On Friday, Nov. 16, I stood in a pile of rubble. By my feet lay someone’s memories scattered about in the form of small plastic toys and childhood photographs. Tires and overturned white boats lined the streets like pawns on a chessboard. Clothes and colorful bits of garbage pinned the trees to the sky like Tibetan prayer flags.
Just shy of three weeks since Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeast, a few of my classmates and I visited Queens to donate supplies we’d been collecting at Western Connecticut State University (Westconn). We wanted to see the wreckage ourselves, but what we saw we were hardly prepared for.
Raw autumn winds careened through labyrinths of felled walls, windows, and roofs. Abandoned homes lay bare and lifeless, each like the rotting carcass of some primeval giant. Feathered streaks of black paint read, “FEMA PLEASE HELP US,” on a large sign tied to a lamppost. Beside a vacant tennis court, the National Guard pumped gasoline from large, camouflaged vehicles into bright red gas cans desperately clutched by droves of quivering, neighborly hands.
In a matter of days, the Rockaways had become more like a war zone than an area once known for its quaint, pseudo-suburban landscape and slew of yachts and jet-skis.
And there we were: five kids from Connecticut dressed in clean, uptown clothing, unable to empathize out of sheer inexperience of what we were seeing.
We had parked the car on the side of the road. Within moments, we spotted two men, movers, struggling to unload and deliver an oversized heating unit into a family home. Along with a fellow student, and with the help of a passing stranger, I ran to their aid. Twenty minutes and a few minor injuries later, we had successfully moved the unit into the house.
The owner watched us. Her eyes nervously traced our steps as she stood in the corner, shivering under a blue-knit blanket like a small fish tangled in a net.
The walls had been skinned to the framework, exposing racks of warped support beams and networks of thin red wires. The sodden plywood floor compressed like a tongue beneath our feet. We could still smell salt in the air. It was as if we’d been swallowed into the gaping mouth of some petrified leviathan slowly startling back to life.
After completing the delivery, we expressed our condolences and parted ways without knowing so much as each other’s names. We were simply five strangers whose collective web of pity unraveled into an act of compassion.
And to unravel it continued.
About a mile down the road we met Jay: a retired New York City police officer and a widowed father of two. He was living alone in the family home situated on the dark, Atlantic shore when the hurricane hit. We’d asked to help clean his yard, unaware of what that would entail.
From a distance, Jay’s house looked as any other: beaten, drowned, defeated. We drew nearer.
Pressed to the wet ground lay childhood relics fossilized: tattered baseball mitts, homemade holiday cards, his wife’s porcelain doll collection swept into a white, jagged cluster like a mountain of tiny sharks. Once fragile and pink, his daughter’s old ballet shoes now suffocated beneath piles of dirt. A lone rope of cassette tape danced among the ruins like a court jester in a graveyard.
I was told to throw out everything.
Apropos, as I picked up each item, each shattered doll or handful of pictures, tattered and wrinkled, it was as if it burrowed into my flesh and sprouted tiny nerves which seduced me into feeling their insides like the twisted vines of an ivy temptress. I left a piece of myself in that yard.
Somewhere between the crack of a family Christmas ornament under my foot and the penetrating stare of an old photograph, I had given up a sector of my heart as repentance to this man and his sacred memories, the unpolished pearls of Queens.
That afternoon, as we walked back to our SUV destined for the Nutmeg State, I found it hard to breathe. Not for the more obvious reason, craving that sweet first breath one sucks in after escaping a metropolitan milieu, but because of something deep within my marrow.
Perhaps my body was compensating for a lack of emotional empathy, perhaps out of compassion for the sorrow in my bones. But whatever it may be, I will always have this tale to tell, a tale which will begin and end as such:
Today I stood in a pile of rubble, and my heart grew like the blowing of a glass bubble, like the quiet dilation of a newborn’s eager pupil.
Michael Joel Bosco is a creative writing student at Western Connecticut State University who visited and volunteered in Queens in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.