Coney Island, Nov.9, 2012, 12 days after Sandy hit.
Arrive down there and find the nyc medical command center for medical/health issues in a trailer in MCU parking lot. Hey, I say to the man in the trailer, I’m medic trained, mass casualty/crisis training, wildland firefighter, worked Irene and Sandy for Office of Emergency management, I have all my certifications, can I be of some help down here? No we’re good, don’t need any volunteers.
Nothing I say, you need absolutely no help at all, everybody and everything is ok, I’m willing to do anything?
No we got it, everything is fine, we have all the resources we need, everything is fine, sorry you came all the way down here?
You sure, no help at all, you guys completely got this?
I so doubt this from experience so I start walking into the neighborhood. Within 10 minutes I was working, almost everybody I encountered or asked needed some kind of help. I had a back pack of gear and phone numbers for connections and I the night before I hit NYCHA (the agency that manages nyc public housing projects) where they had a list of projects and which ones were without power, electric, ect.) so I just worked.
O’Dwyer Gardens, a project complex with 6 large buildings, 572 units, with over a 1,000 residents. Dead, no service at all. I was doing outreach around there and some guy who turns out to be a CVS delivery man with a bag full of prescription medications and asks me for help. He’s been sent over to one of these buildings and he’s scared, worried about danger and doesn’t have a flashlight to go up. I look at the meds and see the DOB and the patient is 73 years old, he’s trapped up in this hell hole 13 floors up; yeah of course I’ll go, he probably needs a lot of help. Delivery guy calls the pharmacist, it wasn’t the patient’s his regular pharmacy because his regular one was destroyed, but pharmacist said great. So I went in. Hell hole, damage, pitch black, walked up 13 floors, get up there, shining light on every door and there’s no 13 N, the address on the script, only A-F. What the hell. I Walk down, double check the address, call the patient’s number, dead. Call the pharmacy, does he have an emergency contact on file, no, she’s no help.
Talk to two different cops, one nothing, one tries, calls somebody he knows who might be able to run this name but we wait and the person never calls back, he says they’re screwed up down there in general that precinct or whoever he called. He says it might be a set-up for you, if it’s psychiatric medicine and you go up there you could be attacked. Though he doesn’t offer to escort e up there. I think I can handle it, I say, thanks for your concern. Any ideas how to find this guy I ask him, databases you guys have access to No. Maybe go up other buildings 13 floors see if you can find an N he suggests. Then he’s radioed away.
I finally track down the NYCHA manager for the units, Scott. I explain ask him, he said computers are down, no power. I say I ‘ve got a small generator in my bag can he just log on using that, no, it’s not like that he says, no access. I’m calling everybody I can think of , manager comes by 30 minutes later, apologizes, says there’s nothing he can do everything is down, no computers. Isn’t there a central database in Manhattan or on a generator or someplace that you can check. He says no.
I start asking around the projects, most helpful two Latino women who were NYCHA maintenance workers raking, cleaning up amid the huge downed trees that fell in the project common areas. They tell me there’s a NYCHA command center, another trailer, try there, they tell me where it is. I go in and explain what’s going on. They were very nice, but they called and called all these different places, they couldn’t get through or couldn’t get the info. Finally, they called the manager, he’ll be able to help you out. They offered me food, water, were real nice but I was there for almost an hour. One guy said, the resident probably evacuated. Another said leave the meds here, we’ll get it to him– I said I can’t do it. Finally, I said, “Wait is the manager that I’m waiting for named Scott?” Yeah, they tell me. I said I talked to him twice he can’t help. One worker there, a decent young black man, I’ll call him out by name, Kevin Norman, said call “global,” which turned out to be NYCHA’s (ESD) Emergency Services Department. Another worker called, someone actually picked up, they gave the residents name, I said tell him to run it through any public housing in that park of Brooklyn. Finally got it. The address was completely wrong on the prescription, turns out the database showed he lived in a different housing project 12 blocks away. I shook all their hands, Kevin Norman gave me his cell number and said call if you need any help with him or any other residents — I said are you serious. Another worker, Louis, I believes said, “Yeah, they’re our tenants to take care of.” We thanked each other and while I was thanking them manager Scott walked into the trailer, looking a little abashed. Went to the other project and delivered the man his medicine. Maybe 2 hours this whole thing took.
There is an attraction to the street life: those moments when you’re curled up on the pavement, freedom gear slung over your back, cocky in your rebel-as-loser pose. You’re the outsider who can sit on the sidelines and laugh at the misguided straights rushing by with their ridiculous attempts at charity (go ahead, try and help me), and at the parade of journalists, urban anthropologists, volunteers, caseworkers, clergy who are somehow dependent on you. If he, on the street, were to take the next step up and, say, get a job sweeping the footbridge instead of playing homeless on it, all the power and attention he commanded would dissipate and people would likely pass him by without a word.
But there’s also this side: he, that man on the street I was talking about – – When I last saw him he told me he was going to steal a van and seek out a community of witches in Wales and eventually fix up a derelict cottage to live in.
We became very alright with each other. Before I left England I gave him my poncho and a tartan overshirt and we exchanged addresses. Less then a month later he died in his flat of a drug overdose. He lay there for three weeks, his dog barking inside the apartment, before his body was discovered.
The whole story is on my website JournalismWorksProject
at the link:http://www.journalismworksproject.org/simon-titlepage.html