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The Free Republic of the Rockaways

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It begins to set in shortly after three o’clock, the claustrophobic approach of another freezing night when just getting up to take a piss takes a major summoning of will. Election evening, Day Nine Sandy Time, was no different. The temperature had been dropping through the week, and now the weatherman, suddenly turned the shamanic bearer of doom by virtue of guessing right on Sandy, was saying a new storm was coming in, a nor’easter, a whole new parcel of misery. By the time the polls began to close, the winds were picking up, groaning through the wreckage. You could stand on Beach Channel Drive by the bay and see the Emerald City of Manhattan twinkling in the distance. Over there, they had light. Over there, they had warmth. Over there, people were gathering in swell apartments to eat Brie, drink Merlot, and watch the election returns, to learn if Rockaway’s despair had indeed swayed the vote.

This was around the time I met “the boys,” Cho, Johnny5ive, and Ro. More or less just out of high school, they’d grown up together in Far Rock, Johnny5ive in Beach Channel’s notorious Forty projects and Ro in “the bungalows,” the fearsome former vacation cottages in the Beach Twenties. They were hanging out by Veggie Island on Beach 96th Street, home of Rockaway Taco. The hipster skate-punk-and-surfer crew had set up an Occupy-style outpost there, distributing food (including, typically enough, pizza from Nicoletta), blankets, and flashlights. “The boys,” artist types, were there, trying to lend a hand.

We all got to talking, and I offered to drive the boys downtown to their apartment. This was good, they said. Even for lifetime Far Rock residents, the Sandy night was getting hairy. They’d have to pass over some nasty territory. People were getting shot. Gangs were knocking on doors in the pjs, claiming to be from the Long Island Power Authority and bum-rushing grandmas. It was Mad Max time in the street, zombies in the ville. A gang looted the half-deserted shopping center across from the Hammel projects. “They even got Popeyes,” said Cho, cracking up. What were those fools trying to steal, week-old grease?

After arriving at the apartment, I asked them if they’d voted, eliciting more laughs, as if the result of any election might change the details of their existence. Besides, they said, they weren’t really citizens of the United States anyway. “We are the Founding Fathers of the Free Republic of the Rockaways. We have declared our independence from America,” Jimmy5ive said.

It was Sandy that gave them the idea, said Ro, whose Guatemalan mother could be heard listening to a Spanish soap opera on the transistor radio in the next room. All their lives, they’d been living with what Cho called “a hundred layers of bullshit.” The TV bullshit, the Internet bullshit. Sandy had freed them of those things.

Now, in the enforced solitude, they could think straight for the first time in their lives. “We read, we have real conversations; that’s our revolution, sitting here in this dark room, talking to each other.” Ro showed me one of his many tattoos. It said FREEDUMB. That’s because this freedom they always talk about, this freedom America is supposed to be about, is just dumb. A lie. It isn’t freedom. Its freedumb, for those dumb enough to believe it. This was the basis of their Republic of the Rockaways: to find what true freedom was all about. For sure, it wasn’t about holding on to all the crap they were piling up in the Jacob Riis Park parking lot. If the Free Rockaway idea didn’t work out, they thought they’d just go to Brazil, Egypt, or even Russia.

After we’d said good-bye, I drove back up the beach to Beach 116th. On Rockaway Beach Boulevard, a line of 25 or so ambulances stood idling, lights flashing, waiting to evacuate the Ocean Promenade Nursing Center. With the nor’easter moving in, the Bloomberg administration had ordered the four old-folks’ homes located near the beachfront to get their patients to higher ground. The decision was somewhat disconcerting to a number of the nursing-home employees, especially since they were not made to evacuate as Sandy approached. “They said ‘shelter-in-place,’ ” reported one nurse. “We’re here with all these very old, very frail people, this giant wave comes crashing right up to the second floor, but I’m thinking, Okay, no problem, we’re sheltering-in-place. Then that fire breaks out on B 114th Street. The whole sky is orange, I can see the flames shooting up, but no problem, we’re sheltering-in-place … Now, with this other storm coming, we’re supposed to evacuate?”

The home had over 90 residents, and one by one they came out the door, into the black, freezing night. One lady, swathed in white bedsheets, pushed her walker. When one of the attendants tried to help, she screamed, “I go myself! I go myself.” Another guy in a baseball hat attached to oxygen tanks lay on a stretcher. “There you go, Zolly, there you go,” the attendants said. In the lobby, there was a commotion. One of the patients, a woman who looked to be in her eighties, didn’t want to leave. People were trying to convince her it was the thing to do, everyone had been ordered to go.


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