Bill’s Gone Gray

My neighbor Bill walks his wife and daughter to the beach for sunset. He packs a picnic. He’s a Mets fan; that’s how we met. He’s a multi-genre music guy who lines up hours of really good tunes for grilling out on the patio. I always want to ask him what’s playing, but when it’s playing he can’t hear me from the sidewalk. He plays catch with his ten-year-old daughter (not cute catch but athletic catch) in the street. Not his street though. And not mine. Not his patio. He is not my real neighbor.

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His daughter is growing up 17 blocks from her house, which is condemned. Her parents must build her a new one, and they have not even begun to take the old one down. Week after week after week after week after week after week, they wait.

They had insurance. Still they wait.

New York Rising promised to make them whole. Still, they wait.

The two-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy is here, and they wait. They wait on the patio mixing new neighbors with the old, whose beach cruisers crowd the sidewalk as Lucy pulls me past. “Drop off the dog and come up for some red!” they yell. They wait with wine; we all do. They waited on the Red Cross, on FEMA, on insurance, on the city, on state programs. I have no money waiting for me, nothing to wait for but our house.

We have insulation that took two months. Sheetrock that went up over 70 days. Floor, two months. Deck, two and a half and counting. Bathrooom…….? It’s next. We need it to be. We have to move home.

Today, three days after our second Sandyversary, we are due to receive our last housing assistance payment. We will not receive it; we are due to receive it.   The assistance is actually deposited 8-20 weeks after the month it is meant for.   But so far, eventually, we have been replenished. Going forward, no more.

So we brought in someone else to do the bathroom. Someone trusted. If it can come together in the time promised, we will move in Thanksgiving weekend. I’ll have four days to get settled (clean, bring over the boxes we live out of, plug in a microwave).

We will have heat. Electric. Water. There’s a port-a-potty just in case. We are going home.

Bill is not. Bill is going gray waiting. I met him in January, and I’ve watched it happen. It’s happened to me, too. I saw myself on the local news the day I spoke at a rally. That evening, I watched the segment and got my Facebook fingers ready.

I froze mid-sentence while status updating, somewhere after “Tune in everyone,” and slowly backspaced. I’d absorb my accelerated aging in private. By the way, I had spoken rather eloquently about the crippling Duplication of Benefits limits making it impossible for survivors to regain their pre-storm footing. I was thanked and complimented by attendees and organizers. Reporters sought me after, for interviews that would later be published. But Channel 12 showed no record of my eloquence. Only a politician’s—who would within two weeks’ time be accused of embezzlement (of course, he was one of the only ones actively supporting us). Then there was me, not speaking. The closing shot was of my face, looking bereft. Worn. Cold and ragged, and old. I rewound the segment five times. Old, old, old, old, old.   I know there is a touch of dysmorphia here: there is no way my cheeks are hanging off the bone like the meat of a spare rib you try to lop off but it hangs on by a stubborn ribbon of gristle.

But I can look back at my rosy-faced smile the day before the storm; it is well documented. I had just run a race and was—as long as we’re using meat metaphors—at my prime.   I was happy, so happy, Jenn in high school happy—no worries. I would run for life. My pain was all but gone, my endorphins were up, my energy up, and this impending storm would not get me down. We were prepared for it and I could do anything. I had run the race for my little hero SuperTy, and in finishing inherited some of his superpowers. Steve had run it with me on a whim, on three hours sleep, after drinking the night before and not having run for two years. He definitely had superpowers. We could get through anything.

I was at my strongest, and it’s a good thing. The three days of inconvenience we’d anticipated have slowly been absorbed into 730 more.

And there are more to come, but we are going home. It won’t be pretty, not for awhile—dirt and schmear and boxes and banging and saws—but it will be home. There will be lights on, and heat on, a bed in our bedroom. And we will have done it ourselves, with the support of friends, family, and strangers. I may have grown old doing it, and I may have fully transformed from fully transformed to almost unraveled, but I made it. We made it.

Bill has made it this far, and he has so many miles left to go. His family has yet to see a day of state housing assistance, and every month he and his wife pay rent AND mortgage, taxes, insurance, and bills at both houses—while trying to save to rebuild!  Across the street, Mike gave up the fight for the summer, to have a summer. Now that it’s getting cold he will be dreaming of home again. The hip fullness and inky black of his beard tell me he won’t be going gray for some time. Ellie next door, white-haired when all this started, is walking away from one of my favorite houses in Long Beach. Even the stucco walls and Mediterranean trees are now part of our storied Long Beach history. Ellie and her dog (like mine) are living out their sunset years in basement rooms. This is part of our history now too, what has happened to the living and not just the houses.

Even we displaced are talking too much about structures. Have you started yet? Did you see that house that went up? I’m thinking of raising…the garage will go here…side by side parking….no car shuffle….what a McMansion. Tsk tsk shame about the bungalows.

We must talk more about children who don’t know where stockings are hung. Halloween lovers who haven’t had a trick-or-treater in three years. The widows who cannot ever go back. Aging sad dogs living like pill bugs curled up in the dark beneath. Toddlers born twenty-four months ago who have never known parents not under duress. We must talk less about houses, more about the families inside or not inside and we must do more.

Please click on the Long Beach Christmas Angel link to the right of this page and donate or share. This is not over for thousands of families. The people who will be helped now are those who need help most. They are losing houses, losing hair, losing hope. They cannot shop for gifts. They cry in toy stores. They are having heart attacks.

We were directly helped by this charity. I can guarantee that by giving here, you will rekindle a flame that is almost out this holiday season.

Thank you for keeping mine lit. There is a candle in my window as I look toward Christmas. I am grayer but grateful, and still sad for Bill and Mike and Ellie, and my high school friend Keri in the Rockaways.

I dedicate my 97th post to them.

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