Tuesday, November 20

Staten Islanders- Just Like Me

In August, 1992 I was getting ready for my first job as a teacher. Just out of grad school, I had been hired just one day before in-service in the district began. Later that week, Hurricane Andrew hit Miami. Hard. Homes and lives were destroyed in ways that were unfathomable to me living in a land-locked state. My first day of teaching coincided with an urge to sign up to volunteer to take food and water and other donated materials from the Philadelphia area to Miami and help families clean up. But because it was my first day of teaching, I just couldn’t. When Katrina hit, my children were young and I couldn’t be away from them. So again I sat helplessly watching the images on tv and donating to the Red Cross.
Fast forward 20 years later and Hurricane Sandy hits NY, NJ, PA, VA and CT. In PA we were annoyed by our loss of power for a few days. But once the power and cable came back, we saw what the rest of the area had been through. Parts of the Jersey shore were largely decimated, sections of New York were devastated, but what grabbed me most was the new from “The Forgotten Borough” of Staten Island. Staten Island was as foreign a place to me as most countries are. Until May, 2012, I had never been there. Then my daughter and I drove (my first time driving to NY!) to Staten Island for the 5 boro cycling event that brought our favorite superhero to the finish line. I wanted to be there when he finished and so I drove there. It reminded me a lot of South Philly, where I grew up. There were a lot of Italian-named places and bakeries and stores, down to earth people and a homey atmosphere, much like South Philly- specifically where my grandmother used to live. So when I heard that people’s homes- primary residences, not vacation homes like some people think Staten Island has because it’s on the ocean- were destroyed, I felt a tug at my heart. Donating blankets and coats didn’t fulfill my need to help. I wanted to do something more. I started a collection of cold weather items and toiletries at the school where I teach and then one of my classes suggested we go to SI to deliver it. I dismissed the idea right away due to logistical concerns but then it hit me- why see if the advanced level (junior and senior) students wanted to go and volunteer to help? They enthusiastically volunteered as did my colleague’s students. My boss said yes and paid for the 52 passenger bus that I filled with 41 of my Spanish 4 students who volunteered and 4 adult volunteers and in 2 days we were ready to load the 3 bays of the bus with donated items and head to Staten Island.
We rode the bus into Staten Island and audible gasps started popping up among the students. A house reduced to rubble, a roof graveyard, boats in the street, people’s possessions, wet and destroyed, piled on the curb. We headed to the Christian Pentecostal Church, a relief hub was set up there, and it was one of the only places that answered the phone when I called last week- I contacted the borough president’s office, a congressman’s office, several relief organizations, but everyone was overwhelmed with helping efforts and I finally got through to this church. Some places only wanted volunteers over 18. We pulled up and Pastor Frank Chevere deployed us to 76 Marine Way in New Dorp. There another official chaplain, Steve Marino, and his wife, Melissa, assigned my group to 3 tasks: going door to door with basic supplies for one day, donated by Lowes, cleaning up the sidewalks and streets of debris, and distributing the mountain of clothes and supplies we had brought to anyone in the neighborhood who needed it. Power was still out, people had no hot food, and in many cases, no homes. What my students saw was sobering and gave them pause: houses that looked fine from the outside were caved in on the inside; houses that looked fine on the outside but were gutted to the studs on the inside to rid the house of wet, moldy drywall and carpets. And pieces of land with piles of rubble- the remains of homes that had been leveled by the hurricane. They picked up shovels and brooms and went right to work. Others grabbed the Lowes buckets and started knocking on doors to offer supplies. People in the neighborhood greeted us with some hesitance- many had been looted already- but always with gratitude. Some cheered for the kids; some just smiled, humbled by strangers offering them enough food and toiletries for one day.
Walking through the New Dorp area the mood was melancholy as my students came across wedding photos, childhood photos from decades ago, partially ruined from the water, buried under mud, covered in wet drywall. They shook them clean and put them in the spikes of fences so someone looking for them would find them. The photographer and scrapbooker in me cringed extra hard at the thought of my photographs- some almost 100 years old, ruined and strewn all over the street amid mud and debris. Random shoes, heads of dolls, stuffed animals and small mattresses littered the sidewalk, driving home the point that some of the hurricane’s victims were younger than they were. By the time we made our way back to the hub on Marine Way, many other volunteers had joined the effort- around 100 more. Some were serving a hot meal from the back of a truck to the neighborhood residents; others were cleaning up and sorting clothes. Some of my students assisted residents in Spanish who needed clothes- a thrill to put their mastery of the language in practice and help someone at the same time.
My students, high school juniors and seniors, experienced something that day that they may not have ever seen first hand before- humanity. The humanity of people who are just like us, who were suffering and struggling to put their lives back together, and the humanity of people, who are just like us, whose hearts were big enough to show up and help strangers in their most desperate time of need. My heart overflowed with pride that day, watching my big-hearted students who I am lucky enough to teach, pitching in to do something completely selfless. I didn’t set out to give them a “life lesson,” I set out to help make many hands make light work for our New York neighbors and in return I felt my own heart break on behalf of people… just like me.

Sunday, February 12

Don't Eat That, That's for Thursday!

In October, Superman and I went to see Sebastian Maniscalco, possibly one of the funniest comedians I have ever seen, in Philadelphia. His act centers around being Italian... gee, I can relate to that like 1000%. He talks about everything from the horns hanging in his car to the bag for money the bride has to carry at the wedding. We met him after the show and he is a genuinely humble guy, and I wished the show had been longer. It was a riot.  Here is a clip if you have never seen him before, by all means go to you tube and search for more.  This is one of our favorites- Sebastian questioning tattoos.  Enjoy!

My favorite Sigi, Pec, shared a video with me yesterday called "Sh*t Italian Moms Say." It's along the lines of the other videos that are out there on You Tube like "Sh*T Jewish Moms Say", etc. It's a collection of stereotypical expressions and sweeping generalizations of what Italian-American moms say and do. I watched it with my mom and my sister and we pointed out each expression that she was guilty of saying. It has more of a New York feel but there were plenty of expressions and mannerisms that the three Philadelphia-born Italians sitting at the table were guilty of as well. In fact, with nothing better to do last night, I went through it and counted. Twenty-eight of those gems were also either mine or my mother's. If you have an Italian mom from New York or South Philly or probably anywhere in between, take a look and tell me some of this doesn't ring true to you!

If you find an Italian mother portrayed by a burly dude in mismatched animal and floral print clothing wearing a wig and sporting a five o'clock shadow offensive to you, your mamma, your nonna or the Italian people in general, don't watch this. Oh, and get over yourself!

Enjoy- it's phenomenal!

Daniel Franzese, this is gold!