I Started a Joke
Years ago, when I taught in rural Central Virginia, I lived in a little yellow house with a red tin roof, situated by a pond, down the grassy hill from the owners, Chester and Margaret, who lived in a lovely brick home. Shortly after I moved back to Northern Virginia, Chester had a heart attack and had to undergo surgery. I arranged to stay with our mutual neighbors, the Claboughs, and as soon as Chester was home, I drove down for the weekend to do whatever I could. Mostly I spent the two days sitting with Chester on their glassed-in back porch, where he moaned and felt hopeless, old, and sad; I listened, tried to entertain him a bit with funny stories of my new teaching life in a different school system, and fluffed pillows or got him a glass of water. This gave Margaret time to do whatever she needed to get done—laundry, cooking, running errands, what have you, at least for a couple of days. Mine wasn’t much in the way of help, but it’s what I could do.
While Chester napped in the bedroom that first afternoon, Margaret and I sat together on the porch. She said at one point, “Lisa, people say ‘Let me know what I can do’ but they don’t mean it.” I asked what she meant. “Well, for example, a woman from my church called and said, ‘Let me know if I can do anything,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’d like to give my niece Debbie a break, so if you could sit with Chester while I run into town for an hour, that would be wonderful.’ She said, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I could get out there…but if you need anything, let me know.’ And all I’d wanted to do was get my hair done—Chester hates my gray roots—and it was too much to ask.”
But don’t people mean it sometimes? I asked.
“You are a real helper,” she said, “because you don’t ask, you just show up. You say, ‘Here I am, put me to work.’ Even if it’s for an hour, or for the weekend, you just do it. Most people, they really don’t care to help. They just want to feel good about themselves for saying, ‘Let me know if you need anything.’ It’s a shame.”
I’ve held on to this theory of Margaret’s for over 30 years now, and it hasn’t been wrong yet. The key part of this is the person in need of help isn’t asking for the moon; she or he is asking for an hour of your time, 20 minutes, something to help make light work of a tiny piece of a heavy burden.
Now: to be clear, I’m not talking about, say, help with lawn or yard maintenance for a home you own and chose to buy. When you need that kind of help, all you can do is call your family. Family will do that kind of help because you have that kind of reciprocity built into the DNA of kinship. Even with something like moving, there are really very few people beyond family who will help with that, except friends who have become family, and those are rare.
I’m talking about the need we have to turn to our social friends—friends with whom we go out and see shows or go hiking or get a beer—in times of crisis. Occasionally needing to count on our fellows in unprecedented circumstances is part of living: following a surgery, say, or an act of god. And what we find at times like this can be something of a shock.
Mine was a week of unprecedented disappointment.
Check that. It was precedented disappointment–I’m 57 after all. I posted that picture—an image of a tee shirt sent to me by a military friend who is trying to help Middle East peace for the 3000th year—and another friend took me to task (in the Comments) for the post because I didn’t seem to understand that all the events of 2021—pestilence, tyrants, fools—have centuries of precedent, but we have been too dumb to see it. “I know,” I sighed to myself, “but I just thought it was funny.”
Even a moment of levity is too little too late for actual smart people. It’s lonely at the top.
And in the flood waters.
On the night of September 1, 2021, my Queens apartment basement was overcome by a rush of water courtesy Hurricane Ida, a gush of city drain overload that I would call “unprecedented,” but which my friend back there would say has plenty of global precedent, so I am not allowed to experience this event as a shock, loss, or other horror. I’m trying to be smart enough to see that my problem isn’t a problem, because I really am a smart person, very good at perspective, I think; so are my very smart friends. As a result, no one really saw a need to help me recover from Ida. Because life. That is who we are in 2021, post- and mid-pandemic, post-despot, post-Katrina.
Basement during Ida flood event.
I’d say that this help-vacuum was unprecedented, but surely other people over the many millennia of life on Earth have experienced this lack of support, so even my disappointment in this case must needs be denied.
I hear myself sounding like a dick, but I am truly smarting over this.
Coincidentally, to clarify the timeline, I was going on vacation for the week (a trip upstate to Lake George cancelled, obviously), and my boss graciously gave me two days to start the clean-up, so I was just beyond grateful that I would have time to dive in, as it were, to restore what I could during the coming week off. (Poor me, you hear me saying; but I’m not, really.)
So here’s where it got weird.
Despite the posting of pictures on social media of the flood experience and the damage—which I did for the news value rather than pity, truly—I was gradually astonished to find that not one of my friends offered to come over to help or offer aid right away. On Thursday, two friends in the neighborhood texted a picture of a fan they had (for drying) that I could come and get—they would meet me part way. I just stared at the text. “I’m good,” I replied, “but thanks!” The exclamation point belied my stunned feeling: You can’t bring it to me? Seriously? Did you see what just happened? That I didn’t sleep all night? That I don’t want to walk three quarters of a mile to get a fan and walk three quarters of a mile back carrying it by myself? Then on Sunday, three days after the flood and the sending out of pictures, two city friends on a group thread finally texted to see if I needed anything, and I asked if they wouldn’t mind coming over to help me remove salvaged items from the basement and bring them up to my first floor; in exchange for which I would cook them a meal of farmer’s market green beans and ham, with potatoes and carrots, and a side of fresh-baked corn bread. And they came, and I fed them. The work that would have taken me at least three hours on my own (I have arthritis in my back) took about 20 minutes with the three of us.
The three hours of work on my part, which I did indeed do, was spent preparing the meal, sharing it in the company of two friends, and cleaning up afterward. It was work time I was more than grateful to spend, no question.
Another friend, one of my best, upon hearing me express gratitude for the aforementioned help when we met up on Labor Day, took a couple of beats before saying, as he stared into the middle distance, “Let me know if you need anything.”
And beyond that, crickets. Margaret was so, so right.
Just to rub salt into my wound: I had to cull books, bedding, clothes, and office items for donating in order that I may make my life fit onto one floor for the foreseeable future; and even sharing this dilemma, I couldn’t help noticing that a nearby friend (who checked out the store walk with me in real time) with a car didn’t offer to drive me over to the Goodwill Store. Instead, I pulled my heavy pushcart from the basement (which journey I’d already done three times with several soaked rugs, towels, and blankets to take to the laundromat) through the trash alley of my apartment building and up the stairs and parked it outside. I filled it with a load and proceeded to push it up and down hills along 48th Street for 10 blocks, make a drop off, and return with the cart in the summer heat those same 10 blocks and refill for another load. I took the same walking trip again for 10 blocks, and back 10 blocks. I opened the trash alley door, thunked the heavy cart down the stairs, pushed it along, and returned it to my mudroom. (And to be fair, I’m the hoarder of the guest bedding, the books, and shit I donated, so.) Locked up the basement, the alley, and went inside (in prep for starting back to work tomorrow) to tend to the cooking of food for the week.
When it comes to that, no one has so much as offered me a meal.
Except Richard, who lives in New Jersey with his husband and twins. (Sixteen years ago he drove the moving van when I moved into my apartment, and he helped me unload–only the two of us, as no one else showed up.) Richard (my best friend from college) invited me out for the day, and we all walked and played, and cooked out, and made s’mores, and watched Disney’s Million Dollar Duck with Dean Jones and Sandy Duncan (her first film!) for their outdoor movie night with the neighbors. In exchange, though not needed, I brought some long-coveted framed pictures, scarves, and items I thought they and the kids might enjoy. We had a grand day, and I felt so grateful for the break, I can’t tell you. It replenished me for the work to come.
However much I sound like I’m whining or complaining, I’m really not feeling whiny. I’m trying to understand what in the hell is going on.
Decent, good people are not acting like decent, good people. They are instead acting like indifferent, selfish narcissists. (Is that redundant?) They are not, these people whom I know well, in fact indifferent or selfish or narcissistic. They wouldn’t recognize themselves in this essay were it not for the specific situations I mentioned. They are caring people. Is it me, that they dislike me? I don’t think so. So what’s going on?
I now have to turn the tables and train a bright flood light on myself: When one of the fan-offering partners had out-patient surgery a few weeks ago, for example, did I go over there with a meal? No, I did not. Why not? Because we live in New York City, during a pandemic where we are good at lockdown as we work from home, in the age of Seamless, of which these friends happily avail themselves. And they have each other, whereas I am alone. But when I checked in several times and said, “Do you need anything? What can I do?” I know that I fucking meant it.
Whatever the protestations of my very smart and enlightened friend in her comment on social media over “precedented times,” all events are unprecedented for the people who live them for the first time. Sure, we should learn from history, and our (ostensibly) more knowledgeable leaders should act on that history, meaning they should be anticipating the future and planning for that (see also the Seventh Generation mode of living for the Native Nations in the U.S.). But for the individuals experiencing a pandemic for the first time, a Flash Flood Emergency for the first time, or a surgery for the first time, the times are unprecedented for us, the ones enduring the times. It doesn’t mean we lack imagination or intelligence, but rather that that there is no way to fully enter the emotional experience of the moment unless you are there.
Which is why my very decent friends have been for the most part utterly unhelpful to me in a moment of real crisis.
I mean, watching that flood water coming in, without any warning, through the basement toilet and shower and knowing there is no way to stop it, that all you can do is move all the stuff onto the guest bed or up the stairs as quickly as you can despite your arthritic back while wading barefoot through sewer water, is just fucking scary. It just is. And it’s totally new in feeling.
When we ask for “precedented times” (see tee shirt picture), we are asking for a level of comfort and predictability that any sentient person would desire. Sure, it’s too much to expect, but in the words of Mary Chapin Carpenter, it’s not too much to ask.
And neither is a little help cleaning up a flooded basement.
While Margaret’s theory may have precedent that dates back to time immemorial, it’s hard to overlook the very recent influence of the Republican Party and Donald Trump, who ushered in the Age of Narcissism and Selfishness. I think this rampant nasty behavior might be a tad unprecedented, just a little, isn’t it? And even the most seemingly immune by virtue of liberalism may have fallen sway to it. Aw, hell, that’s just me being dumb again, probably. But I’m too tired to do the research.
So before I sign off sounding like little more than an ungrateful prick, I close by sending infinite gratitude to the following people:
My sister, Sherry, who texted from North Carolina, “Oh, I wish I was there to help you!” and you could feel her meaning it with all her heart.
My friend Debbie Andrews, also based in North Carolina, for texting, “Oh, I wish I could be there to help you!” and who meant it like mad.
My friends Anna and Michael in California, who would have been here like a shot, as seen with Anna instantly emailing me, “Do you have time to talk? Can we get on a call?” because she wanted to be here to help.
And finally to my next-door neighbors Craig and Charley, who had the same experience I did, and whom I do not know all that well, and yet who have been the most fabulous neighbors you could ask for, offering me their shop vac and a dehumidifier (they bought TWO), and who sent me their floor man to give me an estimate on replacement floors, I want to say I am sorry all I could do for you was buy you wine.
Overarching message: Every LITTLE BIT helps. It really, really does.
Be a helper. Be a real friend.
Do something to help your neighbor. It’s the difference between existing and living, the difference between despair and hope.
(P.S. This memory came up on Facebook as I posted this blog: “Last night I was reading a book on acting by Stella Adler, her section on Chekhov, her favorite writer. She explains how Stanislavsky and the Moscow Art Theatre made playing Chekhov possible, teaching actors not to work in isolation to be, you know, dazzling, but rather to speak to and listen to and respond to the BEING of the other characters, because Chekhov was writing life. Sharing this today, via my brother Mike, because it’s beautiful and also a beautiful coincidence. If you aren’t keen on the idea of all of us “in it together,” why not open up one by one by one, see how it goes? Love to all. “)
How’s that for truth? Love to all.