Another Saturday, another day in the Rockaways. This time we went to Arverne, seventy blocks east of St. Francis in Belle Harbor. Arverne, named for Remington “R” Vernam, the real estate magnate who built the place up at the end of the century before last. Arverne is next to Edgemere, home to some of the last paved and numbered blocks within New York City limits that are devoid of any kind of construction—no houses, no shops, neither brick nor wood nor vinyl, not even a parking lot—not because of blight and decay, nor hurricane’s wrath, but because they simply were never built up.
This, it turns out, is not true. Edgemere once was a thriving beach town, with hotels and bungalows, but they are gone, have been gone so long that Planet-of-the-Apes-like they have faded even from memory, and people like me will make assumptions that life has simply not spread there. Read this Forgotten New York piece if you get a chance— you might get hooked on the site.
But I digress, it was Arverne I was in, not Edgemere. We were helping Coco, a friendly, asthmatic, older Puerto Rican woman remove moldy appliances and sweep the sand from her basement. I took off my sweater as the lifting made me sweat. While we worked, we listened to the stories. Coco’s daughter, whose name I’ve lost, and her husband moved to the Rockaways twenty days before the storm. “They lost everything,” Coco told us. “New house— it’s gone.” “What are they doing now?” I asked. “Dave was the one who helped you carry the stove,” she said, pointing him out to me.
Work has to be done. Triage. Don’t worry about what you can’t save.
We finished, or at least got to a point where we could leave, because— oh, you know. We drove back to Belle Harbor. Brandon went off to an interview and Kristina and I met up with Rob. Rob had stopped us on the way to the car that morning. “Do you guys have a house to go to already?” he’d asked hopefully. We told him yes, but we might be able to stop by that afternoon. He was thrilled to see us. He showed us to his basement. “I took the drywall down myself,” he said, “and put it in these bins. But I can’t get them up the stairs.” Kristina and I lifted the hundred-pound buckets of house parts up the stairs, one step at a time, and brought them in a wagon to the street, where we dumped them like so much sand.
When we were done Rob talked to us for maybe ten minutes about the process of rewiring a house. “You have to get a new box,” he said. It’s not as simple as Con Ed turning your power back on. The stuff in your house is fucked. Con Ed doesn’t rewire your house. That’s your property.
We walked on. I realized I had left my sweater at Coco’s; we would have to go back. We ran into Billy on Rockaway Beach Boulevard. “Where’d ya get that broom?” he asked. We told him it was from the Rubicon team. “You’re supposed to sign up,” I said, “sign all these waivers, do it their way, but we just took their stuff. It’s getting used for what it’s supposed to be used for.” “So I gotta go over there and sign something?” Well… no. We offered Billy the broom, then realized he probably needed help. He was delighted to have us clear the sand from the street in front of his house.
They can’t sweep here, he showed us, because there are two cars parked on either side of the drive. The owners can’t move them because the engine’s full of water. The insurance company totaled both of them, he said, and called me to tell me they towed them and I could relax. Sure the hell didn’t. They’re still here. Why you gonna call me and tell me the car’s gone when I can look out my window and see it’s still here?
Brandon found us and we had to go back to civilization. “You guys,” he said before we departed, “I was in such a shitty mood before you got here, and I feel so much better now. This stuff you’re doing, it’s really more mental than physical, you know. Thanks for coming out here.”
We headed to the car. It was starting to get chilly, and I missed my sweater. I must have looked cold when we walked by Rob’s house. “You got a coat?” he shouted from across the street. I assured him I did, but he wouldn’t have it. “It’s cold,” he said. “You sure that’s enough?” “I’m about to get it back from where I left it,” I said again, “but thanks.” “Okay,” he said, unsure. And that was when I lost it.
Rob has lost the whole basement of his house, I said as we got in the car, he owes fifteen grand to the contractors who haven’t done anything yet and his papers are all gone and he is probably going to have to move out and his neighborhood is in shambles and the Harbor Light still smells like smoke and he probably knows someone who drowned and he wants to give me a goddamn coat and I can’t even finish this fucking sentence. Some people are just good, and it’s just too much to think about, and you feel unworthy.
We started out directed east, but only made it to Beach 116th Street: the traffic for the Cross Bay was like stone. Fuck it, I said, Coco can hold on to my sweater, or have it; let’s turn around. The sunset over the Marine Park Bridge was one of those sunsets where it is so clear and vivid and real that you can see the spherical shape of the Sun, how the bottom is farther from you than the top, and the gold on the water like electricity.