True confession upfront: It wasn't my deep and virtuous commitment to helping the less fortunate that drove me to Red Hook on that holiday morning. A week ago, Thanksgiving was barreling down on me like a lonely freight train. I'd made the decision not to travel home to Michigan, in part, because my guest-starring role as the out-of-town, perennial, bachelor uncle is growing tiresome in its 45th year. Too proud to fish my network for a plus-one invite, I faced Thursday with no plans, no company.
My singleton status weighs heaviest at holidays. Thursday, my mother implored me over the phone, "You need to get a life. You're blogging too much." Yes. She actually said that. Where would we be without the wisdom of our moms?
I too may be struggling with a touch of survivor's guilt. I was spirited out of the state to Seattle hours before Sandy struck the city and did not return until weeks later. But I did not feel lucky to have missed it. I felt ambiguous that my adopted hometown that I so love suffered devastation and I was so removed from it, physically, even emotionally at times. It is my home, after all. I returned to find my neighborhood was spared the worst. Now there is just a lone truncated tree that still lays in front of my building that reminds me of the broken lives Sandy left in her wake.
I have followed the stories of local heroism, like Matt Kraushar—aka "Medical Matt"—who has organized a swift and proactive medical response. He was on the ground long before FEMA, the Red Cross or the state or city. He is only a medical student, but his efforts have been key to treating and stabilizing more than 300 patients in Red Hook whose management of chronic health conditions was threatened by the interruption of power and services.
Occupy activists have sprung into action, transforming their protest movement into a nimble and efficient response team, improbably working alongside the municipal government with which they have had epic battles in the past.
The New York Daily News credited Menchaca with organizing 2,500 volunteers in that community by Nov. 12.
The coalition effort Menchaca has been involved with, Red Hook Volunteers, served up to 1,000 hot meals a day on the ground and doing 210 homebound deliveries in the first few weeks. They oversaw over 1,500 people in the first two weekends, including large groups from the cancelled New York City marathon. Last weekend about 600 volunteers showed but they are beginning to see numbers dwindle a bit.
Carlos suggested I report to the The Miccio Center adjacent to the Red Hook Public Housing where residents lived well over two weeks without power. This is a short walking distance from my home. I know the area well.
My inclination was to go, observe, interview, report.
Upon arrival, I spot a woman who is clearly projecting that she is in charge. Her name is Alexandra Rodríguez, she is the program director of the Red Hook Senior Center. I introduce myself by name, but not affiliation. She beams a smile at me, and says, "You can go help them," gesturing at a dozen volunteers holding lists of seniors expecting food deliveries.
And I was off with a trio of fellow Brooklynites, two of whom had been recruited through a posting at their workplace, Bloomberg News, where they work as reporters. I could not have hoped for more charming, enjoyable holiday company.
The government's response to Sandy has clearly been head and shoulders above Katrina, but also not without hiccups. The story of Occupy Sandy and Medical Matt tells of the necessity for swift local response that end-runs the inertia of bureaucracy. But the infrastructure of a robust social safety net is still very necessary to deliver large resources, indicating a need for continued improvement, not dismantling. The bulk of the food donations for Thanksgiving Day's meal came from NYC Mayor Bloomberg's office.
In addition to having lost her facilities, her program now serves three meals a day, up from two, and her charge has expanded from just seniors to the entire community. Her upbeat and cheerful attitude betrays no resignation, frustration or exhaustion. She expresses a lot of gratitude to the people and agencies that have stepped up: "I thought today [Thanksgiving] we weren't going to get that many volunteers. But, thank God, today we have a lot of volunteers."
The 2012 election made the rural/urban divide in America more clear to me than ever before. As the Republicans cycle through their stages of grief, their bargaining phase includes the supposition that Romney would have won, "if only it weren't for those urban voters." Likewise, other Democratic candidates and the marriage equality victories were put over the top by large margins in urban settings that overcame resistance in more conservative rural areas.
Sometimes implied, sometimes spoken explicitly, is the idea that urban voters are dumb, misled or just shouldn't count for some reason or another.
Sarah Palin has said many obnoxious and moronic things over the years, but few stuck personally in my own craw as much as when she said:
We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the “real America,” being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation.So much wrong and offensive. Suffice it to say it's possible to pander to small-town America without denigrating and insulting urban voters, maybe try that next cycle? But she's just repeating a delusion that is common in her party.
A central tenet of this attitude is urban settings are not "real" communities; people there live lives of disconnection and mutual apathy. In fact, anyone who's lived in a city can tell you it's total bunk. We have block parties, together we root for the home team and babysit each other's kids just like "real Americans."
Conservatives were served a heaping helping of reality on Nov. 6 when they learned urban Americans' votes are as "real" as their commitment to their neighbors and family.
Non-New Yorkers can get a great window into the community of Red Hook by viewing this touching video created for Restore Red Hook of local small business owners discussing their experiences before, during and after the storm. It gives a good picture of the diversity and challenges of the area. Repeatedly owners discuss their commitment to that specific community, a unique and beautiful neighborhood they've chosen to call home.
Particularly moving is a moment at the 3:00 mark where one owner, overwhelmed at the prospect of rebuilding says, "And I looked around and there were thirty people behind me saying, 'what do we need to do?'"
I'm about to finish my 20th year in New York City. I've come to think of New York City as indestructible. I say this not despite 9/11 but because of it. The story of Red Hook just reinforces my impressions. Here in Kings and New York county where Barack Obama took well over 80% of the vote, the constituency who are said to be motivated only by the desire for "free stuff," are giving generously of their time, talents and money.
Ana Marie Cox recently penned a piece that really resonated with me. The Romney campaign was not only unable to read polling and demographic data, they weren't able read sentiment of the people. She said, "Ultimately, we didn't want to be the kind of country Mitt Romney and the Republican party told us we were."
Cox is right. Romney failed because his own vision of America failed. And I mean "vision," both in the sense of how he sees it now, and where he thinks its future lies. They made their case and for all their efforts to sell Ayn Rand's version of the Great Society, it was seen by more Americans as a dystopic nightmare, not a utopian dream.
In Red Hook, a diverse coalition of people from all walks of life and from all over the city have pulled together in ways both grand and small to lift the worst-hit over the hurdle of this profound catastrophe. Private efforts efficiently partner with public agencies—and vice-versa—to deliver help where it is needed.
At the end of the day, did citizen Rachael's confection of pastry, fruit, nuts, honey and molasses deliver important life-sustaining nutrition? It did not. But every pie that crossed a threshold delivered a message: "People care. America is not a land that turns its back on people in crisis. We take care of our own. Fear not. You are not alone in this tough time."
And helping to dissemninate that message was a truly beautiful way to spend Thanksgiving.