“The Beautiful People"

Memoir by Melissa Berman

I propped myself with the pillows from both beds in my neighbor’s guest room, my thumbs blazing across the phone as text after text came flying in. I was messaging frantically with the woman in Amagansett who told me they were going. 

“Were you able to reach them? It’s very dangerous. The snow started, there’s no power and no help if they get stuck,” I tapped out the message like an S.O.S. I didn’t check any of the other 20 texts. I just held the phone tightly waiting for a reply.

“I told them. They went anyway.”

Shit. This was not good.

“They have 100 gallons of hot soup. The car is packed.” 

“Did they bring gas? There’s no gas.” 

“I don’t know.”

Shit. 

“There’s no cell reception either.”

“I know.”

With nothing more to say or do, I moved on. “OK. Let me know if you hear from them.”

I opened the bottom of the list of texts I had missed.

“The wind is howling. I made a hammock 10 feet up in case we get flooded.” 

It was the guy from East Hampton who went to the Rockaways the first night after Sandy. He’d been volunteering round the clock ever since. I could tell he was scared. 

“You’ll be fine.”

“We just sent an old guy off in the ambulance. Lucky to get him out — roads are bad.”

“Good work. Text me anytime.”

“Gotta go — they need me.”

It was about four hours and 32 messages later when he texted again. 

“They just got here with a shitload of soup. Crazy mofos.”

I quickly messaged my friend in Amagansett. “They made it!”

Then I shut my phone off and went upstairs to look at the news. It was less than a week since the storm of the century, Hurricane Sandy, made landfall, leaving the East End largely unscathed in comparison to many towns across Long Island and New York City with scenes of utter devastation. I was camped at my neighbor’s house — he had a generator. 

Like many before me, I started my love affair with the Hamptons on the beach, Montauk to be specific. Toes in the sand, sun on my face, and breeze in my hair, I couldn’t get enough of the sea that beckoned surfers and fisherman, the light that lured painters and photographers, the birds and trees, flowers and wildlife that filled the camera lenses and heartstrings of countless visitors, the sunsets that still take my breath away after 20-plus years. After a few extended summers, I had decided to move east.  Dreary, bleak winters and all, I loved it. 

“Yes February and March can be a bit like ‘The Shining’, but it’s a good time for black and white photos,” I would tell my city friends, most of whom were envious of me in summer and thought I was batshit crazy in winter.  I was smitten with small-town life —“The people at the post office all know your name,” I’d tell them. “I can leave my keys in the car when I go grab a coffee, I can even leave the car running,” I’d brag to them, stuck battling slamming subway doors, honking cabs, and gridlock. 

I started to learn the names of the trees, telling them “Shads are native to Montauk,” and the way the winds blew (“What you want for surfing is called offshore”), and impressive generalities like “Did you know we have the largest population of migratory seabirds in the U.S.?” I was a proud East Ender, I “got” this place, it was home. 

But as much as I grew to know and love this 25-or-so-mile stretch of the South Fork of Long Island, I didn’t fully experience the Hamptons until the weeks and months following Hurricane Sandy.

Three days before the soup escapade, I met at Gurney’s with a few other locals who wanted to unify the efforts of those wanting to help our neighbors to the west. 

 Many Hamptonites were already traveling to the Rockaways or Island Park, joining with volunteers and emergency workers from all over. Shops were collecting goods, clothes, emergency supplies. Our fire department was bringing brains and brawn to places that looked like they had been carpet-bombed and people who were hungry, heartbroken, and terrified.

 As soon as we sat down, I suggested perhaps we start a Facebook page and call it East End Cares. The group was quickly launched online. Meanwhile we reviewed what was happening and what might be needed. The town offered Town Hall as a collection point for supplies. Gurney’s was down for food, delivery trucks, anything. We had a helicopter at our disposal from a resident in Amagansett. And someone had a list of people offering their homes to people who had lost theirs. There was a swell of goodness in our beach town and we were trying to pull it all together.

“Look at this, you guys. We have 2000 members.” 

In less than 10 minutes East End Cares had, as one of the women at our meeting said, “grown legs and started running.” 

Someone’s cell rang. The jitney had a bus available for volunteers. 

A day and a half later the first busload of 50-plus volunteers and packed luggage bays hit the road.  

The guys from the fire department gave us a safety briefing, basically saying, don’t go too far from the school-turned-relief headquarters and get the hell out before it gets dark. 

Our maiden voyage began at 6 a.m. in Montauk, where a human chain loaded a literal ton of supplies; cases upon cases of bleach, trash bags, gloves, flashlights, shovels, brooms, water and more water, baby formula, and diapers. 

One of the volunteers showed up with an S.U.V. loaded with ready-to-eat meals. In Amagansett we picked up more people and about 500 more packed meals that the school kids stayed up all night making with their parents. We hit the usual Jitney route and made our way to Sandy’s ground zero at St. Francis School in Rockaway Beach. 

During the two-hour drive we became an instant disaster relief force. We buddied up and divided into teams. A food team would drive to Far Rockaway and deliver meals where many had gone days without food or water. Other teams would move debris, sort and distribute supplies, survey and identify critical needs. We were ready, but no one was prepared for what we would experience.

People who had not seen a morsel for days came running down the street shouting “Sandwiches, they have sandwiches,” when our food team hit the streets. We met a family that fled from their home at 3 a.m. during the height of the storm because it was on fire. With a 3-month-old infant and a 9-year-old girl they made their way up to the subway platform and huddled until one nightmare ended and the next one began. They had nothing. Over time we were able to help them move to a new place and totally furnish their apartment. 

We met an older man who did not know how to swim and watched as his house filled with water, thinking for sure he would die. He survived, but was so traumatized he slept on the school floor with the volunteers. 

It went on and on.

And so did East End Cares relief efforts.  

On the way home from that first trip, we were all hugging and crying and talking about our next one. After a much-needed pit stop at a liquor store, we passed around liter bottles of wine, Dixie cups and bags of chips, and made our plans. 

One woman had started case files for a few families in need. Another young mother wanted to set up a place where kids could get a bit of normalcy amongst the ruins and give weary, shell-shocked parents a break. She later pulled that off in a pre-holiday craft area, which was the talk of the Rockaways. Another group of people started planning a fund-raiser, and a few restaurant folks were scheming mobile food service with proper hot food. 

The East End community served over 65,000 meals during the following weeks, including a Thanksgiving feast brought in by a team of volunteers and delivered across the entire peninsula. 

Months later, when people were resettling, the Montauk Rugby Club filled two giant Ryder trucks with donated furniture, cabinets, and appliances, and delivered them with smiles and heart-shaped notes from local children. The recipients were flabbergasted to receive brand-new Tempur-pedic beds, flat screen TVs, leather sofas, and gorgeous antique mahogany dining ensembles. The riches of the Hamptons were not just seen in these fine things, but in the generosity of those who donated them.  

On the ground, within the volunteer community, and even within the New York City Mayor’s office, East End Cares was a known force of kindness. 

And I finally understood why they call the Hamptons the home of the beautiful people.

 


Melissa Berman, a Montauk resident, has worked as a copywriter and creative director in advertising and is an award-winning independent filmmaker, as a writer-director. She has traveled and volunteered extensively and is a founder of East End Cares, a volunteer and service network in the Hamptons.