We weren't handing out wads of cash in the high-rises. We weren't offering to turn on the elevators and the boilers. We couldn't even produce the PB&J that a little boy asked us for. All we had were apocalypse-proof dinners (kugel or chicken) and bottled water.
But on Coney Island, in a neighborhood that was tough even before Sandy chewed it up and spat it back out, that was pretty good.
We were there on a day trip from Baltimore, a group of 30 chipping in a few hours of volunteering three weeks after the storm. In 17-story buildings where power was spotty and stairs were the only way in or out, the residents answered our knocks with incredible grace.
"Oh, no thank you," said one man who had apparently stocked up. "I wouldn't want to abuse the privilege."
"Privilege" was not the word that had come to my mind as we ascended the concrete behemoth.
"I'd rather not," a young woman told us, as kids scrambled around behind her. "Only because other people need it more than we do."
We made her take some dinners.
The storm had destroyed the ground-level apartments in the high rises on Neptune Avenue and knocked out the elevators, trapping seniors who could not navigate the labyrinthine staircases. Flyers taped on the walls thanked residents for their understanding and directed them to an address where they could pay their rent. But if there was anger here, none of it was directed at interlopers like us. When people waved us off, they did it with a smile, hiding behind their doors. When they took something, thank yous and God-bless-yous spilled from their lips in Russian and English.
Of course, New York has not been universally charming since the storm. There was looting in this area just after Sandy struck. There has also been understandable frustration about inequalities across neighborhoods, both in storm response and in general. "These people are f***ing millionaires," a sanitation worked had told me earlier in the day, when we visited a better-off community. "They don't need the help." But still, he and his colleague thanked me for being there, and gave a friendly wave as they drove off.
For all the ugliness, the storm has revealed an asset in communities rich and poor that we too rarely acknowledge: the poise, patience and determination that most people summon when hardship falls on them. With Thanksgiving approaching, Coney Islanders remind us that it's one thing to say grace, and another thing to show it.