I lived in Hoboken, NJ, for 15 years during my late ’20s and 30s. It’s a mile-square city, a so-called bedroom community to Manhattan, and the birthplace of Frank Sinatra. It was also one of the most close-knit communities I’ve ever called home, full of people who still occupy a special place in my heart.
The last time I visited Hoboken was October 2001, when I returned to empty the apartment that I’d been subletting and pull up my roots for good. I’d been away for two years, and out of the country during the attacks on the World Trade Center. As I walked around Hoboken that week, I saw dozens and dozens of “Have you seen…?” fliers with desperate, handwritten appeals and the haunting faces of those who were likely buried in the rubble of the Twin Towers. The city felt bruised, sad…and surreal.
On October 30, 2012, my heart went out to Hoboken again as I saw arresting images of flooded streets, destroyed property and stranded residents in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy. When I heard Mayor Dawn Zimmer crying out for help on CNN, I started to follow the situation on TV and Facebook.
What I saw next was a different kind of surge, as the beleaguered people of this small city began sharing their precious power and resources, opening their homes to moms with kids for extended play dates and movies with snacks. People in neighboring Weehawken offered their showers, couches, spare bedrooms, kitchens and vacant apartments to complete strangers who were suddenly homeless.
The Hoboken Facebook page became a place where people posted all kinds of urgent appeals and generous offers. Kids and adults came out to clean up homes, parks, streets and businesses. There were block parties with free food and activities for kids who couldn’t go to school. People were dropping in on isolated senior citizens while making trips to donate furniture, diapers and flashlights.
And help arrived from beyond the Garden State, too, as revealed in a post that said, “Super amazing. Heritage Academy from Monterey, TN, sent up a bus of 59 students and teachers to assist in our efforts at the High School. They were a huuuge help! Thank you!”
Across the river, New York City was grappling with its own devastation and loss. Again. Just as they did on 9/11, so many resilient New Yorkers rebounded as quickly as they could and rose to the occasion. “When something like this happens, it’s as if you’re suddenly in a small town,” said a friend of mine in upper Manhattan. “A lot of people here are housing friends and relatives and colleagues who lost their homes. There was so much worse destruction in some places that my friends downtown say they felt lucky that they only lost power. One of them joked, ‘It’s like I’m camping, except there are no trees.’”
Making the best of tragedy is what a lot of Americans are really good at. And compassion often comes biggest from the smallest of us. In Bullitt County, Kentucky, three hundred elementary school kids mailed their Halloween candy to the children of Hoboken last week. Their teacher reported that many of these children, who themselves receive public assistance, donated all of the candy they had. “One student told me that he’d only donated ‘the good stuff,’” she added.
That candy was distributed at yesterday’s Ragamuffin Parade, Hoboken’s annual Halloween event for kids and kids-at-heart that was delayed, but not destroyed, by Sandy.
Two weeks after this massive storm, too many people in New York and New Jersey are still without power. Thousands have lost everything they owned, and more than a hundred people lost their lives. I have officially closed down my personal complaint department for 2012, as I’m reminded every day to feel grateful my home, heat, electricity, running water and abundant food and clothing. For those of us who were unscathed by Sandy, Thanksgiving is a month-long celebration this year, and a chance to remember and help those who were not so lucky.