Mamarama: The Year Halloween Was Cancelled…

I want to preface this blog by saying that Jersey City is one amazing place to live. We have a community ethic and concern that stretches far beyond one’s immediate environment and embraces every diverse corner of this city. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy our friends and neighbors met with ruined homes, cars, and belongings – we endured dirty water or no water at all, no heat, no electricity, no gas, no street lights and no food on supermarket shelves. Yet despite the overwhelming circumstances people found a way to connect and help one another, friends and strangers alike – all focused on giving more to those who were left with less.

Before the storm I would have told you I was totally prepared for what was ahead. I had a lantern, flashlights, camping head-lamps, loads of water, cans of soup and plenty of milk, eggs and bread. Heck, I even bought ice-cream and brownie mix in case we were stuck at home and felt the need to bake. I didn’t stop to fill up my tank at a local gas station because the idea of a “shortage” or “inability to pump fuel” never entered my pre-hurricane mind.

The Sunday before the hurricane felt like a mysteriously unusual holiday. The announcement that subways, buses and PATH services would be suspended gave most everyone an instant vacation day. School was cancelled, the kids all rejoiced, and there was a party going on at Fish With Braids gallery. The streets were eerily quiet and empty of the usual Sunday evening traffic. The air felt balmy – warmish and humid, charged with the threat of impending weather. My friends and I, along with our crew of kids, gathered at Uta Brauser’s Columbus Avenue gallery for a Halloween-themed fete. The deejay spun ambient ghoulish tunes and the adults milled around chatting about the impending storm. There was an air of anticipation – with good humor and naïve excitement for what lay ahead.

The kids blasted Black Sabbath in my car; we skateboarded around the block, as the streets were free of cars. One friend bought pizza for all and eventually we gathered inside for a spirited “Vampire Initiation” performance. We stayed out late, not knowing what to expect – half anticipating the same sort of over-preparedness that beset us with Hurricane Irene the year before.

The following day, Monday, the wind had kicked up and a tepid rainfall began. We ventured out again, finding company with friends and kids who were pent up with no school and too many video games. But there was a curfew put in effect and reluctantly we headed home to make dinner and hunker down for the night. The wind and rain blew tree branches against the house but we were cozy inside listening to music at top volume from my iTunes library. The kids seemed unafraid – to them it was just a stormy night – an excuse to stay indoors and skateboard around the living room (yes, that’s okay in my house.) But when Mother Nature suddenly pulled the big electrical cord out from our world – everything changed.

Now the howling wind could not be ignored. There was no more music or light to distract us; we were not going to be baking in an oven that remained dark and cold. We had no choice but to cuddle under the comforters and read a graphic novel by battery-powered lantern – just like when we’re camping. I listened to the wind whip branches against siding and toss garbage cans around the street. We fell asleep within the eye of a hurricane, oblivious to the calamity that was unfolding around us. Had we been able to see the river we would have watched in horror as it swelled to oceanic proportions, rising unnaturally high and rushing up streets and paths that had no business being covered by water.

By morning the winds and rains abated; the sun poked through a few clouds and something new was happening on our street. In the wake of the storm, disconcerted by lack of electricity and the usual distractions of morning emails or television, neighbors gathered outside comparing stories and surveying the damage. Felled trees and downed power lines peppered the road; cars had broken windows from fallen branches. Debris and trash were strewn about, littering our normally tidy oak-lined lane.

The kids and I quickly suited-up to survey Liberty State Park. What we saw there could hardly be believed. Boats were tossed about like toys a reckless giant toddler had left behind. A sailboat leaned askew on a streetlight; large metal pontoons were left blocking roadways and petrol barrels leaked rainbows onto wet pavement. There were so many boats left onshore with their keels and propellers exposed, it looked like a ramshackle boat show. We walked up the cul de sac that leads to the Pesin Canal, only to find our pedestrian connection to downtown – the old wooden bridge – completely destroyed and unusable. Before long, state police stepped in and ushered all of us out of the park; at this point Liberty State Park and the marina remain closed to the public while clean-up and repairs are made.

Back on our street, neighbors were still shaking their heads in disbelief. Rumors circulated that power would not be restored for days, possibly even a week later. I thought about the milk, ice cream and homemade soup that would never last beyond a few days – chiding myself for not stocking the cooler with ice (as community watchdog, Althea Bernheim had advised.) We gathered at one friend’s house where a generator kept their perishables from spoiling and where the hot cider was flowing. Again, it felt like a mysterious holiday for which no one could pin a celebration to. Kids put aside their electronic devices as batteries gave out and were un-rechargeable. Board games came forth, reading aloud was the new television, and the man with the guitar provided our soundtrack.

For children during the storm and its aftermath this was completely uncharted territory. Parents were helpless against the elements and could do nothing to provide the very things we consider essential to life — from food to transportation, forget about playing on the Wii™. Instead many of us put an emphasis on helping others who lost more than we did; but try explaining that to kids who have just been told that Halloween has been cancelled. My older child understood the gravity of this measure – able to imagine that without lights and with debris on the streets October 31st would not be an ideal time to roam around in the dark. The younger one looked as though she’d been told Santa had just retired. Though a rescheduled date was on the agenda it just wouldn’t be the same. The air of festivity had been erased by a crisis of epic proportions.

For those with car phone chargers, suddenly a world of connections opened up channels of communication again. From Facebook pages to local community list-serves people in need could alert others; folks who knew others in need could rally resources and aid. Grassroots volunteer organizations sprouted with gathering spots and meeting times. One mother gave her generator to a pregnant mother in need of heat and food while gas containers and spare gallons were being doled out to those out of fuel. Many children bagged up their toys, clothes and stuffed animals for drop-off at Barrow Mansion or the armory. For parents, the Jersey City Family Initiative (YahooGroup) served as a way to communicate via email by casting a wide net of potential aid. In one case a message went out that an entire high-rise building of elderly residents had been without food, heat or water for days. Building management worked tirelessly to tend to the hundreds of residents, but were exhausting their resources. When this message went out to the JCFI those who could help bustled over to the Journal Square location and sped up the process of delivering meals and water. We heard later that Management was overwhelmed with gratitude – probably wondering where and how these volunteers had mobilized so swiftly.

Even with our tenuous cell connections and spotty internet service Jersey City’s indefatigable residents found ways to rally forces, get help where it was needed, and to provide support and solace for those in need. It’s a testament to our community-minded culture and served as a profound teachable moment to our kids: This is what people do when a crisis hits…they band together and help.

(Special recognition to Steve Fulop and all he did to speedily tend to the many downtown residents in great need; Mayor Healy’s team helped secure necessary FEMA aid and worked tirelessly in all parts of Jersey City, mobilizing efforts and supplies to those cut off from assistance.)

Here are some ways you still can help:

The Jersey City Sandy Recovery website is here and its Facebook page is here.

Photo by Bebe Freeman

Jayne Freeman

is the host of the long-time public access show Mamarama as seen locally on Comcast Cable (channel 51) and on YouTube. In addition to her parenting program she is a certified childbirth educator and regularly writes about the parental experience.