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34. Because Red Hook Wouldn’t Let Red Hook Go Under.


Chavez headed out of his building. On his way, he stopped to check on his apartment—the water had receded, leaving behind brown stains on the walls and dark freckles that he guessed must be blossoming mold. When he got to F&M Bagels, he found two of his bosses, Ben and Mario Nitti, already there. They were working a water pump they’d rented from a place off the Gowanus Expressway (it was the last one left), powering it with gas given to them by a guy on Rapelye Street who knew their old man. The Nittis had pumped out a few houses next to their shop. As Chavez joined in, they turned their attention to the rest of the block. Once in a while someone came by to ask for fuel, and the Nittis gave what they could. “Let’s make sure they’re all taken care of,” Ben Nitti said. “Then we’ll do us.”

Sharps also had a pump—living on a ship, you had to. The storm blew out some of the barge’s skylights, but his boat, being a boat, was intact and relatively dry. He figured the folks on land, with homes not meant to float, must have had a rougher go. He went door-to-door down, offering his services at Sunny’s bar and a few houses on Dikeman, his pump clattering over the cobblestones.

Serrano was afraid to go outside. Her friends were telling stories about a part of the Houses that everyone called the Two Towers, on account of their fourteen-story height. There was word of rapes, assaults, holdups. But Serrano had a job to do. She could not just hunker down. Passing through the courtyard of the projects, she saw a few kids splashing in the deep water near the playground, paying no attention to the frayed wires that dangled overhead. Then she headed a couple of blocks north to the Red Hook Initiative, the community center where she worked as an administrator. A small line had assembled outside the door: people needing a warm place to stay, an outlet to charge their phones, food for their stoves. Around five, Serrano called her husband, told him she’d be home late. “Do what you need to do,” he said.

The volunteers came from all over. Many were locals who did not have the option of decamping to the warmly lit streets of Park Slope when night fell. But they came also from the Upper East Side, ­Texas, California, and the sun-dappled campus of Clemson University. They were black and Hispanic and “yuppie”—the throwback term still preferred among old-time Red Hook residents and Houses folks. Deutsche Bank sent 50 employees—50 employees possessing scant familiarity with prevailing agricultural methods—to the Red Hook Community Farm to aid in restoring its swamped fields. An Occupy Sandy tent city went up in Coffey Park near the downed limbs of an elephantine oak tree. A med student from New Jersey put together a stopgap medical clinic long before fema arrived.

Sharps had more helpers than he knew what to do with. They kept showing up: poking their heads through the door of the barge, letting themselves into the cargo hold, asking how they could be of assistance. His reply, as he took newcomers’ hands into his own callused grip, was to thank them, say how grateful he was that they’d come, but that he was okay.

The donations filled the shelves at the Initiative. Families came and took what they needed, but as a mathematical proposition, donors seemed to always outnumber the needy. In the lobby, boxes were piled high with knots of clothing—T-shirts, cargo pants, wool sweaters. In mid-November, the staff created an overflow room, just to house it all.

Chavez was behind the grill again. F&M Bagels had its power back, and the free cups of hot coffee that Ben Nitti had given out during the first three days had given way to the regular orders of the regular crowd—dockhands, warehouse workers, projects kids, artists, college professors. Without people from other parts of the city coming to the neighborhood to eat or drink or furniture-shop, the neighborhood could be desolate, but at F&M customers got to sample what it would feel like when Red Hook made it back to business as usual. Chavez worked his station with one eye swollen shut. His boxing gym had reopened, and he was passing much of his downtime there, sparring with other guys who’d been battered but not beaten by the storm.

The benefactor—it was weeks before Frizell would learn his name—walked into Fort Defiance one morning and thrust a folded envelope into Frizell’s hand. Around him, his employees were sweeping, mopping, and hammering the dining room back into shape, and Frizell, distracted, didn’t think much of what had just happened: Small donations from strangers had become manna for the restaurant owners of Van Brunt. He didn’t get around to opening the envelope until well into the afternoon. Inside was five grand in crisp $100 bills.


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