Home of the Beautiful People
I propped myself with all the pillows from both twin beds in my neighbor’s guestroom and my thumbs blazed across the phone as text after text came flying in. I was texting frantically with the woman in Amagansett who told me they were going.
“Were you able to reach them? It’s very dangerous. The storm has started, there’s no power and no help if they get stuck,” I tapped out the message like an SOS. I didn’t check any of the other 20 texts. I just held the phone tightly waiting for a reply.
“I told them. They went anyway.”
Shit. This was not good.
“They have 100 gallons of hot soup. The car is packed.”
“Did they bring gas? There’s no gas.”
“I don’t know.”
“There’s no cell reception either.”
“I know. “
With nothing more to say or do, I moved on. “OK. Let me know if you hear from them.”
I opened the bottom of the list of texts I had missed.
“The wind is howling. I made a hammock 10 feet up in case the school floods.”
It was the guy from East Hampton who drove to the Rockaways the first night after Sandy. He had been volunteering round the clock ever since. I could tell he was scared.
“You’ll be fine, the news is saying some snow and not terrible wind.”
“We just sent an old guy off in the ambulance. Lucky to get him out – roads are bad.”
“Good work. Text me anytime.”
“Gotta go – they need me.”
It was about three hours and 32 messages later, he texted again. “Mark and Joe just got here with a shitload of soup. Crazy motherfuckers.”
“Tell them to stay put!”
I quickly messaged her “They made it.”
Then I shut my phone off and went upstairs to look at the news. It was less than a week since Hurricane Sandy made landfall, leaving the East End largely unscathed in comparison to many towns across Long Island and New York City with scenes of utter devastation. I was camped at my neighbor’s house – he had a generator.
Like many before me, I started my love affair with the Hamptons on the beach, Montauk to be specific. Toes in the sand, sun on my face and breeze in my then naturally strawberry hair, I couldn’t get enough of the sea that beckoned surfers and fisherman, the light that drew painters and photographers, the birds and trees, flowers and wildlife that filled the camera lenses and hearts of countless visitors, the sunsets that still take my breath away after twenty plus years. After a few extended summers, I decided to make this beautiful place my home. Dreary, bleak winters and all, I loved it.
“Yes February and March can be a bit like ‘The Shining’, but it’s a good time for black and white photos.” I would tell my city friends, most of whom were envious of me in summer and thought I was batshit crazy in winter.
I was smitten with small town life – “the people at the post office all know your name.” I’d tell them.
“I can leave my keys in the car when I go grab a coffee, heck I can even leave the car running,” I’d brag to them, stuck battling slamming subway doors, honking cabs and gridlock.
I started to learn the names of the trees “Shads are native to Montauk”, and the way the winds blew “what they want for surfing is called offshore” and impressive generalities like “did you know we have the largest population of migratory seabirds in the US?” I was a proud East Ender, I ‘got’ this place and it was my home.
But as much as I grew to know and love this 25 or so mile stretch of the South Fork of Long Island, I didn’t truly experience the real beauty of the Hamptons until those weeks and months following Hurricane Sandy. When the people that inhabit this special place on the planet shined their light like our infamous sunrises.
Two days before a rare November snowy nor’easter (and the soup escapade), which was less than a week after the storm of the century, I met up with a few people at Gurney’s café to try to unify the efforts of community members who wanted to help with the disaster. Many people were already travelling to The Rockaways or Island Park joining with volunteers and emergency workers from all over. Shops were collecting goods, clothes, emergency supplies. Our fire department was bringing brains and brawn to places that looked like they had been carpet-bombed and people who were hungry, heartbroken and terrified. I brought my laptop and as soon as we sat down, first thing we did was start a Facebook Page. “Let’s call it East End Cares,” someone suggested while someone else typed it into the group header. Someone from the Town offered Town Hall as a collection point. Gurney’s offered whatever they could, food, delivery trucks, anything. We had a helicopter at our disposal from a resident in Amagansett. And someone had a list of people offering their homes to people who had lost theirs. There was a swell of goodness in our beach town.
“Look at this you guys. We have 1500 members. “
In less than ten minutes East End Cares was a real thing. Or as one of the women at our meeting said “this thing is growing legs and running.”
Someone’s cell rang. The jitney had a bus available for volunteers.
A day and a half later the first busload of 50+ volunteers and packed luggage bays headed west to deliver some East End love.
The guys from the Fire Department gave us a safety briefing, basically saying, don’t go too far from the command center at the school and get the hell out before it gets dark.
The bus started at 6 am in Montauk where a human chain loaded a literal ton of supplies; cases upon cases of bleach, trash bags, gloves, flashlights, shovels, brooms, water and more water, baby formula and diapers. One of the volunteers showed up with an SUV full of sandwiches. We stopped at Town Hall to pick up more volunteers and about 500 more packed meals that the Amagansett school kids had stayed up all night making with their parents. Then stopped along the usual Jitney route for more volunteers and made our way to Sandy’s ground zero at St. Francis School in Rockaway Beach.
During the two-hour drive we each buddied up with another volunteer and divided into teams. A food team would drive out with the SUV into the areas where many where still without any food or water. Other teams would move debris, sort and distribute supplies, survey and identify critical needs.
When the trip started I knew approximately 10 of the 53 people. On the way home, we all were hugging and crying and planning our next trip. After a much-needed pit stop at a wine store, we passed liter bottles of wine, Dixie cups and bags of chips, and moved around the bus sharing our experiences. One woman had names and numbers of a few families and was enlisting others to come back and help them. Another young mother wanted to set up a place where kids could play and get a tiny bit of normalcy amongst the ruins and give weary, shell shocked mothers a break. She later pulled that off in a pre-holiday craft area, which was the talk of the Rockaways. Another group of people were planning a fundraiser, and a few in the restaurant business were discussing mobile food service with proper hot food.
The East End community served over 65,000 meals during the following weeks including a Thanksgiving feast, brought in by a team of volunteers and delivered across the entire peninsula. Months later, when people were re-settling, the Montauk Rugby club filled two giant Ryder trucks with donated furniture, cabinets, appliances, and delivered them with smiles and heart shaped notes from local children. The recipients where flabbergasted to receive brand new Tempurpedic beds, flat screen TVs, leather sofas and gorgeous antique mahogany dining ensembles. The riches of the Hamptons were not just seen in these fine things, but in the generosity of those who donated them.
On the ground, in the volunteer community, and even with the NYC Mayor’s office, East End Cares was a known force of kindness. One of our big nurseries not only donated a 35 foot live Christmas tree (which today grows happily in a community garden), but they trucked it in and provided all the lights.
At that tree lighting many East Enders were there, passing out candy canes and tearing up along with the residents as everyone sang along to Christmas Carols blasted from a parked truck, and the tree lights were switched on from a generator.
The Hamptons. Home of the beautiful people indeed.