[Six months ago today, Sandy hit Long Island. Two weeks of no power, no heat and being displaced left me a little worse for wear. But I didn’t have as bad as others. What follows is a piece that was published in The Magazine shortly after Sandy, after Leah (ohheygreat) and myself took on a project that was kind of all consuming but worth it. I post it here because The Magazine is subscription only, but they are kind enough to let us repost our stuff after a while]
“Do you realize how close it is to Christmas?” my friend Leah Reich text messaged from California.
I didn’t. I was too preoccupied being cold and miserable in my parents’ house, where my immediate family and I were staying after losing power at our own home during the first few hours of Superstorm Sandy. Eleven of us across three families had already been hunkered down there for a week and a half when a snowstorm hit, causing my parents to lose power too. Heat, hot showers, and normalcy would have to wait.
Leah’s message snapped me out of the funk I was in. I was feeling helpless to contribute meaningfully to those around me who were worse off. Neither my house nor my parents’ had suffered much damage, and none of us had been injured. I wanted to go out and do something for those who had been hit harder, but I didn’t have enough gas in my car to get anywhere, let alone to wait on the hours-long gas lines.
Meanwhile Leah, a coast away in Oakland, was trying to lend Sandy victims a helping hand by arranging a blood drive. Her efforts sputtered through logistical problems beyond her control. We were both looking for a way to help, and the nearness of Christmas gave us a focus.
Our goal became instantly clear with her text: We could leverage our Internet savvy to make the holidays a little less traumatic for children whose lives had been disrupted by Hurricane Sandy.
Sacks for Sandy, a toy drive for dispossessed kids, was born.
“When I saw what Occupy Sandy was doing with the Amazon registries, it occurred to me we could do something similar with toys and wish lists,” Leah recalls. “After all, what kid hasn’t made a wish list at the holidays?” We set up an Amazon wish list containing toys and games for all ages, in all price ranges, with the gifts coming to my house.
Because I had been only skimming the news with a spotty Internet connection post-Sandy, I had assumed that the aftermath was a local story and that no one was paying much attention to it. It turns out the world was watching. And they wanted to help. We found a way to let them assist.
About four years ago, Twitter put me on a “recommended user” list, and from that I gained a million followers. That’s down to about 915,000 now, which is still a staggering number of people potentially reading my timeline each day. My normal shtick is cracking jokes and ranting about sports, and Leah and I had become friends through that banter. My high number of followers has had little practical use in my life and career, aside from bragging rights, but now I finally had the opportunity to use my reach for good.
Leah and I turned to social media to jumpstart our efforts. We put feelers out on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook — just a hint that we were about to launch this fundraiser for the youngest of Sandy’s victims. The response was immediate and powerful, and it came from all over the world. The tweets about Sacks for Sandy went from chatter to outright buzz. We were retweeted by Internet luminaries and celebrities like Anil Dash and Neil Gaiman.
We eventually lost track of how many people were spreading the word about the toy drive, but I was reminded of the scale of participation by the new stack of Amazon boxes in my living room when I got home from work each day.
We once again turned to social media to create a persistent home for Sacks for Sandy. People quickly stepped up to help. Michael Owens of San Francisco volunteered to design the website for us. Hosting Matters gave us the domain sacksforsandy.com. Cori Johnson made illustrations for the site. My sister volunteered her time to help maintain the wish list, adding more toys and keeping count of what was bought so we could update the website regularly and tweet the progress of the drive.
Over 50 people volunteered to wrap the gifts. The Nassau County Firefighter’s Museum offered their space to host a wrapping party and to store the gifts, which led us to work with local fire departments to use their stations to distribute presents. With Skype and FaceTime, we were able to keep Leah front and center for all the action, even introducing her to volunteers during the wrapping sessions.
We then contacted Patch, an online-only hyperlocal news service with individual sites for hundreds of communities. When a reporter from my town’s Patch came to my house — now filled with toys, games, and books — Leah took part in the interview via Skype. The 3000 miles between us melted away.
By the end of our drive, we had collected 1043 gifts through Amazon and $1300 donated through PayPal, most of this from strangers or acquaintances who never gave a second thought to trusting two people they knew only from the Internet to do right by their donations. That’s particularly touching given the number of social-media scams for donations and sympathy.
We nearly hit a setback right at the end when an arsonist set fire to the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Brooklyn, where Occupy Sandy was headquartered and stockpiling relief aid and where about 10 percent of Sacks for Sandy gifts had been wrapped and stored. The fire was put out rapidly enough that most supplies and all the toys avoided damage.
My parents eventually got their power back, and so did we. As our lives returned to normal, Leah and I became so grateful that we had taken the time to transform our frustration into something that made a meaningful contribution to lives around us. Social networks may be blamed for keeping people from making human contact, but even with Leah and I so many miles apart, we connected — and then spread that connection to thousands of others to bring a little light into darkened lives.
I just hit the proverbial camel’s straw and it came in the form of a blue Honda Civic.
All I wanted to do was go to the gym. It was the only thing that was going to make me feel normal and an hour or so of elliptical would help me work off this pent up frustration.
I drove east on Hempstead Turnpike, like always. Got in the left lane to turn - across four lanes of traffic - into the shopping center where my gym is.
The farthest lane was not moving. Not at all. It was not moving because it was a gas line. There’s a gas station about 1/4 mile up from the gym and this car - and the 100 cars behind it - were waiting in that line. And they weren’t budging. They were lined up literally bumper to bumper because everyone is afraid some other car will try to sneak in front of them. So I’m waiting to turn into the gym but the entrance to the parking lot is blocked by the civic and she’s not going anywhere. The car behind her is not going anywhere. I can not get in. I wait a few minutes, hoping the car in front of the Civic moves up and lo and behold it does. The lady in the Civic has her window open so I roll my window down, get her attention (Hey, lady!) and try to get her to NOT move up when the car in front of her does. I make my point. She understands what I want. And she smiles. And instead of holding back and opening up a space for me to maneuver into the lot (even though I’d have to hit the curb on the way in) she revs up and pulls close up to the car behind her. The car in back of her does the same. I am still blocked. I give her a look like WHAT IN THE ACTUAL FUCK and she gives me the finger and says “Seriously? No.”
I can’t come back down the road headed west and try to get in that way because I’d have to wait on the gas line to get anywhere near the entrance. So I back out of the turning lane (it’s curved, this is no mean feat on Hempstead Turnpike), pull back into traffic and head home.
At Beach Street I pull the car over and cry. Heaving, heavy sobs. Sobs of frustration, anger, anxiety and hopelessness.
I just wanted to do one normal thing. I just wanted to feel like I was not in the world of power outage for a little while. Maybe an hour.
And I couldn’t even do that.
I stopped crying, drove past my house with my last shred of hope intact and started crying again when I saw the lights were not on yet.
And now I’m back at my mother’s house, a hostage to god damn fucking LIPA.
Give me strength. Give me a beer. Give me Xanax.
That’s my new mantra.
There’s the darkness that comes regularly and a darkness that is forced upon you. They are two different beasts, each bringing their own shades of black to your world. One brings the time where nightmares play out in your head. The other, a time where nightmares play out for real.
Brad Novak pulled two five-gallon containers of gasoline in his niece’s little red wagon. He walked slowly, gently guiding the wagons over bumps and around tree limbs. He could hear the gas sloshing around in the containers and his fear of spilling that precious liquid consumed him. He waited in line five hours to get that gas. Nothing was going to keep him from his appointed rounds, which included filling two generators and maybe a quarter of his Honda’s gas tank, if that.
He turned on Hilda Street, gently coaxing the wagon to turn with him, when he thought he heard footsteps to the left. In this kind of darkness – not a single streetlamp or house lit up – it was hard to tell where sounds were coming from or what they really were. Snapping limbs sounded like footsteps. Leftover hurricane wind thrashing through fallen trees sounded like voices. Brad maneuvered around the carcass of a Sycamore tree splayed across the road and turned left on Cypress Avenue, trying to silently talk himself out of the feeling that he was being followed.
It’s crazy times out there, kids. The long, long gas lines - some stretch more than two miles - are made up of frustrated, impatient people. Some of them are even angry.
I drove up to the line Todd was idling in - at this point it stretched back over a mile - to give him a phone charger. He had been in that line since 2:30. It was 6:00. He had only made it halfway to the gas station. Most cars were turned off as they waited for the line to move. Some people got out of their cars to smoke, stretch legs….and yell like lunatics about the gas lines.
There was one guy telling people they were on the wrong line and a woman telling people there were two lines; one for the gas station about 1/4 mile up and one for a gas station that doesn’t exist. They were walking from car to car, sticking their heads in windows, yelling at people. Yelling about everything.
Up at the gas station, two lines of cars tried to converge into one. Two pumps were reserved for walk-ups, people with gas cans filling up for their generators. There were about 100 people pushing up against each other. If the line wouldn’t move on its own, it would move with physical force.
There was not a single police car there. Not a state trooper. No authoritative presence at all.
There really should be. At every gas station.
Because you get idiots like the yelling guy giving people wrong information, riling people up, making already agitated people even more agitated. You have two lanes of gas lines taking up both lanes meant for traffic so you have people just trying to get home leaning on their horns, wedging themselves into the line, thinking it’s just traffic and, well, it’s a mess. And it’s dangerous.
I have less than a quarter tank. I’m just not going to go anywhere until this is all over. I don’t want to wait on these lines. I don’t want to deal with this anarchy. I don’t want to be anywhere there are angry people who have been sitting in their dark, cold houses for four days waiting for lights to go on, people who have just been through a hurricane and are at an emotional level that can only be described as combustible.
It’s ugly out there. And scary.
I’m just going to hole up in my dark house until I stop feeling like something is about to blow. Besides a hurricane.
I want my normal life back.