The first thing some of the volunteers noticed was the trash: piles and piles of trash -- food packaging, cardboard boxes, strips of tape -- strewn around the sidewalk and flying in the breeze, getting stuck to the gates of the shuttered supermarket that took up most of the block on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
“Yo, is this the Key Foods?” a man near the front of the bus wearing a poncho-style jacket asked the waifish girl in the seat next to him.
A day before, the local news had reported, people had opened the dumpster in front of a Key Foods supermarket in the neighborhood -- a dumpster which had been sitting outside for a full week and had been flooded by the storm -- and began to rip open the trash bags inside, tossing about their contents in search of food, water or any other salvageable items.
To some, that was just dirty, filthy New York continuing to be dirty, filthy New York. Hurricane Sandy, which had killed electric power earlier that week, had also turned the gentrified city back to its old, feral self.
But the city had a lot more than that in store for its poorer denizens --the people of the Lower East Side who were sidestepped by the new condos, the new money, the new glitzy downtown. There were volunteers bringing supplies, people who cared.
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Seemingly out of nowhere, a dozen or so people suddenly approached the door of the repurposed green school bus with thinly veiled irritation, and within seconds they demanded to know who’d sent the volunteers and what they’d brought -- and why they hadn’t come earlier.
A woman who identified herself as Awilda and said she was a resident of the public housing tower nearby began rattling off tales of woe about the vulnerable, sick and elderly residents who had been unable to prepare for the storm and were now running desperately low on food.
“These buildings all over here," she said. "We’re dying.”
Standing near the intersection of Columbia and Delancey Streets, Nelson Torres asked if he could take some water and milk for his mother, Alicia, who’d recently suffered a stroke and was trapped without power or water in her eleventh-floor housing project apartment across the street.
An elderly Asian man in a walker who had slowly made his way across the street kept gesturing toward the humanitarian supplies being unloaded from the back of the bus.
“Water … how much?” he repeated in heavily accented English, until a volunteer convinced him, in Cantonese, that he could take a gallon at no cost.
To most Americans, Awilda’s words might sound like they fit better in a dispatch from the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans in 2005 than one from the Lower East Side of New York City in 2012.
The images that came out of New York City after the tempest seem to have been carefully calibrated to shock their audiences, as much as to reinforce pre-conceived notions of those strange denizens who for some reason choose to live in that nearly-European outpost known as Lower Manhattan.
Shock footage of the world’s premier financial center under several feet of water on CNN was alternated with interviews of posh Manhattanites freaking out because they didn’t have a way to charge their iPads.
Photos showing America’s most complex public transportation system brought to a screeching halt were juxtaposed with images of New Yorkers lining up, three blocks deep, to buy hot dogs from the one working vendor in the neighborhood.
A sure-to-be iconic image on the cover of New York Magazine showed an aerial night shot of the city from New York harbor, everything dark from the island’s tip to 39th Street. Everything, that is, but for an oasis of electricity surrounding the Battery Park headquarters of the Goldman Sachs Group. Jokes came easily about how the bank would keep the lights on, and the deliveries of fine sushi going, throughout the zombie apocalypse.
The subtext was, of course, that even in the midst of a catastrophe, New York -- or at least the New York of "Sex and the City," "30 Rock" and "Gossip Girl" fame -- continued to be New York.
But there were other ways, ways very much not televised, in which downtown New York was the same as it always was, even in Sandy’s wake. Just as they had a few days earlier, the most vulnerable in the city -- the poor, the elderly, the sick -- remained the most vulnerable, holding down the same kind of quiet desperation they’ve learned to live with day in and day out. And just as they had a few days earlier, big-hearted do-gooders were there, too, ready to put in their time and effort to help those that needed them.
This is a story of those people.
“I live in this neighborhood. I live in Zone A,” Damaris Reyes told the crowd of about 30 volunteers in front of her, most of whom had arrived just a few minutes earlier and were listening to her instructions on where to go and what to do. She was referring to the evacuation zone, where people were supposed to run somewhere else, but mostly didn't.
Unable to hold back her tears, she concluded her brief address: “It means the world to me that you are here.”
It would only be the first of many tearful speeches Reyes, the executive director of community center GOLES, would make on the afternoon of the Friday after the storm.
In fact, just as she finished talking, a school bus full of volunteers and supplies appeared from the south side of the street and parked in front of the center. Those volunteers, a motley crew that had assembled through a call from St. Jacobi Church in Brooklyn's Sunset Park, would double Reyes’ head count in one fell swoop.
After them, dozens more volunteers came. Then hundreds.
“The situation is really bad,” Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, who represents the district, told me, “but this,” she said using both hands to point at the sudden throng of volunteers, “this is really great.”
Later, over a cigarette break that was constantly interrupted by coordinators asking her for information, volunteers giving her updates, and people coming by for a hug, Reyes confessed to have been absolutely overwhelmed by the response her call for help had garnered.
“Between yesterday night and today in the morning, we figured out we could do this. The idea is concentrating on getting out to those we think are the most needy,” she said.
Reyes had time for just a few questions. “I’ve barely been able to manage,” she confessed before she left.
Reyes wasn’t the only one who was overwhelmed by the enormity of the mission in front of her.
After all the volunteers on the bus from St. Jacobi were able to attend to the group of people who had come up to them on the street, the majority re-assembled inside a community center on the first floor of 81 Columbia Street.
Adeline Camacho, the vice-president of the board at the Masaryk Towers affordable housing co-op, and Paul Newell, a community organizer and local Democratic Party district leader, greeted them with a huge expression of relief on their faces.
According to Camacho, they’d already gotten some assistance from other volunteers through the New York Cares program, who had helped lug food and supplies from FEMA and the municipal Office of Emergency Management centers located about a mile away.
“But until this came in,” Camacho said, pointing to the cargo that the new volunteers had just brought, “we’d run out of water and milk.”
“Today being the third day [without power], people are beginning to panic,” she added.
As the volunteers waited to get a new set of instructions from several of the people at the community center, some who had only hastily met a few minutes before began to more properly introduce themselves.
A few had come from the Bedford-Stuyvesant, Williamsburg and Bushwick sections of Brooklyn, rallied by Twitter messages sent out through the network of activists that formed the core of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the city last year. Some had come from the Upper East Side, having heard about the volunteer opportunity through the email newsletters of various Jewish charities. One man who said he lived a few blocks west, in the tonier area where the Lower East Side meets SoHo, explained that “since I have all I need, and didn’t have to work,” he’d decided to walk around the neighborhood to see where he could make himself useful.
It wasn’t just outsiders who were there to help. As the group was finally given instructions on what they’d be doing -- making care packages and delivering them door-to-door to elderly residents who might not have been able to come down from their apartments for a few days -- Camacho pulled me aside and pointed out the window. A group of men was putting tools to some kind of massive metal structure, yelling at each other in Spanish the whole time.
“That’s the neighbors here, trying to repair the water pump,” Camacho noted. “If only they weren’t so loud.”
A few blocks away from where the coordinators at the Masaryk Towers were prepping the volunteers for several grueling hours of walking up and down a 21-story building, I noticed a group of four teenage girls sporting an array of tattoos and piercings, as well as vintage peacoats that all but screamed “I’m from Brooklyn!”
Two of them were flirtatiously saying goodbye to Chris Barrey, the deputy director of the East Village Access community center.
The girls, who told me they’d walked “from Bed-Stuy” and giggled, had just been in to deliver boxes of supplies to the center, which now had a conference room stuffed to the rafters with food.
But according to Barrey, a few hours earlier, just before they received their first “huge influx” of people, they’d nearly run out of food. Only through the aid of volunteers, who had shuttled to the FEMA center on East 10th Street, had they been able to handle the situation.
Barrey’s description of how the day had been saved -- not just due to government help, but because people had come in unannounced to help deliver just-in-time supplies -- was a common motif expressed by various community organizers. New York was continuing to be New York, with hundreds of people appearing to have suddenly thrust themselves -- with the same dexterity people in rush hour crowds use to avoid bumping into each other at Grand Central -- into solving a logistical challenge for the benefit of the neediest.
The main reason for the outsize role the volunteers were playing, several people interviewed agreed, was that while there were federal and local aid centers dotting the Lower East Side to provide basic necessities, they were few and far between. The lines, on a cold fall day, were long. As a result, the elderly and infirm, who were the most likely to have found themselves unprepared and unable to trek to those centers three days after the storm, were not getting any benefit from them.
Back at the Masaryk Towers, volunteers knocked on every door of every apartment in an attempt to determine if there was anyone inside who needed supplies.
On the eighth floor, I caught up with 85-year old Efraín Nuñez, who bragged that the hurricane had not scared him, noting he had been nearly killed as a child in Puerto Rico by 1932’s Hurricane San Ciprian, as well as in combat during the Korean War.
“The only thing that bothers me is this cold,” Nuñez said, roaming halls that had been without heat for three days.
Approached by a two volunteers, Nuñez at first said he was well-stocked and didn’t need anything. But after hesitating for a few seconds, he asked one of the volunteers what it was they had with them.
The former military man ended up going back to his apartment with two MRE Army rations.
With other residents, the meetings spanned the full range of emotion, from gratitude and overwhelming relief to annoyance or worse. On the nineteenth floor, an elderly woman who did not want to be identified burst into tears when people knocked on her door, saying she was worried because she had run out of water. On the twelfth floor, someone behind a locked door yelled at volunteers not to bother him. On the ninth floor, two volunteers noticed someone had written a message on the window of the hallway.
“I am very sick in Apt. 9E. Please don’t open this window,” the scrawling read. The volunteers, who had already knocked on that door, hurried back to knock again. When no one responded, the two do-gooders looked worriedly at each other.
“I guess we just have to go on,” one of them finally said.
A few hours after I left those two volunteers, I was walking home in Brooklyn, feeling better about the state of humanity and ready to file a story on what I’d just seen.
Traffic on the route was somewhat lighter than usual, a result of the haphazard train service and the fact that few people were commuting into work that day. On the corner of Evergreen Avenue and Jefferson Street, a few blocks from my home, a young man of no more than 20 grabbed me by my left arm and pushed me against a parked sedan. When I turned around with my fists up, he showed me a black 22-caliber automatic pistol and asked me to turn around.
With his weapon against my ribcage, he instructed me to hand over my bag and the money in my wallet. A few minutes after that, he was running to where he came from on Jefferson Street, with a very expensive camera and all the pictures and video I’d taken during the day.
A few blocks away, he’d dump my bag and notebook. I no longer felt so good about the state of humanity. And New York continued being New York.