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Little Problems, Big Hurricane by Marina Petrova

Shortly after Hurricane Sandy, there was a Squeezable Yogurt Crisis. My six-year-old son, four long days without school, sat down on the floor and cried because I told him we didn’t have any yogurt. Typically I would deal with this crisis by losing my temper. But almost a week into the Mommy & Son boot camp, I mean bonding, I was losing touch with reality, I mean becoming alarmingly calm. I walked out of the apartment and pressed the elevator button. He followed. The whining subsided two blocks later. “Mom,” he asked, “why were you ignoring me?”

What I said next was not planned. “A few days ago many people lost their homes. Kids were left without their beds or their toys. Schools were flooded. Other people have been without heat, light or water for days. Do you think this is a big deal?”

My son nodded.

“Do you think waiting thirty minutes to have a yogurt is a big deal?” I asked.

He shook his head.

It did not feel like a win, nor should it have. I remember how I hated when adults got preachy with me, particularly if they had a point.

The following Saturday, there was a call for Russian speaking volunteers to go door-to-door on Coney Island to check on people, especially seniors, who lived in the high rises and had no electricity, water or a way to get down from a high floor. It seemed wrong not to go and it seemed right to take my son.

“Is this going to be fun?” he asked.

“This is not about you,” I said.

On the corner of Mermaid Avenue, volunteers were sorting donated supplies. I saw familiar faces and while I said my hellos, my son began to pack bagels into Ziploc bags beside another little girl. He became eager to go. We packed water, toiletries and non-perishable food items into our backpacks and climbed the stairs of a 20-something-storey high rise.

“It smells like a bathroom,” my son said.

We were going up the rabbit hole and I had a nagging suspicion that around us were not jars of orange marmalade. The staircase was pitch dark except for the thin slither of light from our flashlight. I squeezed my son’s hand a little tighter and imagined masked guerrillas hiding in the shadows, holding machine guns and machetes in hands they hadn’t washed for a week.

My son, who asks to take a cab for any distance over two blocks, climbed to the 12th floor and chatted happily with another volunteer. I let go of paranoia. We began to knock on doors, asked if anyone needed help and offered “food, water, supplies.” My son copied us, serious and sincere, and knocked yelling “food, water… surprise!” We tried to control our laughter and explained to him that this might not be the best strategy for weary residents who already had their fill of surprises. To my six-year old, surprise is still always a good thing.

Some doors did not open. Other doors opened with hesitation and suspicion. (I’ve since heard there had been another kind of “volunteering” taking place.) “We are fine,” most said, and pointed to other apartments where elderly or people with small children lived. Everyone thanked us even if they didn’t take anything and they especially thanked the zealous six-year-old, who kept trying to give out an extra sandwich or bottle of water. The building had been without electricity or water for almost a week and the temperature was dropping into the 40s. No one complained. As we walked down the stairs, a woman in her 60s was walking up. She asked us if we needed help.

We visited two buildings without power and there were many more we could have gone to. “You are a tough kid,” a woman said to my son. He grew a few inches taller when he heard that. We were all cold and hungry when we got back to Mermaid Avenue. My son waited patiently for his sandwich and ate whatever he was given, no questions asked. We drove back through streets with windowless cars stranded and front yards filled with furniture, appliances and blankets, as if houses had vomited their insides. A stuffed floppy-eared dog stared at us from the top of a reclining chair on the sidewalk.

“Brooklyn looks sad,” my son said.

As the water receded, my six-year old, along with other adults and children got a bit of perspective.