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Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

Salvaged by Julia Fierro

OBJECT: Hurricane Sandy

My parents live in a small house on a narrow sliver of land that faces the rocky shore of the Long Island Sound and backs up to a marsh, home to swans, egrets, sandpipers and plovers.

This was to be the nest where my mother and father finished their lives, watching their grandchildren dig for hermit crabs, and they signed on the house twelve years ago, one blue-skyed, calm-watered summer day, amazed at the luck of finding a water-front property they could afford.

My father, a southern Italian farmer turned military police, or carabinieri, immigrated to the States in 1978. He has seen war, poverty, famine and disease. For the first seven years of his life he owned no shoes, no underwear and no access to modern medicine. It is a miracle that only one of his six siblings died, a younger sister who would have lived had she been given antibiotics for a simple cut on the sole of her foot.

At 77, my father, legally deaf from the untreated ear infections he suffered as a child, is still climbing onto the roof to hammer a shingle in place, still lugging concrete to fortify the ever-sinking seawall, still lifting firewood onto his back. He thrives in the constant maintenance work that a seaside home demands.

He is the embodiment of forte! – the command he has delivered (gently and not-so-gently) each and every time I have come to him with fear and self-doubt.

For more than thirty years, I’ve watched him turn blazing logs in the fireplace with his bare hands.

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My father cried in my arms the day after Sandy arrived with a 13-foot surge. The wall of water tore away the top of the concrete seawall, the only buffer between the pounding surf and the eroded land under my parents’ home, then splintered the deck and wrenched free three windows, flooding the bottom two floors of the house with a mix of seawater, sand and clay that would take weeks to remove.

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My parents’ know how fortunate they are. Their home can be saved. Although they are living in a cold dark mud-filled house as winter approaches, too scared to leave lest the town or FEMA (who still have not visited) condemn their home, they still sleep in their own beds.

I was able to save over a hundred of my father’s paintings, most of which (because he is ever frugal) were done in cheap oils and acrylics, often on pieces of plywood or plastic he’d found in his neighbors’ trash. But hosing down his once vibrant still lifes and landscapes felt savage, and some were so caked with clay they had to be thrown into one of three commercial-size dumpsters that will eventually haul much of the contents of my parents’ home away.

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I was also able to save some of my father’s “treasure” – what he calls his collections. When, at 77, you have nightmares about losing your first and one-and-only pair of shoes, a pair of women’s shoes with the heels lopped off, which an American soldier gave my father when he was seven-years-old, any object can hold meaning, worth, can be deemed “collectible”.

The bottom two floors of my parents’ house, like every closet, dresser drawer and corner of their home, is filled with my father’s collections, some of which I was able to save, like my father’s collection of ceramic owls. The winged symbol of wisdom has always been sacred to him, a bright man who never had the education he deserved.

I dug into feet of mud and sand to salvage my grandfather’s tambourine, which he’d made from the top of an industrial-sized bucket, the jingles carved from tin cans. Nonno Giovanni was a janitor for all the years of his American life and he crafted his musical instruments with recycled material, like the perfectly pitched flutes he made from animal bone. He died having never learned to speak English, but he lived an exuberant and expressive life through his music.

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The only time I saw a smile on my father’s face that day after Sandy was when I showed him the chipped statuette I had scrubbed clean. The figures of two little boys – Romulus and Remus – suckling at the She-Wolf.

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It was a story we’d been told as children, the origin tale of a country we knew our father loved more than his adopted one, and the statue that had always sat on top of our kitchen television, so that we stared at it each night as we ate our plates of pasta and meat and vegetables my father had grown in his kitchen garden.

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“Ah, yes,” my father said when he saw what I had salvaged, “this is important.”


Julia Fierro is a novelist, essayist and editor. She founded The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop in 2002, a Brooklyn-based creative home for over 1700 writers. Her first novel, Cutting Teeth, about the complicated and often comical experience of contemporary Brooklyn parenting is forthcoming from St. Martin's Press. Her work has been a finalist for three Glimmer Train fiction awards and she was a contributor to Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer (Random House). An excerpt from her novel will be published in Guernica Magazine’s December “end of days” issue. Julia is a graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was awarded a Teaching-Writing Fellowship. She has taught Literature and Creative Writing in the Honors Program at Hofstra University, at the University of Iowa, and she currently teaches the Post-MFA Writing Workshops at Sackett Street. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two small children.