When the power went out again on Friday, we weren't worried.
We'd already lived through more than 10 days without power and had thawed quite a bit in the 48 hours of electricity we had just enjoyed. But what gave us hope that we could endure another cold night wasn't our fireplace or our camping equipment, but a crew of guys from the West Coast, hanging from the telephone poles on our street.
"We're not leaving until it's back up," said Kurk Shriver of the Oregon-based Bonneville Power Administration, which flew crews and trucks here via the Air Force.
He was chatting with Marianne, our neighbor, who was still in the dark and cold. In his warm soft spoken demeanor, Shriver promised Marianne that by the evening she would be turning up the thermostat in her home that had been flooded badly while in the middle of a major renovation. Then he asked if we knew anywhere nearby he could take his laundry.
"Right there," I said, pointing to my house. Now, I have never offered to fold a stranger's laundry, but then again I had never showered at long lost friend's house or charged my laptop directly off a car battery in my kitchen. In a disaster, the walls of propriety and convention wash away with the sand dunes.
To be the wash-and-fold service for the guy working in the cold to turn my lights on seemed the most natural thing to do. "I might just take you up on that," he said.
Getting Their Jersey On
As the sun went down, my husband suggested some hot coffee for the crew, which I brought down and set out on the tailgate like a blue collar version of a picnic in a Ralph Lauren ad. The guys were incredibly thankful for this paltry gesture of boiling water.
In fact, they couldn't stop saying how nice everybody in New Jersey had been to them. To myself I wondered if that is because the rest of the country's exposure to New Jersey is of vapid, narcissistic housewives and Bennies who live in fantasy TV-land. That's got to set your expectations really low. Or maybe we Garden Staters really are just grateful for the help.
"I've never been treated nicer," Shriver said. "People are jumping in front of you in the gas line to pay for you. We were eating at Zachary's and people were coming up to us wanting to buy our food."
Far From Home
While a couple guys worked in the air, the rest of the crew and I, and now my three kids, our dog and my mom stood a safe distance away and chatted cocktail party style. The guys took turns chatting up the kids and one said, taking out his phone, "Would you like to see my boys?"
"Are we showing pictures?" a worker named Lou asked. Out came the cell phones. Five guys in hard hats kneeling down in the dark to show off their kids - a young daughter with a missing tooth, a son running for his college team, another with a prized fish, a teenage daughter painted in her team colors. They showed off pictures of their wives too and even their dogs.
"You have a really nice family," Shriver said. "That's when I miss my family."
Before they began work here, Shriver's crew spent a week on another job. He's hoping after one more week here in Monmouth County he'll be back home in Washington state with his wife and boys.
But he and the guys weren't complaining. Long stretches away from home is the job they signed up for, but still, it's hard. Don Griswold, originally from Indiana, and now of Washington said, one time his crew logged 96 days in the same hotel.
With a smile, Shriver said, "You get to see the country, by moonlight."
Then There Was Light
And so we passed the next hour like that, hanging out under the sodium lights at our own chilly block party. Instead of shooing us away, they gave my 15-year-old stepson Duncan a lesson on electrical work, they performed magic tricks for the girls and handed out candy, trick-or-treat style.
Then together we counted down to the lights coming back on.
We were all working toward that goal of getting power back to the neighborhood, but there was an obvious greater driving force for these guys, and for us. We were working for each other, reaching to build community across many states and in a surreal landscape after a disaster. That kind of thing binds up the wounds of seeing your neighbors suffer great losses and makes it easier to bear the inconveniences of living without power.
There Are Others Who Have It Worse
The next day Shriver stopped by to say thanks for the offer to do his laundry but he was able to get it done at his hotel. "It was such a kind gesture," he said, clearly grateful and still surprised by it.
"No one here has a broken spirit," he said, "After eight days without power people in other places are hurting."
I say maybe it's because so many others have lost so much. "Other people have it so much worse," is the mantra I've heard again and again.
The day after the storm we visited a neighbor whose ranch home and all of their belongings were destroyed in the flood, where we ran into a friend from across town. "How did you do?" I said. "We got eight inches, but that's okay," she chirped.
I've been through floods. I know eight inches is enough to mean losing your floors, walls, cabinets, furniture, your appliances. And never mind she had just finished a long renovation following water damage from a leak in her home. She wasn't focusing on any of that as her friends piled their beds at the curb.
In Highlands, my former neighbors Chick and Ann had 30 inches of water in their little one bedroom that they had been remodeling themselves, room by room. "I feel lucky, if I can say that," said Chick, a fireman, "because my friends got seven feet of water and they're still down here fighting fires."
And we've all seen how bad it really got, whole neighborhoods burned to the ground in Brick and Brooklyn. Houses in Union Beach and Staten Island knocked clean off their foundations. Businesses in Sea Bright with monster size bites out of them and homes filled with mud and sewage.
For those of us still standing, maybe we're just grateful to be able to bring coffee and be cheerful to those who have come to our rescue. Because gratitude is most fulfilling when it's directed at a person and backed with action.
Whether we bought gas for the truck, or fed a worker or offered to do his laundry, it's because we New Jersyans are grateful, to be alive, to be noticed, to be helped, and because other people have it so much worse.