Saturday, November 10, 2012

Hurricane Sandy Update: Cups full of coffee and hearts full of empathy

In the midst of the terrifying chaos brought on by Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey and New York---property destruction, psychological trauma, seemingly relentless hardship brought on by power outages, gas shortages and death---the emergence of basic human kindness is the one thing that can be counted on.

At the center of many of the acts of kindness has been the offer of warmth, both in the form of refuge from the cold and a hot cup of coffee. Over and over that offer is made---on facebook, via email, and in person. Volunteers drive to stricken areas around the Rockaways, Staten Island and the Jersey shore with large vats of hot coffee and hearts full of sympathy.

When coffee is offered person to person, the underlying sincerity in that gesture belies the immensity of that act. What is being said is the following: “Come into my home and share space and resources with us. Use my water and our toilets. Shower and use clean towels. Sleep on our sheets, rest in our beds and close the door for privacy and dignity. Use our power to stay warm, charge your phones and read the newspaper.” And finally: “Drink our coffee. Use our sweeteners and dairy and non-dairy add-ons. Find comfort even as I stretch my boundaries a bit to share what I have with you.”

I am so amazed and grateful at how many of these offers were directed our way, as our house in Montclair was without power for 8 days. At the beginning, we turned to our candles, flashlights and fire logs—but the food started to go and the small inconveniences---such as our cars being locked in the electronic garage---mounted until that forced us to leave with our toddler and 9-year-old in tow.

So we left for a generously offered apartment in Brooklyn Heights. When we arrived, I found coffee. I immediately felt at home at Starbucks on Montague, especially enjoying the communal feel of working and drinking coffee at a long farmhouse-like table.  I enjoyed the dark cherry wood paneling, brick interior walls, brown mugs and the various depictions of Brooklyn and its main memes—the view of the skyline and the bridge. I also had a huge supply of Via with me that I made in the mornings before I put the baby in her stroller and headed out.

While enjoying power after not having it for what turned out to be a relatively short period of time---especially compared to some others---I thought back to that first day without power. The first day, I went to Starbucks here in Montclair. Knowing that it would be crowded, I brought my own foldout chair---one of the chairs that we used this summer to witness fireworks, and to see outdoor movies in Manhattan. I arrived and found a seat with a group of people I didn’t know, and I found power to charge my computer and phone. Everyone was nice and friendly, including the baristas, who spent the entire day dealing with a line that was out the door. The warmth of the coffee and sweetness of the pastries offered was a sheer joy to us. We have been humbled and laid low by Sandy and now Athena. It’s been a tremendous challenge---but the offer of coffee has been tremendously uplifting.

And by the way, have you heard about the “lox Sherpa” of Russ & Daughters on Houston Street? Now that’s a hero. During the height of the storm crisis, he commuted every day from Jackson Heights, helped get the generator started to keep the refrigerator going, and moved all of the lox onto ice and into crates. He also hauled food and water up 24 flights of steps to a sick coworker. Previously, this 39-year-old was a professional Sherpa helping mountain climbers summit Mt. Everest. You know what keeps him so strong, healthy and clear? When asked about his preference, he admits to preferring coffee to tea, saying, “In this city, you have to start your day with coffee.” Read more about Mr. Sherpa here: