Water Color

Most days the harbor contributes to the life, not the destruction of the city. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Four days after the hurricane the ferry was running again and we rode it to charge our cell phones. This was Friday. First week of November. Didn't matter who you were or where you were from, the ones from Lower Manhattan looked for outlets with the ones from Staten Island, the ones from Clifton and New Brighton and Midland Beach. Plug in. Sit down. Nobody said much. Even then everyone wore the same look of exhaustion.

On the Upper Bay everything looked as it had, the sky was blue and the big boats came up the channel past Constable Hook and went out from Bayonne in the chop and the dazzle and the Statue of Liberty looked straight out to the world over all that water. Five or six crossings and you could charge an iPhone full.

In the snack bar two cops complained about the marathon if the city ran it and about the overtime they'd lose if the city didn't.

"Diverts a lot of resources, I guess."

"Still, what are you gonna do?"

"Lots of hotel money and business, I guess."


Fifth time across, afternoon, on the Manhattan side, and one of the mates calls out "Hey Joe, how you doin'?" to a man climbing the mid-deck stairs. Joe walks all the way to a bench and drops down on it hard and slumps for a while before answering. "F------ week of misery," he says. He's been in a basement on Wall Street for a hundred straight hours, trying to pump seawater out of the boilers and the garages and the bank records and the giant breaker boxes. He hasn't slept since Monday.

Neither has the mate. "I been in boats 40 years and never seen nothing like this. Water's five feet above the pier. Five feet. Full moon, high tide, the water's got nowhere to go."

One standing, one sitting they go quiet and look out at the New York harbor sliding by.

* * *

Hurricane Sandy high water was 9 feet higher than high tide, and 3 feet higher than the last record storm surge. That record was set in 1821.

* * *

A month and a half later on a day the color of tin and a few hundred feet up the greenway from the Ferry Terminal and the ballpark in St. George you can measure the flood by the debris still caught in the fences. From here down to Great Kills down to Tottenville -- past the Paramount and the Top Tomato, past the view of the skyline and the stairs to the train station, past Bay Street and Edgewater and Sea Gate, past Harbor View and Wave Crest, past the orange cones and green hardhats and the ravaged blue tarps, past the red of the fire trucks and the Santa suits, past the relief tents and the Christmas tree stands, past the table saws in the parking lots and the sinkholes and the bucket loaders and the backhoes -- you still see debris piled high in front of the houses. Farther south, the debris is the houses.

* * *

The big FEMA tent in the parking lot at New Dorp High School does slow, steady traffic. They have bottled water out here and Internet and food and bureaucracy. Inside, in the auditorium, they're rehearsing the holiday pageant.

At Tottenville High, the basketball tips off at six. The Pirates are playing the Sea Gulls from McKee Staten Island Tech. The Pirates cheerleaders shout down "sea gulls" so it rhymes with "beagles." The game stalls at 10-8 for what feels like a long time. Then 17-14. The first half ticks past as slow as an audit.

In the stands the mothers and the fathers watch their sons and check their phones. There's so much to do. To cross the Verrazano Bridge before the storm felt like flying. Now it feels like falling and there's too much to account for. Can you afford to rebuild? Can you afford not to?

Or in 20 years or 20 months will these neighborhoods
just cease to exist? What then? How much of your own history can you save? How much of yourself can you board up and leave behind?

Still, the boys run the floor from end to end and the coaches lawyer the refs and the crowd watches absently and maybe it looks as it always has. The MSIT Sea Gulls win it 65-55. Osa Izevbuwa, their senior forward, finishes with 25 points. No one is quite sure how.

* * *

In the gym across the hall, Tottenville is wrestling Franklin Delano Roosevelt High, and the grunt and the slap ring out across a mat smelling of liniment as boys about to be pinned stare their prayers up into the ceiling and crew-cut, pot-bellied fathers look on exhausted yelling "roll him roll him roll him." The coaches shout themselves hoarse in what sounds like iambic pentameter.

"Push PULL push PULL go NOW go NOW go NOW
don't WAIT for it don't WAIT gotta go
now now now
it'll be YOU next time otherwise

GO -- go NOW the leg the leg the leg
go now go now head UP head UP head UP

that's it stand UP STAND UP
look him in the eye NOW NOW NOW

stay with him
get UP get UP get UP
attack ATTACK don't wait don't WAIT

don't wait for something to happen TO YOU."

* * *

This is the late day south shore of Staten Island in December 2012. Boats furrow the bay. There's still sand in the streets. The sun gutters out and the dark rises in the eastern trees. Beyond those trees is the ocean, lightless and unbroken from Prince's Bay to Lisbon.