooded fuel tanks. Padden asked if the guys were OK. They stared back blankly.
“I’m looking for tree stuff,” Padden said. If there was a tree he could take out with a chainsaw, he would be happy to do so. Putting the floodwater back in the ocean was a trickier job.
We moved on to Center Moriches, just a few miles west. Padden thought the damage there would be horrific, because there’s a natural channel through Fire Island just across the bay. But the houses, which looked more upscale than those in Mastic, seemed fine.
“I don’t want to say that the storm knew class lines,” Padden said, “but man....”
In the distance, Coast Guard helicopters buzzed over Fire Island.
We headed west, to Sayville. Padden wanted to check on an acquaintance who owns a water-side restaurant called the Cull House, a hangout for members of his search-and-rescue team. The Cull House sits on a shorefront road abutting a boatyard. The boats had been knocked off their stands; the road was still underwater. Padden drove through, the water halfway up his wheels. Two men stood at the edge of the standing water, looking at the Cull House, which was swamped.
“Seen John?” Padden asked. They shook their heads. Directly behind them, a small one-story house displayed a sign that read “For Sale: $405,000.” Around here, the first stories of houses had all filled with seawater.
We went to the West Islip fire department, to see a firefighter buddy of Padden’s named Josh. Josh looked tired. He was about five-seven, with a thin build and a crew cut. He’d worked the first 24 hours after Sandy hit straight through, and his department had answered about 40 calls since the storm.
“What’s goin’ on?” he asked Padden.
“We’re sitting around doing nothing, waiting for someone to say, Hey, you exist! Let’s use you!” said Padden. “What’s going on here?”
“Things are kind of going back to normal,” Josh said. “Now we’re responding to alarms that we’re dispatched to. During the storm, it was people calling the firehouse directly, saying, Help, come get me. That part is over. Now it’s storm-related calls, automatic alarms, power coming back on tripping the autos, wires down.”
Josh wanted to know if there was any access to Fire Island. “I wonder if you can get down the Moses,” he said. “I heard the causeway—that’s pretty remarkable stuff down there.”
“No, it’s shut south of Merritt Road and Robert Moses,” said Padden.
“I saw pictures yesterday—you know where the monument is down there and there’s another traffic circle? The ocean took out the dunes and came right up the road. That’s where I heard the drama is now, on Fire Island.”
A call came in, a 23—a non-fire-related incident. Josh had to go. “Go bounce around south of Montauk Highway,” he said. “It’s all open.”
NOT FAR FROM DEGARMO'S, we turned into another road on another canal. More standing water, more displaced boats near the canal. Two men and a young woman stood in a yard, discussing looters. One of the men wore Army fatigues. He smoked a cigarette nervously and paced. “You guys OK?” asked Padden.
“We got people breaking into houses,” said the guy in fatigues. “I hope they come back. It’s been a while since I shot somebody.” The young woman, who had a round, pretty face and dark hair, said there were something like 50 guns in her house.
“You really have looters?” I asked.
“There are footprints in my neighbor’s window,” said the man in fatigues. He’d been called to duty on Monday, the day after Sandy arrived—he didn’t say where—but was promising to stay home the next day. “I don’t care,” he said. “If they wanna give me an Article 15”—a minor punishment—“or not pay me, I’m staying. I got people breaking into houses.”
We drove a few blocks away from the water, and things returned to normal: kids skipping down the street, getting ready for Halloween. “In some of these places, it’s like nothing happened at all,” said Padden.
Soon we were back on the Montauk, heading west. The Jersey shore and Long Island form an elbow. Sandy arrived from the southeast, hitting Atlantic City and the Jersey barrier islands first, then plowing up the coast. Long Island’s upscale east end—Montauk and the Hamptons—was spared the brunt of the hurricane’s force. That’s not to say that everything’s fine there: West Hampton beach was torn up. But on the south shore, the farther west you go, the worse the damage is. Drive west on Montauk Highway, find a canal, turn left, behold the wreckage: trees on power lines, houses surrounded by water, people sweeping porches with blank stares on their faces, a beautiful stone manor house with three yachts perched on the lawn.
The highway got more busy in West Babylon and Lindenhurst. This was because of the large National Guard presence. At South Wellwood Avenue, just between West Babylon and Lindenhurst, a Humvee was set up as a roadblock, preventing anyone but residents from turning south. Padden turned south.
“Lindenhurst residence ID?” asked a soldier in fatigues and a helmet.
“Going to headquarters, just want to loop around,” Padden said. The soldier looked at the huge “Search and Rescue” sign on the Ford and waved us through. “Talk your way into anything,” Padden said.
We drove down yet another canal, where we saw a motorboat in an impossible pose: nose submerged, aft in the air, propped up by its outboard motor, which sat on a dock piling. We drove slowly through the neighborhood. It was a shambles. There were policemen sawing up downed trees, and water was a constant, just everywhere, surrounding porches, in roads, swallowing power lines.
The people here looked to be moving slowly or not at all, which is what you do when the shock and adrenaline have worn off but the water’s still there and you can’t do much but wait. I said something about how Padden should do what he needed to do and help if he wanted.
“I’m looking for tree stuff,” he said. “For the most part, these people, they’re going to take care of their own.” What Padden could do was remove trees and ask people if they were OK. Every time he asked, they said yes, and we moved on.
FIVE MORE MINUTES DOWN the highway, we turned left yet again, at yet another canal. More boats on lawns. There was no National Guard around. “This doesn’t make sense,” Padden said. “Why’s there so much presence there? If you’ve got 10 guys and one officer, take seven blocks and put one guy on each block, with an officer in charge of those seven. Why are they all in West Babylon?”
At the end of the canal was another roadblock: a mid-'90s minivan parked sideways. In front of it sat two men, Larry and his buddy. Larry was fit, in a purple T-shirt and a Broncos hat, smoking a cigar. His buddy wore jeans and a denim jacket with a “Wounded Veteran Purple Heart” patch on it. Padden pulled over and walked up.
“You guys all good?” he asked.
“Yep,” said Larry in a raspy voice. Beyond him, at the end of the road, right up against the ocean, was a pile of wood: a condemned house that Sandy had disposed of. Padden asked about the house. Larry mentioned that boats around here had floated for up to three blocks.
“I got a new one in my yard,” said his friend.
Padden said something about the heavy security presence in West Babylon.
“I don’t get why they’re not here,” Larry said. “We’re not a fucking sideshow.”
A sleek black Mercedes approached. Larry hopped up and walked to the car: “You live here?” The driver said no. Larry just shook his head and walked away.
“Trying to see how the other half lives,” Padden said. He gave Larry his card and told him to call if he needed anything chainsawed, and we drove away. “You gotta wonder what they’ve got in that van to protect the area,” Padden said. We drove back inland to Medford.
Padden was beat. He had to pick up his daughter, the next day was the opener of duck season, and he wanted to see if he could get out to clear his head. He was tired of sitting around waiting for someone to call. He dropped me at my car, and I threw my waders back in, ordered a sandwich from the bagel shop, and said good-bye. I drove back down to the south shore to try and find Larry and his buddy, but after three or four or five wrong turns in the maze of roads on the canals west of Lindenhurst, it got dark. It was time to get back to Brooklyn, where the bars were full of costumed revelers. On the radio, Mayor Bloomberg announced that the Halloween parade was canceled but that the marathon would be run on Sunday, officials stated that limited subway service would soon begin, and reporters warned of mile-long lines at gas stations and the worst day of gridlock in the history of New York City. Representatives of Allstate and Geico made promises during the commercials. New Jersey governor Chris Christie said flatly that the Jersey shore of his youth was gone. A CBS news-radio reporter visited with a man who had lost his home in Breezy Point, Queens, site of a huge fire that consumed some 80 houses and drew much of the press in the days following the hurricane.
Compared with places like that, the south shore wasn’t hit hard. And still, the kind of wreckage that’s down in Lindenhurst doesn’t take weeks and months to repair. It takes years. And it takes electricity, clean water, and gasoline. I drove west in fits and bursts with the surging, lawless traffic on the highway, thinking about how Larry would fare, wondering what the hell was going on out on Fire Island, and looking for gas.