My White Whale, or: What I Won in Hurricane Sandy

Three days after Hurricane Sandy.

I’ve never met this Russian giant before today, I don’t even know his name, but he hands over a fearsome yellow crowbar and gestures for me to slam it into the wall beside us. The wall is light pink, like the inside of a conch shell, and plastered with a fine layer of sand and twigs. The crowbar punches through it with the greatest of ease and muddy seawater drools from the hole, pooling around our boots. The man’s respirator mask and thick goggles hide his face, but the edges of his eyes crinkle as he smiles. Such is the easy camaraderie of a disaster zone.

I tighten my grip on the crowbar and yank, tearing away a jagged swath of wall to reveal dripping insulation, dark wood studded with black nails, tangles of dead wires. My hulking new friend and I begin ripping out the house’s guts. Another volunteer crouches behind us with a garbage bag, which soon bulges with debris. This is our second house of the morning. There are a dozen more on the block, dozens of blocks in the neighborhood, eleven neighborhoods that make up the Rockaways, this spit of land beaten to shambles by the hurricane.

II.

With all the stores closed, and the electricity dead, and the bathrooms in every house choked with sandy mud, there is simply nowhere to take a piss indoors. Bladder throbbing, I step into the cold morning and strip off my painter’s mask and lab goggles and two pairs of gloves, stuffing them into the laughably small pockets of my cargo pants. I clink and jangle my way across the sandy expanse of what used to be a street, headed for the looming mountains of debris that separate the neighborhood from the beach. Along the block, dozens of volunteers in bright orange T-shirts drag waterlogged couches and mattresses onto the sidewalks.

I pick my way to the ocean side of the highest mound of junk, trusting that its splintered boards and rusty fencing will hide me from prying eyes, and, unzipping, proceed to business. Waiting for my bladder to empty, I turn my head to the left, scanning the row of concrete pillars marching down the coast: the only part of the boardwalk still standing. It punches you in the gut, a sight like that. I twist my gaze away, to the right — where a man is watching me.

He crouches atop the neighboring hill of wreckage, his faded jumpsuit blending chameleon-style into the gray wood, a loaded crossbow slung across his shoulders on a worn leather strap.

I yelp, electrified to the spot, spraying urine in wild arcs.

He nods. “How you doing.”

I suck air back into my lungs. “You mind?” I ask, trying to keep my voice light, even as I hastily stuff myself back into my pants. My sadistic brain flashes Technicolor images of a bloody death in mid-piss, a crossbow bolt buried in my neck, my face planted in the soaked sand.

The man shifts his shoulders and the crossbow slithers under his arm, into his grip. He keeps its serrated steel bolt pointed at the ground as he picks his way down the pile, cool gaze locked on mine. “Yeah, I mind,” he says, mocking my tone. His face is pale and unreadable as a porcelain mask.

“Lots of cops around,” I say, and instantly regret it. I never react well in times of stress, as my ex-wife will cheerfully tell you.

“You scared?” He stands maybe ten feet away, the crossbow now angled at my knees.

“Not really.” At least I sound calm, despite my hammering heart. “Just pointing out they might not appreciate, you know, someone walking around with one of those.”

“They don’t care. I live here.”

“You live here?”

“You’re peeing on my porch, man, or what’s left of it,” he says, jabbing his chin at the broken planks around my feet. “That’s good wood. I was hoping to use it again.”

“Sorry.” I take a step back.

“You stealing anything while you’re down here, man? A couple souvenirs?”

“What? No, I’m here to help, I mean, do I look like a looter?”

He lifts the crossbow, the bolt ready to punch through nylon, cotton, skin, bone on its way to my heart. My pulse hammers in my ears, my throat tight, my hands clenching into useless fists. He holds that pose for an eternity, finger whispering on the trigger — and suddenly his face splits in a wide smile, revealing sharp white teeth.

He lowers the weapon, letting it dangle on the strap, and sticks out a hand. “Come on, sorry, I’m just screwing with you. Sorry. My name’s Otis.”

I stumble backward, wondering whether to abandon all dignity and run, and he steps forward, raising a palm — stop, please. “Really, I’m sorry, I got a sick sense of humor. Can I ask you something?” From his breast pocket he extracts a wallet-size photograph: a pretty girl with a classic pin-up face and a silky thicket of red hair, framed from the shoulders up. “You see this lady?”

“No,” I say, retreating another step. “Who is she?” From beyond the piles comes the roar of trucks, the laughter of volunteers.

“Denise. She’s my girl, man.” He tucks the photograph away. “Live a block up. You see her, you come and find me, you hear? She wandered off somewhere. I’m serious.”

“I’m sure.” From somewhere close I hear the sharp clang of a shovel on pavement, a woman muttering in exhaustion. “I have to go,” I say. Without waiting for a reply, I turn and scramble up the nearest pile, scraping my bare hands on chunks of concrete. In the street a half-dozen volunteers jolt upright, startled, as I crest the ridge in a panicked spray of sand.

“How goes it?” I yell, too loud. When I glance toward the water, Otis is gone.

Post-hurricane messages.

III.

After that, the idea of stripping plaster in the company of friendly people seems like a comforting one indeed. I find my crew in the basement of the same house, peeling the soggy walls from their galvanized steel frames. An industrial work-light on a tripod bathes the scene a jaundiced yellow. The giant Russian stands in the far corner, poking his crowbar at a ceiling blistered with rusty water bubbles. I tap his shoulder and gesture for the tool, which he gifts with another crinkly-eyed smile.

Crowbar in hand, I turn and splash my way to an untouched section of wall. My heart refuses to slow. I see Otis grinning at my fear, his crossbow bolt sharp and cold as death. I lift the tool overhead and bring it down hard, hissing through my nostrils, teeth clenched. Coward. Drywall explodes in a white cloud of fiber. The bolt jitters for my heart. Coward. I swing again, grunting hard. Bent nails bounce off my boots into the muck. Scrambling up the pile with my ass high in the air. Coward. I swing again and again and again until the crowbar bites into a steel frame and then I pull, roaring through my mask as the whole section crumbles around me with an echoing boom.

I turn, and my crew takes a collective step back.

“Sorry,” I say, once I catch my breath. “Had a bad experience outside.”

The Russian breaks into enthusiastic applause. The rest tremble with horrified energy. The home’s owner, a small Asian lady with a long black ponytail and a muddy sweatshirt, twines her fingers in an anxious ball and whispers something bitter under her breath.

“Sorry,” I drop the crowbar. “I sometimes, I just . . .”

Only the Russian can meet my eyes. I offer him a curt bow and take my leave, escaping to the first floor and the street beyond. A National Guard convoy rumbles past, a sudden sandstorm in its wake, and I decide to follow it: anything to escape the beach, and the prospect of running into Otis again.

At the next intersection a few enterprising souls have converted Rockaway Taco and the house across the street into a bustling aid station. On the curb, a neon behemoth of a food truck farts exhaust and fragrant steam, dispensing hot dogs and bottled water to a winding line of grimy volunteers. I join them, hunger gnawing at my insides — along with a fair share of guilt: how dare I take food after only a few hours’ work?

But the hunger wins out. In line, I glance at the lady standing in front of me. She wears a black hooded sweatshirt caked with sand, a pair of loose jeans, and a thick woolen cap with a Jolly Roger stitched on the front. Her face in profile belongs in an art textbook, so perfect its symmetries: plush lips ascending to an isosceles nose, the high forehead rimmed with black curls. I stare too hard and she feels it, glancing back too fast for me to look away, but even as I steel myself for the verbal jab (tempers run high in a disaster zone) she tilts her head and says: “I feel I know you from somewhere.”

“You ever work in tech?” I say, relieved at this choice of conversation.

“No. Music.”

“You work at a label or something?”

“No, I’m in a real band.”

“As opposed to a fake band?”

“Exactly. You know all these people, saying they’re in a band, but they really work in a coffee shop and play a gig every couple months? We have regular shows, make money.”

“What’s your band called?”

“The Dead Beats, as in Beat poetry? Don’t give me that look.”

“What look?”

“The one you’re giving me. Where do I know you from?”

“Maybe television. I’ve been on the news a couple times,” I say, extending my hand. “I’m Derek Wheeler. I live in Park Slope.”

We shook. “Olivia. I’m in Williamsburg.”

“A musician who lives in Williamsburg. How unusual.”

She laughs. “Shut up, I’m not a hipster. Hey, you seen any Red Cross today?”

“No. Pretty much everyone else — National Guard, a bunch of church groups — but no Red Cross.”

“Maybe they can get their ass down here,” she snorts. “Last I checked, there’s no power in those projects over there, which means people going up and down nine flights of stairs in the dark. Plus everyone in those houses needs supplies — hold on, we’re here: what’re you having?”

We shout our menu requests into the steaming window of the food truck. A moment later, a kid in a splattered apron hands us our hot dogs and bottled waters and thanks us for all our help, his fist tapping his heart. Guilt thumps me again. As we step away with our precious calories, Olivia asks: “You make it through the storm okay?”

“Pretty okay. Never lost power. Spent it watching the news, decided that wasn’t good enough, so I’ve been coming down.”

“Good for you. What group you with?”

“None at the moment. I went to one of those volunteer stations that hand out assignments, group you with a crew?”

“Wonderful. We can use a big, strong man like you.” She mock-winks. “Want to see something really weird?”

How could anyone refuse an invitation like that?

IV.

A couple months before the hurricane, I found my way to the roof of my apartment building. It was a postcard-perfect morning. I lit a cigarette and took small, careful steps to the edge, stopping only when my toes poked into space. I squinted through my smoke at the street, watching as my ex-wife’s new boyfriend, Robert, finished maneuvering his ridiculous luxury sedan into a tight space forty feet below. I considered taking another step: the quick flight to the street (so fast, like you’re strapped to a rocket, say the failed jumpers), the crunch of safety glass as my body imploded Robert’s overpriced windshield, maybe a glimpse of his startled face before the lights dimmed. Surprise!

Instead I stood there and smoked my cigarette to the filter while a bruised sun rose over Brooklyn’s geometric slopes, the row houses and brick apartment buildings marching from the leafy heights of Prospect Park to the gray blur of the East River. To my left, the distant F train lurched its way up the elevated track over the Gowanus Canal, screeching under the weight of its dour commuters.

When I glanced back at the street, the car was parked and empty. I heard the stairwell door creak open behind me, the crunch of Robert’s shoes on gravel. “Hey,” he said. “Thought you’d be at work.”

I refused to turn around. “Took a personal day.”

“I’m here to, um, you know.”

“Yep.” I lit another cigarette and power-dragged a burning lungful of smoke. It was my first pack in five years and the tobacco tasted weird and bitter. The nicotine brought a pleasant buzz but otherwise I regretted spending the money. “Do what you came to do.”

“Listen, I . . .” He stepped forward again, perilously close to invading my airspace.

I kept my gaze fixed on that distant train. “There’s nothing to talk about, Bob. That’s why I’m up here,” I said. “You got the keys? Get her stuff out. You know that etching on the bedroom wall, the one of Florence?”

“Yes.” Of course he did. He’d been seeing it for six months before I knew he existed.

“Don’t touch that one. I know she says it’s hers, but it’s not.” I nodded toward his car. “If you take it, I’ll see. I’ll come down and take it back, you hear?”

“No need to threaten, man.” He actually managed to sound indignant, the cad.

I flicked my half-finished cigarette into space, watching with clinical interest as it tumbled four stories, trailing smoke and a spiral of bright ash, before bouncing off the hood of Robert’s car. I hoped its ember scorched his paint job. I spat, but my gob of saliva wasn’t so aerodynamic: it spattered on the sidewalk by my stoop, startling an old lady walking her terrier. “Buzz off,” I growled, and Robert’s footsteps headed for the door.

I watched him leave twenty minutes later, a cardboard box under one arm and a full duffel bag slung over his shoulder. He never looked up as he loaded the car and drove away. This might sound weird, but I wished him well: it was hard not to fall in love with Anne, once you knew her. I left the rest of the cigarette pack on the roof and headed downstairs, into the apartment where I now lived alone with my memories and a whole lot of books. Robert had left the etching in the bedroom, bless his bourgeois heart.

V.

We walk south along Rockaway Beach Boulevard, surveying the destruction: the electric poles leaning at drunken angles, the bicycle thrust halfway through a crumpled windshield, the piles of sand-clogged furniture on every corner. In the small plaza between Beach 95th and Beach 96th, a church group sets up shop beneath a gleaming white tent. A lady in a T-shirt with the church’s logo shoves a religious tract — gothic script, cheesy angels — into Olivia’s hands as we pass.

“You want to help,” Olivia tells her, never breaking stride, “find a shovel and start digging.” She crumples the tract and tosses it into the road, drawing a pained smile from the lady.

We walk in silence for another block before Olivia blasts out a long breath, shaking the rage from her shoulders. “Okay, subject change,” she says. “Why were you on the news?”

I laugh. “You remember Sonic Pull?”

“That old Website for downloading free songs, right? I never used it. Not to be all moral, but I was always into paying for music.”

“Well, I built it.” Ten years later, I still feel a surge of pride whenever I say those words, despite everything that happened after. “It was a pretty amazing piece of work, thank you very much.”

She rolls her eyes. “You realize I see that sort of thing as theft.”

“My friends and I, we used to say, ‘Information deserves to be free.’ Like it was a little bird trapped in a cage.”

She clenches her gloved hand and shakes it in my direction, barely suppressing a laugh. “Ugh. Seriously, I want to hit you.”

“Okay, want to know the real reason I invented it?”

“Thrill me.”

“At the time I really liked that band Garbage, and I wanted to find all their B-sides.”

“Committing amoral acts in the name of Shirley Manson. I love it. Didn’t a bunch of people sue you?”

“Two court cases, yeah. A lot of people don’t agree with that ‘information is free’ thing.”

“Hold that thought.” Olivia sticks two fingers in her mouth and whistles long and shrill. In the crowd ahead of us, a scruffy kid in a knit cap spins around and breaks into a wide smile. “That’s Howard,” she says, waving for him to come over. “Friend of mine. Ever hear of Bayonets and Horses?”

“Sure. They used to fight wars with them.”

“No, Bayonets and Horses, as in the band. He’s the drummer.” Howard trots over, and Olivia performs the introductions: “This is Derek from Park Slope. He’s committed crimes against art and commerce but he’s looking to redeem himself by helping out down here. We’re going to that very special place I found.”

“Groovy. You think it’s still there?” he asks her.

“I expect so.” We start walking again, and after another block she steers us right, toward the ocean, then left into a narrow alley, where she stops and throws her arms wide to frame a view so bizarre — even by the standards of this already weird-for-the-ages week — it stuns me into silent wonder.

VI.

My stepfather owned a bar in Brooklyn when I was growing up. He served gallons of alcohol every night and yet never touched a drop himself. Whenever I asked him why, he hinted at some heinous crime committed in his drunken youth, but I never asked for details: I didn’t want to stain the love I felt for him. A few years ago, as he lay dying in his hospital bed, he asked me to buy a bottle of whiskey, which I did — the most expensive bottle from the liquor store around the corner. When I came back, we slugged down three shots apiece. “There goes forty years of sobriety,” he muttered through cracked lips, and laughed like a handful of pebbles rattling in a can. The alcohol blended with the morphine and he started singing snatches of Rolling Stones songs off-key. By midnight he said nothing ever again.

For a long time afterwards I kept that whiskey bottle in my kitchen, and even at my worst I never touched a drop of it. After the Sonic Pull debacle I had to sell off his bar, to pay all my legal bills. I still miss that place. I just refuse to step inside it, ever.

VII.

It looks like a large shack, its blue sides scraped raw by wind and water, the corrugated tin roof carpeted with branches and chunks of debris. It sits midway down the alley, jammed between the stumps of two cracked electric poles. I laugh in surprise: “It floated in here?”

Olivia shrugs. “Hell of a storm.”

“Been inside yet?” I approach the front door and push, surprised when it creaks open an inch.

“Peeked through the glass,” Olivia gestures toward the small windows on either side of the door. “Couldn’t really see. Maybe you shouldn’t go inside? It could collapse or something.”

I push the door open wider, pausing at the threshold for an exploratory sniff. It smells like everything else in the neighborhood: a bouquet of drywall and wood left stewing in seawater, spiced with notes of things dead and ripe. The windows are smeared opaque with mud, but the morning sun throws an icy beam over my shoulder that glitters off rows of liquor bottles, still orderly on shelves behind a walnut hulk of a bar. Stools lay scattered on the moist floor.

I ease inside, my boots crunching on broken glass, scanning the dimness for any signs of life. “Yeah, it’s a bar,” I say. “Where’d it come from?”

Olivia and Howard step through the door behind me. “Why wouldn’t it just sink?” she asks.

I find a drink coaster on the floor by my feet. It features a logo of an eight-spoke ship’s wheel, above a line of blocky script: THE WHITE WHALE, GATEWAY MARINA, BROOKLYN. “It’s a floating bar, you tie it up to a dock.” I hold up the coaster for them to see. “There must be pilings underneath the floor.”

“That marina’s way far away,” Olivia says, and whistles appreciatively.

“Someone should call the cops, ask if anyone’s missing a drinking establishment,” I say, steeled for the sight of something unpleasant — a body, perhaps — as I step around the far side of the bar. The floorboards are empty, which I celebrate by nabbing a bottle of Knob Creek from the shelf and pouring a shot into the nearest glass. My two new friends raise their eyebrows in sync.

“Dude, it’s not even noon,” Howard says. “I mean, whatever does it for you, but. . .”

“I know what time it is.” I find two more empty glasses and fill each to the brim with bourbon. “But these are extraordinary times, no? Come here.”

They take their drinks. “What’re we toasting?” Olivia asks.

“To good luck. May it begin again, and come in streaks.”

We down our shots.

VIII.

A few days before the storm, a lovely email from a human-resources drone named Amanda appeared in my inbox:

As you all know, the past few months have been very busy ones for the company, delivering on our priorities and ensuring the maximum shareholder value. As we kick off planning for the rest of the year, our executive board has come to the conclusion that, in order to maintain our trajectory for long-term growth, we’re going to give our employees some added flexibility. If you are a full-time employee receiving this email, please be aware that you’re now working on a limited part-time contractor basis. Benefits will change accordingly, but freelancing is still not allowed under your original contract agreement. We will reach out to help you move through this transition. I wish you the best. Please think about how you’ll spend those extra hours!

Amanda sent that email at three in the morning, when she probably expected all us screwed-over software developers to be sound asleep in our beds. I doubted there was room in her philosophy for anyone who spent the post-midnight hours in a seedy little bowling alley by the Port Authority, rolling splits alongside the other insomniacs. Anyone seeking a reliably dysfunctional crowd can’t do better than a scene like that.

“Wonderful,” I said, closing the email and slipping my phone back into my pocket. I performed some quick mental calculations: If I cut down my food intake to a few granola bars per day, I could afford to keep my place. If I quit drinking so much alcohol, I could maintain my regular intake of caffeine. Call it the New Economy Diet: the best possible way to burn off all the pounds.

“What’s up, brother?” In the next lane, Doctor Impervious Wall — as the dissolute gentleman wanted us to call him, for reasons known only to him and his God — lowered his half-finished pitcher of dark lager. He was a nightly regular, always dressed in the same gray three-piece suit, and we’d settled into a rhythm of back-and-forth taunts over our respective bowling abilities.

“Should’ve stuck to creating my own startups,” I said, hurling my thirteen-pounder in anger, and watched with impotent dismay as it veered into the left gutter.

The good doctor raised his pitcher in mock salute: “To the spirit of entrepreneurship.”

“The only way my life’s different from a country-music song,” I fingered my next ball, wondering if those so-called altered benefits meant I still had health insurance, “is I don’t own a dog or a pickup.”

“You know the thing about bad luck?” the good doctor suggested. “It comes in waves. Bowling scores, deaths in the family, weeks of rain: they’re all deterministic, successive events governed by initial conditions. Which is why you might as well not roll that ball: if you were losing before, you’ll just keep losing. The math will continue to screw you, now and forever or until it decides otherwise.” His beard foamed with beer. “I hate to say it, I know it’s not comforting, but if your life is bad now, you better hunker down until your good luck comes back.”

IX.

Howard and Olivia leave to fetch supplies, promising to return soon. I discover a stack of squat candles in a clay bowl beneath the liquor shelves, along with a pack of paper matches. Once lit and arranged along the bar, they give The White Whale a flickering, tattered elegance. It reminds me of a whaler bar in a Herman Melville story, a wooden box where men down to their last chance wait for the next ship out.

In the clay bowl, I also find a hunk of red chalk. I prop open the front door and, on the side of the building, write WELL, THAT SUCKED in tall thick letters. And below it: HOW ABOUT A DRINK?

Behind the bar again, I pour a fresh bourbon, find a notepad and pencil, and jot down a list of things I’ll need: a sleeping bag, extra underwear, a flashlight, a battery-powered lantern, food, a generator once the candles burn out.

Even though I’m no good at digging people out, I’ve decided, I can help in other ways. Maybe it’s magical thinking, but it seems as if everything over the past year — the emptied apartment, the wrecked job I hated anyway, the friends who forgot to stick around — have converged to deliver me to this spot. Through the doors, I spy a cluster of orange-shirted volunteers at the head of the alley, peering at my new establishment with curiosity. I beckon for them to enter.

X.

The weekend after I lost my wife, I took the A train to the end of the line, a few blocks from the seashore. I had my keys and fare card and some cash in a waterproof pouch inside my shorts. As I strode onto the beach I stripped off my T-shirt and kicked away my sneakers, trusting in the kindness of my fellow New Yorkers to leave them unmolested. The breakers crashed cold and hard against my knees as I powered my way into the ocean, past the waders and bodysurfers, until the swells hoisted me afloat. Further offshore I relaxed and let the tide take control. It treated my fragile body with a mother’s care: I drifted, watching the seagulls flap across the perfect blue sky, and made a point of ignoring the insistent blasts of the lifeguard’s whistle. I was out of my mind, yes, but the ocean cared not a bit; such things were beyond it. After a few minutes the whistling stopped. I lifted my head and saw the lifeguard paddling for me on a bodyboard, his cherubic face scrunched in annoyance. I looked beyond him, toward the unending scroll of the Rockaways: the rainbow spray of towels and umbrellas along the beach, the faint thread of steam rising from the crab boil on the boardwalk, the grizzled Russians working out old feuds on the handball courts, the bungalows crumbling softly in the salty breeze, and looming above it all the dull towers of public housing, each packed full of miseries. At that moment I realized I loved everything I saw: the weirdness and the stink, the happiness and the agony blended into every bright inch. Death is so boring by comparison. The lifeguard’s hand found mine, and I clutched it hard. You could say I owe this part of town something of a debt.

Writer, editor, author of 'Maxine Unleashes Doomsday' and 'Boise Longpig Hunting Club.'

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store