Mean Girls

I have known a few mean girls in my life; some personally in high school, maybe  one or two in grade school, and a couple just through stories of awfulness in my adult life,  and one last week  too close for comfort.   I find that for a girl like me, who I think most consider to be almost anything but mean, they are not easy to deal with, they confuse me, how they choose to behave and act.  They and their behavior are anathema to me.

Last week, here at the Jersey shore, we met a girl named Sandy and I think I can safely write that none of us liked her very much.  She stormed onto our island and into our neighborhoods and took everything from some of us and nothing from others.  We knew she was coming…for days, so we planned as best we could for her arrival.  She was more fierce than some of us expected and blew through town faster than most of us anticipated, but she left behind heartache and destruction like I only had seen on television and now have seen with my own eyes.

A very dear friend of mine lived in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi a few years ago and met a very mean girl named Katrina. My friend did not have time to get over her bridge before the storm hit her small town and I have seen her photos with my own eyes and heard her stories with my own ears, and because of all the loss she suffered, and how deeply painful her recovery was and how long it took her to regain a level of comfort, and because I love her, I took the weather reports seriously and I prepared as best I could. In her honor I took the weather reports for tidal flooding and storm surges and 100 mile an hour wind gusts earnestly.  I had plenty of gas for the generator, plenty of food that would not quickly spoil, plenty of flashlights, candles, cash, and moved all my patio furniture and art around the yard and things that could smash through the windows…we prepared as best we could, here down by the bay in Barnegat, and then we very anxiously waited.

I was very lucky.  My house,which I built just three years ago, is 17.3 feet above sea level.  I knew this number because I helped site my property and was involved in every single phase of construction.  I heard over and over on the weather channel and radio that an 8 to 12 foot storm surge was expected here and because I am just tenths of a mile from the bay, I anticipated no major flooding, but because I live in a beach community, I knew that many of my neighbors both here on what we call the mainland, and across our bridge on what we call our island, were either at sea level or just above it and I feared for what that storm surge would do to them.

Yesterday in the late afternoon, after almost 7 days, we got power back.  I felt almost guilty for being so happy, because hours earlier I drove through a friend’s neighborhood and saw one of the prices to pay to have a waterfront view and the Atlantic City skyline as your back deck scenery…30 foot boats blown right through the backs of houses and out the front doors, houses pitched and perched at such an odd angle because they were nearly swept off their slabs and seemed to be standing by only the strength of a few 2 x 4 boards and some 10 penny nails.  I saw piles of debris in front yards, entire contents of homes, mounded up in what was once a front yard and what is now a brief history of a life lived, ready for a dumpster.  I know people both personally and indirectly who will not be “home” again for at least a year…so imagine my “guilt” that I sit here in front of my working computer, under lights, with heat, when I know that for many, all they want right now is what I have…a hot cup of coffee, a comfortable chair, and internet access…

I work on the small barrier island that was so badly damaged during this storm.  My family has been on ‘the island’ since the late 1840’s, but none of us live there anymore, it is however where I make my living.  My customers are all rather wealthy philanthropic professionals from Philadelphia and some from north Jersey who had the good fortune to buy beach properties when they were somewhat attainable or affordable to the upper middle class years ago, or who are simply part of the 1% in today’s economy who have the good fortune to have sufficient disposable income to not only buy a home at the shore, but to be able to afford the property taxes.

I love my customers.  Some of them treat me like a sort of helpful daughter, some of them simply are good to me and “find” work for me to do around their homes, some of them give me work all summer long and make lists of projects for me to do in the winter, and some only need me in the spring and fall to open and close up, but they all are dear to me, and are I say lovingly, my bread and butter.  Because of them, I have the life I have: Because they ask me to plant their flower pots, rake their yards, fill their gardens, pull their weeds, paint their bedrooms, freshen up their fascias, pressure wash their decks, and scrub their bathrooms, I am a single girl living in her dream house.   So I feel a bit guilty, that I am now going to be part of a major clean-up and “rebuild” of our island, that as winter nears and I normally am freaked out about hoping to find steady work for the winter, instead, because of this storm, I pretty much will have plenty to do all winter long…because of their loss I will have plenty of bread and butter…feeling secure through somebody’s misfortune is a confusing sensation.  Gratitude mixed with sympathy.

The man I share my life with came home yesterday and said, “people are being nice to each other.”  He announced this as if it were some surreal complexity of human interaction, but I knew what he meant.  Here in the southern part of the Jersey shore, we have something of a disconnect; the tourists versus the locals.  We locals don’t like that some of the tourists often have this rude horrific accent and demeanor, and needlessly honk their horns and often, in line at the store for example, we don’t interact much…an odd modern day segregation, us and them.  He noted that people were smiling at each other, speaking kindly to each other, asking, both curiously and with care, if somebody suffered damage, did they need anything… He told me that during the 17 plus years he lived in southern California, one of the most noticable differences he found when he came back to visit, was how nasty and moody and on edge people were in New Jersey compared to the pleasantly dispositioned southern Californians he lived amongst.

So we have suffered here at the Jersey shore from the mean girl named Sandy, but if somehow through her brutal treatment of our communities, we have found a way to pause before we are unkind to one another, and found a way to care about our neighbor in a way we did not before, and found a way to be less materialistic and less self-centered, then maybe, just maybe, we will be better off as a community because we met a mean girl named Sandy…

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