Nice Try, Sandy…But They Are Jersey Strong

Nice Try Sandy, But We are Jersey Strong

Super Storm Sandy inflicted tremendous damage on the eastern region of the country, particularly the Jersey coast. So taking a road trip to the boardwalk in Atlantic City may not the first place that comes to mind for a lot of folks as a destination spot, especially since the area is barely getting back to business as usual.

Well, I’m a “not a lot of folks” kind of guy, and was curious about the state of the shore and its people.

So I decided to embark on a day trip to coincide with the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. It would be a journey of just over 255 miles from where I was going to be having my turkey day festivities, which was Hollowville, New York.

Nestled in Columbia County, Hollowville is a small blip on the map of a town, about a 45 minute drive from Albany.

Since I would be spending a couple of days in Hollowville this year celebrating the holiday with my friend Pauly and his family, it made sense to start my trip from the quaint little town.

My big plan; head out the Saturday after Black Friday, and even try to convince Pauly to come with me. It would be fun, right?

Of course initially, I strategically neglected to tell him that I did not know exactly where I was going or what I would find in the city. There was a chance that this could be a huge bust and we would have spent close to eight hours and 500 miles in the car for nothing.

No pre-investigative searches about post Sandy effects on the city. All I knew is that I wanted to go to see what had happened to the boardwalk. Hell ,I didn’t even really know my way around there. Nope. Nothing. Straight from the hip. Just two men and a GPS. I wanted to feel as if I was an explorer on some great trek into the unknown.

Maybe I should lay off the Star Trek reruns.

As we came into the outskirts of Atlantic City on the Black Horse Pike, there were only small markers of evidence that Sandy had rampaged through the area. Had I not been specifically looking for them, I might not have noticed anything askew.

In other words, things looked pretty normal.

A building with some windows boarded up; a one level hotel that looked as if it had either been ravaged from the storm or just abandoned; a pile of random debris lying in the corner of a parking lot; it was hard to tell. Of course, several weeks had now passed since Sandy, it stood to reason that a lot of superficial clean up had already been done.

However, driving along the main highway coming into the city, things began to become more obvious that Sandy had been through. Billboards along the way that usually announced coming attractions to venues in the city were sporadically damaged; some missing parts of the backing; some hunched over and looing  beaten like a man that had his tail kicked in a bar fight.

Then there were those billboards standing defiantly upright that had couregeously faced and fought off Sandy’s onslaught seemingly unscathed. Like the one announcing American Idol runner up Clay Aiken would be coming there in the near future for some performances in the city.

Really Sandy?

You were already on a rampage – would destroying one more billboard really have made a difference?

But there was one billboard that stood proudly just passed Mr. Aikens smiling mug. It had seven words prominently blazed across its face with a message for the now deceased Sandy.

“Nice Try Sandy. But We Are Jersey Strong.”

Those seven words are just as strong as any wind or flood damage that Sandy could have caused. Those seven words  reflect the human spirit rising to confront adversity.

Maybe it was the remnants  of food leftover from my Thanksgiving feast still swirling around in my gut, or maybe the words struck an emotional cord within in me. Maybe it was a combination. I don’t know. But what I do know is that I felt inspired andwanted to get out of my car and salute that billboard.

And I did.

Right there next to the highway as inbound Atlantic City traffic sped by. It was my acknowledgement of solidarity to those so inspired to put up the billboard.

Good on you, Jersey.

Just upon entering the outskirts of the city, seven and half hours after leaving Hollowville, I was anxious about finding the famous boardwalk and the area touted to have been hit the worse. Especially since I figured my chances for getting some type of story were done. But we had traveled a good distance so at the very least, I wanted to see things for myself and pay my respects.

As we tried to navigate our way over to where we thought the boardwalk was, there were more obvious signs of Sandy’s carnage to the city. There were large pieces of debris in open fields, and all manner of  structures that looked to have sustained wind damage.

There did not seem to be very much going on in the town and traffic was notably sparse. Atlantic City, for all its glitz, glamour and allure as an East Coast version of Las Vegas, is a desperate city. Three blocks outside of the casino strip is rundown homes and out of work faces walking the streets. The Atlantic City many see on commercials is not the Atlantic City outside the walls of the marble pillars. The city is filled with beggars and the homeless or con men. Sometimes, all three.

So it was that much more distressing that Sandy has contributed to the economic challnges the city is already facing.

I had no clue on how to get to the boardwalk. Earlier I just put the address to Trump Towers in my GPS as a way of getting to the city. Now that we were there, we were on our own.

The wind started to pick up and to make matters worse, the temperature dropped to the low 40s. Not a good combination for being in a seaside city.

I had now become obsessed with getting to the boardwalk before darkness set in. Pauly started trying to suggest directions that we might take, but he had been to Atlantic City less times than I. What the hell did he know?

I spotted a young man walking and talking on his cell phone. I rode up on him so quickly it startled him -he had the look on his face that he was going to be on the receiving end of a drive by. I asked him if he knew how to get to the Boardwalk and though it was obvious that he was still recovering from a momentary panic, he pointed us in the direction we needed.

Five minutes later we were there. I was elated. We had reached the destination. However, my elation soon changed to a growing feeling of saddness and wonderment about what it must have been like for those weeks before and what they were dealing with now as a result.

We were at what is called the South Inlet. This area clearly looked the part of what I had imagined. Cement pillars that at one time held up the wooden walkway at that end of the Boardwalk stood lined up in the water. They resembled mini highway supports before a road had been laid across them.

The cold bite of the wind was whipping sand granules around blasting my face with every gust. The clouds were a mixture of ominous greys. I imagined that these conditions were similar to how it might have been as Sandy started to make her way in.

As I was walking around surveying the area, I started snapping pictures… I could not believe what I saw. I noticed that there were a surprising number of people walking around doing the same thing. This area seemed to have more activity than a lot of the city we passed through on our way to where we were.

I saw one lady in particular and wanted to know why she was there. Maybe she was a local and I would be able to put together a story after all, or at least point me in a direction.

She was a middle aged black woman that looked harmless enough carrying a camera on a strap. I approached her, introduced myself and explained that I was doing a story about post Sandy damage and wanted to know if I could ask her a few questions. She happily agreed.

Margret J. said that she was from Atlantic City…and Virginia…and Philadelphia. How is this possible, I asked her. She said that she was born in Atlantic City but calls the other places home as well.

This was the end of any conversation that made sense with Margret..

“I am in the military,” she said.

“What branch?” I asked being a veteran myself.

“Air Force,” Margret said proudly, after stumbling a moment to think about her response. She went on to tell me that she had served three years and is on medical leave.

Since 1992.

“Me too (as we did a high five), Though I recently retired after srving 24 years. Were you enlisted or an officer?” I asked.

“I think I was a sergeant…it was so long ago… yes, I was an officer.”

“I think?” Margret had her ranks mixed up and anyone that has served for any amount of time typically remembers what rank they held. Military rank structure is one of the first things taught in basic training.

There was something not quite right with Margret. Obviously carrying on with this part of the discussion would be pointless. So in an effort to wind things down and move on, I asked her where she lives now…a simple enough question.

“Well…I…live here”

“Here in Atlantic City?” I asked.

“No with my sister, a couple of blocks away”

Now, obviously a couple of blocks away is still Atlantic City. Pauly now looked at me with puzzlement. Not serving a day in the military himself, he could not tell that her military information did not add up. However he could tell that her account of her living situation was clearly a bit amiss.

Margret was as sweet as can be through this whole conversation, she even kept a jovial smile on her face. It was time to end this and move on without hurting her feelings in any way.

“Oh ok, so you’re staying with your sister… that’s cool Margret. Well listen, it was nice talking to you, thanks very much!” I said in with a smile and the friendliest voice I had.

“My sister’s house was flooded and she lost everything…”

I got sucked back into the conversation.

“Really? Is she home now?” I asked thinking maybe I could talk to her. Of course Pauly shot me a look of “Are you kidding?”

“She is at work right now,” Margret said.

“What time does she get home?” I ask with suspicion.

“I don’t know, she has been there since yesterday”

“Oh ok, well thanks Margret, you have a great day. Good luck with your medical retirement.”

Exit stage left. We left Margret at that point and she continued her walk up the beach swinging her little camera that I figure worked about as well as its owner.

We walked over to a field covered in beach sand that had been washed inland form the flood waters.

A Subaru station wagon sat in buried up to the bottom of its doors. More than likely the little grocery getter had been washed to its current spot where it has been sitting since the waters rescinded back to the Atlantic.

In that same field only 30 or so feet away, a pile of shredded boardwalk wood planks had been stacked from earlier efforts to clean up. They were placed in a pile close to a story high. This was between what was left of the Boardwalk at that end of the city and a row of modern looking condos that were about 800 feet inland from the shore area.

Sand from the beach was pushed up all the way to the homes forming little drifts along the way.

There was a 90s model BMW 3 series convertible sitting in one of the driveways. Its rear window was busted out and the hood partially popped open. It was dirty and dented resembling an abandoned car that one would see in a post-apocalyptic movie.

Chairs sat among other indoor furnishings in one of a few piles lined up and down the ravaged street at the foot of driveways. Parts of people’s lives just sitting there, out in the open.

As we were standing there taking everything in, a man drove up and pulled into one of the driveways.

It was 62 year old Frank Georgiades, a Greek immigrant construction worker that has been in the United States for 40 years. Georgiades has been living in his home for 10 years now. He stayed there throughout Sandy’s assault.

“I was not as worried about the storm as I was about the possible looting afterwards. My garage was flooded and I could see my things washing into the flood waters, but there was nothing I could do. It would have been too dangerous to go out.”

Georgiades felt lucky that his home was not decimated, but with what happened to the garage and the overall damage to his home, the costs to repair amounted to an alarming sum. His garage door was being braced by wood to sure it up, ironically, by a piece of the same wood from the Boardwalk that damaged it riding inland with the rush of flood waters that swept in from the Atlantic.

“You see that wood holding up my garage door? It is from the Boardwalk. There were pieces of it flying everywhere, but the big chunks of it in the water were the worse. Right now, I have more than $250 thousand in damage and I don’t have flood insurance. I don’t know what I am going to do at this point.”

Georgiades did not have flood insurance because he could not afford the premiums. Even though he is near the water, he felt that he was far enough away that it was not worth the exuberant cost.

“I never thought that this would be an issue. It’s not like I was directly on the beach.”

As the conversation continued, Georgiades begun to get emotional. As did I, and at that point he extended his arm and we shook hands. He turned and went up the driveway and I watched him go into his home feeling bad that I had just caused him more emotional distress from our conversation.

What happened to Georgiades is heart wrenching, but he is not alone in his decision to not have flood coverage on his home owners insurance.

As we walked away from Georgiades home, I couldn’t t help but notice a busy little restaurant on a side street not far from where he lived. Everything else seemed to be quiet and vacant in the area, but this one place was alive and buzzing with activity.

Though darkness was setting in, Tony Boloney’s Atlantic City Indigenous Pizza, Subs and Grub eatery shined out like a beacon. Being so close to the shore, I was curious how the little cozy restaurant faired through Sandy, so off we went.

That evening, Tony Boloney’s was full of life. There was a mash of all types inside the quaint food stop; college age kids, hipsters, skateboarder types, even a postman still in uniform. It also seemed to be a popular host spot for local police as there were four Atlantic City patrol cars parked outside and a gang of officers inside having a bite.

Walking inside, the atmosphere was full of energy led by owner Mike Boloney. He seemed to know everyone and made the extra effort to make you feel that you belonged there.

His smile and energy was infectious as he took orders and made sure that each customer was treated as if they were his number one client. But it was not just the outstanding service he was providing, the food was incredible.

A signature sandwich that a number of customers requested was called “S#hitfaced.” It is “beer battered bird w/honey, stout bbq sauce, mozz and cheddar.”

It seemed every other customer that came in ordered one.

Pauly and I took a seat right next to the register where owner Boloney was working. The last thing I was interested in doing was having more food but everything smelled and looked so good I had to. I ordered a Uncle Penny Bags (grilled chicken, pesto, roasted red peppers and mozzarella) and Pauly had a Buff-O.Blue (homemade buffalo chicken, blue cheese, mozzarella and celery)

There was no way I was going to eat this…especially in my delicate condition after Thanksgiving, but when in Rome, as the saying goes.

While taking our order I started chatting with Boloney about how things were for him as a result of the storm.

“Well, I had over $70K in damage to my restaurant including about $30K in equipment that was stolen. Most of it being classic machines that I can‘t replace because …they just don’t make it them like that anymore.”

Like Georgiades, Boloney did not have flood insurance.

“The cost of flood insurance is crazy here and I never thought that it would be something I would have to contend with. I mean, it’s not like I am right on the beach.”

Baloney ended up with about eight inches of water throughout his restaurant. After about a week of being closed for clean-up, he was able to re-open his doors and get back in business.

“Lucky for me, a lot of the local businesses needed catering services so though things were bad form the damage, I was extremely busy supplying them with food.”

The worst part of all for Boloney was the looting. He says that this is a neighborhood in which everyone knows everyone, he is not just a business owner, he is part of the community. So when his place was looted, he did not want to think that any of the locals were part of it.

“While I was here one night cleaning up just after the flood and accessing the damage, I decided to review my security camera footage. It caught a number of looters in action. One of the people caught was someone that I recognized as a regular customer. He was clearing out my beverage refrigerators and chips. I did not want to call the police because of being a part of the community, and figured it would not get .y stuff back anyway.”

As things would have it, the young man came in with his grandmother one day. Baloney asked the kid how he was and what did he do during the storm while looking him dead in the face. The kid would not make eye contact with him. Baloney asked him to come around back to show him something, and the kid sheepishly refused. Baloney politely insisted.

By now, the kid’s grandmother was getting suspicious so in order to avoid her getting involved, he lamented and followed Boloney to the back. Baloney showed him the footage that he had with the kid stealing and told him “if you don’t tell your grandmother what you did, I will.”

The two of them walked back up front to a grandmother that was clearly puzzled and wanted to know what was going on. Boloney looked at the kid and he said nothing. So he asked her to come around back and showed her the footage.

“I know that lady and she was not one to play. She was shocked and apologized for her grandson’s actions and glared at him. Doing that would have more impact on that kid that then turning him to the cops.”

It was a considerate act of kindness from a man that valued his relationship with the local community above all else, especially in the wake of Sandy.

“With everything that I was going through, that little thing gave me a small degree of satisfaction.”

After speaking with Baloney for over an hour, it was now just past seven in the evening. Pauly and I still had four and a half hours left and it was time to hit the road back to Hollowville.

I shook hands with Baloney and told him he was a good man for having such a strong sense of community. We left and got on our way.

While driving back I reflected on the people that I had met and the things that I had seen. It had been a long day for Pauly and I, but well worth the trip.  My thoughts and good wishes go out to all of you.

Nice try Sandy… and good ridden.