Aimée Lutkin | Longreads | November 2019 | 15 minutes (3,262 words)
“Hello?” my grandmother’s cigarette-seasoned voice would always answer the phone immediately. I pictured her sitting directly beside it in her motel room, waiting to see which of her three daughters or four grandchildren was checking on her.
“Hi, grandma! Just calling to see if you and Papa are OK in the storm,” I’d say cheerfully, assuming they were basically fine, as they always were. They had evacuated their house, a flimsy four-room hut built atop cement blocks, that was set inconveniently close to the Narrow Bay, right on Mastic Beach in Long Island. All that stood between their home and a body of water that could consume it was a dirt road and a rustling wall of reeds that created a marshy barrier and the illusion of distance. That illusion was regularly washed away by storm flooding, sending them skipping backward like sandpipers.
“Well, we’re all settled in here,” she’d answer, sounding pleased to have evacuated for the night to an artless motel next to a barren parking lot. “Your father is watching the news. Looks like we’ll be back tomorrow!”
“Oh, that’s good,” I’d say, ignoring that she had confused me for my mother as she often did after passing her 80th birthday.
“Yeah, not too bad, not too bad,” she’d say, though there were a few times that did get bad. The year their cars were washed away and they were trapped in their house, years where the power went out. But they always bounced back and during the next storm I’d call to check in again, repeating the same familiar pattern.
For years, visiting my grandparents involved a two- to three-hour train ride on the LIRR from New York City; I went by myself once every summer or spring, and I visited with my mom and aunt and uncle who lived in Montauk every Thanksgiving and Christmas. Montauk is on the eastern tip of Long Island, so Mastic was where we met in the middle until my mother refused to go back. Then I’d go by myself for one winter holiday, alone on the cold, empty train, traveling back and forth on the same day. A six-hour train ride was preferable to spending the night in the drafty house, making conversation around my mother’s absence.
Most of my memories of dinners in Mastic were of the escalating tension between my mother and her father. At some point, Papa had been banned from direct criticism, so he substituted the word “Democrats” for her name. One of his favorite pointed sayings was “An open mind is like a sewer — all the garbage falls in.”
On the trip home, no matter how enraged she had become, my mother would say he hadn’t always been like this. He’d been a teacher. A philosopher. He used to build things and volunteer and not watch Fox News.
Before my mother’s boycott began, managing the volatile atmosphere was my job; the open hostility in the air bothered me, but it was easier to handle with a generation of distance between us. I learned quickly that one of the safest conversational topics was always the view.
“Look how beautiful it is,” I would say, and the group would repeatedly comply, turning to stare out the wide picture window over the dilapidated second-story porch. Any time of day was lovely, in any weather, but a clear sunset would flood the room with a warm apricot glow. The water caught and refracted the end of the day, allowing its goodbye to sweetly linger. My grandmother’s table, too big for the space, trapping us against the walls, would become a map of the world. Every person with their face tilted out toward the sun was trapped in amber light, frozen momentarily by warmth instead of cold.
I spent most of Superstorm Sandy drunk. At some point the internet went out. My roommates — who were also drunk — and I sat around our living room checking our phones again and again. I lay on my back watching the bare trees whipping outside my window. To us, hurricane preparedness meant having enough wine in our apartment. We’d been responsible. Born and raised in New York City, I’d weathered many hurricane seasons and had found that the danger warnings were always over the top, at least for the five boroughs.
Lack of internet in our Brooklyn neighborhood gave us some hint of the extremity of the situation, but it still took a little while before we understood that this hurricane was different. Reports of destruction filtered in as we sobered up and got back online. The lights were out in Manhattan, Red Hook was underwater, the Rockaways were a disaster zone, and Breezy Point was on fire.
They returned when the water receded. At first it seemed to me that that was that. Another storm survived.
In the following weeks, I volunteered, making sandwiches in a church basement, sorting clothes and other donations, traveling out to the Rockaways to help people find what they needed at an auditorium that had been transformed into a relief center. I went with a group of volunteers to knock on doors in apartments that still had no heat or power, finding people who hadn’t left or who had nowhere to go. I met a woman who was running out of insulin, which we didn’t have, and another whose antibiotics for a MRSA infection had been ruined in her water-damaged car. A father and daughter were boiling a kettle on their gas stove to keep their apartment warm, which another volunteer warned was dangerous. They nodded politely. Most of the people we met appeared very calm in the dark hallway, as though they were certain that things would soon snap back into normalcy. Walking down below their complex, seeing how the boardwalk had been pulled into twisted spikes by the waves, how sand spilled everywhere, gobbling up the streets, it seemed impossible that anything would be normal again.
Since Sandy, new condos have gone up in many of the hardest hit areas, even those still in flood zones. Writer Sarah Miller has investigated for Popula the cognitive dissonance required to move real estate into Miami Beach, purchases that essentially boil down to buying a house for 50 years, tops. Real estate development has mutated to work in tandem with climate change: Destruction levels an area, driving out residents; developers move in, their projects subsidized by government relief efforts. Gentrification accelerates and the people who left can’t afford to come back — yet, this all happens in an area that remains threatened by further climate destruction. The very wealthy can afford to buy the last 50 years of river views, as the people who once lived there search for a place that is not only affordable, but also doesn’t teeter constantly on the edge of ruin. The land shrinks.
After Sandy hit, it took a while to get in touch with my grandparents and my aunt and uncle, who said they’d briefly been cut off entirely by rising waters around the Montauk peninsula, which knocked out phone service. My grandparents’ home had flooded, but they’d made it to their usual motel. They returned when the water receded. At first it seemed to me that that was that. Another storm survived.
The seasonal challenges of my extended family’s geographic location hadn’t been something I thought about much, just as I hadn’t worried too much about a hurricane even though I grew up on an island. New York contains many mythologies and most of them are connected to the city’s relentless ability to continue, no matter what. This is basically the definition of hubris — the confidence that because you survived something the last thousand times, you will survive it the next thousand.
My grandparents were also both born in New York; my grandmother was an only child. Her mother and father worked as a cook and a chauffeur, respectively, and rented an apartment close to St. John the Divine, in Morningside Heights. In her childhood photos, she looks like a little doll, solitary and posed in patent leather shoes. She grew to be almost six feet tall and gorgeous. She once showed me a photo of herself looking dashing in a headscarf, seated high on a fence.
“Look at me,” she cough-laughed. “I knew what I was doing there.”
Any time of day was lovely, in any weather, but a clear sunset would flood the room with a warm apricot glow. The water caught and refracted the end of the day, allowing its goodbye to sweetly linger.
My grandfather was one of many children of an Irish immigrant mother and an Italian mobster, whose name he wasn’t allowed to speak. I’ve never seen a picture of him before his days as a soldier in WWII, stationed in France after surviving D-Day. His family lived on the Lower East Side, then Williamsburg. He would sometimes tell stories about collecting lost bits of coal that fell from the delivery truck and hollering up at his mom to drain the bathtub full of gin when the cops walked down the street. These were colorful tales meant to make growing up poor sound much more fun than it ever actually was, but he enjoyed telling them. Once when he came to visit my mom and me at our East Village apartment, he spent the day pointing at rooftops, saying he used to jump from one to the other as a kid.
My grandparents met at a funeral. They were cousins of each other’s cousins.
New York City starts to feel very small if you’ve lived there all your life, so by the time they were married with children they’d moved further out, then further out again when the kids were gone. They’d wanted a small, manageable place by the beach for their retirement. They drove past the house in Mastic and a man was standing outside. They asked him if he’d like to sell it, and he miraculously said yes.
I’ve been told the house washed away once, during a storm in the 1920s, then got hauled back to the same spot and put up on those cement pylons. The story was suspect, but to me it said something about what used to pass for hurricane preparedness.
A few weeks before Christmas 2012, less than two months after Sandy, my grandfather fell down the stairs. The staircase leading up to the livable floor of the house was curved and uneven, twisting in at two points. I’m not sure how far down he went, but he broke his hip on the journey and was taken to the hospital, then a rehab center.
My grandmother eventually went to stay with her eldest daughter in Maryland. She was behaving erratically. She didn’t notice that her swollen legs were leaking clear fluid until my aunt pointed it out. She sounded strange when we talked.
“I think I’m about to die,” she told me on the phone. This was something she’d been implying for years, giving away her most cherished wicker-frame mirrors and seashell-covered jewelry boxes until her shelves emptied, explaining she “didn’t need them anymore.” But that was the first time she’d said it so explicitly. She didn’t sound scared. She delivered the news like she was discussing the weather — a little bored, a little distracted. It was the voice of someone going through a transition so huge they couldn’t possibly be bothered to talk about anything else.
My grandfather was moved to an assisted living home that was difficult to get to from the city. My mother traveled there alone and discovered he’d been sleeping in a wheelchair because it was too hard for him to get in and out of bed. He’d immediately fallen into an intense enmity with his roommate, who had an electric Lazy Boy he wouldn’t let my grandfather nap in. She started to look for homes in Brooklyn, somewhere she could check in on him every day.
And then my grandmother did die.
After holiday dinners, the younger folks would usually go on a walk around the block before dessert. My grandmother accepted a very limited amount of help from us. We could clear the table, but she wouldn’t allow anyone into her rapid-fire cutlery shuffling over the small sink. Everything she did was set to a higher speed and we would only slow her down.
We walked to digest her butter-soup mashed potatoes and to release a little of the tension into the fresh, salty air. Before we left, my grandfather often called out to insist we bring his walking stick by the door, warning, “Take it with you to beat off the wild dogs. They run in packs out there!”
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I never saw a single dog without a fence penning it in, but I did once ask my aunt if we should bring the stick.
“If you see a dog, are you going to hit it?” she asked.
The answer was no, so we went silent and empty-handed down the rutted road, past the reeds to a small slope of empty shore. Water lapped the edge, which was covered in blue mussel shells and seaweed, plastic bottle caps, broken glass, the occasional dead fish, and a thin crust of ice, which became thinner every year, as the weather grew milder in winter.
Past the ripples, Pattersquash Island created a dark line on the horizon. The island was originally part of the tribal land of the Unkechaug Nation, who live on the smallest reservation in New York state, set along the shore a 10-minute drive from my grandparents’ house. It covers less than a mile, which includes water. Shinnecock artist Jeremy Dennis has been compiling stories of indigenous Long Island for his project On This Site, and he writes that Pattersquash is historically considered a sacred site for vision quests. It appeared so still and desolate from a distance.
During Sandy, more than 100 homes on the Poospatuck reservation were damaged. There has been some attention paid to the reservation’s recovery from missionaries and PR companies, but there has not been much media coverage of the incipient creep of rising sea levels, stealing yet more territory from Indigenous people year by year. Mastic and its residents have been living under the threat of both weather and gentrification for decades, resisting a transformation that almost no other beach town on the East End has managed to avoid. Stories about the area over the past 20 years are a whiplash of wonder and warnings.
In 2001, the New York Times touted Mastic as the island’s “Best Kept Secret,” citing its proximity to Fire Island and the relative affordability of real estate compared to the Hamptons. It was suggestively dubbed a “working class stronghold,” but several political and financial mishaps, including a series of racial housing discrimination suits, almost drove the area into bankruptcy, and they were obligated to rejoin the Town of Brookhaven after an attempt at self-governance that began in 2010. In 2018, Newsday heralded another Mastic renewal, pointing out that real estate was still comparatively cheap, and many of the decrepit buildings that had given the area a bad rep were being torn down by new management.
Damage in the Hamptons after Sandy redirected vacationers to Montauk, transforming a quieter part of the island into a party hotspot that is barely navigable from June to September. My aunt and uncle, who work in the lighthouse and laying tile, were evicted from their home of more than 25 years after its owner died and a fashion photographer bought the property. They’ve been looking for somewhere to move they can afford. They’re thinking out of state.
New York contains many mythologies and most of them are connected to the city’s relentless ability to continue, no matter what.
Bad housing and “slumlords” have been a continuing point of contention in the area, as the New York Times also reported in 2008, seven years after recommending it as summer getaway. A number of sexual assaults brought attention to the high rate of registered sex offenders in the area, whether they were responsible for the attacks or not. In 2006, a man was arrested for planning to set fire to a building occupied by four tenants on the registry. While some of these units have been torn down via legal means, issues around infrastructure, especially inadequate sewage systems, seem to be holding greater change back.
Visiting only briefly and driven from the train station to the edge of the world every time, I was largely unaware of these issues before Sandy, except for general observations about the number of beer emporiums we drove by to get to the bay. My grandfather built a homemade security system. It felt absurd to be deafened by sirens out on that otherwise quiet corner, and toward the end of their time there, the system was perpetually offline. The house was empty for a week before it was broken into.
My grandfather died about nine months after my grandmother, while living in an assisted living home in Brooklyn. I’d like to say he was happy to be back in his old borough, but he most definitely was not. Every time I visited, he practically begged me to move back to Mastic with him, to live in that house, and take care of him there. It was both an outrageous and completely understandable request.
“We were happy there,” he told me one afternoon, tears in his eyes, though by then my mother was pretty convinced he hadn’t fallen down the stairs. She thought, based on the comments he’d let slip, that my grandmother had maybe pushed him during a fight, but that was just her theory. She guessed that the stress of the storm hastened my grandmother’s mental deterioration, maybe even that the new hurricane molds growing in their dirt-floor basement infiltrated her brain somehow, and my grandmother didn’t recognize the danger as their argument escalated. Not exactly a scientific diagnosis, and there’s no proof, but it was hard not to see some connection between Sandy and their deaths — how many storms had they survived before one rose too high and their whole survival system collapsed? All it took was for something they’d lived through over and over to hit a little harder, in a moment of vulnerability, a moment of unpreparedness.
I went by the house before it was sold to see if there was anything that should be retrieved. The people who broke in hadn’t found much of any value, but they appeared to have had a fun afternoon trashing the place. All the familiar knick-knacks and books and worn blankets had been strewn with abandon across the living room, then pissed on. It felt like the destruction from Sandy had been here since the night it happened and had only now become visible. I looked for the ashes of my grandmother’s favorite cat, but only managed to find my grandpa’s dog tags and a few old pictures in the debris and a piece of paper documenting my mother’s first communion. I took my grandmother’s tarnished silver spoons and a collection of vinyl records that had sat so long their grooves were almost flat. I played them later, trying to imagine her listening to them when she was young and felt much sadder than I did on the day of her death.
Then I walked out onto the old porch, stepping over holes, past a long beam that had once served as a ladder for a cat named Squeaky. I turned the corner around the dining room to look one last time at the view. The bay stretched out below as the blinding white light of the late afternoon sun swallowed the hard borders of the land. It seemed like the waves were rolling all the way to their door.
Aimée Lutkin is a freelance writer who has written for Jezebel, Glamour, Marie Claire, Popula, and others. She is currently working on her first book for Dial Press on the current societal trends around loneliness titled The Lonely Hunter; you can follow her on Twitter @alutkin.
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