As the gas shortage increasingly takes hold, it is getting harder and harder to get out to storm-devastated Far Rockaway.
Occupy Sandy, the sophisticated aid operation that has sprung out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, organises ride shares from numerous points around the city. I'd wandered to the nearest one, which was, naturally enough, an experimental performance art collective and circus school (it is Williamsburg after all). But the clichés didn't end there. What should roll up to transport a gang of us out to Queens, but a giant, psychedelic, tricked out bus, complete with disco balls and laser lights and lots of faux fur?
It transpired that many of the staff of aforementioned experimental performance art collective were aboard the bus, who bore the oft repeated moniker, "Harvey the Love Muscle". It also transpired that they could sling sewage infested mud as quickly as the next guy.
These guys were serious, and self organised. Once we got there they handed out masks, work gloves and tools. We met up with some other volunteers, who said there was enormous need nearly everywhere you looked, but that we might as well start on 29th Street. The first resident we approached eagerly accepted our help, and the team set about forming a human chain to lug his belongings out to the towering piles of trash now teetering on the pavement.
I probably should've twigged earlier. Maybe after the third soggy microwave, or the fifth stripped down bike, the fourth air conditioner or the boxes and boxes of brand new, sewage-slurry-caked dinner sets, small appliances and rice makers. I idly wondered on one muddy trip to the kerb if the gentleman had recently married. I figured the thousands of dollars of stereo equipment related to his job, possibly as a DJ. And a cycle courier for the Home Shopping Network. It wasn't until about an hour and a half through the seemingly endless job of emptying the flooded basement that a comrade leaned over and filled me in. We, 20 assorted middle class hippies and hipsters from the trendiest parts of Brooklyn, were aiding and abetting a fence, a pretty serious black-marketeer, probably in the process of some significant insurance fraud.
I was torn about whether to feel taken for a ride. On one hand, nigh on 20 of us eventually spent about three hours emptying his flooded basement. Several of the team spent the majority of that time in a darkened, cold, sewage-contaminated cave. Surely an elderly widow, or a young family, or someone living within the confines of the law deserved the combined help of so many, fit, able, shit-soaked bodies?
On the other hand, even crims have to earn a buck, and it wasn't like we could put it all back in. After conspicuously little discussion about that job well done, we moved down the street to, lo and behold, an elderly widow, clearly still in shock. It was a lot more Donna Reed Show
than the last effort, with the woman somehow appearing with 20 cups of old school hot chocolate, in a hostile environment that had no water, no electricity and no gas.
We emptied three basements that day, tore out sheet rock and ripped up slimy carpet. More than one week after the storm there is still no power in the Rockaways. The temperature here is plunging and another storm is approaching. Many areas have still yet to receive official assistance, including multiple blocks of elderly and disabled people who are effectively trapped in their buildings.
As we trudged wearily back to Harvey the Love Muscle, towing a little red wagon of supplies and shovels, a young tough standing with a group of mates started yelling at us. I immediately thought the worst, figured the bubbling anger at being abandoned to such a grim situation was rearing its ugly head. It took me a minute to realise he was saying, "thank you, God bless you".
*Keiller Macduff works in New York as a media advisor to Greenpeace US