Joan Swirsky
The kindness of strangers
By Joan Swirsky
January 14, 2013

When Sandy hit, my husband Steve and daughter Karen and I spent day after day after day freezing in our ordinarily-cozy home, unable even to leave the premises, as police tape cordoned off every means of egress to protect all the shivering residents of our block from the massive trees that had blown over like toothpicks and the downed wires that were strewn all over the place like spaghetti gone wild.

A few days later, my husband – packed and ready – was due to leave for trade shows in Orlando and New Orleans. But being a throwback to a more chivalrous age, he decided to stay home to protect the damsels in his life from the scary state of things: ongoing freezingness, no electricity (which lasted for 15 days), early darkness, and the risk of criminal activity, which ultimately did transpire, leaving a dozen cars in our neighborhood, including my own, vandalized.

To compound our anxiety, we learned through my iPad – which I charged in our car – that our second-story oceanfront condo in Rockaway Park, Queens, was literally in the eye of what weathermen were calling Hurricane Sandy, but which I insist to this day was a tsunami! Don't believe me? Look up the ravages it caused in lower Manhattan, Staten Island, Long Beach, Belle Harbor, Breezy Point, Coney Island, and dozens of towns in New Jersey. The list of entire communities utterly and completely destroyed and flooded out of existence by the massive waves goes on and on.

The entire shorefront area had been evacuated in anticipation of the terrifying tsunami, but we learned of the magnitude of Sandy's wrath from a neighbor who made her way back to our condo development the next day and managed to capture the breadth of destruction on this chilling videotape taken from her balcony. Gone was the beach, the eight-mile boardwalk, the four-lane roadway, the sidewalks, the lawns, the entire first floors and basement storage units of the condos, as well as every boiler and electrical grid.

We started to get regular e-mails (again, on the iPad) from a Board member of the condo, desperately seeking generators and fuel oil and anything that would help the valiant efforts being made to save or salvage property and to bolster the spirits of those who had lost everything – literally everything they owned!

I sent the above-mentioned video to my husband's partner Damon Bickell at the trade show in Orlando. And that was when we witnessed firsthand a cascade of generosity from California to Tennessee to Rockaway Park, New York, that is still warming the cockles of our hearts. By the way, that expression is thought to come from the idea that mollusks, which are heart-shaped, slam their shells shut to protect themselves, but if they're exposed to warmth, the shells open, just as when people are warmed by an emotional experience, their hearts open up as well.

Damon sent the video to a vendor of my husband's on the West Coast – Kevin Rost, the young president of Dura Plastic Products, manufacturers of plastic fittings and valve boxes, in Beaumont, CA. It took Kevin about 30 seconds to call his brother Hardy, who operates the Dura factory in Celina, Tennessee. Hardy, in turn, called his 23-year-old son Randy, who works for the family business and was just certified in Computer-Aided-Design (CAD). Randy then called his friend Anthony Marcus, a 22-year-old cattle rancher and correctional officer with ambitions to become a policeman and SWAT team member.

Meanwhile, Steve had just gotten off the phone with the condo board member, who told him that someone in Connecticut had promised to bring him all the things he was asking for. About a minute later, Kevin Rost called to say the same thing.

"I don't know how to thank you, Kevin," Steve said, "but it's not necessary...the condo guy said someone from Connecticut was transporting the goods."

"Sorry, Steve," Kevin responded, "but as soon as they plugged the Rockaway Park zip code into their GPS, Randy and Anthony took off. They're driving all night and they should be there in 14 hours or so!"

Sure enough, the young men pulled up to the condo units the next morning, only to learn that the condo's Connecticut benefactor had reneged! They were driving a massive 2006 GMC TopKick flatbed truck with 49" tires, emblazoned on its side with Baptist Ridge Cattle Co. and fully loaded with hundreds of gallons of gasoline fuel, a dozen generators, many dozens of bottled water, et al.

What they first saw was unforgettable – mountains of dirt for as far as the eye could see piled eight-and-10-feet high with saturated mattresses, water-logged furniture, mangled baby shoes and tricycles and toys, irredeemable photographs, opened boxes of soaked tax returns, personal papers, priceless mementos and family treasures. All gone...gone forever.

But the gratitude and relief the night-riders encountered was immeasurable. People were shaking their heads in disbelief...and crying...and hugging...and expressing their gratitude. One neighbor called them "guardian angels." Another nicknamed them "Hope" and "Help" because, she told me: "Just when we were running out of hope that any help would come, there they were!" The sight of Randy and Anthony unloading their truck mobilized the neighborhood until everyone was pitching in.

At nightfall, the tireless young men drove to our home on Long Island, mercifully filling up our tanks with gasoline (which allowed us to miss the hundred-car lines that wound around our block for weeks) and behaving as if the heroic acts of generosity and hands-on help they had given to virtual strangers were no big deal.

To me, what they did remains the biggest deal of all because it affirmed for me, once again, that this is what America is all about, just good people doing good things – giving, helping, sharing, pitching in, opening hearts – with no expectation of recompense or even acknowledgment, but because that's who We the People really are. They had brought a windfall of goods worth many thousands of dollars to people they'd never met, embodying in their selfless and magnificent gesture the very definition of the kindness of strangers.

© Joan Swirsky


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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