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Stranded in Coney Island’s High-Rises

Behind the iconic amusement park are devastated residential blocks where the elderly are locked in darkness

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People collect donated clothing on Surf Avenue in low-lying Coney Island in the wake of Superstorm Sandy on November 3, 2012 in New York City.(Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Over the past week, Tableteers and friends of Tablet have volunteered to help with Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts. One writer, Clancy Nolan, went out to the Rockaways to help an elderly couple clean out their home, and found that the pair—both Jewish Democrats—were concerned voting would be a ‘disaster.’ Below, Vox Tablet producer Julie Subrin takes us into the part of Coney Island most tourists never see.

It’s a six-mile bike ride from my mid-Brooklyn neighborhood to Coney Island. On summer days, it’s an easy trip along tree-lined Ocean Parkway: Hang a right on Neptune Ave, make a stop at Totonno’s (old-school brick-oven pizza, no slices, so don’t even ask), then pass through a few run-down residential blocks to Surf Avenue, and beyond it the boardwalk, loud rides, hot sand, and ocean.

Yesterday, I rode out there—not by bike, but in a car with three other volunteers from Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn. We’d been given a list of names of about a dozen people, most of them elderly, to check in on in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. We had some food, supplies, and blankets—not much, but enough for the names on the list.

We left behind the Brooklyn with lights and electricity, driving past the many-blocks-long lines of cars and people on foot waiting for gas at stations on Coney Island Avenue. At the turn onto Neptune Avenue, everything went gray. Sand, piles of debris, boarded up first floors. Amidst all of it were the tired people who stayed behind.

After some confused iphone map searches, and precious gas wasted, we arrived at a cluster of high-rises—one of many that make up the skyline of poverty behind the Coney Island most of us are familiar with. I’ve never gone near them. I have a vague memory of seeing them in a Spike Lee movie, but maybe I made that up. The list directs us to a man named Evgeniy who, it is noted, is sick. We find the building, and begin the trek up twelve flights of concrete steps in pitch darkness, except for our flashlights. But you can still feel the darkness all around—there are no skylights, no windows along these dank concrete stairs, which must be unpleasant under the best of circumstances.

We reach 12G; the G is missing but has been replaced in magic marker. We knock. After a moment, a voice asks: “Khoo is it?” We say we are looking for Evgeniy. A woman in her 60s with curled but now flattened orange-ish hair, in a threadbare nightgown, opens the door. She seems perplexed, even annoyed, as we ask again for Evgeniy. Then she tells us that he is her husband, and that he died. He died? we ask, horrified. Then she clarifies: He died in May. How did you get his name, she asks? We say we’re not sure, he’s on this list we got from the synagogue. But he wasn’t Jewish, she says. That’s okay, we say. How are you? We have food and water, do you need anything?

She looks a bit sheepish, as if she shouldn’t accept, given that she’s not Evgeniy, and he wasn’t even Jewish. But it’s clear she is in need. She hasn’t left the apartment since the storm. Her phone died long ago, she has no radio, no television. Her home smells of cat litter, but I see no signs of a cat. It’s more likely an unpleasant consequence of the lack of plumbing (though, to her great relief, they’d somehow restored water to the building in the past day).

Her name is Yuliya. She was determined she’d be better off riding out the storm in her home, and brushes off the suggestion that she consider relocating to a shelter. But clearly, she has considered it. There’s a half-zippered suitcase on a chair—and you get the sense she’s opened and closed it many times in the past few days as she weighed her options.

We show her what we’ve got—yogurt, crackers, sandwiches, water. Candles, but no matches. That’s unfortunate, since her lighter fluid is getting low. She declines the Skippy peanut butter. (Most Russians we come across do the same.) She offers us coffee or tea, which we decline—how on earth would she make it? But we offer to sit and chat for a while. She apologizes repeatedly for her appearance, and for how little she has to offer.

She says she hasn’t been visited by anyone, and her world is entirely bound, for now, by the confines of her cluttered apartment. We sit, crowded, around a dining room table that occupies most of the living room. It’s covered with empty water bottles, a mostly eaten pastry in a disposable tin, and piles of papers. She shows us a bag full of pill bottles, assures us she is well stocked. On the window sill is the dwindling supply of refrigerated goods she’s set there in the hopes that they won’t go bad. There’s a small amount of milk in a glass bottle, almost certainly spoiled at this point, and a little jar of something unrecognizable. She insists, again, that she has enough food, though I can’t imagine what it is at this point.

I get the feeling that she’s not a shut-in by nature. In ordinary circumstances, I imagine she showers, dresses, and takes the elevator down for a stroll on the Brighton Beach boardwalk like her fellow countrymen. There are plenty of senior and community and Jewish centers down there. Now she’s only twelve stories away from the rest of the world, but to her it seems impossibly far.

Her eyes only tear up twice. Once, as we’re unpacking the food, and the second time, when we confess that it might be a while before power is restored. Of course we have no real information; it’s an uneducated guess. Maybe we should have been more optimistic.

Then we say our goodbyes, and she thanks us once more with her embarrassed smile, which by then I see is simply as a bulwark against despair. We tromp down the disgusting stairs.

***

Back out in the courtyard of the building, we see a chubby kid, black, maybe 12 years old, sitting on the edge of a big shopping cart that’s filled with garbage bags of what look to be clothes or blankets. He doesn’t look at us, doesn’t say anything. (We saw a lot of people out there like that, young and old, sitting alone, shell-shocked.) Then, sort of out of nowhere, an older kid leans out a window a couple of stories overhead and shouts at him, “Who’d you steal all that shit from, you fat fuck?”

Across the courtyard, an elderly Russian woman with greenish-gray teeth barks at us with a heavy accent. “People keep coming, bringing water and food, what we really need is flashlights and batteries. Tell Marty Marko,” she yells. “Let Bloomberg part with his millions!” Leaning into us, she digresses into a tale about Alexander the Great, the richest man imaginable, who, on his death bed, insisted that once he was dead he be displayed, naked, palms up, on a board, to show that we leave the world with nothing more than what we came in with. The other ladies around her roll their eyes; another, a little more neatly dressed, quips in Russian, why are you telling them? They’re not going to do anything about it.

In the lobby of another high-rise, in search of another name on our list, we run into two women in their 60s, preparing to head upstairs to the eighth floor. We offer to help them carry their groceries, items they’ve procured at a nearby distribution center. They accept our offer. The plump one in front is guided by her friend’s flashlight as we make our way up. She’s huffing and puffing by about the fifth floor. My heart is pounding too. It’s tiring and claustrophobic; I keep telling her to take it slow. But she seems in a hurry to get there, as though we might abandon her if she stops to catch her breath.

They are grateful when we reach the top, and we are too, as we’ve proven we’re good for something. Before we head back down, the breathless one waves me over, and I realize she needs our flashlight to get from her friend’s apartment to hers, and to find the keyhole in the pitch black corridor.

Heading back down, there’s just the hollow sound of our footsteps and breathing, except when we occasionally encounter someone coming from the other direction, their flashlight first, then the person. Several of the men we pass smell strongly of alcohol. And why not, really?

Outside, we’re surrounded again by debris and the sand, scattered in the road, in piles at the side. We pass distribution centers, large and small, official and DIY. There is one with Red Cross tents. Another with army tanks, men in National Guard uniforms, dispensing hot meals and packaged food. A woman mans a table with bottled water and nothing else. Elsewhere, people mill around piles of garbage bags filled with clothing donations. In the end, we decide to drop our remaining supplies off at one of many distribution sites that have popped up in the few hours we’ve been there. A carload of donations shows up, people gather round. We hand over our sandwiches, yogurt, crackers, bread, peanut butter, apples, water, and paper towels. It is quickly absorbed into a pile, and will just as quickly disappear.

***

Now it’s nighttime, and I’m home. Its warm and cozy here, but my four-year-old daughter can’t fall asleep, perhaps because I made the mistake, if that’s what it was, of explaining to her that I’d been gone all day bringing food and water to some people who didn’t have any because of the storm. It’s a somewhat glorified version of what we actually did, and not an especially frightening one, or so I thought. Maybe what kept her up was me. Maybe she could feel my sadness and horror and sense of inadequacy and failure, like a smell I’d brought back with me from Coney Island.

Finally, she gives in to sleep, and I am left wondering what Yuliya’s doing right now, alone in her cold damp apartment. Did she eat all the yogurt, for fear it would go bad? Did she use the candle, and if so, how long did she let it burn? Does she smile at the thought of the four strangers who appeared for a brief visit? Does her face then go flat, remembering what they said about the electricty not coming back for days. I picture her pulling her blanket tight around her in the subzero apartment, a cup of cold tea by the bed, and then lying down, hoping to slip into oblivion until morning.

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Bettina says:

This is a beautiful and moving story – capturing the juxtaposition of despair and hope which often exist side by side in the face of human tragedy (man made or mother nature). Excellent writing!

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Stranded in Coney Island’s High-Rises

Behind the iconic amusement park are devastated residential blocks where the elderly are locked in darkness

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