Serrano first encountered Abe in church. He was in his late forties, with a lined, pouchy face and thinning brown hair, and he’d shown up one afternoon at the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where Serrano worshipped on Sundays, and, post-Sandy, spent weeknights manning a donation table. Her life after the storm had taken on a simple rhythm: wake up in the dark; make the kids breakfast; truck to the Red Hook Initiative to hand out supplies and coordinate volunteers; end the day at Visitation doing the same in its chilly nave. “Can I take one of these?” Abe asked, pointing to a can of soup. He had an accent—maybe Russian, Serrano thought. She noticed that he smelled of gasoline. It was because of the smell that his name stuck in her brain, that she remembered him among the stream of outstretched hands she’d filled.
Serrano saw him the second time at the Red Hook Initiative on a Friday. Abe picked his way through the crowded lobby and over to her and they got to talking—and there was that smell again. He explained that since Sandy he’d been living in his car with his girlfriend. He stated it as a fact, not a complaint: He said he knew others were worse off and that they were strong and relatively young and would survive. Abe plucked a box of granola bars off the shelves. “Wait here,” Serrano told him and went off to fetch a social worker who took down Abe’s information. The next day, the social worker told Serrano that she’d found Abe and his girlfriend a place to stay, a clean, warm room at a temporary-housing facility in Manhattan.
She had just one question. “Here’s what I don’t get,” Serrano asked the social worker: “Why did he always smell of gasoline?” The social worker smiled. Abe, she said, owned a small apartment building. The storm had ruined his property, but he’d managed to salvage a portable generator from the basement along with a few fuel containers. He’d been carting that generator around by hand, loaning out electricity like some gas-soused Santa Claus before returning to his car to rest. Needing help, he instead was putting all his energy into helping his neighbors. Serrano’s eyes filled as she heard this. There was to her only one word for what Abe had done, for the kindness and fellow feeling she’d seen so much of: “It’s a miracle,” she said.