My grandmother’s longtime boyfriend was a man named Smitty. Every New Year’s Eve, Smitty would go into homeless shelters in New York City and hand out cigars to the men and candy to the women and children. For the first twenty-nine years of my life I didn’t understand why. Homeless people in the frigid New York winter need blankets, food, clothing, and money. Cigars and candy seemed ridiculous, if not insulting, for people in dire straits. Years after Smitty died, I learned the reason when Hurricane Sandy made landfall in 2012.
Living in Central Jersey, I was fortunate to have only minimal property damage. When the storm cleared I walked down my street and saw that fallen trees had smashed cars and houses. Severed power lines dangled perilously over sidewalks. Tree limbs larger than people were strewn around the neighborhood. A few dozen miles to the east, the devastation was far worse.
People respond to disasters in the most abnormal ways. In some cases we turn vicious and cold-hearted. There was a man trying to cut into the mile-long line for one of the few operational gas stations. He had a refrigerator full of life-saving medicine that his mother needed at home, and a generator that was low on fuel. The terrible things that people in line said to this man, who was trying to keep his mother alive, were unforgettable.
In other cases we can reveal our warmest and most compassionate selves. A neighbor with whom I never got along came to check on my family to make sure we were OK. A co-worker delivered clean water to people who had none. Everywhere you looked, people were sharing and helping each other with what little resources they could spare. All of this was heartening, to be sure. Nevertheless, I found myself wishing my neighbor would go back to making snide remarks about my lawn.
When I had power and phone service, my first order of business was to check that my friends and family were okay. My second priority was checking on baseball and football news (the World Series had just ended). For some reason, I felt absolutely compelled to know everything that was happening in the sports world outside of the disaster area (even more than usual). I needed to know that there was one part of my normal life that was still enduring in spite of the carnage.
I have a different neighbor who is obsessed with the Oakland Raiders. He’s convinced they will win the Super Bowl every year (they never do). A few days after the storm, when power had been mostly restored and some streets were reopening, he and I met in our adjacent backyards. Instead of talking about the aftermath of Sandy we discussed the baseball off-season and the Raiders’ offensive line. It was at this moment that my personal chaos began to subside.
I learned that our circumstances do not define us. When our lives are in turmoil, the gift of being treated like a normal person is invaluable. When someone has neither food nor shelter, they still deserve New Year’s Eve. Sometimes there is dignity in the mundane, and the best type of charity is to suspend the knowledge that charity is needed at all.
For those in East Texas right now, I wish for you to have baseball. I want you to have the Astros. I do not wish for some divine winning streak or rejected Hollywood script. I wish for you to have baseball in all of its poetry and absurdity, all of its glory and agony; just all of it. I hope the day comes soon when you don’t have to talk about Harvey, and the chaos gives way to baseball once again.Next post: Trailing 30 (Labor Day Edition)
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