by Jonah Raskin
These poems were written in the immediate aftermath of Superstorm Sandy that hit the East Coast of the United States last November, bringing disaster in its wake. I offer them here as snapshots of Far Rockaway, its streets, and its citizens, along with memories of the storms of my own childhood, and tales I heard of how New Yorkers survived.
(Swans - April 8, 2013)
Into the vortex again, a flying California pioneer,
soaring into the unknown, traveling west to east,
unraveling the continent I once crossed, and that
my own parents crossed long ago, fugitives from
New York, the city of my birth, hit hard by Sandy,
subways flooded, power down, lights out, but
New York not yet down and out. Flight
tonight in the dark, eager I am to sway to
rhythm of Greenwich Village, the Hudson River,
Union Square, organized urban chaos of
cross-town traffic, farmers' market, unreal Wall Street
money. I hope now to find the key to
unlock the mystery of Manhattan, bridges
boroughs, geology and genealogy, history
made by Indians, Dutch, English with rum,
guns, and the pox. Washington Square and Henry
James, the Renaissance of Harlem. City too big
ornery, rugged, to be owned by anyone, and
certainly not by billionaire banksters. Too much
people pride in a city settled by the whole planet.
Not winter by the calendar but winter in the air, a fine
white powder on the train tracks, sunrise before seven
pink sky for the morning commute, landscape of
oil refineries and canals, two New Yorkers talking
Sandy — the trees that crashed down, the shingles ripped
from the roof, shrugging their broad shoulders that
say "not a biggie, and bring on the next one, we're
brave." Later, on subway, black men, black women
sitting and sleeping, standing and sleeping, sorrowful
faces that say "Don't me around, I'm not this
morning." An old black man flirting with his young
wife — with perfect cornrows, a work of art, untouched
by the storm, a Latino drinking coffee and reading
The Daily News story that says "Zero Gas." I'm
running on empty after dark flight across America,
continent awakening to post-apocalypse subway sunrise.
They stand and they sit in the sun, even if it's
only a thin strip of sun on this sunny, breezy
November noon, the wind and the rain storm
only a memory now, happy to have the sun again,
thankful for the sun. Two stylish women in heels,
hats, and gloves, an East Indian kid ambling and
eating curry with a plastic fork from a plastic
container as though he might be in Calcutta or
Delhi on his way to school, and not adverse to
talking to anyone — like me. Everyone in N.Y. talks
even to strangers 'bout the days without power,
without electricity, 'bout how they didn't go to
work, didn't cook at home, went out to eat,
had mini vacations in the aftermath of the storm
when neighbors were neighborly, shared candles
and wine, found love in the ruins, watched
worldly possessions blown away, floated away,
carried forever out to sea, gone, gone, gone.
I remember the storms of my youth and the
storm seasons that rang like an alarm clock.
Wind, rain, floods, and snow piled high,
kept my brothers and I from school,
on wet days when we paddled in a rowboat
on the once paved road in front of our house
that became a river and then a white winter
yard where we built an igloo from ice, became
Eskimos — the September hurricanes when
oceanic waves pounded the town and revealed
for the first time the pure power of nature
and the puniness of humans, filled me with a
sense of wonder and fear, knowing
a wave could carry me away — remember
the terrible calm before the storms,
that knocked out power and kept us in
darkness that my mother illuminated with candles
she stored away in the kitchen for emergencies.
Now, storms come and go at any time of year —
in spring, summer, winter and autumn,
ignoring the clock, ignoring maps and roads,
following only their own mad scenarios and
making my own childhood memories of floods
and winds seem like innocent fairy tales.
The Strand on Broadway, beloved New York bookstore,
stranded by the storm, Jeremy behind the counter now
and on the job again, selling paperbacks,
bestsellers, postcards of Warhol, Springsteen, Billie
Holliday. A shut-in for nearly a week at home rereading
The Catcher in The Rye that he hadn't read since high
school, watching Singing in the Rain that he hadn't ever
watched before. (The title caught his eye.) The storm
speeding everything up and slowing everything down.
Slowing Jeremy down. Stopping buses, stopping trains
on tracks, stopping construction, stopping time. Now
everything starting again, anew, but not at the same
frantic pace. Slower now, every second counting twice,
everything meaning more than it once meant.
Into the war zone from Manhattan, traffic snarled,
troops wearing the colors of camouflage, an army
of dump trucks prowling streets, New York police
directing drivers around mounds of refuse, gnarled
fences, dead electrical wires down in the street —
suspense hanging over all our heads. At least, the
old sun warms the polyglot neighbors sharing food,
hope, and stories. The disaster brings out the saints,
the criminals, and the city's suits imposing
rules on ornery citizens perched on the edge.
He's repairing his beach house, my friend Paul,
architect, electrician, carpenter, ripping out the
floor he put in, rewiring the house on a block
just two blocks from the ocean where all his
neighbors are ripping out their walls, the
streets piled high with refuse — his house
once a sanctuary where he stored sadness and
joy, the pristine blue Mustang ruined by the flood,
and the salt, and only good now for the junkyard.
But all his best memories, are lodged, he says,
in his head: his wife Karen, their children, the
Sunday afternoons on the beach, the picnics —
baloney on white bread, macaroni salad from the
corner deli that died silently in the storm.
The rose bush blighted in Paul's front yard,
the garden soil sogged with oil and salt from
the sea, a solitary bird singing a song in a
bare tree, air filled with stench of garbage,
a stray cat walking along the top of a sagging
brick wall. In the gutted basement, dry wall
removed, Paul salvages family heirlooms: his
great grandfather's military record in the Spanish
American War and the water-soaked score
for "Melodic Rag" in Eubie Blake's own hand.
I wonder what rag Blake might play for
Far Rock on this wondrous sunny Sunday.
We ambled along the mud-covered streets to
the sea, past the wrecked cars, skirting the
desolate houses. Nearly everything built by
humans broken. Past tattered American
flags fluttering in the breeze, past women
wearing facemasks & on a wall these words
hand written: "we need never be hopeless
because we can never be irreparably broken."
James the contractor from Connecticut
shows up late in the day to work, brings
his own tool box, knows the delicate art of
demolition and so the job goes quickly.
He and Paul detach the washer and the
dryer in the garage, and, while the appliances
both look new to me, they're no good
no more and so with dolly I wheel them
to the curb, line them up side-by-side, chat
with the big bellied black sanitation worker
who stops his truck in the middle of the street,
recounts the tons of trash he's carted to
Riis Park parking lot he swears will be cleared
for cars and ready for swimmers come summer.
Meanwhile three college-age women clean Paul's
yard, prune rose bush, pray it will come back in
spring, rake waste, fill black plastic bags,
then close down the house, lock the doors, drive
back to Manhattan together in the darkness, the
traffic inching ahead. All I can see is blackness
ahead and the red lights — the night making disaster
disappear, until dawn wakes him from a cold wet bed.
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About the Author
Jonah Raskin is a professor emeritus in communication studies at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine, The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age, and For the Hell of It: the Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia. (back)