Beyond a few days without power, I experienced Sandy’s inconveniences only minimally, leading me to feel a mixture of gratitude and guilt. My guilt came mostly from empathy, and with flooding all over the city, it wasn’t difficult to imagine myself wearing someone else’s soggy shoes. Empathy aside, my mixed emotions made my desire to act feel almost self-serving, like a mea culpa for a life lived in Zone C. My separation from the affected areas, and simultaneous compulsion to go to them, forced me to realize just how isolated I was from the bulk of the city I call home. I felt privileged, and guiltier.
Because of my lack of knowledge about the areas most devastated by the storm, I felt that it would be arrogant to organize a disaster relief effort without seeing what was happening on the ground. I signed up to volunteer in one of the few places I could get to without a car: Red Hook, Brooklyn. After arriving at a staging location and being sent off to unload a badly flooded warehouse, my inability to lift my own bodyweight made the task impossible. After picking up tiny scraps of trash while twenty-foot stacks of ruined food and paper remained untouched, I left and joined my colleague nearby at The Farm, an incredible community garden that had been totaled by the storm. I sat side by side with locals who still had no power, and with volunteers came in from all over the city, compelled to do something beyond obsessively watching the news.
We rinsed out ruined trays of seedlings and broke open hundreds of cloves of garlic to replant anew. Hearing the incredible stories of displacement and determination of the volunteers made me feel more connected to my fellow New Yorkers than I had been in a long time. Like many of the other staffers who post here, I was just glad to be of use. It gave me hope to see such a robust effort towards new beginnings, both for the community and for its fauna. But I was also sad that it had taken a hurricane to make me realize my obligation to our great metropolis.
What makes New York so great isn’t the sum of our parts. Nor is it the parts; we are still made up of strong families and buildings and blocks like everywhere else. What makes our city so great is a deep, unshakable desire to associate with a common set of values. These include resilience (proven by generations of immigrants), valor in ways big and small, and a determination to accept (and even celebrate!) our differences. I am grateful to my community for rebuilding, and for choosing to do it together – one clove at a time.