It's like the aftermath of 9/11, in some ways. More widespread property damage, but fewer fatalities. The stunned surprise isn't there-- this storm was predicted for days -- but the overwhelming desire to help is the same: avalanches of donated food, coats, medical supplies, everything. Multiple trucks from South Florida and North Carolina pull up and chains of volunteers form to unload them: cases of fruit juice, diapers, pasta, soup, cookies, blankets pass from hand to hand and disappear into the basements of churches along the shore, where teenagers, nuns, grandmothers sort through them. A whole classroom is dedicated to donated toiletries, another to cleaning supplies, another to bottled water. Turkeys, hams, trays of baked ziti, enormous bags of dinner rolls and baguettes arrive at the doors of parish kitchens and are transformed into hot meals. A difference between this and 9/11 is delivery service: many in need of food are homebound elders, and volunteers pick their way along clogged streets to bring meals to their homes.
The college gym is now a medical shelter. Rows upon row of sturdy cots, fleets of wheelchairs, bags of clothing for those who arrived with only the sopping garments they were wearing when they were evacuated. Nurses move among the cots: here is a woman on dialysis, there a group of elderly men with oxygen pumps. One man has an artificial heart. He shows me the scars left by the three failed pacemakers he went through before he got his new heart.
Betty is 95 and Iives alone. I was asked to transport her home.
I went to two colleges this week, she says, and laughs. I never went to college, and now I've been to two of them!
She sat in a borrowed wheelchair and a borrowed coat. It's a good coat, she said, but it's a little tight.
We started out in my new car, which I am glad I have now, with the trains all a-kilter. Her home is a long way from the college gym where she's been staying.
I didn't know South Jersey was so crowded, she says. Where are we, anyway? Are we in Belmar?
No, we're in central Jersey. This is Metuchen. We're heading for the Garden State Parkway to take you home.
Oh, good. She settled back comfortably into the passenger seat and began to tell me about a man at the shelter who had asked her to lunch. Call me, he had said, when you get home, and we'll have lunch. She still had his number on a piece of paper tucked into her handbag.
You know, when you live alone, you always have to keep your ear to the ground. You never know when you might need somebody.
That's the truth, I said. I had my GPS pressed to one ear and was trying to listen to Betty with the other. The miles unfolded along the parkway. It was getting dark.
Do you think you could live your life without a man?
Oh, I reckon I could, I answered.
Of course, I didn't lead him on! You have to be very careful. But I might have lunch with him. You never know.
No, you never do.
The entrance to Betty's block was blocked -- it's the second block in from the sea. I found a policeman who guided us around the block so we could enter her street from the other side.
Where are we?
I had realized halfway through our long car trip that Betty was almost blind. She would be unable to recognize her own block. She would not be able to point out her house to me. The block was mostly dark -- some places had lights on and some did not. No one was about. I was about to go back and find the policeman when a neighbor showed up, and then two more.
My key is in the bottom of my mailbox. Way down at the bottom
But there was no key, not in the box and not on the floor.
I think Tony has it. Tony shops for Betty. Call Tony.
The neighbors looked inquiringly at me. I'm afraid I don't know Tony, I said. I'm from a shelter up in Metuchen.
Metuchen? Jeez. That's a long way from here.
I know. Betty looked cold. Betty, it's getting chilly. Don't you want your hat? I placed her knitted cap on her head. She glared at me and pulled it off.
I don't want a hat.
The neighbors were debating Tony's identity and possible whereabouts. They decided that the smallest of them might be able to climb into Betty's apartment through the window, and he had just finished doing so when the policeman appeared. We all trooped inside to inspect it. I emptied her refrigerator: neat packages of chicken legs, sausages, some home-cooked frozen meals with which somebody had cared enough to supply her, all spoiled from the days without refrigeration. I left her only food safely in cans.
Betty was in the bathroom, pulling up her disposable diaper. She needed help with it, and I helped her.
Where did I meet you?
We met at the shelter. At the college, remember? I drove you home.
I brought her in a new coat I had in the car -- somebody had given it to me for just such an occasion as this. It was a better fit than the one the shelter had given her. Her lights were on. Her heat was on. She had food and water. Her bed was turned down. The visiting nurse was coming in the morning. I had a long drive home.
Betty, I know you do not remember me. I think it's time for you to live somewhere else. I hope the visiting nurse can help you get there. We may have another storm. The world is changing. You are ninety-five.
I have your other coat.