I live in a building that takes up a square block in the far West Village in New York City. One side of the building –the West Street side that borders the Hudson River–was in the dreaded “Zone A,” an area in lower Manhattan that had been deemed likely to be Sandy’s sandbox.
This building, home to artists of various stripes and their families, is a low to middle income housing complex that until recently had been federally subsidized. These many loft-like apartments for artists, now under rent stabilization, evolved out of a concept, from days gone by, that it was in the social interest for those who worked in the arts to have reasonably affordable housing in the cultural mecca that was New York City. The residents, though no longer subsidized by the federal government, are still the same artists they were before, which means that many of us had paintings and drawings and photographs and sculptures and papier mache puppets, and musical instruments and costumes and books and manuscripts in rented spaces in the basement.
Should we laugh or cry to read an old notice left up by the now motionless elevators, warning residents to get anything in the basement storage area that they valued “two feet off the ground”?
Those were the days! Eight to nine feet of water whooshed through the basement, tearing boilers from their moorings and taking out metal doors and pieces of cement walls, destroying electrical wires that powered elevators and pumped water but also floating our stored stuff and then depositing it all again in a hideous wet mass on the basement floor, lighter objects floating to the top and heavier objects completely hidden from sight, if they even exist any longer. They are likely a toxic pudding, now, and nothing more.
But it is the wet sogginess that keeps us from getting sick, I am told by Paul, my hall monitor, who had volunteered to run between us and management and us and volunteers, up and down ten flights of stairs (for a long time in pitch black stairwells) mercifully delivering food and water to those neighbors who were home bound, and giving succor to all of us in the dark, cold and terrifyingly device less universe we now inhabited. As the water dries, white mold takes to the air, he explained. He did not mention but I understood that mold of any hue obviously materializes through the formerly discredited “spontaneous generation” and can make you seriously ill.
My family and I had evacuated to higher ground, which is another story, but upon return we heard of so many neighbors losing their life’s work in that storm. Strangely, I felt nothing for these neighbors. I even had the most bizarre thought that they could always paint another painting as if that were the same as buying and eating an ice cream cone in summer. I had lost a beautiful piano given to my mother by my great-aunt, Stella Adler, the acting teacher who had brought the Stanislavski method to America and who had taught such luminaries as Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando. I had nothing else from this aunt, whom I had loved, and this piano, although fitting nowhere in my apartment, was too meaningful, coming as it did from both my great-aunt and my mother, for me to give away. There was also a hugefrom my father’s home and of course much junk, hidden away in boxes and plastic bags, for which it had been totally ridiculous to pay a hefty monthly fee, a fee which I had paid, nevertheless, to protect me from deciding to never see, again, my daughter’s stuffed animals, our ancient paper backs (had I lost or had I kept upstairs the crumbling copy of The Great Gatsby marked 25 cents?) various fake Christmas trees (I am allergic to pine) rickety chairs, broken ornaments–the stuff of attics in other words–a chair awaiting the phantom recaner, more stuffed animals, a child’s snowsuit slotted to be given to a relative, yet to be handed down, and so forth.
I was not only cold about my poor artist neighbors, I was cold about my own loss in the storm. Just material things should not be mourned when we are all safe. And so my attitude was simply…well no more checks for storage! With a slight, somewhat whimsical, regret that I had not brought the piano up instead of buying a much smaller Casio keyboard when I was writing songs for my beloved and now defunct band, Infinite Bambi.
But in one of the many photographs that my brave husband, dressed in an imaginative contrivance of HAZMAT gear, took for documentation purposes, I saw two small canvases on top of the rubble, face down. I had not realized that there were any paintings in the basement as we have a place we store our paintings in the apartment. And so after over two weeks of Hurricane Sandy and her aftermath, I felt a stirring of emotion for the first time. Suddenly my heart was broken because of two small canvasses which I could not see but which I remembered as one or another painting of either my or my husband’s early work.
How, I wondered, was it possible for me to have been so cold about my neighbors’ loss of a life’s work? It was impossible to understand but thoughts of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” sought inclusion. Some mechanism seemed in play, though it did not occur to me then that a cultural or political or even biological “normalizing” of this insular stance towards those outside my chosen group might have hijacked anything so simple and inexpensive as a feeling of concern. Or put another way I had just seen a beautifully rendered film—Shenandoah (see link below)—about a racially motivated beating murder in Pennsylvania. In an incredible interview with one of the perpetrators, a high school student, we hear his stunningly honest statement that he felt nothing during the beating or even after realizing his victim had died, though we can see he was a decent kid in all other respects. There, the filmmakers allow us to see how a brutal town culture, where racism is an outlet for the brutality perpetrated on everyone by economic and cultural factors, may have played a part, might have supported, for example, this mechanism to shut down the expected identification with someone who exhibits pain.
Now I began to consider that perhaps my obsessive desire to continue to live with my generous relative or to move to Washington Heights and leave the neighborhood I had always considered my true home was an expression of a reaction in the realm of trauma, an idea which was very hard to hold onto because we had not been as severely ravaged by Sandy as so many other communities in her path; nothing bad had happened to me or to anyone around me other than this flooding of the basement and two weeks of tough living. Still, intimations of catastrophe, wrought of past, contiguous and imagined future events will flutter, moth-like, to awareness and cast large if vague shadows on any newly decimated ground.
On this day of my return (we had been asked to relocate if at all possible) we were told that the basement was toxic but we were also told that if we did not get our things out by that very day the big guys would come in and clean everything out forever. This was a frantic day of running around trying to find the right kind of mask and suits for scouring sheer toxic hell just for the sake of a painting or two.
I was in the lobby, lobbying for a little more time with management when a neighbor told me that in the courtyard they were restoring paintings.
I ran outside and met Caroline.
Caroline gave me those white, gauzy, over the-shoe-booties for toxic walks and little rubber gloves for toxic scrounging, which no one else had considered giving me or any of my bewildered neighbors who had been previously told that they would be arrested for daring to go into the basement due to its toxicity. She told me what not to do—“No, no, do not store the paintings in plastic bags!” and what she would do. “First I’ll spray the paintings with alcohol and when the mold is gone we’ll see what we can do about the damage.” She was an angel who cared. While management had been reassuringly present and responsive throughout the ordeal, somehow they were surprisingly cold and what is the word? “unempathic” about this impossible dilemma of either losing our work in order to save ourselves or attempting to rescue some work, thereby exposing ourselves to the unpredictable, possibly dire effects of the organic activity within a toxic waste site. Somehow we were on our own.
But Caroline was steering a different ship. Tears appeared in her eyes as she told me she had stumbled upon all these artists bringing ruined work into the courtyard and she knew she had to help. She is a retired conservator at the Brooklyn Museum who continues to work privately to restore paintings and drawings and she is an artist herself. In the courtyard were paintings and pads and rugs of all shapes and sizes that she was meticulously saving from the storm.
My little canvases turned out to be paintings that I really could have discarded. But they had functioned as a kind of art when their backs were turned and I could only imagine which paintings they really were. Those little canvases had brought me to Caroline and allowed me to see that I was a warm, social animal, a part of a species that used various, what we call “art forms” to communicate our love of and need for each other and also our highest hopes and beliefs that we are more than meets the eye, that we have something invisible but real, something that feels supernatural which, within these art forms, we strive so passionately to touch and to show others.
Caroline herself loomed like a saintly one of our species whose heart was so full of love and awe for this thing called “art” and for her fellow humans who work in its realm. She has worked days on end into night on our behalf just doing what she knows how to do, pointing out what can be saved, and what is in danger, laying out pads of drawing paper and doing some magical incantations over them to bring then back from the dead.
When you live with hundreds of artists you can grow weary of our type even before a year goes by. Bedraggled when not extravagant, often insular and not a little crazy in many cases, you can wonder, sometimes, why the fates dropped you here. But it is also true, I have considered, that if I lived in a compound of doctors or accountants I would fare not much better, or at least that is how I imagine it. More to the point I have to ponder my coldness in the face of the terrible loss that my closest neighbors suffered until I myself felt pain. And to consider how selfless help from someone like Caroline, is what we mean by “saint.”
When I told Caroline that I thought she was a saint, she said, “No I’m not” with a swiftness that gave me to believe that she knew her dark side. But all saints are human and all, therefore, are darker than hell. Part social animal seeking and giving warmth we are also blind, unaffiliated aspects of nature, senseless to anything but the random dictates of the moment’s threat or offering. Still sainthood is perhaps more an action than an attribute to be conferred onto a whole person. And when someone is able to care for us as we stand helpless in the face of the small and ominously large ways in which the world escapes our control, just then (as we so often say, humorously or casually), that person is a saint.
Whatever Caroline really is, to herself and to others, she is now a work of art in my psyche along with my beautiful, imagined paintings and there she expresses something invisible that can only be touched in a moment as we are swept by the waters of Sandy or some other storm.
Photographs by Jonathan Oppenheim
Trailer for documentary film directed by David Turnley: Shenandoah