A volunteer sorts through soggy insulation and rusty nails, occasionally rescuing intimate relics from human lives.
Cleaning a basement is, in some ways, an act of archeology. You sort through someone's soaked and muddied possessions, you wonder what her life is like, and then you throw everything away.
I volunteered this past week to clean seawater and raw sewage out of flooded homes in the Rockaways. Or, rather: I volunteered for two days of this past week, helping a small army of volunteers, many of whom were out there every day, to clean flooded homes in the Rockaways.
Before you cross the bridge into the Rockaways, the flood line is head high and dirt and leaves cover all but the top foot of the fences. On cloudy days the sea is slate gray and it merges with the gray of the sky on the far horizon. If it's cold out and the wind is blowing, it feels like the sea might creep up and swallow the puny island across the bridge, which, of course, it did three weeks ago.
On Wednesday, we worked at the home of a woman I'll call Bettina. I barely met her. But here is a selective inventory of things removed from her basement:
- three couches, waterlogged, of different sizes and colors
- a small wooden Buddha doll
- several telephone books, thoroughly waterlogged
- two separate, still sealed, bottles of allspice
- a photo album, muddied, containing pictures of a young man growing progressively older
- a chamberpot, child-sized, set inside a miniature toilet
- pictures of a Catholic saint
- two televisions, one flat screen, one monstrously heavy, both enormous
- a live turtle (one of a pair, we were told)
- an overturned refrigerator, which reeked so strongly when cracked open that we evacuated the basement and called in the fire department for fear of a gas leak