Without my Social Security check arriving on the third Wednesday of the month, I would probably be dead... and I certainly wouldn't have been able to finance my first documentary.
This is a cautionary tale, about being "one bad thing away." It's about having it all, and losing it all, in a matter of months, or... a matter of minutes.
We lost power at 9:00 p.m. October 29, the night of the full Blood Red Moon, when Hurricane Sandy hit Manhattan during the first of the two extreme high tides within a 12-hour period, bringing with it a 14-foot storm surge. Lower Manhattan was plunged into darkness when the Con Edison transformer exploded. In the Rockaways, the ocean breached the bay...
"The lights went out, the water came up, and we lost everything."
I had come into the city from the Hamptons where I was living temporarily at a friend's home. As I was alone and car-less, and the house was in the middle of nowhere, I was fearful if I stayed and we lost power, I would be found weeks later, identified only by my dental records.
By the time Sandy made landfall, I had already been evicted and made homeless for six months, sleeping on a friend's couch. My only income was a monthly Social Security check of $1,580 and $200 in food stamps... that's $6.66 a day. I used to drop $1,780 in one trip to Prada, I'm ashamed to say!
So, I was sort of in the swing of living at the poverty level. Thanks to a friend giving me her couch and kitchen table, I learned the difference between want and need, and what I could actually survive on. Every penny after my phone and storage unit (more than my first apartment in Manhattan), went to reinventing myself as a filmmaker. Did I mention I'm 69-years-old next week?
It wasn't always like this.
I had it all -- top of my game, as an executive producer in advertising, a husband making big bucks, a son in private school, a $1.6 million apartment, a closet full of Prada and matching luggage full of hubris.
So when I found myself laid off from a three decade career, in the middle of a divorce and 9/11 happening, all inside of the same month, I was blindsided. You know the cartoon where Wile E. Coyote chases the Road Runner off the cliff... and then keeps running in thin air?
It was biblical, for 10 years I ran in thin air. And just when I was getting back on my feet again, I was interviewing people in Brooklyn, the night after the 2008 presidential debates, and an SUV came out of nowhere and ran me over... I didn't walk for a year.
The tweet might be...
69 on Social Security, Medicare and food stamps run over by SUV, didn't walk for year, behind in rent, evicted and homeless #OneBadThingAway
Since I lived everyone's worst nightmare, when the marshals came to the door and evicted me a year ago April, I have been thinking a lot about "stuff," home and loss, family of origin and family of circumstance and that old cliché about what's "really important." In one of those left-handed gifts, that experience has prepared me, given me a "new pair of glasses" -- along with my camera, which somehow buffered me as I was about to bear witness to the storm which, ironically, bore my name.
The only thing that kept me going through that eviction, calling the Marshall's office everyday, the humiliation of the eviction notice on my door, crying all the time, debt collectors calling incessantly, packing up 50 years of "stuff" and cramming it into a 5X7 storage unit... was to document every painful, excruciating, moment with my camera.
In one of those elegant vicissitudes of life and reversal of fortunes, one I never would have scripted, it was revealed to me, who better to document the stories of those who lost everything in a matter of minutes?
I began to film from the first night... and for the next 11 months. I had no idea what was in store for me. Friday there will be more evictions when they shut down the hotel program after almost a year. They will be taken to homeless shelters as the shameless legacy of the government agencies, unwilling to find them affordable housing and I will follow them there.
I say to the heads of these agencies, shame on you if you know, and shame on you if you don't know.
I got a call from one of the survivors a few months ago: "You're the red head with the fuzzy microphone?" She said, "You told me, I know you don't think anyone is listening, but I am." I started to cry. My stupid problems palled. All I did was listen... to hundreds of stories, nobody was talking to them, nobody was listening to them.
I opted in to Social Security early when I was 62 because I had lost my career and it's a good thing, never thinking at the time I would actually have to live off of it, I mostly thought I could l get a few extra pedicures. So when I was evicted, it became my only income, and if I weren't staying on a friend's couch, I shutter to think.
At the stroke of midnight, the third Tuesday of every month, (but who's counting?) $1,580 is deposited into my checking account. I immediately pay my storage unit and my phone bill, breathe a huge sigh of relief and thank the Universe. Then I can buy a senior Long Island Railroad ticket to Far Rockaway and a couple of media cards that my camera uses. Occasionally, I'd splurge and be able to buy a hard drive. I financed the entire film, 200 hours, 50 SD cards, with my Social Security check. There have been times I have had $52 to last me two weeks until the next check, or a welcome freelance job.
Hurricane Sandy was a democratic devastation, million dollar homes, shacks and the projects, all destroyed with callous equanimity, and the dirty little secrets washed up on the shore, left behind with the debris when the flood waters receded... of class war and income inequality of not only those marginalized before the storm, but a new diaspora of "suddenly poor" and everyone else in "Frankenstorm's" path.
"We need help, we had a home, a life, we had things going for us. Open up housing, Section 8, help us to help ourselves. Open up some doors so we can start our lives over again. We didn't ask for Sandy to come and take our homes from us. All we're asking is for someone to help us get back on our feet. Come on, it's only fair."
I learned so much in the storm, after the storm, or, as one woman called it, "The disaster after the disaster"...I learned more than I ever cared to know about mold. I went to protests and City Council meetings with five hours of what a "heck of a job" FEMA and the Department of Homeless Services are doing, followed by the truth from the survivors, clutching their babies crying to an empty chamber. I learned in the Hammel's House projects in Far Rockaway, "They shoot between the buildings there, if you hear gun fire and you're on the 19th floor, you better duck." I learned this after I went there alone. I learned the Red Cross raised $300 million in donations and 11 months later haven't spend $100 million of it. I learned all those rock concerts didn't raise money for the people in need... unless of course your name ends in a .org. I learned that what we call "poor" people are really just folks of "limited means" or in a "setback" and are in fact, the most noble and richest people I have ever met. I learned about faith and prayer.
"It's hard on us out here right now, life just gave us a change. But if you have faith, believe in Him and He will get you back triple!"
I met hundreds and hundreds of people, denied housing, some because of a criminal record 10 years earlier, who already had homes and jobs before the storm! I learned about poverty and obesity about trying to feed a family of four on $10 a day, where parents displaced to fancy four star hotels in Times Square have to eat every other day so their kids can eat every day. Families who travel four hours a day just so their kids can go to a decent school. I've seen the snake pit of the Department of Homeless Services who paid $19 million to compassionless case management workers (many hired from Monster.com) to abuse, lie and intimidate families -- all suffering from post traumatic stress -- but they never give up, the families I've been following have never given up, why then should I? I am so inspired by them.
And everyone I'd meet, I'd say, "Hey I get it! I'm homeless too, I know what it's like to have your food stamps run out a week before it's refilled!"
Guess what? It could happen to anyone, it could happen to you, it DID happen to me. When you see a homeless person on the street, you don't know what they've been through. I also learned how many of us are holding on by a thread, how many are suffering in silence, seniors like me too. I don't know what the answer is...but I sure am grateful for that Social Security check and food stamps, although I do cringe everytime they yell at the fancy food market, or just loud enough for everyone to hear, "Is that credit or EBT?"
It was the best of times it was the worst of times, it is A Tale of Two Sandy's alright...really three, if you count me.