Cheeseburgers in Purgatory


our old normal



the new normal



the new new (almost) normal

Two summers ago, I was quoted in the New York Times. “I just want a cheeseburger on my own patio. I can’t wait until next summer.” This was, mind you, the very last line in a five-page spread about “The Summer After the Storm” in Long Beach. The wrap-up, the thing you take with you. These Long Beach people, they like their cheeseburgers!

You bet.

It did not in fact happen the following summer, and my biggest meltdown since the storm came on a day when everyone seemed to be grilling out except us, with our basement apartment. On Lucy’s walk, past deck after patio after deck, laughter and smoky goodness set us longing. People don’t grill in backyards where we live. The sizzling tempts you from just off the sidewalk.

On Memorial Day weekend this year, we were still trying to get our home back—only now, we were fighting from within its walls. Begging our first contractor to return our money so we could pay the second. Rowdily discussing how to deal with companies who don’t come. Using our honed senses, heightened awareness, and enhanced resourcefulness to track down parts for two-year-old fixtures and appliances—even through the fatigue.

Since Steve lost his livelihood and school career to Sandy, he has been trying to find his place. For a brief period on that long weekend, he was in between jobs, and we suddenly found ourselves with a rare day and a half off together. We spent one and one quarter of it trying to obtain an apparently rare connector for our sink—and then the time was nigh for this long-awaited iconic patio (OK, deck) cheeseburger.

Though we’d had dreams of entertaining several whole groups of people this summer, now we would barely be able to entertain ourselves. I scuttled around boxes and tools, dug through storage containers, and cursed and complained getting all my mis en place. It wasn’t anything like I had imagined—relaxed, carefree, brand-new and easy in a brand-new, beautiful neighborhood. Nothing was anything like that.

But this is it, I kept reminding myself. This is the moment, the coming-home moment you’ve been waiting for.

I missed our old grill. It was basic but beautiful, a charcoal Weber with an attached tray for tools and for plating. But this temporary one would do for now. It was a mini-grill, just large enough for four burgers, which was fine—but it wasn’t deep enough to ward off the ocean breezes up on the deck. Also, it sat squat, and could scorch the new wood. So I carried it around back under the mudroom where Lucy poops and the wind don’t blow. Well, at least it doesn’t seem to until you are trying to light a grill.

This wasn’t ideal but it was cheeseburgers.

After twenty minutes of crouching over a stubborn non-fire, I was near tears. I tried, and I tried, and I tried again. This cheeseburger was happening if it was the last thing I did. I was still here, somehow. Still trying to make things happen, still dealing with forces out of my control, even when trying to accomplish the most mundane of rituals that had so effortlessly defined the old “normal.” And I was one of the lucky ones!

For so many, the fire is still not lit. The wind keeps blowing, mercilessly, as it did that night three years ago today.

Imagine how tired these people feel, trying to keep that flame going year after year after year. Scooped-out houses with no fire inside mar the streets of my city. Our government has failed them, in thousands of ways. They used to be able to enumerate these failures; now they have lost track. It is all too exhausting and confusing and absurd. The agonizing details are day robbers, and the old normal is but a ghost world. Their children have forgotten their homes; their friends from the block are frozen in time. Their parents are broke, stressed, exhausted, sad, and angry.

They used to imagine the coming-home moments: opening the door to trick-or-treaters once again; hanging a coat in a hall closet; hearing the clothes dryer spinning while reading a novel; dinner around the table. Holiday dinners. A dinner. Any dinner.

Now, they cannot. They no longer let themselves dream. Someone in one of my online Sandy groups was told in June she was finally going to receive $64,000 from FEMA to repair. She just received a letter that due to “lack of resources,” that would no longer be the case.

I’m sure she was starting to allow herself to picture the dinner. The laughter of loved ones, the favorite dish, the new lamp overhead casting light over everything. The new new normal—not the one imposed on us over these three years, but the one we would create through strength, endurance, resourcefulness, and sheer will in our new, post-Sandy world. Now, she blocks it out again. It hurts to look at something so far away.

We are home. We have had our dinner and our cheeseburger. There is still so much to be done. In many senses, we are still in the in-between. We are still fighting to be paid what we are owed, by both New York Rising and FEMA. But we do normal things too, because we are home and so we don’t have to fight as hard. We have a bedroom and a kitchen (over the summer!!!) and light and no noises upstairs. We have spending money and FALL SUNSETS FINALLY and I can scream and cry as insanely as I want when the METS WIN THE PENNANT!!!! At the end of the day we come home to this, and each other.

I will share photos when it starts to look more like a home! But it feels like home. More like home even than home ever has.

You can help others get home by clicking on the link to Long Beach Christmas Angel. Thank you for reading and for caring.



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