After The Storm

After The Storm

“No ennui during Henri.” That’s today’s mantra.

Sitting here. Legs stretched across the couch. Ella, Louis, Billie, Duke, Etta, Nat and Frank are on the soundtrack. Apartment cleaned and smudged. Skin soft and glowing from being freshly exfoliated. Lemongrass wafting in the air from the diffuser. Outside, a gray, cloud-filled sky unloads seemingly endless drops of rain — bringing everything and everyone to a calming standstill.

This is serenity and gratitude being experienced in real time in a time of chaos. Something I’ve learned is not a small feat and should not be taken for granted.

I considered this yesterday, while confirming with one of my girlfriends that our Sunday brunch plans were, quite literally, going to be a wash, with the reports of “Henri” being upgraded to hurricane status. It conjured up a memory of the last time I left home during a hurricane — which happened to be notoriously destructive Sandy — during which I reported for work at a private club and hotel that was surprisingly still open and somewhat bustling with members and guests despite warnings and public transit shutdowns across the city. As it became clear Sandy was unrelenting, the members finally retreated to their respective personal spaces, but hotel guests remained. What resulted was an insane succession of hours, in which I’d work a double shift across two departments, partake in an impromptu sing-along of “Hey Jude,” while (appropriately) drinking “dark and stormy” cocktails with staff and guests in a club lit by candlelight as the chef used the fireplace to make cookies in the absence of power, made my way through a pitch-black stairwell using the last of my cell phone battery as light, shared a guest room and bonded with the ladies of housekeeping, had to explain to a guest why she could not plug her iPad into our only generator and later deal with her complaints of our lack of on-site chess boards to entertain her spoiled and rambunctious sons, and spent the next morning and afternoon placing the guests in hotels further north that had vacancies and no power and service disruptions before walking 3 miles to secure a cab back to my Harlem apartment — which had both electricity and no nearby buildings with its façade torn off to the point where it looked like a dollhouse with a heap of bricks in front of it.

Needless to say, when the words “hurricane warning in your area” flash across a screen, my older and wiser self now goes into cocoon mode, and the most adventurous I’m getting is when I’m deciding to use smoked paprika in dinner prep.

But with that experience, as with me documenting my current and very different situation, I was glaringly aware of the privilege it all entails.

Just days after the storm’s end, while volunteering at a housing complex a mere couple of blocks away from my posh workplace, I’d learn the real cost of it from the experiences of people who could not afford to relocate. As we went from door-to-door attempting to do welfare checks and provide much-needed supplies to seniors who had difficulty moving and/or accessing medicine and medical attention, and other tenants reluctant to open their doors for a myriad of (understandable and in some cases justified) reasons, we came away with an all-too-real understanding that not everyone has the option to have options.

I think of that now as I think of the state of the world.

How privileged are we to be comfortable inside our homes, doing whatever it is we feel like doing, while others who are less fortunate struggle to stay dry and survive because they have no home. How fortunate are we to have the choice of working from said homes to avoid contracting a deadly virus as people whose jobs and livelihoods afford us the luxury of having food, medical attention and other services available to us in our time of need. How lucky we are to have free vaccines that keep us from dying from this virus within our reach. How blessed are we that we don’t live in a part of the world where people brandishing weapons are dictating whether women and children can live and learn safely and freely, and impose their religious beliefs on everyone to make decisions that affect who lives and dies.

Oh, wait…

It takes a whole lot of cojones to blame one person for the self-serving and destructive decisions of many. And yet, in true entitled, unaccountable and hypocritical fashion, many Americans have placed their disdain for behaving responsibly during a pandemic and lack of education about a decades-long and un-winnable war that has cost trillions of dollars and countless human collateral squarely on the shoulders of a man who made it his mission and intention of taking on the fool’s errand of cleaning up colossal messes to restore our country to some sense of normalcy. Unsurprisingly, it’s not going well, because we suck, and don’t know how to behave when an adult enters the room after we’ve morphed into a full-on hybrid of “Lord of the Flies” and “Animal Farm.”

As with most storms, this too shall pass. I’m just hoping to see the sun rise someday soon and we all find our rainbow and peace in the process.

Until then…I’m staying mostly indoors, and plan to have protective gear at all times for the foreseeable future when interacting with this crazy world is absolutely necessary.

Good luck out there y’all. And choose wisely. Please.

In The Dark

Night has fallen here in New York.

Normally, it would be a welcome sight. I’d look out the window at the Jersey skyline reflecting on the Hudson River, and find a comfort in the simple beauty of it.

Tonight, it brings me pause and even haunts me.

Seven nights ago, the lights went out in the midst of what would end up being the most devastating natural disaster to hit the city that I can recall as a native New Yorker. Even as it was happening, I was still somewhat sheltered from its impact; the initial terror of moving around in pitch blackness was replaced with sitting in a hotel bar dripping in candlelight, drinking a “dark and stormy”. The serenade of the wind against the windows was briefly usurped by one of the servers crooning “Hey Jude” on the piano as a respite from our guests reality.

By the next afternoon when my journey back home to Harlem began, it was still unknown to me the severity of the damage the city had sustained. We listened to the radio, but couldn’t fathom anything beyond closed airports. Sure, I’d seen a building with no facade just a block from my workplace… and a hanging crane as I made my way midtown. But it wasn’t until the pictures and video footage started surfacing on news channels and websites that Sandy had truly been recognized as a monster.

Despite the images and personal stories inundating the media, it still never hit home to me. Upon returning, my neighborhood was bustling and filled with people going on their way and blissfully resuming their local routines. My relatives in Staten Island were untouched. A friend sent me a video of the damage his friend’s house sustained. On Facebook, friends posted about losing power and finding refuge with other friends and family. Others lost their cars. One former colleague actually did suffer major damage to her home of only two weeks. While bothered by their misfortune, I was mostly distracted by sickness and the unexpected restlessness that overcame me in place of sleep. Donating money to the Red Cross was a quick and easy way to alleviate the guilt I felt for spending my days in the comfort of my own home medicating my troubles away and having the audacity to be stressed.

It wasn’t until I finally left my neighborhood this weekend that it hit me. Strolling the Upper West Side, I came across children having bake sales to raise money for Sandy relief and countless food and supply drives around restaurants and churches.

Today, I spent the day in Chelsea at the Fulton Houses going door-to-door asking residents if they needed blankets and supplies, making sure the elderly and disabled had their medical needs in order, and informing everyone about the warming center being provided by the New York State Housing Authority.

And this is when it truly became real…

When you encounter something akin to a post-apocalyptic scenario — where people are lined up for basic necessities such as food and water — it wakes you up. That it is happening mere doors away from high-end real estate and eateries is all the more sobering.

I take for granted that I grew up in a house in the suburbs of Queens and had my own room. That I’ve had my own apartments and lived for the most part in buildings that have had very little problems with heat and hot water. During the brief time that I lived with several family members, I was a toddler in Georgia and too young to understand any other way. While life has dealt me its share of hardscrabble situations, for the most part it has been charmed in comparison to what I encountered today.

Steps away from some of the poshest addresses in Manhattan, there are people who live about eight to ten deep in buildings with staircases that smell of urine. They reluctantly open doors and look at you skeptically because they don’t want you to know how many people live there. It’s only because you have a kind face and look somewhat like them that they eventually trust that you are genuinely there to help them, but still give you a ballpark figure of how many blankets they need. They refuse the offer for a warming center, but one particularly desperate looking man with two sick children and family uptown starts to reconsider his options after you and your fellow volunteers insist that he does what’s best for the kids. Those that speak very little English need younger relatives to translate that the power they’ve only had for two days is going to be cut off at night to preserve energy, and they should expect it to be fully restored in a week.

It isn’t until you are right there… in that moment… that you can truly see what a person is going through. All the empathy in the world doesn’t make you an expert on what anyone is experiencing until you really see life through their eyes and hear it from their mouths. Everything else is bullshit that allows you to be self-righteous and judgmental… much like political talking heads. We can watch people stand in rubble that used to be their homes, but unless we’re standing there with them, we can’t possibly say “I know what it’s like”.

Looking out my window, a swath of Jersey has vanished from the picturesque skyline. The sight and sounds of military helicopters has become disturbingly normal. Once again, New Yorkers find themselves adapting to a new reality that is both unpalatable and yet necessary for the greater good — like drinking cod liver oil straight.

In this, our darkest hour, one can only hope and pray that as we embark on what has chillingly become a close election, the people will ultimately choose the best man who will lead us all toward the light…

 

Stormy Weathered

“In Hartford, Hereford and Hampshire… hurricanes hardly happen!” – Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Dolittle in “My Fair Lady”

Yesterday at work, I found myself wishing I was in one of those places… but instead I was catering to the needs and calming the nerves of displaced hotel guests who were either stranded by a cancelled flight, evacuated from their homes or having their luxury experience interrupted by mother nature’s wrath in the form of Sandy.

It all began innocently enough. Throughout most of the day it was just windy with a little rain. Locals spent the day typing productively away on their laptops, playing board and card games, and indulging in a cocktail or four. As the day progressed, the energy took a very different direction. The jovial, yet cautious vibe soon became more frustrated and frightened.

This is of course when things truly got interesting…

All the disaster movies and TV dramas in the world don’t prepare you for the range of emotions you go through when you’re in a situation where you are completely powerless. When you have to turn away frantic people who need a place for the night because they can’t stay in their own homes because you have no room. When you are expected to remain calm and overall pleasant when a demanding mother makes numerous outrageous requests. When you find yourself sleeping in a room full of strangers, and someone who shared theirs with one they know asks for their room to be cleaned. When you must find a way to keep children entertained and calm and unaware of the destruction and chaos occurring outside. When you find yourself walking through a hallway and staircase that’s pitch black and using the last of your battery life to illuminate your path. When you must endure an increasingly unpleasant odor that you can still detect in spite of blowing your nose until the skin is raw. When you watch someone attempt to plug an iPad into a generator, as a number of people just want to charge their phones enough to make or take a phone call once service resumes… It makes you wonder.

There came a point in the night — amongst the emergency generated light and candles — when an impromptu piano performance by one of the servers made me unexpectedly weepy. (It could have also been the two and a half hours of sleep I’d gotten prior to working twelve hours with almost no break.)

In any event, I began thinking of the reality of the moment more than the severity; I’d once again found myself working in an industry where myself and my colleagues forgo normal existences where we could be passing those stressful hours in the company of loved ones, to essentially babysit the privileged. Hearing one housekeeper use her colleague’s phone to assure her family in Mandarin that she was fine, and another get an early morning call from her relatives updating her on the news she couldn’t access while the power was out (I need their service carriers) — it was all too clear what sacrifices were made for the needs to support their families. That there were people who took that for granted with absurd requests made me march to the bar, request a “Dark and Stormy”, and retire straight to bed.

It is in moments like those you realize just how fleeting life is. How lonely you are. How important it is to have people who appreciate and enrich you instead of use and take advantage of you.

If you’re anything like me (God help you), you find yourself wishing for someone to weather the storm with. A plus one for all occasions. Someone willing to fight for you like they would their own spawn when you can’t stand up for yourself.

…You also find yourself thinking you’re in a scene out of “Titanic”, which may have precipitated your hasty exit more than the drink and disgust fueled by anxiety and exhaustion.

In a matter of hours… trees and buildings fell, homes and possessions were submerged under water, and people sat in darkness literally and figuratively waiting to learn their fates.

As the daylight began to clear the dark skies and thoughts, I found myself aching to make a call I couldn’t. In the midst of attempting to place guests in other hotels that had power and hot water, my desire to go to my own home grew stronger. When the clouds finally provided an opportunity, I made my escape with pained eyelids, an unforgiving sinus headache, and overworked legs to begin a very long walk home to rest, recover — and start over.

Of course, in that moment of clarity, it struck me around mile three of the six required of my journey, that my African/Native/Scottish migrant lineage was too far removed for me to complete that walk with two bags on my shoulders… and immediately hailed a cab. On my way home, I chatted with the driver — who assured me he was going to be home by nightfall, and made sure to tip him extra.

We don’t all have the power to save trees, buildings or lives — nor can we make people behave in such a way that there’s never disparity toward their fellow human being. But we can control what we build or break with our own words and actions. While observing the hotel manager calmly diffuse an irate guest, that gem of a life lesson was my final takeaway after a very introspective experience.

Some people just get cabin fever. I get philosophical and a fever.

Would rather have Nyquil or Mucinex.