The people in the Rockaways might not have homes, but they do have blind faith in American democracy.
On the ride down to the Rockaways from Manhattan, debris from smashed homes clings to what remains of the wire beach fencing like flowery tributes left at a funeral. The Red Cross is nowhere to be seen. “We’ve done it all ourselves,” says Pastor Rodney Davis, 54, of the New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Far Rockaway. “Our members have saved whatever they could. We have a lot of seniors here who’ve lost everything. I brought some of my members down to vote, to make sure they get a chance to vote.”
This peninsula in the New York borough of Queens was one of the worst-hit by the superstorm Hurricane Sandy when it savaged America’s Eastern seaboard one week ago. Homes have been wrecked, lives lost and hundreds of thousands of people are living without heat, light, food or water in a disaster zone within sight of the Manhattan skyline, all while the rest of the country is distracted by the election circus. I’ve just spent the morning up to my elbows in cold, slimy oil; cleaning out a deep-fat fryer ready to take a food truck down to the devastated seafront, to feed hungry voters near the Rockaway polling stations.
Franz Aliquo runs the 666 burger truck, which normally functions as a beef-pattie delivery service for those who like their meat like they like their lovers – well-bred and slightly controversial. Franz, an advertising executive who runs the business as a sideline, is most famous for inventing the "doucheburger", the most expensive beefburger ever made, a foie-gras stuffed, gold-leaf-wrapped mockery of everything awful about Manhattan food culture retailing at $666 dollars a bun. Now he’s handing out hot-dogs to Rockaway residents for free.
Wayne gets excited by the sausages
“It costs about $1200 dollars per outing to hand out as much food as we do,” says Franz. “We’re going to be feeding at least 500 people today. Those little kids were happy as shit just to have some hot fries. No light, no heat, your house has been destroyed, your parents are crying and to have that one moment of something normal again is worth a lot.
“It’s a place for people to take a break,” he says, turning over a monsterload of frankfurters on the grill – anything that can be deep-fried and shoved in a bun, we’re giving out for free. “There’s no bars open, no restaurants, nowhere for people to chill out and feel like a human being. They come here and there’s music playing. It doesn’t cost that much. And this type of service needs to be sustained – there might not be power in the Rockaways for months."
The burger truck hums with heat and light. We are not allowed to do anything that might suggest we’re trying to influence the voting public one way or another, but the fact that the truck is matte black with a pentagram painted on one side and is spewing red light, meaty steam and a selection of classic gay club hits from the 1990s may be enough to put off a few Republicans. Not that we seem to meet many.
“Our house is underwater,” says Evelyn Stuart, who made the long, cold journey with her family to vote for Obama today. “We’re living with friends who were kind enough to take us in, but we can’t stay there for long. But we’ve gotta rebuild. We’ve lost so much, so you just have to depend on somebody to help out. Nobody’s come to Rockaway yet. It’s not Manhattan, it’s not New Jersey, we haven’t been on the news, it’s like it’s been forgotten.”
The 666 grill whistles and spits when the butter hits it, and we start frying up eggs, blinding them with cheese slices and slapping them in toasted rolls as fast as hungry voters can form a line. They are drawn by the music, the light and heat and sense of social space. “I haven’t heard music in a week!” exclaims one young man with mud on his coat, grabbing some onion rings. “Elvis!” exclaims an older woman on crutches. “Elvis, where are you?” We get the idea, and turn the speakers up, Franz’ eclectic playlist of non-controversial, danceable songs cutting through the vicious November chill.
“It hurts. Rockaway has really been devastated. I’ve never seen it like this, and I’ve been here since 1960!” says Delores Sachs, a retired bookkeeper in her late eighties. “All the people that live here that I know... the loss is unreal. It’s hard to take it in.”
Families line up with small children, only jostling a little bit as we as we shove half-scalding ham sandwiches in their direction. Some of them try to pay us, and when we explain that the food is free, they insist on pressing fives and dollars into our hands, telling us to “put it in the kitty to buy more supplies”. Hastily, we start one.
Most of these people – poor and middle-class but mostly poor; black and white but mostly black – are the people who have not been spoken to or about during the 18 months of wall-to-wall election coverage in the mainstream media. They are the 47 percent of the nation in whose votes Mitt Romney specifically declared that he had no interest, and the fact that, until this morning, he believed he could win an election with that attitude tells you almost all you need to know about the state of American politics.
Almost all. The rest of what you need to know can’t be learned by staring at 18 months of opinion polls. Sometimes you tell a story of savagery and human survival by covering as much ground as possible, and sometimes you tell it by staying in one place, doing one thing for as long as it takes. Today that one place is the corner outside Far Rockaway High School, whose playground has been converted into a voting complex for area residents. The playground looks a like a scene from a film about the end of the world. Specifically, it looks like a scene about two-thirds of the way through, where the zombies or the aliens have destroyed almost everything and the survivors are rushing around tent cities trying to find their spouses before the president turns up with the special agents and the reluctant scientist to fix everything – except that this isn’t the movies, and the president is very far away.
Polling station volunteers came from across the five boroughs.
Sand from the bay, blown through by Sandy a week ago, is thick on the ground. The air around the tents is choked with dust that glows in the light of the generators; voters have to wear face-masks as they line up to be counted. As darkness falls these makeshift tents are the only place on the street with light and heat, apart from the flashing headlamps of the emergency trucks. It will be over a month before power returns to the island; until then, the people of Rockaway who can’t or won’t leave are forced to huddle in the dark, in freezing homes half-sodden with seawater.
“Yeah, I’m voting, but I pity whoever gets the job,” says Jenny Dunn, a teacher of kids with special needs, taking in the devastation around her. Down the street, still strewn with mud and debris, a boat the size of a small house has been picked up by the storm and stranded in the middle of the road. “It’s not even just this,” says Dunn, “The entire United States is in a really bad place, so whoever does get the job is going to have their hands full.”
With us are Franz’s friend John Roberts, who runs a bar in Bushwick, a filmmaker-come-short-order chef named Wayne Price, and Wayne’s friend Staci Perkins, a perfectly lovely lass who has the habit of exclaiming “Go America!” every time somebody tells us they’ve just been to vote. To counteract the itching in my palms I try to look at this phenomenon with objective, journalistic interest: an election in adverse circumstances would not, in the country I’m from, be an occasion for anyone to shout "Hurrah for Britain!” For these Americans, voting seems about more than just picking which guy they want to be in charge for the next four years. “It’s our civic duty,” say a Republican couple in their mid-forties who do not want to give their names. Their home is full of water, its contents destroyed. I tell them there are hot-dogs in Franz' van.
Politics is bewildering, hot-dogs are simple. Cooking them and distributing them to people who haven’t had hot food in days is something concrete you can do to make things better. Faces tight from cold loom suddenly out of the dark; children accept little dishes of sausage and onion rings. Inside the van it’s smoky, greasy chaos as six people try to fry up 600 meals as fast as humanly possible in too-small a space without burning any vital extremities. It’s easy to forget there’s an election on.
By 8PM, around about the time we hear that Florida is swinging for Obama, we’ve run out of everything but egg-rolls, onion rings, bacon and hot-dogs. A normal food truck would shut, but we’re giving away everything we can fry up. We’ve even run out of buns, which gives us a legitimate reason to feed hungry police officers hanging around the truck trays of pure bacon. To cope with the bun shortage, Franz invents the double-dog, a foodstuff which looks infinitely obscene, being one frank sliced open and wrapped around another. At the end of the day, it’s warm and salty and keeps out the chill, although this isn’t quite how we sell it to the families of Rockaway.
It’s when I see the lines of freezing, starving people almost stepping over one another to get into the relief voting booth that I realise there’s a great deal about this country I still don’t understand. Looking up the dark, debris-strewn street full of people wrapped and shuffling like refugees makes you wonder what precisely either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney have done to deserve these people’s devotion. Certainly, neither of them have seemed terribly concerned to win the votes or hearts of the Rockaways’ 130,000 residents in the past weeks and months. New York is not a swing state, and the Rockaways are not a battleground: it’s assumed that the state and the borough will go for Obama, and the people living here have little to donate to the corporate political machine. As a consequence, very little money or attention has been paid to the Rockaways. And yet the lines continue to form outside the voting complex, because actually, it isn’t about Obama or Romney. It’s about something more important. It’s about the belief that the mechanisms of a civil, democratic society can still function, despite all evidence to the contrary.
This sandy, ramshackle half-toxic voting complex is nothing more or less than a temple, and the people with wide, distracted eyes shivering and clutching each other in the voting line are worshippers. Maybe it’s the cold, or the excellent bottle of tequila a grateful hot-dog recipient gave us, but there’s something happening here that has little to do with Republicans and Democrats, electoral colleges and swing voters.
These people believe in American Democracy and their place in it in the way that some people believe in the Holy Ghost or Father Christmas. They believe in it desperately, childishly, because they need something to believe in, and the fact that they have little to no evidence that it’s going to do anything for them if it exists at all just makes belief more precious. Giving out hot-dogs and fried chicken outside the temple gates just makes the sacrament feel more curiously American.
These people have come here in the way that people come to church in times of crisis: because they believe that there’s something large, powerful and ineffable here that might save them. And, of course, they are absolutely right, although it isn’t God, or American Democracy. It’s other people, and their endless capacity to give and give and hold one another up until the cold eats through their jackets and they’re ready to keel over from tiredness.
“It’s necessary,” says Pastor Davis. “The process doesn’t stop. Tragedies do happen, but we must maintain. We weep, we cry and we move on. If we don’t get out and do the things we need to do today, then who’s gonna win?”
When we’ve cooked everything we possibly can, I stop to eat my first meal of the day in a cheap diner just half an hour’s drive in the pitch-black from the disaster zone. Here there’s heat, and light, and as much hot soup as I can stomach: impossible, unthinkable luxury. It’s election night and I’m a political journalist and I haven’t even checked Twitter because it doesn’t seem very important right now.
I’m cramming chicken soup into my frozen face when the news of Obama’s second victory finally comes through. The diner erupts into cheers and yells – for about three minutes. Then the customers go back to eating barbecue ribs and the couple at the next table resume their quarrel, and I go back to emailing Franz to ask when the truck’s going out again and can we get an urn of coffee next time?
Outside in the street, the Empire State building is lit brightly in blue. It’s so bright that they might even be able to see it from Rockaway beach.
Follow Laurie on Twitter: @PennyRed
Photos by Kate Black: http://thekateblack.tumblr.com/
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