What Can Become Normal

Before you get on the bridge that leads out to the Rockaways, there is a length of fence, off to your right. Several small trees stand in front of it. And if you look at it for more than the few seconds it takes to drive past, you’ll see a line of debris—shreds of plastic bags, bits of wood, other trash—stuck in the fence.

It goes midway up, about shoulder height. At first, you might wonder: how did so much trash get into the fence, so high off the ground? And then you realize:

This is where the water was.

Being in the Rockaways after Hurricane Sandy is a collection of such moments, moments in which you realize so much of what’s around you has been reshaped by the storm. Almost nothing you see or hear is without its mark.

There is the noise. The constant hum of generators that rises in volume as the sun starts to set.

The cars parked seemingly at random in the medians of highways, vapor still visible on the inside of their windows.

The guy waiting to cross the street wearing a full white hazmat suit.

The many American flags flying on buildings whose open doorways reveal nothing inside, just the shell of a shop or a room.

The fact that it looks like everyone in this whole neighborhood decided to have a yard sale on the same day. There are so many couches hauled out onto the sidewalk. Whole rooms full of furniture, stacks of belongings in front of each house. But it’s all disorderly, rubble and huge double-thick trash bags chucked in amongst the living room sets. An unholy yard sale and no buyers.

And then there is the dirt.

It seems to cover every surface, every roadway. Your shoes get a skim of it; in only a few hours, if you blow your nose, it will come out brown. You’re breathing that dirt. And you don’t even live here—you get to go home at the end of the day. Away from the hazmat suits and the construction vehicles, away from the piles of debris and the lines that stretch for blocks of folks just waiting for food. Away from the dirt… which one man tells me isn’t just dirt. It’s sand.

It’s the beach. Spread all over town.