Just after 7 a.m. on Thanksgiving eve, 24 Bridgehampton students and seven staff and faculty members — a team 31 strong — boarded a McCoy bus bound for a hurricane-ravaged hamlet of East Rockaway known as Bay Park, about 80 miles west, as the bee flies. Though it was the first day of the long holiday weekend and classes were not in session, another kind of school was starting even earlier than usual.
When I arrived at 6:50, balancing my camera and laptop bags, the heavy accoutrements of an official trip documenter/English teacher, I was chagrined to find a hive of helpers already loading the back rows of the bus with clothing, food, toiletries, tools, cleaning supplies, and blankets donated by parents and staff. I managed to whisk a share of the remaining donations onto the bus before David Holmes, the school librarian and chief trip organizer, called roll: Tyler Stephens, Anajae Lamb, Jada Pinckney, Adit Nugraha, Jacob Hostetter, Josh Hostetter, Lizzy Hochstedler, Jennah Hochstedler, Christian Figueroa, Claudio Figueroa, Bryzeida Perez, Tatyana Dawson, Michael Smith, Tylik Furman, India Hemby, Josh Lamison, Isaiah Aqui, Jason Hopson, Aries Cooks, Jerome Walker, Dylan Breault, Devin Brevard, Erick Saldivar, Jhon Matute.
“Some of what you’re going to see today may be hard to take,” David warned. We were “headed to germ city” and would need to wear gloves and masks, generous supplies of which had been donated by Thayer’s Hardware.
Surveying the unfocused gazes of students, I knew these words were falling on ears more sleep-deprived than my own; they were going to need re-reminding of said gloves and masks. A number of those groggy heads craned up momentarily, however, when teacher Judiann Carmack-Fayyaz mounted the stairs with egg-and-cheese sandwiches donated by Cromer’s Market. Warm food, as anyone knows, is the surest way of reviving teenage consciousness.
As the bus swung onto Main Street, students hunkered down for the two-hour drive, talking and laughing loudly about Instagrams and Facebook posts, zoning up with smart phones and headphones, or, despite competing dins, falling into instant deep sleeps. Rarely can I catch even a wink on public transportation, and I regarded these slumbering youths with envy. For a moment. What sleep is to the young, work is to the old...er, and I had an article to write.
In my cramped half-seat, I twisted into the aisle to boot up my laptop, adjust the settings on my Canon, uncase my HD Flip video camera, and, with all balanced precariously on my lap, answer accumulated texts on my suddenly no-longer-cutting-edge iPhone 4S. Several months ago the essence of desirable sleek, it now looked short and chubby.
“Do you own every gadget in the known universe?” Aleaze Hodgens, the speech-language pathologist, asked amiably.
“I don’t have a tablet,” I answered. “I’m waiting for them to truly merge with laptops.” I nixed adding that the truly upgraded would never abide separate camera and video devices in favor of asking why she’d come: She’d been moved recently by the story of a couple who’d lost everything and, learning of the school trip, had been eager to step up.
I coaxed some words from the other adults. Carl Johnson, the varsity basketball coach and teacher’s aide, had required the team to come, and just 1 in 10 wasn’t present due to a family conflict. “They need to see what’s going on. A boost of reality. Let them know how fortunate they are.”
Carl had helped pick the venue. Looking for a small school like Bridgehampton, he’d thought of East Rockaway, another Class D school the Killer Bees basketball team had played against. Judiann, it turned out, had relatives there, Linda and George D’Agostino. And so a relief effort was born.
Dom Grieco, a retired teacher and a frequent sub at Bridgehampton, and Cheryl Nordt, a teacher’s aide, had likewise felt the call. “We all wish we could do more,” Cheryl said, “but one thing we can give is our time.” “I’m here to help my fellow Long Islanders,” the principal’s secretary, Christine Harrison, cheered. “It’s all about giving and ’tis the season.” David called the trip “an expression of gratitude for all we ourselves have.”
I regrouped before attempting to rouse responses from students, mentally formalizing the day’s objectives: Students will be able to 1) give sorely needed relief and clean-up muscle to our less fortunate neighbors, and 2) engage in an important community service experience.
They seemed to get it. Lizzy, a freshman, said, “A lot of people are hurt, and we need to help them. We have it a lot better, so we can help them.” India, a junior, was on her second Sandy relief effort: two weeks prior, she’d delivered food on Coney Island. Farther down the rows, those who didn’t wave my Flip away said, “We’re here to help people, help people.” Jason, the Bees’ star shooting guard, beckoned me, then drew back coyly, “No wait, I’m scared, I’m scared,” nearby students cheering and laughing.
“Why did you come?” I asked again, though I knew the primary answer was he had to.
“Because — because I love East Rockaway!”
He seemed sincere, but when I asked him why, he abandoned his answer for other pursuits.
Erick, the student government president — “President of the United States!” Jason yelled — took it up between “Word!” outbursts of his surrounding nation: “We’re going to East Rockaway because — these people — their houses, their neighborhoods, everything out there got destroyed, so we’re going over there to help, and we got all this stuff to give them. We’re lucky — .” I heard “lucky” again and “This is for them,” more “Word!” bursts, and, as they all seemed to be passing the pretest, I returned to my story.
Surprisingly soon, and after fewer than anticipated “Are we there yets?” we met Linda and George in the vacant East Rockaway High School parking lot to get our directions, though not before they thanked us profusely. “From the bottom of our hearts,” George kept saying. “From the bottom of our hearts.”
“Oh, not from the bottom already,” I said. “Let us do something first.”
They didn’t laugh, and I dropped the humor. This earnest and visibly shaken middle-aged couple wanted to make the most of our time, so we got right to it. The team would split up among four venues: three private homes and the Bay Park Civic Center, all near or on Grand Canal — which connected to Reynolds Channel, which merged with Jones Inlet, the canal many residents had cherished and lived along their entire lives, and that had ruthlessly risen at the height of the storm, filling up basements, surging four, five feet up the walls of the first floors of houses, washing away cars and docks and decks, and smashing unmoored boats against street poles and buildings.
Power had been wiped out virtually everywhere, and many of the homes were still without electric three weeks later.
As we neared our posts, the destruction became more obvious, then stark. The mud lines on the houses, the piles of water-ruined appliances and broken wood and beached flotsam along the streets. It didn’t matter what we did or where we worked. There was enough for dozens of teams like ours to do for many months. It was just a matter of getting started somewhere with something.
So the 32 of us, now including Curtis, the bus driver, masked up and, for four hours, used hammers, gloved hands, and even the toes and heels of our shoes to remove moldy Sheetrock from the lower portions of walls.
At the D’Agostino home, much of the flooring and some of the Sheetrock had already been stripped, exposing its skeletal frame, and students who weren’t knocking out the walls of the boiler room raked up accumulated detritus from the dirt below the floor beams.
Clearly, it would be many months before the D’Agostinos would be able to live in their house again. Only three of eight families on the block had come back so far to begin recovery; most were so overwhelmed they’d found refuge with their families or in rented apartments with money FEMA provides for temporary housing. “People have come in with food and water and necessities,” Linda said, “but what we really need is help fixing our houses. And you’re the first to offer us that.”
At the home of Vinny Esposito, we maneuvered panel after panel of 8-by-4-foot Sheetrock into a once finished, now gutted basement. At the third home, we hauled a dead refrigerator to the curb, swept the floors of wood and crumbled drywall, and emptied a garage of everything but an assortment of salvageable tools.
But the Bees swarmed in greatest numbers on the Civic Center, which had not been opened since the storm, as the few Bay Parkers who’d returned were concentrating on their own homes. The center, Linda said, was a place the residents took great pride in, “the heart and soul of the community,” where they gathered for summer lunches and holiday parties. Amid the debris carted away were ruined Christmas decorations and plastic Easter eggs.
The center’s stairs and wooden entrance ramp had been shorn off and deposited in a twisted heap to the far left of the property. Students spent hours breaking it into draggable pieces, while others emptied the office and rooms of appliances and file cabinets, their paper contents, including photographs, rendered to pulp. And all this to the steady banging of walls, the tearing and crumbling of Sheetrock, the continuous sweeping, and the lugging of laden Hefty bags to the street.
By departure time, the team, buzzing markedly slower, broke down our lunch and supply tables, then made for the bus, followed by Linda and George, who were amazed at how much we’d been able to accomplish. We were, too, though we marveled more at the amount of work that lay before them.
“You don’t realize how important this is,” Linda said. “You got it started for us. It will make our residents aware that, yes, we do still have a Civic Center to care for. When they read about it in The Bay Parker, and see the pictures, it will remind them — it will encourage them. They’ll come back.” She and George were both tearing up, but Linda collected herself and said simply, “Bay Park will come back.”
“Yeah! Totally!” students said, gimping up the stairs and collapsing into seats with collective sighs. Soon every other passenger had dozed off, David with his head upon a paper-towel-roll pillow, while Aleaze doled out welcome Aleve to conscious, groaning adults.
“Words cannot express our heartfelt gratitude. . . .” a text from Linda began. Even after we had done something, their gratitude struck me as incommensurately deep. I hadn’t for a moment felt bored or put upon and was returning with a pirate’s booty of deepened rapport and new alliances.
“It was truly our pleasure to help,” I responded. “We wish we could have done more.”
And though I felt I shouldn’t speak for everyone, that was the general sentiment. Students were ultimately glad they’d resisted the urge to sleep in on their day off. “It felt good to help other people,” Jhon said. “The reason I went was I wanted to be a part of something bigger than me,” Dylan said. “I’m thankful my house and belongings were spared,” Jerome said. “It was different to see a house without walls or floors,” Michael said. “I’d like help if my house was destroyed.” Tylik said, “If a random school helped me out, I’d have appreciated it.”
After dropping the unneeded clothes into charity bins in the Commons, we were at last back at school, with daylight quickly fading. David sprang up again, organizing the unpacking of leftover supplies, and the hive broke apart, going its separate holiday ways. Even so, I was able to dog down a few lingerers for parting words. Jason was my Flip’s final victim. How did he feel about this trip to East Rockaway? I assumed he would say something I’d have to delete, but he surprised me, as teenagers can.
“It was a great experience,” he said with a rare straight face.
“Yeah. I got to see the houses were terrible and messed up. It made me appreciate more things in Bridgehampton.”
“Nice,” I said. “And you helped out, didn’t you?”
“I did,” he said, sincerely proud. “I carried some Sheetrock. . . .” Then his face twisted partly back into irony, and he added some spot-on, best-left-unprinted commentary.
“You’ve increased your karmic store,” I safely interpreted.
“Yeah. Sure, homey. That.” And in parting goodwill, he gave me that sideways two-finger sign I find in every other pic of him. “Peace out, House.”
Tom House teaches middle and high school English at the Bridgehampton School. His stories have appeared in a number of publications over the years, including the Antioch Review and Harper’s magazine.