You can learn a lot from another person’s tragedy. Three weeks ago, as hurricane Sandy barrelled toward New York, I was trying to get into that city. I knew if I got there early enough I’d be able to use my journalistic talents to share the story with the world.
But the real purpose of my trip was to board a cruise ship that was to take me from the Big Apple to Florida, a 10-day voyage I had planned months ago. Timing is everything. A year ago, the same cruise had been delayed because of a freak Halloween snowstorm. Who would have thought Mother Nature had it out again for the same area, the same time of year?
I’ve used this column on at least one occasion to slam the airlines. Well, kudos to WestJet. In the space of a week, I changed my ticket a half-dozen times because of the closure of LaGuardia Airport. The WestJet staff went above and beyond — I would suggest even bending a few guidelines to get me to my destination.
New York hotels did likewise. I booked and cancelled, rebooked and cancelled three different hotels, all with good reason and all without penalty. I know not everyone was as fortunate.
I’ve been to New York a dozen times, but the stories you read in this newspaper and the pictures on television didn’t lie. It was not the city I’d seen before. Taxis were scarce, traffic was crazier than usual, there were long lines for gasoline and police seemed to be everywhere. Some of us vacationers felt more than guilty busing through the streets, en route to a hotel on the seas for a vacation, knowing that tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people had no lights, heat and in some cases food or water. You can bet we heartily tipped the longshoremen and porters who managed to make it to work to handle our luggage.
The ship was full of stories, heartfelt ones, about those who had travelled by rail, road and plane and barely made it, and those who had been forced to cancel and lost money because they didn’t have insurance.
The laundry rooms were busy since without electricity on land, many of those from New York and New Jersey hit the washers before the bars and restaurants on the vessel.
The real stories came from those who had chosen to take their planned holiday in spite of what Sandy had done to their town. The most moving tale concerned a man and his wife who had fled their home as Sandy approached, only to return two days later to find it destroyed. They took the cruise anyway.
I met a New York firefighter who considered himself one of the lucky ones. A fence down, some shingles off the roof, a little flooding and no power, but “hey,” he said, “there’s a lot worse.”
One of our dinner companions was a 93-year-old man who had made some pretty good investments over the years. A Manhattan building he purchased for $80,000 was now valued at $10 million. When I suggested he was a wise investor, he shook it off and told me it was more luck than anything. His home and property had basically come through the storm unscathed. “The same luck,” he said.
These people helped me shed feelings of guilt for using their damaged town as a stepping-stone to a holiday. They appreciated my genuine concern, and were quick to point out, “We’re New Yorkers! We can survive anything.”
They preached to live each day as best you can. The family whose home was destroyed could have wallowed in pity, but there were no long faces, only a determination to seize the moment and deal with things once their “escape” was done.
And from a wise old man who has more money than I can dream about, I learned that real wealth isn’t in the wallet — it’s in the heart.
Yesterday, my newfound American friends celebrated Thanksgiving. I have little doubt it was one to remember.
Gerry Phelan is a journalist and former broadcaster. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org