A year ago I was barricaded in my house, assuring my young sons that we were safe. Bay Ridge, though close to the water, is high, and our home is a sturdy brick that’s been standing for a century. We all slept in bed together and snuggled, so they would know they had nothing to be afraid of.
I watched the news and learned of a young mother in Staten Island who was trying to bring her sons to safety. The ocean came in quicker than anyone had thought. It took her babies out of her arms and swept them away. She was banging on doors and screaming for help, but it was no use. Days later, city workers recovered the bodies of her children down the road.
They were young. Under five, I believe, as my sons were. I can’t even bring myself to Google it because every time I think of it I begin to cry the type of tears that you think will never stop.
It was a few days later when I started doing things. First meeting with Made In NYC to pitch my idea of a website to promote shopping with small businesses during the holidays. Because that was my bag - small business. I know how to do that sort of thing. But I knew it wasn’t enough. I still felt helpless.
I hobbled on my cane a few avenues down to see my city councilman, Vincent Gentile, to see what I could do. I had been hit by a car a few weeks before, and with a broken coccyx and back problems, as well as the pain of coming off a month of bedrest while being plagued with night terrors of a car coming to forever take me away from my children, it probably took me a half an hour to walk the few blocks. I had to pass by the intersection where I had been hit, hunched over my cane, and had a panic attack.
When I arrived, it was bedlam. Volunteers coming in and out, trying to find out what they could do. Supplies going in, cars pulling up, supplies going out. I couldn’t hop in a car to Staten Island when I could barely walk, but I had a lightbulb moment watching the people trying to create order in a bottleneck of charity.
Matt and I have survived countless personal crises: cancer, 9/11, the stock market crash, poverty, PTSD. Surviving, knowing what to do when everything goes wrong - that’s one of my biggest assets. Even if I couldn’t walk too well, I could back up my councilman’s office. My good friend Justin Brannan works there, and one reason our friendship has lasted 20+ years is we’re both gifted with that relentless DIY spirit. We don’t wait for people to give us permission - we just move.
That’s when the relief effort began out of my apartment. I set up my laptop and my iPhone, and got to work. I knew how effective social media could be when times were tough. A year or so earlier, a friends son who has a brain tumor had one of his fundraisers robbed, and we were able to raise enough hell on Twitter to put his face on the five o’clock news on every channel. I plugged myself in and started yelling for help, and it came to my apartment. Volunteers who I’d never met, many of whose names I still don’t know. We collected, organized, distributed. We made 4,000+ sandwiches to be sent out into the dark of Staten Island’s South Shore. I was connected with a woman named Teresa Marie who lived there, who went on to organize Staten Strong, who helped us find out what supplies we needed to get and where they needed to go.
I answered a phone call from a man who owned a trucking company in New Orleans. He remembered what our city did for him when Katrina struck. He loaded up all his trucks with supplies, ones he knew we needed, and instructed all of his drivers to head straight for us. We directed him to Prince’s Bay, where houses and people had simply disappeared.
I received a Facebook message from Wayne Surber of Lonestar Taco, asking where he could go to feed people. I sent him to Gerritsen Beach, a place that was told they would be safe from flooding. Sandy rose the water enough that a wall of it swept over the entire neighborhood. A local dad I met, Sean Perri, went to a hardware store, bought a grill, drove there and started making hot dogs en masse.
I got an email from Yuji Haraguchi of the popular Yuji Ramen. In broken English, he told me that he had not forgotten what New York had done for Japan after the tsunami. I sent him and his ramen, which has been delighting foodies at Smorgasburg and Whole Foods, to a tiny island filled with working class people called Broad Channel. The man I spoke with to find Yuji a location to set up cried as I told him we were sending food. The spot he told me to send him was important, because, he said, there were many seniors who lived there he was afraid would starve as there had been no sign of help.
My Bay Ridge Parents Facebook Group began working with their children to gather used toys. Moms came over to donate their time and offer to drive. We sent half the toys to a destroyed preschool in Staten Island, where all the local children who had lost their things could find some tiny shred of normalcy. The rest went to Pam Harris of Coney Island Generation Gap. She had turned her home years earlier into a community center to keep troubled youth off the streets, and lost the entire first floor when the Atlantic Ocean came in and filled it to but one foot of her ceiling. When the water receded, she threw everything that was destroyed out onto the street, then flung her doors open to the community once again. Not only did we send toys for the kids, but also blankets, winter coats, food, and whatever else would fit in the cars we could wrangle.
This wasn’t the day after the storm. This was several days later. Several days of no FEMA, no Red Cross. Several days of people starving.
As we reached day two of our operation, we were smoothly working in tandem with several different organizations- St. Bernadette’s Church, Occupy Sandy, and City Councilman Vincent Gentile’s office. We turned cars into mobile bodegas filled with clothes, blankets, fresh water, food, medicine, personal hygiene supplies - anything we could fit into a car that would be needed in an emergency. We sent the out to anywhere we knew would have been forgotten, like Brighton Beach and Seagate. I got word from a person who drove to the latter that they had found a retirement home full of seniors who had been sitting for days with no power, freezing cold, eating cold food from cans. Still, they did not want to take the food we had sent, as they at least had been able to eat something. I went on Twitter and immediately found some people who were willing to make them hot trays of baked ziti and drive it down there.
The next Monday came and we returned to our normal lives. Schools opened again, and the government began to respond after almost a week of twiddling their thumbs.
I was still angry, and still heartbroken. It still wasn’t enough.
Once again I called Justin at Gentile’s office, and said “I need you to get me a kitchen.” With no questions, he said “Give me half an hour.” He called me back in ten minutes. Not only had he secured the kitchen at St. Mary’s church, but had gotten a woman by the name of Karen Tadross to help run it. And by “help”, I mean Karen ended up running the show. As much as I wanted to jump in and cook every meal myself, I was still in excruciating pain from my accident. Justin had his hands full at the councilmans office. I worried we’d have enough food to last two days, and that nobody would come to help cook.
Then Karen was able to secure a $5,000 grant, which would keep us going for, oh, I wasn’t sure how far we were going to be able to stretch it, but we’d do what we could. Then more donations came in. The more I began speaking to the press, the more checks and gift cards showed up from all over the country. And then Food52 came through with a $5,000 donation from Whole Foods. I hobbled down to the Bowery store and bought thousands of dollars worth of food, and showed them my newfound ability to design recipes that were nutritious, cheap, and could be made with limited resources and volunteer labor to feed hundreds, if not thousands, of people at a time.
And where I was worried people wouldn’t show, they did. First person was Lawrence Daggett, a Navy man and former cook. Then food writer and Top Chef Masters judge Francis Lam. East Village comfort food svengali Joe Dobias. Food photographers Eric Isaac and Donny Tsang. A displaced chef from the River Cafe. Local caterers. Pastry chef Toni Ann Silvato. Then there were the endless numbers of local volunteers. There were days in that kitchen we were actually turning people away because we had TOO much help. Many of these people became close friends who will be with me for the rest of my life. You may even see one or two of them working for us in the new shop.
Made in NYC was up and running. Kitchen was pumping out 800-1200 meals a day. My Twitter feed was becoming a direct line for news from the ground. We were making the reality of the governments response go viral, we were helping connect people with the places that needed their help the most. Yet I was still crying myself to sleep almost every single night.
Blogs and magazines started calling me a hero. People started giving me awards, which while I am appreciative of, I could not bring myself to accept in person. I know that our efforts wouldn’t have been successful if the New York Times didn’t follow me on Twitter, or if I wasn’t willing to talk to reporters to tell them to get the word out about what we were doing. It was necessary evil that I was extremely uncomfortable with, and eventually became so painful that I began with withdraw completely from my friends and family.
I was not, and am still not, a hero. I am a human being who saw a mother lose her babies, and the pain of that is so unbearable that I would give every bit of myself to bring them back. I would give every bit of myself to make this city safe so no child would be scared of Sandy coming for them, and that they would know that when the worst happens, people will come together like a fortress around them because we take care of our own.
I saw heroes when I turned on the tv and watched the news covering the power outages in Manhattan, and there were throngs of cops and firefighters filling the streets directing traffic, keeping people safe. Then the tv would switch to footage of Breezy point burning to the ground, blocks of houses owned predominantly by city employees, like cops and firefighters.
Heroes are the ones who put others first, even when their whole life is collapsing around them. Heroes are the types who find two lifeless little boys washed up on the road, and find some way to keep going, to keep helping. Heroes are the ones who live with all those things, those monsters and demons, so they can protect the rest of us from them.
Tonight is the Village Halloween Parade, and I was asked to ride on the Grand Marshalls float in my chef whites as a “Hero of Sandy.” I thought about politely declining, but I didn’t think you could do that to such an honor in a polite way. I still don’t feel like a hero. But I will be up there tonight, with my two sons and my best friend who stood next to me in that soup kitchen many a time, and we will be representing the little guy. The people who watched at home who didn’t know what to do, but knew they had to do something. The people who kept the work going and brought Christmas and Easter and birthdays to kids who lost their innocence. The ones who checked in on neighbors, or drove complete strangers to pitch black no-mans lands, or opened their homes to the lost and suffering. The people who still hurt because no matter what we did, it would never feel like enough.
Go say thank you to a real hero today, or call someone and tell them you love them. And God bless every single one of you that stood up for your neighbors when they needed people to lean on. I’m lucky to count myself as one of you, and I am blessed to say that I am a New Yorker.