Who knows what he might've been smoking. The man in Harlem with the scarred cheek and cluster of chains around his neck surreally mirrored my thoughts."Yo momma told ya not to talk to strangers" he said as I passed him. But does that advice still apply in the middle of a natural disaster? I took my seat on the train, my palms still clammy.
She waited for me on the platform. I hadn’t showered in three days - my hair was so oily Dunkin’ could fry their doughnuts in it and I’m pretty sure I smelled like rotting garbage. Am I not supposed to be in the land of tall-decaf-caramel-soy-lattes and honey? How did I end up here?
Two nights earlier, the wind was seething. The trees swayed from side to side as if a dark sorcerer was controlling them. Occasionally lightning pierced the sky. I was stuck in The Big Apple and Hurricane Sandy was taking her bite. In my hotel room, looking for distraction from my racing thoughts, I flipped through photos on my Canon. The images transported me into another reality – a city that pulses possibility, locals hustling to achieve their dreams, deafening sirens and headache-inducing lights that make you feel like you’ve followed Alice down the rabbit hole.
My checkout date had arrived, but hotels remained full as people struggled to fly out, new ones kept coming in and the New York marathon was scheduled. My heart rate would have broken an EKG: I now had refugee-like status in the majestic kingdom of Manhattan. I stepped outside. Only a few other souls were trudging through the sludgy debris. Business signs still depressingly proclaimed ‘closed’ and I could actually hear my own footsteps. News came like autumn leaves: power outages, evacuations, the death toll…
Where else to go, but the airport? Her name tag said Kaatja. Tough years were etched onto her face. She was the first person to see me looking lost. "Mami, you've been crying ...? Do not cry, mami. I will sort you out, mami.” My sunken eyes and blotched cheeks must have given me away. Minutes later a message came through on my phone. Through word of mouth in South Africa, 10 000 miles away, someone heard of my predicament and sent word that Caroline in Connecticut had a room free. After exhaling pure relief, Kaatja put me on a train to Connecticut via Harlem.
Seventy-two hours as Caroline’s guest have passed. In the airport parking lot, I asked her how I would ever be able to repay her. She leaned in for a (mother) bear hug and whispered, "Just pay it forward."