What you first notice, because they are everywhere, are the mounds of people’s things lining every curb. They stack up head-high, spilling out into the road, some of them still oozing water after three weeks. You park your car, careful not to scratch the side on all the debris, open the door and get hit with the sound of motors – chain saws, generators, drills, pumps. Everybody is hacking and cutting away at the accumulation of their lives, and dragging the now worthless pieces out to the street.
Toni and Gerry greet us at the door. They are both our first cleanup assignment and our hosts. Gerry is in his late eighties, a retired professor of French and Italian. Toni is more than a decade his junior.
It’s been a long car ride from Pittsburgh and Gerry and Toni want to show us where we’ll be sleeping and feed us. On the way in, we pass a computer-printed quote taped to the porch door: “Let me say at the risk of seeming ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.” — Che Guevara.
This is our first clue that Toni and Gerry are not your average retired couple. Over the course of the weekend, revealed bit by bit, we will learn much more about them.
Toni and Gerry feed us fruit and tea and introduce us to the three dogs and five cats that Toni has rescued from the shelters around New Jersey. Gerry has the grumble and faux scowl of a man who plays at being a curmudgeon. This falls apart when he talks about Toni’s cats and dogs – praising their fine looks and sweet dispositions. The dogs and two of the cats can’t get enough of Toni and Gerry. They know “great feelings of love” when they see it. We as new visitors get the spill over, especially Laney to whom animals are instantly drawn.
While we eat, David from Morristown and Kat, an Occupy Sandy organizer, arrive. Kat has an SUV full of tools and cleaning supplies and in her no-nonsense way unloads them and checks out the house. David is anxious to get to work. David is a mensch. The sooner we get going, he says, the sooner he can help other people. We change into work clothes and get busy. The basement is a jumble — upended shelves have scattered their contents on the floor to wallow in black, gritty mud. Everything smells of seawater and sewer and mold. The high-water mark staining the foundation wall is inches from the ceiling. The sodden items are heavy and it takes us the rest of the day to carry them out to the curb, adding to the giant abstract sculpture of destruction that the Asbury curbs have become.
When the sun is low, we call it a day, and I dial up Dawn, our contact with Occupy Sandy. She is the one who arranged our work schedule and accommodations. Dawn is a born organizer, marshaling and distributing hundreds of volunteers and donations from her cel phone. She’s an interior designer from the Bronx who dropped everything and is putting in twenty hours a day ferociously attacking the disorder of post-Sandy New Jersey. Each time I’ve spoken to her, her voice has gotten progressively raspier. I tell her how far we’ve gotten and she decides to send out a plumber to see why Toni and Gerry’s furnace won’t light. She also thinks she can get more people out to help with cleanup.
Dawn tells me a little about Gerry, our host. He’s an ex-marine and a saxophone player. I should talk to him, he’s interesting, she suggests. Before I hang up, I tell her to take some care of herself — her voice does not sound good.
“Yeah, yeah” she says.
We sit down to dinner, and Toni is excited to learn that Laney and Don are occupiers. She recounts her visits to Zuccotti Park – lighting up as she tells us about the time Naomi Klein showed up and she got to be part of the human mic amplifying her words. She talks to us about her work with stray animals, calling each one over and describing how this one or that one escaped being put down in the nick of time. Gerry beams at her when she talks, but isn’t saying much himself.
I decide to open him up a little. “I hear you’re an ex-marine, and a reed man,” I say.
“I suppose I should tell you about myself,“ he says reluctantly.
Gerry played saxophone and clarinet in bands around Asbury Park. Toni encourages him to play something for us now, but he declines. He has Parkinson’s and it’s slowed his playing down. These days he limits himself to some Back sonatas, to keep his hand in. I ask about his favorite musicians and learn he heard them all as they came through Asbury Park. The Dorseys, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman. But his favorites were the black orchestras – Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway. Because I am from Pittsburgh, we talk about Billy Strayhorn, Ellington’s brilliant arranger from my home town. It won’t be until the last day that I learn Gerry toured briefly with Louis Prima’s orchestra.
Gerry signed up for the marines out of high school in 1943. He fought on Iwo Jima. When he got back from the war, he studied languages, especially Italian and French, under the GI Bill. Gerry studied in Rome and in Paris at the Sorbonne. Even though I noticed a coffee table book on the Iwo Jima campaign on the way in – the kind of thing a lot of Vets will proudly display – Gerry does not have too many good things to say about his military time.
“I go down the the VFW here, talk to guys my age,” says Gerry “And they are all puffed up about their time in the war. All wars, no matter what, are all bullshit. I’m glad a lot of young people have figured that out.”
“These guys,” I say, indicating Don and Laney, “might be less selfish than a lot of people my age. Most of my generation protested to get out of Vietnam. When the war ended, the activism ended for a lot of them. And Kent State scared us too”
Toni looks over at her husband, then gets up and announces “He’ll get mad at me for this, but I’m going to show you something.”
She returns with a plaque. I’m expecting a music award, but instead it’s a commemoration from the 40th anniversary of the Kent State shootings. I look at him confused.
“I was teaching there when the shootings happened,” he says.
The story comes out slowly. Gerry was one of only a half dozen professors that stood with the students as they protested that day. Gerry describes the ninety second burst of gunfire that killed four and wounded nine. Talks about how they opened up with their M1 rifles like it was a war zone. When the shooting stopped, Gerry, the ex-marine, the Iwo Jima veteran, marched fearlessly up the grassy slope to the National Guard commander and begged him to stop. He describes with bitterness the bullying and callous tone of the officer, who would only say that the students had fifteen minutes to disperse.
This is not your ordinary retired couple.
It’s been a long and astounding day. We’re asleep by nine and the next morning we rise at first light. Don is a live-streaming videographer and wants to get some shots of the hurricane’s aftermath. He, Laney, and I set out for the beach.
We’ve all seen the photographs, but nothing prepares us for the destruction. Pictures have a frame, a border. There is no edge to the devastation out here. It stretches for hundreds of miles up and down the coast. The hurricane surge blasted a thirteen-foot-tall wall of angry water at the homes within three or four blocks of the shore. The wind has left uprooted trees everywhere. Houses that haven’t gotten attention have a foot or more of sand covering over yards and porches. Some houses, closest to the beach, have had their walls torn away, exposing living rooms and kitchens. Second floor bedrooms cantilever precariously over empty space. Some houses are just piles of waterlogged lumber and siding.
We find the remains of a cinder block concession stand. The coolers and ice machines have been tossed like children’s toys. A steel security door is twisted like a pretzel. The roof is devoid of shingles and the rafters slump down to the sand.
After an hour or so of exploring, Dawn calls. Her voice is a barely audible whisper now. We’re going to get some help to get the basement finished and have a new assignment for the afternoon. I tell her to take it easy with that throat.
“Yeah, yeah,” she says.
When we return to Toni and Gerry’s, Mike, a plumber from York Pa and Bruce his father have arrived. Mike is in his mid thirties, earnest and hard-working. His dad has a Jerry Garcia beard and head of gray hair. Mike sets to work on the furnace boiler and Bruce joins us as we shovel up the muck from the floor. We had left the cellar door open overnight to encourage drying and it’s helped some. But we can only fill the contractor plastic bags an eighth full before they are too heavy to lift. We’ve gotten about a quarter of the floor done when the kids from Jersey show up.
There are eight or ten of them, mostly teenagers from the surrounding towns. They are laughing and flirting with each other and full of energy. Half of them take up shovels and debris bags in the basement and the rest get to work on the dying plants and trees in the back yard. It’s a whirlwind of activity.
My phone rings, and it’s Kat. She has someone with a leaking water line – a volunteer who’s been helping out others for weeks, but has no water herself. Kat also tells me she finally got Dawn to go to the doctor’s. I get Mike on the phone — he’s nearly got Toni and Gerry’s furnace up and working again, but stops to call the homeowner with the bad water pipe. He can help her if it’s plastic, but doesn’t have the tools he needs if it’s iron. We determine that it’s not iron and Mike hurries to get the furnace done so he can make the half-hour trip down the coast with his dad to see about that pipe.
The kids from Jersey have transformed the basement and yard. It’s a little past noon, and there is almost no evidence that Sandy had ever happened. I call Kat to tell her that Mike is on his way to the other job and that we are nearly done. She tells us to finish up, then eat. After that they will have another assignment for us. Matt, who is heading up the Jersey kid contingent, orders pizzas and everyone grabs a piece. The Pittsburgh and New Jersey groups are a bit awkward around each other, but Toni’s animals get us all talking. After a time, a second delivery of pizzas arrive, sent by Kat from Occupy Sandy. We eat a little more, but Matt from the New Jersey group cannot stand the thought of food going to waste and the iphones come out, everyone looking for homeless shelters and soup kitchens to donate the pies to.
I call Kat again, to tell her we’re ready to move to the next job. She tells me to have everyone wait about half an hour and then meet her and Dawn at the FEMA offices in Belmar, where they will work out new assignments. She also tells me Dawn has bronchitis, and now has a prescription for antibiotics. She should be home, I tell her.
“I’m trying to send her,” she says, “but she won’t listen.“
We drive down the coast to Belmar, and look for Kat, but do not find her. Instead we go into the FEMA distribution staging area, a large gymnasium, and ask what we can do. Go around back, we are told, and help put supplies into three trailers. The staging area has to move, and they are packing up.
The scene behind the gym is chaotic and we learn some lessons about disaster preparedness. The problem is lids and labels. Volunteers will have to be able to lay their hands quickly on the dozens of different kinds of supplies – bandages, cleaners, clothes, diapers, fresh water, paper towels. If it isn’t labeled, too much time will be wasted searching. And while there are dozens of bins full of the stuff, too many of them are missing their lids. Without lids, the stacks will fall over. We pitch in, forming lines that pass the items to the right trailers when the organizers call out for them. There are plenty of volunteers, but we spend too much time waiting while organizers hastily confer and decide where each kind of item should go.
Finally everything is put away, and we are thanked and sent on our way. I call Toni to tell her we’re headed home. She tells me Dawn and Kat will be joining us for dinner. We arrive after dark and Dawn hugs each of us. I spoke with her for the first time by phone two days ago and I am only now meeting her in person, but I feel as though I’ve known her half my life. Her voice is stronger now, the prescription has helped, but she’s still coughing. Everyone tells her she has to take better care of herself.
“Yeah, yeah,” she says.
Toni has ordered in some roast chicken and around the dinner table we tell our stories. When Dawn hears about the confusion at the staging area, she commiserates. She and Kat spend way too much time sorting through the donations. She tells about one person who donated a carload of items – all neatly boxed and labeled. She wanted to find that person and kiss them. If you are reading this, and want to donate, to this or any other disaster, please, please, sort and label everything. And donate bins with attached, hinged lids.
The talk at that table is good. Everyone describes what brought them to this place. We learn how Toni and Gerry are struggling to keep their house: the place next door to where he grew up; the place he bought in the 1970’s; the place they might lose to gentrification and rising property taxes. We hear how Toni and Gerry met. She wanted to study Italian and he was her teacher. She is his fourth wife, and he admits without reservation that she had mellowed and grounded him. It is clear to everyone that he adores her. Throughout the evening, Dawn is tapping out emails on her phone, directing the volunteers on the ground while she eats and talks.
The party breaks up around ten. Dawn and Kat give us our next days assignment, helping a church group a half hour south in Point Pleasant Beach. We say our goodbyes and everyone tells Dawn to take better care of herself.
“Yeah, yeah,” she says.
The next day, Google maps leads us astray. We have an address on Ocean Road, but there are many ocean roads on the Jersey shore. We find ourselves at a National Guard checkpoint. It’s hard to believe but this part of the Jersey shore has been hit even harder than what we’ve seen. The structures are even more unstable and access is tightly controlled. A soldier finds the right place for us and we head back up the coast. Pastor John awaits us and teams us up with some of his parishioners to deal with a family’s moldy basement.
Pastor John is a former snow and surf board salesman turned preacher. He has a small but growing congregation and most of them are dedicated to the disaster relief. He looks us over, especially Laney with her crimson hair and lip piercings and warns us that they are a faith-based group. “We pray with the people we help,“ he says “I don’t want anybody to be offended by that.” I assure him we won’t be.
Milling outside before we set out, the Christians and Occupiers eye each other uneasily. Dave, the clear crew leader, looks especially dubious of our scruffy band. We drive in separate cars to a well kept house a few blocks from the beach. Pastor John’s people don haz-mat suits and respirators to crawl under the house and scrape out sopping insulation. The Pittsburgh group will clear out the converted garage and cut away the bottom two feet of sheetrock and insulation that have become wet. The homeowner, Tony, tells us we had better wait until his daughter arrives before we start work.
Tony’s daughter is in her late thirties, trim, fit and energetic. She directs us as we carry out the many many things that crowd the floor and shelves – some going to the curb, some to neat piles close to the front of the house. Outside, as she looks over the parade of stuff, she shakes her head. “I carried this out to the curb last week, he carried it back in. Do you believe it?”
Inside, Tony is close to tears, watching half of what he owns carted out to the curb.
“I built this all myself,” he says, looking around at the partition walls, panelling and shelves. “I’m not a carpenter, I’m an automotive man. But I built it with my own hands.“
It’s eating at him, seeing it all go, and I can’t help but say something.
“That mold is nothing to fool with,” I tell him. “It’ll kill you. You’ll think you have a bad cold, only it won’t go away. And once it takes hold, there isn’t a thing they can do. Nobody wants you to die, Tony”
His daughter, who has caught the end of it, says to him. “You listen to what he’s telling you.”
It takes hours to empty the room, and once it’s done, I find Dave. I ask what he’d like us to do next. He instructs us to pull off the paneling and take down the shelves. We’ll be cutting off the bottom two feet of sheetrock, but only two feet, so that they can get the most use from a four by eight panel of new material. Once we ask for his guidance, Dave warms to us a little. He doesn’t smile exactly, but it’s the first time I’ve seen him do more than scowl. I’ve brought a hammer and prybar and Tony has a couple more hammers and small crowbars. We get to work breaking apart the two by four framing of the shelves and prying off the panelling.
Don and Laney take to it with gusto. I tell them that demolition is the perfect job for anarchists – a joke they like. When nearly all the framing is taken down, Dave comes back and give us pointers on how to take off the bottom strip of sheetrock safely, avoiding any plumbing or wiring that might be inside the walls. I show Laney how to score the sheetrock and use the prybar as a chisel to get behind it. It’s work she’s enjoying.
By mid-afternoon, all the drywall is down except for one spot in a corner blocked in by a built-in workbench that would take all day to break down. We have to leave soon to drive back home. Only one person can squeeze into the space, – so I tell Don and Laney to go out and get more pictures if they want, and I’ll finish up what’s left.
As I’m starting, Dave comes back in to look over the work. He likes what he sees. He’s actually smiling and friendly. He asks me to stop what I’m doing because he is going to have a prayer. There are eight of us, Dave, his two workmen, Tony, his wife, his daughter, and his grandson’s girlfriend. We form a circle and hold hands, Tony and the grandson’s girlfriend stand on either side of me.
Dave makes a long prayer. He recites a litany of all the things to be thankful for. The people from Pittsburgh are included in the list, and when he mentions us, Tony squeezes my hand. The prayer was too showy to do much for me, but that little squeeze moves me in surprising ways.
I call Don and Laney to come back. There are warm embraces and goodbyes all around. The Occupiers and Christians are now laughing and clapping each other on the back.
The mainstream has been writing about the Occupy Sandy efforts describing them as a new direction for the movement. As Kevin Gosztola of Firedoglake and others have pointed out, this is not true. Occupy Sandy is the continuation of occupy, of a revolutionary act of solidarity.
I see that in action with all these disparate groups in New Jersey: The Pittsburgh occupiers; Toni and Gerry, the leftist seniors; Dawn and Kat, the tireless organizers; David, the Morristown mensch; Mike, the plumber from York; the kids from the Jersey shore; Tony, the automotive man and his contentious, loving family; Pastor John and his wary congregants. Working side by side toward the common good makes us all one, all the same.
We pick up our luggage from Toni and Gerry’s. They are sorry to see us go and beg us to come back to visit. They give us each some money — over our objections — “for gas.” We drive the seven hours back in a tired and satisfied, but daunted silence. We have helped put two people’s houses right – but there are 50,000 still uninhabitable along the Jersey shoreline alone.
A story this long needs an epilog, something to tie up all the threads. This is what Laney posted on her Facebook timeline. She does the job perfectly, as she did every day of our trip.
“What an amazing, eye opening, inspiring weekend with some of the kindest folks i’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. I’m coming back to Pittsburgh with a heart less heavy & a profound confidence I’ve never before felt.”
So say we all.
It’s interoccupy.net/occupysandy if you want to help.
(Note: Here’s a collection of photos from our visit)