By Shoshanna McCollum
“Was it five years ago?”
The question that comes up a lot in conversation recently, but of course we already know the answer. It is a common time reference on Fire Island now – “before Sandy” and “after Sandy”.
The flannel pajamas I wore that morning had a leopard-spot print. They became soaked with nervous perspiration as I ran around the house trying to secure things as brownish floodwater started wicking up their legs, even though they were rolled to the knee.
It had been a difficult autumn for us. John received a layoff notice from Town of Islip, effective the first of November. Our hopes that easier times lay ahead with the publication of my first book were dashed with the reality of my first royalty statement. And after 16 years together, our marriage bore the scars of cumulative disappointments and regrets that time can bring. The decision to stay was quickly shaping into becoming one more.
Why did we stay? The short answer is our cats. Had it been one or two that we could have packed away into carriers, the decision might have been different – but with this rambling orphanage of animals, it would have become a matter of choosing which ones to take with us, and which ones we left behind. So the decision was to stay together. Except now my husband was telling me to get dressed, it was time to go.
Betsy Peters lived on higher ground one block over. Still on oxygen due to her lung cancer the prior year, it had not been wise for her to stay either. Two days short of Halloween, I was staring into space on Betsy’s couch as she gave me tepid coffee. Later we drank wine. The surge came hours ahead of the storm itself. I’ve heard plenty of noisy storms come though this island, but Sandy was oddly quiet when she made landfall.
“Betsy will put you up and Shoshanna can keep an eye on her,” George Hesse said to my husband the next morning as he mobilized people and summed up the situation. There were a fair number of us, and as police chief, George was doing his best to keep some element of normal. With marshal law imposed on the island that was easier said than done.
We checked on things at our home the next day. The leopard spot pajamas had somehow made it into a tree. Stiff with bay mud, the ensemble looked kind of ridiculous as it took on an action pose. I would never wear those pajamas again. Many other clothes and possessions were also a total loss… too many to list. Luckily all of the cats that lived with us were soon accounted for – but in other parts of Ocean Beach John took on the grim task of collecting the bodies of ferals in the neighborhood that were at the wrong place at the wrong time. Some we simply never saw again.
Displaced from our home, and electrical power not restored as weeks dragged on, I tried to keep the banter light as tempers grew short and we were still living under Betsy’s roof.
“I’m sick and tired of your goddamn stories,” she snapped one night as she drank down her vodka.
In town things were also getting tense as the privilege to drive on or off the island was being regulated during marshal law by a placard system, with less than a half dozen allotted for each community to ration amongst each other. Those placards became a source of jealousy among folks marooned here.
John and I would go to our house daily to continue with the task of cleaning up the mess, as well as seeing the cats. Trouble, our alpha male, appropriated a drawer full of my surviving sweaters. At nightfall he ordered the youngest kittens in the center, surrounded by older cats, with the strongest ones in the prime of life on the outside.
With a device John kept to jump car batteries, my laptop could be charged, so I started keeping a storm diary. John then figured out a way to use the car-jumping contraption to give us an internet signal for about an hour a day. I managed to send the diaries to the fellow I was freelancing for at the time, who posted them online.
By Thanksgiving the power was finally restored, marshal law was lifted at the end of November, and we had made enough repairs to move back into our house. John had been released from the Town of Islip for several weeks by then, and finally made it over to turn in his uniform.
“Your winter service jacket has been listed as damaged in the storm,” his boss at the town’s Meals on Wheels Program said. “Here’s another for your wife.”
Near Christmas I went to pick up a prescription at Pathmark pharmacy. The clerk picked it out of the bin without even asking my name.
“I read your blog Mrs. McCollum,” she answered when I asked how she did that. “Hope things are better now.”
The house flooded three more times before New Years Day. John was still not himself, but I realized the storm was only half the reason. That winter Palms Hotel advertised that they were holding a job fair. Maybe an interview would lift his esteem, but how was I going to get him in there? I prepared an application for myself, and told him that I would need a ride. Nothing in my skill set has much to do with the hospitality industry, but I brashly suggested in my cover letter that perhaps they could use a copywriter. How surprised I was when Laura Mercogliano called me the next day to discuss it.
John’s confidence did pick up after his interview. Nothing was promised, but he seemed more at ease with himself in the weeks that followed. In addition he and I began to recognize each other again. Perhaps the storm had washed some bad spirits away.
As spring approached the house flooded twice again. However the water could be measured in inches instead of feet. Instead of panicking, we sat in the living room in our nightclothes sipping morning coffee.
“Don’t turn on the toaster,” one of us said.
FEMA dispatched workers for a mass clean up of Fire Island in the early spring. Many of the workers spoke little English. We could not understand why some were terrified of John. The decommissioned Islip jacket, with its day glow stripes, made him look like a FEMA supervisor. Eventually however they realized he was harmless as he went on his cat feeding rounds. The following June, John was rehired by Town of Islip. He chose to retire two summers later.
With loss there is renewal, and fortunes change when least expected. Fire Island’s presence in the headlines in the year that followed Sandy boosted my book sales. Pleased with this, my publisher offered me a contract for a second title. In time the connection I made with Laura at that job fair that day would lead to the job I have with Fire Island News today.
But Sandy never seems far away. Mortality rates were high among cats that survived Sandy the following year, including Trouble, who aged after those weeks of bravely protecting the pride. That same hot August Betsy’s cancer returned, and she perished too.
Five years later I write this from an unfamiliar desk as we are displaced once more. We knew 2017 would be the last summer in the house we shared for over 20 years. New York Rising slated it for demolition. Sad as the moment was, it went down so easily, like a wounded animal finally put to rest. Now we bide our time, wait, and hope.