If you’ve ever driven on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway between the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and the Gowanus Canal you know that construction is an ever-present reality. The deck of this elevated section of roadway is being replaced with new reinforcement bars, concrete, wooden timbers and metal sheeting because it’s basically falling apart. I know this not because I’m an engineer or a construction worker, but because I collected piles and piles of scrap wood from the site as part of a volunteer job I had for five months.
After being unemployed for the better part of a year, I was desperate to work and engage with people again. Searching through New York City’s government volunteer website I found a museum on a barge docked in Red Hook, Brooklyn that was looking for a museum docent.
As a lover of that neighborhood and boats, it felt potentially like the perfect place to be. On top of that, I had recently been raped and needed to normalize my life. The water felt like a natural healing environment so I responded to the posting and crossed my fingers.
When I first met the captain of the nearly 100-year-old wooden barge, he showed me around the boat, which functioned both as a maritime museum and his home where he lived with his family, and told me that he also needed help with winterizing the vessel. I knew I wanted to do that instead of museum work, as my hands were aching to move again after a long hiatus from creating sculpture; I also felt that physically caring for the barge would be another way of taking care of myself.It’s been said that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, but those scrap pieces turned out to be this woman’s gold.
I happily plugged holes, repainted surfaces, reinforced decking, greased chains, cleaned chimneys, pumped out water, installed radiators, built walls — whatever needed to be done. I was there to lend a hand and each job presented a new problem to solve. This otherwise would not have been a big issue, but given the fact that I had been diagnosed with severe symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, I had trouble not only thinking clearly, but also with coordinating my mind and my body. The chance to practice these basic skills was crucial for me in becoming a fully functioning person again and I felt enthusiastic and lucky to be in such a beautiful place with wonderful people.
Beyond the repair and maintenance of the barge itself, most of my activities were geared toward ensuring that water, electricity, and heat would be available over the winter months for the captain and his family. Not unlike living on land, water lines could freeze, electricity could be knocked out by the wind, boilers could run out of fuel, but rectifying these problems on a floating vessel in a deep freeze presented greater challenges and required backup systems to be in place. The backup for the boilers was the wood-burning stove and a great deal of material was needed in order to keep that fire burning through the winter.
I was unaware at the time that my most meaningful volunteer activity was born the day the captain said we were going to drive under the BQE and look for piles of scrap wood. Construction crews used the lumber to repair the bottom of the deteriorating roadway, but each piece had to be cut down to fit the area in which it was being placed, and this produced a tremendous amount of waste. It’s been said that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, but those scrap pieces turned out to be this woman’s gold.
We double-parked on the congested and trafficked street, got the okay from the construction foreman to take the wooden planks, and began to stack them in the back of the van like Jenga masters. It was heavy work in a loud and unnerving environment and we moved quickly so we could get out of there as soon as possible.
Once back at the barge, the wood had to been unloaded onto the pier and cut down into smaller pieces that would fit into the wood stove. This usually required me to stand on the thick planks while the captain cut them down with a chain saw. After that, we loaded the pieces into a wheelbarrow, walked them over to the barge and restacked them inside.
This was actually good fun, but what soon became important to me was cutting the wood into even smaller pieces so it could be used for kindling. “Set, strike, split” was my new mantra as I aligned a steel wedge to the grain of the wood, hit it with the side of an old ax, and felt the force of the weight slide down the grain, dividing the material in two. I couldn’t believe how easily it parted under my seemingly minimal effort and the methodical action quickly became both satisfying and meditative.
The whole process of gathering and splitting wood was physically demanding and my body occasionally protested with aches and pains, but I was psychologically rejuvenated. On the surface, we were simply preparing material for fuel to heat a home. But for me, in a way I still don’t fully understand, creating that kindling helped to stoke my own internal flame, which had felt nearly extinguished by the trauma I’d been through.
Offering assistance — no matter what it was — without receiving financial compensation also allowed me to tap into and connect with my basic humanity and to see what is truly important. Just like the warmth radiating from the fire of that wood stove into that living space, these lessons have permeated my life and how I engage with the world now. And for that, there simply is no calculable rate of exchange to measure the value of that experience.