Friday November 2, 2012- ConEd tweets “power has been restored to Cooper Square network.” Now for those not well versed in electrician talk, that’s code for yours truly having heat, hot water, and electricity back in her apartment. And like any biddie who has been welcomed back to the First World, I consumed an overpriced caloric meal and headed downtown to my humble Nolita abode.
And after an hour of scrubbing down my refrigerator and freezer, I climbed under the covers, clutched my space heater, and praised the ConEd gods for a restoration to semi-normalcy. But when I woke up the next day, I was greeted by a less than heartwarming headline: “In New York’s Public Housing, Fear Creeps in with the Dark.” The essence of the Times piece was that the projects– many of which currently lacked power– had become fertile breeding grounds for criminal activity.
NYCHA (New York City Housing Authority) Projects, as Marc Jacobson highlighted in New York, are already highly volatile, crime-ridden spaces that house close to 400,000 of New York City’s population. Add to that a lack of power, warm water, and heat, and you’ve got a recipe for madness. And so like any civic minded citizen, I determined– with a little coaxing from the Beloved Roommate– to go into NYCHA land and distribute supplies: food, water, toiletries, batteries, flashlights, and blankets.
Sunday November 4, 2012: The Beloved Roommate and I board buses to the Far Rockaways, where we are assigned to the “canvassing group.” In pairs, we went door to door informing residents of our distribution site, where they could collect the aforementioned supplies. And we identified individuals who were too sick, old, or in some way impaired. We then delivered supplies directly to their door.
Now as someone who has only ever done political canvassing, emergency relief door-to-door was an entirely new ball game. Unfamiliar with the neighborhood and its colorful residents, I knocked on doors half-terrified and half-exhilarated. And while most people greeted us warmly, a few stared confusedly. They didn’t speak English and my broken Spanish, which consisted of only comida y agua en la calle, was not always enough to communicate the message of the mission.
But one woman made the entirely awkward and occasionally rewarding experience well worth it: Delores Temple, an 81-year old firecracker in the Bayview Projects. Though well equipped on the supply front, she was more than ready to share her feelings on life, liberty, and Orthodox Jews. As a quasi-tv producer I couldn’t help but think she’d make great cable television.
Dressed in anywhere from 6-12 bathrobes, Delores took to the streets voicing her sentiment on the rude preacher’s daughter, her loud next door neighbors, and her incompetent landlord. I secretly suspected she didn’t have that many friends– at least not many living– and that she was just so excited to have two young women to chat with that she told us her entirely life story so as to keep us there for a few extra minutes. And I was more than willing to oblige. She was a fascinating emotion-filled character; the kind that makes reality television worth watching. And I had her for free, sans exorbitant cable bill.
But amidst the laughter, I also began to realize that as noble and giving as I wanted to be, I couldn’t give Delores or any of the project residents what they really needed. I couldn’t restore their electricity or repair the portions of their apartment damaged in the storm. I couldn’t get them the medications they were in desperate need of. And I couldn’t find their sisters who had gone missing during the storm.
In fact, aside from giving them some provisions to get through the night, the only thing I had to offer was an ear and a sympathetic face. And while that may not be much, as Delores put it, “It means something. You’re the first caring person to knock on my door ever.”