Giving Thanks: Our Takeaway

Thursday, November 22, 2012

LIPA workers in Far Rockaway trying to restore power after Hurricane Sandy. LIPA workers in Far Rockaway trying to restore power after Hurricane Sandy. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

It's been a difficult fall for this country, with a bitter and divisive election and a deadly storm whose effects are still being felt in the Northeast. But there is a lot to be thankful for today nonetheless. John Hockenberry, host of The Takeaway, shares his Thanksgiving reflections.

My thanksgiving moment came early this year. It was a very specific visual image, two actually, and while you're not going to hear me whining about what happened during Hurricane Sandy — I was lucky, big time — but the storm revealed something about my neighborhood. Like an overheard conversation that tells truth usually unstated. 

In Somalia once I walked through a village stacked high with bodies, killed by famine, white bones, and withered, shrunken children. Next door in the neighboring village there was plenty of food. 'How can this be?' I asked. The famine revealed something about how this society was organized. 'Do you want us to end up like those skeleton people?' a woman said to me. We have to survive. It's just the truth.'

There was that overheard remark of Mitt Romney about what the 47 percent of Americans who pay no taxes think of themselves — as victims and are looking for stuff — this is what he believes, truly. Forty-seven percent of people are looking for entitlements, like the people on foodstamps.
We'd be better off without them, is that the idea? Get rid of entitlements, root out the dysfunction, and the system "the economy" would work better. 

Or is it that it was the food stamps that worked, did what they were supposed to? Have we embraced these people in a time of need with our rickety foodstamp program? People are hungry, other people have food, we feed the hungry people some food. Is it so much more complicated than that? 

When the waters hit my neighborhood like that it smashed everybody equally who was close to the water. The only advantage was being up high. The flooding was everywhere and then the power went out. And so did any sense of equality. As the waters receded, who had an advantage and who did not slowly became clear.

A week and a half after Sandy there was another storm, bitter cold and snowy, a blizzard, and out my window where the lights had just come on a few days before, of the biggest buildings in the neighborhood, the housing projects were still dark. From my window I could see the snow whipping, but besides that, darkness. 

It filled me full of fear. One of the largest housing projects in the city with no power, no heat, no light. Buildings just down the street at the mercy of a blizzard, people whose shelter offered no shelter. 

Over the course of the next few days it became clear the power would not be restored soon. The way the buildings were designed was a problem, and jurisdictional disputes over who and what could be repaired paralyzed things. Hundreds of families would move out, hundreds of elderly and disabled would stay.

On a Saturday two of my daughters brought food to the building climbing, it's 17 flights of stairs along with a group of theatre volunteers. They sang the John Legend tune "If you're out there." I could not climb the stairs but I could cook in my building with elevators that worked. My daughters would carry my rice and bean casserole and sing to the people, like me, who could climb no stairs. 

My youngest daughter came home, upset at the smell in the building with no plumbing, how the darkness said that nobody cared about those people. 'Why does nobody care?' she wanted to know. 

Clearly something about the systems we have built contain a hidden accounting of our real social priorities. Why would the poor, in government housing, be last to get their power restored by the private utility? The waters mostly spared the buildings — it was the old electrical systems that failed.  

The lights are back on in the projects and it looks so good from my window, a warmth and life replaces the cold and dead feeling that no one cared. 

These networks and systems and governments and markets that we humans create to serve our proud identity as free civilized people, they are so fragile. If they stop supplying power, giving heat and water, food and clothes — even for a short time — it all quickly breaks down: the gas lines, the military vehicles, the darkness, the cold, the people hungry.

Some people have nothing, other people with more, give things to the people with nothing. Without that simple idea nothing works, nothing can work.

Thanksgiving. Two images: the power was out in the projects, now it's back on now and the lights from those buildings are as dazzling as any architectural monument across the river in Manhattan.

Thanksgiving. Enjoy yours.

Guests:

John Hockenberry

Comments [2]

Rob Zucker from Massachusetts

Hey John,
I guess I've become a fan. Very beautiful story!
Best,
Rob

Nov. 29 2012 12:50 PM
Ruby C. Ladd from North Central Oklahoma

This story beautifully illustrates what I believe is the deep intent of today - this annually set aside Thursday, and what we do so well to remember everyday. I listened standing up at my kitchen counter, eating a bowl of oatmeal and watching my hens emerge from their coop to forage in the garden. That is a simple sight, and quite easy to take for granted - like the lights in the housing project, not fully seen until they are absent. Each day's bounty really is a gift and a blessing. Thanks for sharing your story John.

Nov. 22 2012 10:55 AM

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