Monday, November 05, 2012

On the Waters of Oblivion

Just about as far as one can get from the trendy Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Park Slope is Gerritsen Beach, a small neighborhood of cheek-by-jowl houses with small yards and great access to the water. Few have heard of it; fewer are paying attention to it now.

A week ago today, when the storm surge came, the residents were hunkered down like the rest of us whose homes are in Zone B (and so, had not been told to evacuate like Zone A), awaiting the blow. For them, it came (we were spared, in nearby Marine Park). Water rose with startling rapidity, leaving basements submerged, first floors waist deep, and cars pushed hither and yon.

We walked over there yesterday, after depositing the bottled water and batteries we hadn't needed in the storm (along with paper plates, plastic cutlery, can openers, toilet paper and paper towels--all things in desperate need, along with warm clothing) with our neighborhood youth soccer group (AYSO 266--good for you!). If you also want to help, here is a bit of information on how to do so.

After checking on the pet-supply store we use (it is down a few steps from the street, so must have been completely flooded--there was no one there, but people had clearly been cleaning it out, for a few ruined displays and bits of merchandise were stacked on the street--it is called Bargain Bow Wow), we helped sort clothes for an hour or so at a distribution point, then went down to the Resurrection Church to see what we could do there--not much, it turned out, but we will try to help once more. The real need is for power and shelter. Then food and clothing.

It's getting cold. There's no power, as of yet, and not even gasoline for generators. One woman, in tears at the distribution point, was picking up a little food and a couple of sweaters. She told me she was used to giving, not getting.

People's yards were filled with belongings set out to dry, and the sidewalks were high with material that had to be discarded. Cars with windows misted from the moisture still in the seats and carpets and looking like they'd been parked by drunks attested to the power of the water.

If things don't change soon, if real help does not arrive, I don't know what the people will do (here's a link to a Times article on all of the people in all of the neighborhoods in similar circumstances).

As we walked through Gerritsen Beach, lines from Bob Dylan's "Too Much of Nothing" kept coming to my mind:

When there's too much of nothing
It can cause a man to weep
He can walk the streets and boast
Of what he'd like to keep
But it's all been done before
It's all been written in the book
And where there's too much of nothing
Nobody should look.
But we all can help or, at least,  keep attention on the needs of these and all of the other people whose homes are unlivable because of Sandy, not just in Gerritsen Beach, but in the rest of New York City, all along Long Island, on Staten Island particularly and, of course, in New Jersey.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

The New York City Marathon: Why So Many Were Glad to See It Gone

Students in one of my developmental-writing classes last year were in there--or some of them were--because they had failed to write a competent essay based on a reading relating to the New York City Marathon. I was interested, of course, in what had happened, and talked with them about the experience... which led to discussion of attitudes about the marathon.

I quickly discovered that my students--mostly urban youths from poor and/or immigrant backgrounds--knew little about the marathon and cared even less. What has been, for over 40 years, a mainstay of yuppie New York, is meaningless to millions of others in the city.

At most, it is an annoyance, making it more difficult to get around on marathon day.

Their feelings about the marathon, I decided, are quite a bit like those of the people in Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights, and Williamsburg toward the annual Caribbean Day parade on Labor Day. It's something for other people on a day when its better just to stay at home.

Few of my students or their families have the time for a sport like running, a sport that demands long hours and a years-long regimen. A little basketball can be snuck in here and there; the same's not true for an endurance sport like marathoning. Most of my students, and most of their families, see joggers as creatures from an intruding middle class, if they see them at all. The runners that they do know are running for another purpose, as football players or even cricketers. The sport as a sport in and of itself has never caught their imagination, not as a group.

The same is true of the people of the rather working-class neighborhood where I live, Marine Park. It's quite like Breezy Point (most of us in this neighborhood, including me, know people who lost their homes in the massive fire there) or Gerritsen Beach (where many of us, including me, end up with some frequency) or any other of the neighborhoods near the water on the southern edge of Brooklyn, Queens, and even Long Island--areas extremely hard hit by the storm (Marine Park was extremely lucky: we had three days without power on my street--on a few it is still off and on others it was only out for hours, trees are down and a few cars and houses damaged, but the water didn't reach us).

Even at the best of times, the New York Marathon is little more than a blip on the screen here. There are few people to be seen jogging in the neighborhood and fewer still who take the time even to watch the runners. It's not like Cobble Hill, where once I had a store, where runners dodge around pedestrians and dog walkers each morning and evening, a major part of street traffic.

My point is that most of the people who work for New York media, or in New York government, come from a class and from neighborhoods where the marathon (like running for sport) is a big thing. But it is not a big thing everywhere. In fact, to most New Yorkers outside of the southern half of Manhattan and the yuppie areas of Brooklyn, the marathon never has meant much. It gets media attention not because of widespread support but because of support in the very neighborhoods the members of the media live.

The marathon gets widespread support at top levels of city government not because the people love it so, but because it is an international event, drawing spectators as well as runners from around the world. It brings in money.

But that money, too, is narrowly focused--at least as far as most New Yorkers can trace it. It goes to hotels and bars in midtown and on the East Side of Manhattan. It does very little for the rest of us.

So, it was no surprise to me that, this morning, when we were walking our dogs in the park that gives Marine Park its name, we talked to only one person who thought it had been a bad idea to cancel the marathon--and he thought so because there had been no outcry against the Giants game over in New Jersey--hit harder even than Staten Island and South Brooklyn.

But, and I hate to tell you this, Mayor Bloomberg, football is a great deal more important where I live (and to my students) than is your marathon. All of those students of mine could have written passing essays, I am sure, if they had been asked to write about football.

The point? Bloomberg's failure, in first deciding to hold the marathon, lay in an inability to recognize that what may have seemed important to him might not seem so to many others.

Though I haven't much time for Charles Murray or his book Coming Apart, he does make one very important point: the members of the "new" upper class need to get out more, to see how the other 99% live and what their needs and interests are.

Then they won't make such stupid mistakes.

Clean-Up and Responsibility

When I was 16, I had a summer job waiting tables in a fancy hotel. One day, the waiter with the greatest seniority dropped a tray in the middle of the dining room. I ran over and started to help clean up. He stepped over to the manager, who can come into the room, alerted by the smashing crockery, and whispered something.

Of course, I was blamed for the accident, though I didn't discover that until later. And all I had tried to do was help out.

Barack Obama is still being blamed by Republicans for their own mess with the economy in much the same way. Even when this is pointed out, they still blame him--for not cleaning up fast enough.

The same may prove to be true for Sandy. Though it wasn't the Republicans who caused the storm, they (except for Governor Christie) are already casting around for some way to use it against Obama. Over the next few days (until Tuesday night, at the very least), we'll certainly see criticism of Obama for shortages of gasoline, for lack of electricity... for anything else that goes wrong as he tries to lead a response to a situation that is beyond the control of any of us or all of us.