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#290 Cleaning up after Sandy

You’ll know who your friends truly are when disaster comes calling. Nancy Irwin rides to the rescue in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

My friend Cheryl Stewart was on the sidewalk outside her home in the Red Hook district of New York. Alongside her, was her old Yamaha FZ1, the only new bike she ever owned, lying on its side minus wheels and forks which had long since been scavenged, the engine worn out after 22 track days and more than 65,000 miles. She suddenly realized the headlight was salvageable, and unbolted it. Before she could get side cutters, the lovely scrapper took an AXE and in one fell swoop, brutally severed the harness. My best friend Cheryl stood aghast, headlight assembly in hand, in a combination of shock and horror. Then the bike made its way into the back of the truck, joining a spare engine, R6 parts, a 250cc bobber and Gertie, the 1982 Seca that Cheryl has had for decades, the spare bike for visitors like me, the one that so many learned on because the bulletproof Japanese bike could stand up to anything—except six feet of salt water courtesy of Hurricane Sandy.

“Take no prisoners” is what Cheryl said when we came in for lunch while the scrappers drove off with a heart breaking load of recycle metal.

I spent my winter holidays clearing the aftermath of a devastating storm that ripped houses from their foundations, swallowed people whole, and left rust and mould in its wake. Cheryl’s house stood strong but the main floor took on nearly a foot of water. The crawl space had flooded, the boiler submerged, and sopping wet insulation hanging under that house had to be pulled out immediately. What a nasty job! Inside, the bottom two feet of drywall would have to be removed, then the floor itself, down to the joists. Meanwhile, everything had to be sprayed daily with a bleach solution, including the joists, in order to mitigate mould. Cheryl is a scenic artist and sculptor. Her entire art studio had to be emptied first of everything but the necessary tools.

One of my jobs was to pack all the motorcycle stuff: riding gear, lubricants and spare parts—that were not on the bottom shelf. Most of those things had to be tossed. But my real job was to be brutal, to help pry things from Cheryl’s hands that could not be saved. Sadly, that included motorcycles, art and supplies. The structure out back that functioned like a basement took on five feet of water. That was where all her art was stored. We’re talking a kind of death, a purification ritual by flood, not fire. Everything from the stash of lumber to fabric was covered in mould. Sculptures were damaged or destroyed.

Sandy was not kind. The storm that took out trees and electricity as far inland as Toronto brutalized the coast. Much of Red Hook was flooded. At the shore the storm surge came 12 feet high. Cheryl lives three blocks from the water.

This part of Brooklyn was a maritime zone where rough men worked loading, unloading and building ships. There were dry docks, warehouses, boarding houses, whorehouses, and a bar on every corner. It was a sailor’s delight, and a working class family neighbourhood. Thirteen years ago Cheryl was able to afford a house with no basement, but a backyard for motorcycles. She bought in an industrial patch among the struggling artist and drug dealers. Months after moving in to an area so bad that taxis and pizza places wouldn’t provide service there, the proposed waste transfer station, biggest in the northeast, was voted down. Her property value doubled that day – and then people with money moved in. Lower Manhattan is two miles away as the crow flies.

I was supposed to visit for Hallowe’en but there was this hurricane that cancelled all flights. The word was, evacuate! Cheryl rode her current FZ1, her R6 track bike, then drove her car to higher ground. The EX 500 with irritating electrical problems had already gone to visit a mechanic friend who was less likely to push it off a pier. Cheryl slept on her friend’s couch until electricity was restored—which only took two days because she’s located on the grid with IKEA. (Strangely, the public housing nearby was without electricity for many weeks.) Cheryl moved back into her second floor home with space heaters and boiled water on the gas stove for a bath. At the same time she was called to work on a movie, and commuted north, working up to 14-hour days and some seven-day weeks making scenery, right until solstice. The state of her home didn’t matter much as she was never there. (Heard of denial?) But she hired a contractor. By the time I arrived, the heat and hot water had been restored. Yeah for me!

There were huge piles of garbage in the streets that I learned were removed daily by city trash trucks. We made piles of our own. Can you imagine how hard it is to get rid of all your belongings, especially ones that sort of look fine? Cheryl and I spent days working inside clearing the main floor before she asked me if there was anything else we could possibly do to avoid going out to the back yard.

I stripped Gertie of turn signals and side covers for a friend with the same bike. Her headlight was half full of salt water, like a fish bowl. When the scrap metal recyclers asked for ownership papers (which they needed to legally transport), Cheryl somehow thought they were taking the bikes to a bone yard. She excitedly found the ignition keys! These poor bikes were never going to be restored. I never told her about the set of FZ1 carbuerators I found on the main floor that leaked salt water, and that I just discretely moved into the metal recycle bin. The spare engine we moved from under the porch poured salt water. When the scrappers took an axe to the radiator to release “frog juice” we were again horrified—with camera in hand.

It was a tough job. And there were things that only I could do, because who else would dare? Most of my 10 days was spent with Cheryl, dressed in Carhartts, work boots and insulated gloves. Once the bikes were gone, we had all the stuff in the back shed to clear.

Still, I had fun just being in New York, grocery shopping and meeting with friends. Many times Cheryl asked, in near freezing weather, if we could run errands by bike, explaining it’s faster to get there and easier to park. I can’t say I looked pretty in my layers of dirty work clothes, but I was warm in my sheepskin mittens, and I sure enjoyed the rides. I even took the FZ1 for a run on my own one night. It’s amazing what I’ll do to ride that bike in New York City!


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