Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Thousand Different Doors

 Fancy golden door-knockers, or plain steel with a peephole? Windows in the door, or a solid portal? If there are windows, where shall they be? What sort of mailbox—plain brass or artsy iron designed to look like a backpack? Where did they put the house number? Were the steps recently redone—are they marble, slate, concrete or wood?

Canvassing makes you a connoisseur of the weirdest details.

The routine is almost always the same. Step up to the door and knock. Have you registered with FEMA? Have you heard from an inspector? No, I’m not an inspector—my partner and I aren’t trained for that. Do you have insurance, home and flood? Have you received a Small Business Administration packet in the mail, and have you filled it out? If not, here’s why you should. Do you have any other questions for us while we’re here?

Goodbyes. Leave a flier. Repeat.

We have all kinds of fliers. Blue “Disaster Assistance” fliers with French on the back, “Aide Aux Sinistres”, half-a-dozen colors of Spanish, what must have been five hundred Tagalog “Tulong Sa Kalamidad” fliers, even Hebrew fliers for a majority-Jewish neighborhood. We have special white fliers for the Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power (STEP) program, English on the front and Spanish on the back, neighborhood-specific sheets of emergency numbers. I haven’t had cause to hand those out yet. I’ve handed out a few STEP fliers—a new program that’s supposed to help people who are still without power get back up—since we got them earlier this week. A lot of people are still without power, even at this late date.

You want to hear an interesting story? After the Second World War, millions of soldiers and sailors came home after years overseas, looking to settle down, get married and start a family. In response to their need for housing, Levittown and its fellow towns were born, low-cost, mass-produced houses in America’s first planned suburbs. I read about those in American Society class, my freshman year of high school. The GIs moved in and settled down in Levittown, which happened to be in Nassau County, Long Island, New York—my future stomping grounds.

Fast-forward sixty-five years. Sandy hits. And these Levittown homes have their own unique issues, because they’re still heated by oil, which is kept in a tank attached to the sides of the Levittown homes. The hurricane happens, tanks get punctured, oil flows down into the streets, lawns turn brown and the gutters glisten with rainbow scum. How can you foresee that kind of issue? You can’t. You just have to handle it somehow. That’s part of what disasters are about: helping with the crazy issues that nobody saw coming.

Part of it is the heart-wrenching impersonality of the whole awful edifice, the minute variations in wind or topography or a different power grid that devastated some neighborhoods and left others untouched. I’ve heard people tell me how the water was lapping at their third front step, their fourth step, inches below their door, actually slightly inside the first floor… and came no further. And I’ve seen bags and bags of what we call ‘debris’ outside homes—antique bookcases, washing machines, nice leather couches, rugs, chairs, gewgaws, playthings, dog dishes and ornaments and piles of pink insulation—and been told that this is the sixth such load put out on the curb to be hauled away by great green garbage trucks. People sitting in houses, basements full of mold, waiting for the lights to come back on.

Kalamidad. Sinistres. Ouragan. Calamity. Hurricane. Disaster.

None of those seem to be enough.

Step up to the door and knock. Listen to their stories—amazing, horrible, perseverant, despairing. Ask your questions, get your answers. Listen to the sadness, the frustrations, the hope. Watch them rebuild before your eyes, ripping out diseased Sheetrock, laying timbers and joists and pillars bare, prying up warped floorboards with long iron crowbars. Answer the questions you can, give out phone numbers and addresses for those you can’t, ask for critical needs and call them in as necessary. Receive praise or condemnation as the situation warrants. Make your goodbyes and walk to the next house. Step up to the door—brown oak, broken doorbell, silver mezuzah, speckled band of floodline—and knock. Step up to the door and knock.

Nobody’s home. Leave a flier, Tulong sa Kalamidad, in the door. Walk to the next house with its potted plants still on the porch, Halloween decorations in the windows, scraps of knickknacks littering the lawn where the pile of memories lay. Step up to the door and knock.

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