"Fourteen-year-old men's coat large for number seven," I called out as I ran towards the clothing tables. A fellow volunteer handed me a Lands' End trench coat with the tags still on it from a pile four-feet-high that left her just a small square to stand in. I shook my head, pointing to a puffy camo vest behind her, "Give me that one." She looked at me quizzically and I don't blame her. Volunteers were running all around the gymnasium packed with supplies and reports were the line of families waiting in the cold had stretched well down the block. In some ways, now hardly seemed the time to be picky. But what I do for a living is help people bolster their self-respect. I'm a stylist.
As such, my typical "comfy chic" outfit for the day would have included a few layers of contrasting patterns and a big handful of accessories. But as I got dressed that morning to help my neighbors in Red Hook, Brooklyn, who had been without power, heat or hot water in the three days since Hurricane Sandy, I thought of a story I'd just heard about Judy.
Judy is everyone's awesome second mom, the one you go to in a heap of tears. A girl had called to confess she was addicted to heroine, hitting rock bottom, "ugly and disgusting." Judy ran to her room, threw on her oldest dress, washed off her makeup and brushed out her hair. She opened the door in her most humble state, because when you're loving someone who's hurt, looking fancy doesn't help. I always tell my clients to dress remarkably -- worthy of remark -- but I realized on this day I didn't want it to be my stacks of bangles, but rather the stacks of supplies driven 2,000 miles from our friends in Baltimore, which were remarkable.
It didn't matter what I wore that day. And yet, it mattered acutely for my neighbors who stood in line.
My friends were the ones who got the Red Hook Community Center opened for the residents. The other volunteers, most of whom had found us on Twitter, thought they were disaster relief professionals they were so good. Yet it was still chaos. Not unstructured. But there were more needs than we could meet that day and so our mental focus was on over-drive for 12 hours.
Yet the stylist in me couldn't help but dig through just one more pile to find a striped plum top, burnt orange cardigan & pair of dark jeans that looked darling together. I ran back to the table, "Here you go, love!" "Oooh, I like your taste!" the 30-something mom exclaimed. Down the line I had a request for size medium from a grandma in her '60s. Before I turned, she tugged on my sleeve. "Get me somethin' cute, like you." A man flagged me down from the periphery. "Could you grab me that leather jacket?" He slipped it on saying, "Aww girl that is nice! Thank you!"
Just because people are hurting, doesn't mean they don't want to be proud of how they look. Heck, maybe they need to be proud of how they look now more than ever.
Asking for help can be humiliating. Even though a hurricane doesn't discriminate, needing help can wound your pride. One of the teens we know in the neighborhood said, "Why you guys here acting like we poor?" The answer was, "We aren't. We're here because your power is out and the streets are flooded." (The unspoken follow-up being, because food stamps don't buy blankets, so you need our help in a way Sarah Jessica Parker on the other side of the flooding doesn't).
You may be hungry, you may be cold, but the human spirit still craves beauty, loveliness and above all, self-respect. I can think of no better way to honor people in need, than to affirm and meet that desire... along with a flashlight and cans of soup.
Somewhere in the tension between my simple flannel and that gentleman's rockstar leather jacket is where I found myself in that community center.
Choosing to dress simply when receiving a drug addict at your front door, or serving victims of a natural disaster does not mean you're pitying them. What a horrible feeling to be pitied. It's choosing to let your actions be what is remarkable in a time of need. It's choosing to let their self-respect be what's held most high. Helping someone to shine in the midst of darkness, just might be the truest example love.
Photo Credit: Amanda Andrews, Nate Poekert, Shawn Cheng, Eric Ryan Anderson & Hilary Rushford