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Finding uncommon community after superstorm Sandy

The older Italian couple had narrowly escaped superstorm Standy. Their Staten Island home had not. As we carried debris with other volunteers, we came to know them. My friends and I spend most of our days emailing, but today, we worked – together. These encounters are too rare.

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A resident of Staten Island's New Dorp Beach neighborhood carries a basket full of clothes and other items Nov. 5 on her street that was devastated by superstorm Sandy. Op-ed contributor Courtney E. Martin writes of her experience volunteering in the neighborhood after the hurricane: 'The physicality, immediacy, and selflessness – not heroism, but literally the disappearance of the self – was dignifying.'

John Minchillo/AP

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Natural disaster begets uncommon intimacy.

One moment, we were standing under the muddled sun in New Dorp, a neighborhood that sits on the outermost edge of Staten Island. The next, we were bagging linens in the bedroom, trashing chicken cutlets out of the freezer in the basement, rubbing the slumped shoulders of a perfect stranger whose old wedding dress hung dripping on the muddy wooden floor.

We could have ended up at any house, on any number of streets that had, just days earlier, been ocean. But it was to this older Italian couple’s home that the volunteer coordinator sent us.

When the water came, they told us, it came so fast. First there were just puddles. Eight minutes later their basement had become a fish tank. As the water level rose three feet into their kitchen, they escaped.

As we worked that day, we escaped something, too – a certain kind of city life where encounters like this are dangerously rare. Most days, we email. But today, we worked. And as we carried their things from their humble two-story home onto the street out front, we came to know them.

For one, they love to look sharp. Has one man ever owned so many ties? Or pinstriped suits? They just kept coming, drenched from collar to cuff. She, too, had to relinquish a silk, black coat with brown fur trim, a piece of clothing that had no doubt transformed how she felt about herself at some important moment. We threw it with the rest of the stuff – the DVDs and the impossibly heavy terrycloth robe and the remote control, as if it were just another thing.

They love gardening. The shed was filled with every kind of tool, now rusting in a plastic bucket of water. There were a dozen plastic drawers, each filled with seawater – seeds and nails and hinges swimming inside. There was a garden sign that said, “Take time to stop and smell the roses.” It stuck out of the mounting garbage pile in front of their dying home like some kind of cruel joke.   

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