I am so proud to see the way 99% of Staten Islanders and others in hard hit storm areas are stepping up to help their fellow man in any way they can. Volunteers are everywhere, handing out food, cleaning up debris, directing traffic, and maybe just letting a total stranger cry on their shoulder. Restaurants are giving away free meals, stores are donating clothing, cleaning materials, power outlets to charge cellphones, or just a place to stay warm for an hour or two. There are a few world class a-holes engaging in looting, but they pale in comparison to the brave and good deeds performed everywhere you look. This goodness is what I remember about the people I grew up around in the East New York section of Brooklyn.
It was common on my block for people to help each other. Men would do things like shovel the walks of older neighbors, or get together for a "painting party" when an apartment needed a fresh coat. My father Tony was not big on painting and would often ask our next door neighbor, Frank, to "help" him. Frank was a prince of a guy and wound up doing most of the painting while my Dad fetched the beer and talked about the Yankees. Women on the block were like Wardens: they kept an eye out for any kid who might think about doing something dumb, and chew the kid out, closing with the ultimate threat: "Don't make me tell your mother!"
We had neighborhood cops, big, beefy Irishmen, that actually walked a beat. They knew us and we knew them. It never occurred to us to cross them because they were not reluctant to swipe that nightstick across your behind. Many store owners knew families on the block who struggled and always threw a few extra sliced baloney slices onto the pile knowing it might be someone's dinner. I've talked before about the baker who delivered fresh, hot bread to my wife's grandparents every day for two years after Grandpa got hurt and lost his job. He never asked for a cent. People in need would find canned soup or boxed cereal left in their milk boxes anonymously by neighbors who wanted to help without injuring anyone's pride.
Even us kids knew what it was to share, whether it was sports equipment, bicycles, roller skates or bringing someone home for lunch. Somehow our Moms always found a way to stretch a meal for one more. We would routinely go to the stores for seniors who couldn't go themselves, and we gallantly refused their offered nickel tips knowing they needed the money more than we did. If there was a death in a family, enough hot dishes were brought to the house to feed that family for a month. We didn't think highly of ourselves for behaving this way, its just the way people grow up when they are surrounded by families barely eking things out.
The reaction of disaster-struck New Yorkers and New Jerseyans has been so different from the people in Louisiana hit by Hurricane Katrina. While I'm sure many people did what they could for neighbors, too many others stood by waiting for the government to come to their rescue. Good luck with that.
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