The Free Republic of the Rockaways

In the immediate run-up to the presidential election, there was much punditry as to what effect Hurricane Sandy would have on the outcome. Could it be that God, usually thought of as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party, by virtue of His impish sense of humor, had decided to withhold the presidency from the Mormon asset column? After years of skulduggery and billions in super-PAC spending, the storm was throwing a last-minute monkey wrench into the race. Yet out here in Rockaway, New York’s hurricane epicenter, November 6 was not merely the thankful culmination of the desultory exercise of whatever is left of American democracy. It was Day Nine of the Sandy epoch, a wholly new kind of time.

It is a continuum that invents its own progressive reality, as witnessed by the ever-growing trash pile in the Jacob Riis Park parking lot. Giant dump trucks were lined up in front of the old bathhouse built by Jimmy Walker in 1932 for “the recreation of all New Yorkers,” ready to deposit their loads. Each truck was piled high with 36 cubic yards of what used to be people’s worldly possessions. With each cubic yard weighing 600 to 700 pounds and the drivers averaging four runs each day, that added up to slightly over 100,000 pounds, or 50 tons per truck per day (they’ve collected nearly 480 million pounds so far). There was plenty more to pick up, as revealed by a drive across the peninsula’s ethnic full spectrum, from Breezy Point’s cop-and-fireman gated paradise in the west, to the diverse old-school nabe around Beach 116th, out to Far Rock’s hard-knock world in the east. When the moon and the tides conspire to send fifteen feet of ocean water smashing across a less-than-a-mile strip of sand to meet a near-equal torrent from the bay, treasure can become trash in an instant. The lot behind the apartment houses at Beach 105th Street was filled with a hundred vehicles aimed at crazy angles like a freeze-framed ­bumper-car ride.

They’d never go again. And even if they could, there was no gas, of course. Not that this was any fault of a Far Rockaway resident named Sadiq. Originally from Georgetown, Guyana, Sadiq had spent the better part of the previous weekend trying to import a large quantity of what he called “motion lotion” in 55-gallon drums from Scranton, Pennsylvania. “I thought I would be the big-time petrol black marketeer. But we had a lot of leakage. Our drums were faulty.” Originally, Sadiq planned to sell his gas for $20 a gallon, but had second thoughts. He felt ashamed and couldn’t bring himself to “take advantage.” He wound up giving the fuel away to fellow livery-car drivers, most of whom had spent the week waiting in endless lines on the other side of the Marine Parkway bridge.

“Still no heat, no power, no ATM, no food in the store, no A train to get off the island, perpetual cold and darkness, no word when any of it will change,” said Almamy Seray-Wurie, summing up the situation as he waited at the Conch Playground on Beach 49th Street for what he called “the daily handout” of box lunches, clothing, Pampers, and bright-blue Marathon Recovery Bags left over from the canceled road race. At least he is used to it, said Almamy, who now lives in the former Edgemere projects after fleeing the decadelong civil war in his home country of Sierra Leone. “I am a refugee. I am accustomed to waiting in lines.”

This didn’t mean Day Nine of Sandy Time was exactly like Day Eight. Natural disasters work on a separate calendar, depending on the degree of the damage caused and the type of people affected. As the aftermath of Katrina demonstrated, help and mercy are not always meted out equally. In 1970, half a million people died in the Bhola Cyclone and all they got was George Harrison and the Concert for Bangladesh. On that account, Rockaway, a.k.a. “the Irish Riviera,” home to perhaps the highest density of first responders anywhere, has been lucky. Things could have been a lot worse. Last Monday, soon after the storm hit (officially starting Day One of the Sandy clock), the almost routine heroism associated with the FDNY was on display when a stretch of primarily mom-and-pop stores on Rockaway Beach Boulevard between Beach 113th and Beach 115th Streets burst into flames, a conflagration people in the Rockaways think began when employees fleeing the storm left the oven on in a pizza shop.

“It was insane, coming down the street in a boat in ten feet of water to fight a fire,” said firefighter Thomas Fee, who as a member of Swift Water Team No. 6 was soon on the scene. “We didn’t have our usual gear. We thought we would be pulling people out of the water, so we had this thin plastic foul-weather stuff on,” he said, drawing a diagram to show how he managed to crawl through the openings in the “fucking roaring” buildings, eventually reaching 22 people trapped on rooftops and leading them to safety.

The brave feats and dramatic destruction of Day One had morphed into soul-numbing process by Day Nine. This was confirmed when a chauffeured Range Rover pulled up in front of a swath of burned-out buildings where Tommy Fee had risked his life to save others. Out stepped a swoop-coiffed gentleman in an expensive coat, sunglasses, and a purple shirt open at the neck. With small convoys of “mobile claim center” RVs now roaming Beach Channel Drive, it was assumed that the man was an insurance agent. “No,” he said. “I work against the insurance company.” He was representing the owner of a number of the burned buildings, “to make sure he gets what is coming to him.”

“The guy’s a public adjuster,” said Chris Karadimas, the owner of a four-story apartment house across the street from the fire scene. “They show up after whatever happens. A lot of them are ex-­brokers. They read all the policies, know every little angle. They negotiate with the companies, take a commission or a percentage.”

Even as the power remained out and the waste-treatment plant stayed mostly off-line, the Sandy “recovery” had reached “the lawsuit stage,” Karadimas said. Whatever the outcome, the little stores across the street, the deli, the perfume emporium, weren’t coming back, not like they were. Uptown, in Belle Harbor, Neponsit, and Breezy, they had the good insurance, they would be able to rebuild. In a few years, Sandy would be one more bad memory to endure, like the crash of Flight 587 and 9/11, the worst memory of all. Down the beach, Arverne by the Sea, a massive new development where the ads read, “Like this wave? Live on it!,” would be okay, too. Indeed, construction on the development has proceeded nonstop throughout Sandy Time. Asked if they thought it was strange, continuing to build condos 100 yards from the torn-up boardwalk, workmen shouted over the generator clang that they didn’t speak English.

But the Beach 116th Street area was honky-tonk, tatty and funky, with places named Pickles and Pies. That Rockaway was over. “I’m fucking obsolete,” said Matt Gilkeson, throwing out the last of his meager possessions from his low-ceilinged basement apartment. Appearing to be in his sixties, with a couple of centuries of wear on his puffed and drooping face, Gilkeson is a former Navy man. Once his ship was caught in a typhoon 200 miles south of Hawaii. “We thought we were going down, but this was worse, trapped in this little basement, the water rising to your eyeballs faster than you could count.” Gilkeson looked mournfully at a large plastic bullfrog to his left. It was a joke, one of those novelties. Wave your hand and it croaked. “Fartin’ Freddie,” Gilkeson said. “That’s what I got left, Fartin’ Freddie.”

You couldn’t even get a drink. Kerry Hills Pub, Gilkeson’s local, was closed since Day One. Rockaway might not be full of racial Kumbaya, but drinking was the common denominator. It was something about the air, so damp, so raw. The FEMA response might be helping Obama, but where was the booze? Engine companies from all over the city were making runs to Breezy to deliver what one observer called “the real emergency service: beer.” Otherwise the drought was on; Rogers, Curran’s, the Irish Circle were all shut tight. Hearing of the terrible fire on Beach 130th Street, one longtime Rockaway resident was said to have asked if the church had burned. Told no, it was the Harbor Light, the man said, “Oh my God, that’s worse.”

Still it was Election Day, an election in which Rockaway was in a fulcrumatic position. It was hard to judge what effect Mayor Bloomberg’s endorsement of the president, mostly on climate change, might have in the largely Republican Breezy, where Rush Limbaugh often competes for a.m. bandwidth with WFAN. But down in Far Rock, where Romney would be lucky to get his presumptive one percent, the polls were packed. For many, it was something of a one-stop-shopping trip, as many relief organizations had set up distribution centers outside of polling places like M.S. 53 on Nameoke Street. Citizens filled carts to the brim with donations, then went inside the public school to vote for Obama. Aside from the large Hasidic population following a similar regimen, it was the perfect Roger Ailes behavioral model, at least until the people returned home to their unlit, unheated apartments.

The key was getting home before dark. As one man standing on the voting line said, the real insult to injury was the end of daylight saving time coming so soon after the storm. “They hit us with this hurricane and then they make night come an hour faster,” the man said, smelling conspiracy. “If Obama really wants to help us, he should repeal that shit.”

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.

“Ordered?” she yelled. “What order?” Then, for reasons not completely clear, someone, perhaps the lady herself, started screaming, “How do you spell ‘Schenectady’? How do you spell ‘Schenectady’?” Eventually, the lady got into an ambulance from South Carolina. It was a little after ten, the ocean was pounding, as the Internet connection on my phone kicked in momentarily. Romney was winning, 157 to 148.

When Day Ten of Sandy Time dawned, Obama had won, which was a relief. The Republicans, some of them anyway, were still blaming the storm, as if Romney hadn’t really said it was immoral to give his precious money to help those suffering because of acts God keeps coming up with. Out in Rockaway, it seemed as if the weatherman, the other joker in the room, was right yet again. He said snow, and by mid-afternoon, it was coming down, thick, wet, and white. “Fucked up outside,” said one patron of the liquor store on Beach Channel Drive across the street from the Redfern projects in Far Rock. Even as the entire area shut down, the liquor store had remained open throughout the duration, dispensing flavored Georgi vodka and Twisted Shotz Hot Licks Bourbon and Cinnamon through its bulletproof-Plexiglas surround.

Up the beach, life, such as it was, went on as well. Mike Moran had some FDNY buddies over to try to fix his boiler. During the storm, his basement had water to the ceiling, said Moran, an impressively large man who retains ultimate respect for declaring at a Madison Square Garden memorial following 9/11 that Osama bin Laden could “kiss my royal Irish ass.” “Live through this, that’s what I tell myself,” Moran said, adding that the memorial he built for his brother killed at the World Trade Center was now “somewhere under the boardwalk.”

This was how it was on Day Ten. Over at Beach 130th, where fire had burned down most of the block, snow was covering the debris, if you want to call a fried Porsche Boxster debris. Everyone was still talking about how on Day One, FDNY lieutenant Tommy Woods saved his mother’s life by tying her to a surfboard. It is one of the stories that will become lore when Sandy Time is finally over, as will the tale of the guy who jumped out a second-story window when the surge came in, caught a wave, and wound up on the porch of the Sisters of St. Joseph convent, where the nuns took him in. As for now, it was a smear of horizontal snow, low visibility. In this light, the whiteness covering everything, you could even say it looked innocent, for a moment.

Overnight on Beach 74th Street
Photographer Pari Dukovic spent twelve hours in the Rockaway dark with Natalya Kagno and her daughter Nadezhda.

Compared with their neighbors in Rockaway Beach, Natalya Kagno, 55, and her daughter, Nadezhda Blot, 11, are the lucky ones. They can heat their oceanside apartment on Beach 74th Street with gas flames from their stove. They can bathe with a washcloth and boiled water because they have some of the area’s few working faucets. The only light outside is from NYPD generators.

“It’s just scary when you get out of the car and it’s, like, so lonely and there’s no one walking around,” says Nadezhda, who with her mother welcomed New York into their home one night last week. “You go into a building, and it’s like nothing changes. It’s night, you walk in, and it’s even darker and so silent. When I see someone else with a flashlight, I’m like, ‘Phew.’”

While waiting by a generator to charge their phones (not that there’s much cell service), and warming their hands by its exhaust pipe, Natalya and Nadezhda discovered a volunteer site, a block from a row of burned-down homes, run by YANA (You Are Never Alone). They’ve been going back all day on weekends and every day after work and school to hand out food and distribute supplies. They call their fellow volunteers “our family”—a collection of Italians, Puerto Ricans, African-Americans, and do-gooders of all stripes who’ve been sleeping on the volunteer-center floor. “How are these people going to live without me?” asks Natalya. “And how am I going to live without them?”

Nadezhda is the only student in her class at P.S. 206 living in a disaster zone. Every night, she balances three flashlights on jars around her notepad so she can do problem sets on fractional math and read the teen novel What Mr. Mattero Did. She’s been keeping warm her two parakeets, Christmas and New Year, with heavy blankets. When her class wrote essays about their Sandy experiences, Nadezhda’s was three pages, “because I had so much to say.” She read it aloud, and “I was so emotional when I was reading it, it was like I was about to cry,” she says. After school let out, her teacher handed her canned goods and spaghetti. She donated them to the center.
—Jada Yuan

Date: Tuesday, November 6
Time: Approximately 4:30 p.m.
Location: Beach 96th Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard Photo: Pari Dukovic

Date: Tuesday, November 6
Time: Approximately 12 a.m.
Location: A generator set up near Beach 66th Street Photo: Pari Dukovic

Date: Wednesday, November 7
Time: Approximately 5:30 p.m.
Location: Beach 117th Street Photo: Pari Dukovic

Natalya Kagno and her daughter Nadezhda in Rockaway Beach. Photo: Pari Dukovic

Natalya Kagno. Photo: Pari Dukovic

Nadezhda Kagno. Photo: Pari Dukovic

Nadezhda Kagno. Photo: Pari Dukovic

Natalya Kagno. Photo: Pari Dukovic

The Free Republic of the Rockaways