The roads around here were cleared on Friday by the US Army. It was quite a sight to see huge humvees and trucks on my own corner, with people in uniform working away. After five days of being stuck in the house and feeling a bit empty and helpless, I decided on Saturday to head down to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to see what I could do to help the people stuck in the high rises for almost a week with no power or heat or hot water.
I took the railroad in to Grand Central Terminal, and I don’t know what I was expecting, but what I saw was business as usual: families and groups of people crowding around the information booth, posing for photos and pointing at the beauty of the terminal. The subways running downtown were not working well, so I hiked my duffelbag full of blankets and clothing on my shoulder and walked the mile and a half down to Ave B and 10th Street. On my way, not knowing what to expect, I stopped to buy two large bottles of water and a foot-long Subway sandwich cut in four pieces to share. When I arrived at the volunteer site, it was mobbed with hundreds of people who had come out to help. The organization that I signed up for is GOLES, and was listed by Occupy Sandy via Twitter. As we all stood waiting for instructions, we chatted with each other and tried to figure out what the GOLES acronym could stand for. We found out later it means “Good Old Lower East Side.” Not too suprising…
After about twenty mintues we were told to form groups of eight. My group was composed of five young women, a young married couple and yours truly. We were assigned a building, given instructions and as much food and water as we could carry, and off we went. We got to know a bit about each other as we walked north to Ave C and 20th Street. When we found our building, there were two security officers blocking the door. They asked for ID and warned up we would need flashlights. Five of us had flashlight apps on our cell phones, and that was it for light. We climbed fourteen flights of stairs carrying our supplies, and banged on the steel doors of each apartment yelling, “We are volunteers. We have food and water. Is there anyone inside who needs help? We can get you medical attention. Is there anyone at home?” Over and over again on each floor on the way down, we went through the same routine. On every floor, several doors opened to us. All were elderly people, some alone and some couples. They were cold, hungry and worried. We were invited in to some of the apartments for a few minutes of human contact. Most of these people had not been outside of their apartments in over five days, as they could not make it down the stairs and back up. We gave out our supplies, and took their trash bags full of a week’s worth of garbage with us. We wrote notes on each apartment: occupied or empty; medical concerns (one ninety year old who would not leave her very sick cat even if she could make it down the stairs and a wheelchair bound man with a home health aid who had not left him, among others); and necessities. When we had canvassed all fourteen floors, we took the list of items and went around to various stores to purchase what was needed: batteries, toilet paper, Depends adult diapers, canned milk; whatever the people had requested, we worked to find.
As we left the building to go do the shopping, one of the security guards was still there. He told us he was doing 18-20 hour shifts and sleeping in the van on the street. His own home in New Jersey was washed away and he had not seen his wife and children, who had only been rescued the day before, since the hurricane hit. He was cold, exhausted and beyond patience with the people complaining about having no power. While purchasing items for the old folks, we bought him a large Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and some hand and feet warmers. He became emotional when we returned, saying he could not believe what we were doing. We received similar responses from the residents of the building as we came back with their requests. All were grateful for our efforts, and it felt good to be able to do something for someone else.
I rode the train home, exhausted and happy, and came in to my cold, dark house. We do have a generator which we can run several hours a day, enough to make some coffee, have some light and even watch a little TV or access the internet. We are really luckier than most of the people I saw today. I hope that my visit and time helped to warm them up a bit from the inside out. And I hope they get their power back soon.