The People in My Neighborhood

Lost and found: family photo that washed up after  the storm
Lost and found: family photo that washed up after the storm

When all is said and done, Hurricane Sandy will have redefined much of the East Coast as well as the experience of coastal living. Just ask the 500 displaced families in my town what “Life’s a Beach” means to them now. Like the amusement rides washing up towns away from their home piers or family photos surfacing in streets, many find themselves in unfamiliar waters.

Before the storm hit, I contemplated a post on the new window my writing schedule opened on my neighborhood — how rising earlier and departing later allowed me glimpses of local life I had not been privy to before. For example, walking my dog at sunrise instead of at 7, I caught a curbside kiss between a single mother and her overnight guest. Her long bathrobe dragged in the damp grass as she ran back inside to wake her two young boys for school.

Had I left for my office at 8 as was my habit, I would not have heard the excited barks of the new puppy across the street as his 20-something master put him through his morning paces. I peered out and watched the older, wiser Husky eye his new roommate with sad blue eyes, still mourning the loss of his partner.

Refilling my coffee mug at home instead of from the office pot, I noticed the zigs and zags of the eccentric accountant on his morning run, his twists and turns a pattern known only to him.

That’s what I planned to write before the hurricane. But the fabric of my neighborhood is different now. Sandy was crafty, stealing the power that made it possible for me to write but providing a wealth of material in its place. 12 days without electricity forced most of us to forge new friendships, although new neighbors with the only generator when the storm hit kept to themselves, then as now.

Distributing meals with local volunteers, I met Fred and June, a couple in their 90s, who live in the white ranch at the far end of the street. No one had heat, but Fred kept the fire going in his living room with the help of John, the retired trooper across the street, who trimmed donated wood down to a size Fred could manage. Fred reheated donated meals on a gas stovetop for June, his agoraphobic wife, who sat at the kitchen table, ethereal as an angel, white hair and skin and nightgown shining in the candlelight. She waved when I said hello.

Juggling the pans of food, Fred wore several layers of clothes, khaki pants tucked into thick white socks, a wool scarf wrapped around his neck. I worried he’d forget to turn off a burner, but Fred was sharp. He wrote my phone number on a piece of paper; he remembered my name and my empty soup container when I came back the next day.

We have some new neighbors, too. On one side of us, the parents of the newlyweds next door have moved in. George woke instinctively at 1:30 am that Tuesday morning in his single story house a town away, he told me on his daughter’s sidewalk. He jumped out of bed, his feet landing in several inches of cold water. He shook his wife awake; they phoned their two daughters and grabbed what they could before the canal waters soaked the lower five feet of their ranch home.

On the other side, a family from up near the beach has moved into our neighbor’s house, a second home that is seldom used. I haven’t yet met the adults, but a daughter said it might be March before they have the money to make the necessary repairs. Their house is like hundreds of others up and down the coast, emptied and ‘demo’d,’ — walls gutted the three or five feet as required — and waiting, just waiting.

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