Friday, November 9, 2012

Rebuilding After Sandy, One Letter at a Time

Where do you start when you see so many people who need help?  


The images on TV, the stories on WNYC leave me paralyzed, too overwhelmed by the magnitude of Hurricane Sandy's destruction to know where to begin, to even question whether the efforts of one could make much difference.

Fortunately, the "Spirit of Giving" has seen this attitude before, and has no patience for it.  Before our power was fully restored, she started inching her way into my awareness.  She sent me an email, via Southstreet Seaport Museum.  The museum, three blocks from our apartment and around 50 yards from  the East River, sustained devastating water damage. One particular part of the email saddened me. . .

"Bowne & Co., Stationers was most seriously damaged in that 217 drawers of accessioned type were soaked by the surge. Efforts to dry the type and keep it from deforming are hindered by the lack of power downtown."

The letterpress shop, which is owned by the museum, is one of my favorite places in the neighborhood.
Robert, the shopkeeper and letterpress artist, personally greets each guest to his small shop with a kind word, and creates an atmosphere of "times past" with his reproductions of turn-of-the-century cards, books, gift tags and more. His letterpress machines and trays of letters fill the back of the shop.

"So what are you waiting for? Get down there and see what you can do!"  The "Spirit of Giving" may start as subtle nagging, but her strength explodes with passion.  I was out the door and inside the letterpress shop within half an hour. 

Ali, one of Robert's co-workers, put me to work  salvaging the wooden letters.  They were soaked with salt water, all 217 trays of them. The face of each letter needed to be dipped in alcohol, blotted on a cloth, then placed face down on a paper-lined tray to dry.



As a writer, I felt a comforting kinship with these letters which I, and others, were trying to save.  The possibilities of words, sentiments, ideas at my fingertips made the job more than a mechanical process, but a noble cause.  Not that we don't have more sophisticated ways of producing written language these days, like the computer in my lap, but respect for what came before, for the art of each letter, was inspiring.  

Volunteering in the cold remains of the letterpress shop, I had overcome my paralysis.  As I dipped, blotted and positioned each wooden block, I no longer questioned the worth of an individual contribution.  I knew that I was helping, one letter at a time.


  1. That is an important work! I'm so glad you were able to save those letters. Letters are important and powerful.

  2. SO powerful! As a teacher of young children, especially your own, I know you've seen that power develop as letters take on meaning for the first time.


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