Last Saturday was a warmish slice of Long Beach summer. Never mind that it had reached only 58 of the promised 65 degrees; or that the March calendar sheepishly (no pun intended) reminded us it was March 23 and there might be some lion left yet; or that there were actually a handful of available parking spots. This day marked the unofficial start of summer.
Everyone was out. We crawled out like survivors, from under one of the coldest and snowiest winters on record.
At the old house, I would have been outside cutting back my beach grasses and rose bushes and sweeping the walk. I would have baptized stone tumblers with hose water after a long, faithless winter of wondering how long (and I’d barely have known what waiting was). Neighbors would have stepped around my rivulets and reached over the fence to pet Lucy. Elton behind us would have snuck her some salami. Joyce up the street would have cooed her name from the median. Ed on the corner, out from Floral Park to tidy up at his warm-weather respite, would have waved from his bike. Duke would be out, baying at Lucy’s bark.
But we are not at the old house, nearly 17 months after Sandy. Our “outside” is a narrow concrete alley leading from our apartment to the street. Even still, Long Beach makes me feel at home.
Here on our new block, our landlord knows everyone. His other tenant found her way upstairs because she had previously lived at the top of the street, and Pat literally knows every person on the block. He fixed windows and connections and fences after the hurricane. In winter, he surges through with his snow blower until it gasps for gas. He walks dogs that stay alone all day. Earlier tonight, he put in a door next door so his neighbor would be ready to rent again. Pat is the heart of our adopted block.
Last Saturday, I started meeting our new people. Frank, the Bronx Zoo zookeeper who would retire in five days and his wife, the dog walker. The tan cat Rascal, aptly named, who scratched Lucy’s ear when she tried to make friends (poor Lu misses her willing cat pals). I met Bill, one of many Mets fans on the West End, renting like us. After the storm, he and his wife renovated and moved back home. Then, they got the letter: raise or rebuild. They just found out their structure is too complex for raising. They are waiting for the money to demo and start again. Same old story: under $100,000 on a $250,000 policy. No movement from New York Rising. Still paying rent and mortgage. He was so soft, so matter-of-fact, so calm.
We still rent, but we no longer rant. We listen, we nod, we know.
Today was the unofficial restart of winter. On my walk with Lucy, a young man waved us on at the Key Food driveway with a smile. He parked and got out and we stood in the lot with the wind chill factor at 20, gushing about our mutts, discovering his wine/cocktail connection with Steve, and reminiscing about all our favorite Ocean Beach, CA landmarks from our days living at warmer shores. We had both loved OB, but moved back home for the people, our people.
On my walk back “home,” another neighbor and I combined forces to return a loose dog, set free by the wind at his gate. We brought the cooperative poodle up the steps to his brick patio and knocked on the old wood door, which opened to half-reveal an older woman in a stiff column of cigarette smoke. She was deeply tanned, speckled and wrinkled, permanently hoarse and wordily, effusively grateful.
I am eternally on my grandparents’ stoop in Brooklyn. A light stayed on and it lured me back home to New York. I belong here, where everybody knows my business and we holler and kibbitz and kvetsh and we rant until we can’t and we love to bring a dog home to an old lady whose family has owned the house since 1932. No, I mean it–we love it. We don’t just do it because it’s right–we love it. We live for it.
That guy I teamed up with to return the poodle, I’ll walk by him on the block now and our eyes will lock and we’ll smile and say “hey” and then look away almost embarrassed because what we did connected us so deeply on that frigid March day. In a cold world, the connections are everything. Our bodies are not spiking volleyballs or roller blading through the park year-round, so our minds and hearts power us through. And should we stumble at last through a doorway, anyone inside that new warmth is an instantaneously intimate soul.
One day I may return to the ease and beauty of California.
But I am eternally, internally on a stoop in Brooklyn.
Actually, now, in Long Beach.