I remember a sign I saw outside of a dive bar one of the first few days after the storm. “BRUISED, BUT NOT BROKEN,” it read. Ironic that a dive bar was preaching recovery, but that’s exactly what we were going through. It’s why I was back in Long Beach.
By then, the garbage piles had turned two lanes into one and one-way streets into roadblocks. The mattresses were piled up next to couches, bookcases and even a crib. They sat on still-sandy streets, blocks away from a beach that was suddenly dumped in front yards and strewn throughout homes from Atlantic Beach to the East End.
As I drove from Long Beach Road to a half-empty, still-soaked home on Arizona Avenue, I saw house after house dumped on the sidewalk. To a lot of people, they may just be furniture waiting for collection, but to those that have had to physically carry their memories and treasures into the street, they’re much more than wood, plastic and metal.
The hardest part for me wasn’t carrying out the futon where countless friends have slept, passed out or hooked up. Nor was it cleaning out the garage that hosted beer pong, flip cup and far too many late-night sing-a-longs. It was the little things that I hadn’t used or thought about in ages that hurt the most. Like throwing out the pee-wee hockey trophy that ended up left on the floor of my bedroom or finding my childhood tricycle in the foul-smelling crawl space that was flooded from top to bottom for days after the flood waters subsided. The hardest part – the thing that finally broke me after 10 days of dealing with a broken town and a half-broken house – was finding the only picture I had of me and my grandma was nothing more than a twisted, water-soaked remnant.
I didn’t know how to come back from that and I thought back to driving to the house and seeing those piles and wondering how many last memories or forgotten trophies were in those piles. I realized that some of Long Beach will never come back. Some were washed away with Sandy’s waters and it’s hard to blame them. The bungalows and street-level houses were covered from floor to roof and insurance can only cover so much financially, but how do you rebuild a life that was 10, 20, 30 or even 40 years in the making?
The town-wide sadness weighed me down and the emotions of losing the last physical memory of my grandma pulled at me from the inside out. I lost it. I kicked a nearby trash can and screamed “God damnit!” at the top of my lungs. After two days of carrying furniture and pulling up carpet, I was completely exhausted. But there was more to do and so we pressed on. We pulled up more carpet and I somehow managed to fit my 6-foot-6-inch body into a crawl space that even an average-sized 5-year old would have difficulty maneuvering in.
After all the lugging and pulling was done, our pile stretched from the curb to the garage door and from our house all the way to end of the neighbor’s. My dad made a comment about never knowing how much stuff you have. I chuckled and tried to look on the bright side as some good Samaritans drove by offering fruit and coffee and bottled water. There’d been a lot of those cars the past few days, I thought. They were just your average residents of surrounding towns doing what they could to help those stuck waterless and foodless, emptying out their homes. They had sandwiches and bagels and batteries. I didn’t know if the National Guard gave it to them or if they bought it themselves, but every time one of them stopped to yell and ask if we needed anything, it was a reminder that even though people would flee and homes would change, Long Beach would still be there.
I guess that’s what stuck with me more than anything since Sandy. I remembered the neighbor who spent the night at his sister’s house researching how to get our electric garage door open. And the people up and down the block who stopped to see how we were doing; people I hadn’t seen in years who spoke to me like I’d been their day-in, day-out neighbor for the last 15 years.
Before we drove away, I remembered the sign. “BRUISED, BUT NOT BROKEN.”
We’ll be back. If I know anything, I know that.