Steve Earle, Mary Karr, and many more writers and musicians gather to support struggling Red Hook
“Some people have no idea what’s going on just five blocks from here,” said Monica Byrne, who was manning the cupcake table at Littlefield performance space in Gowanus last night.
Byrne, the co-founder of Restore Red Hook, saw both the restaurant she co-owns, and her home flooded in the storm; both remain without power. When thousands of people in Red Hook still have no power and no hot water, she said, it was hard to see the rest of the city start to move on.
Yet last night, for one night, at least, Red Hook was a few steps closer to moving on, being on the receiving end of a grand outpouring of support—both monetary and moral.
“Defiance,” a literary benefit held last night to aid in rebuilding Red Hook after Hurricane Sandy, packed a good deal of literary star power, especially given that it was happening the same night at the National Book Awards over in Manhattan. Robert Sullivan, Meghan O’Rourke, Phillip Lopate, Chuck Klosterman, Philip Gourevitch, Sam Lipsyte, and Mary Karr together made up only about half of the evening’s program, which included fiction and nonfiction readings, poetry, and music.
The benefit was organized by writers and editors Gillian Kane, Craig Marks, and Jody Rosen. All proceeds from the ticket sales (by the end of the night, Kane estimated that they had sold about 200 tickets too, at $50 each) were split between two organizations, one about a decade old, Red Hook Initiative, and Byrne’s Restore Red Hook, which just started up after the storm, Ditto for the proceeds from the equally appealing $3 cupcakes and $25 T-shirts (suggested donations) in the lobby.
Byrne cheerfully convinced cupcake-curious passersby to help out the cause in the very easiest way possible. But in the next breath she spoke about how hard the past two and a half weeks had been on her neighborhood.
It was like that all night. The money was flowing, the bartenders were mixing, and the readings were often very funny. But it was also so undeniably sad.
“It’s a scandal that they have to have a benefit like this for social services,” cartoonist Ben Katchor said, shaking his head. “The whole thing is nuts. The people in public housing down there, they don’t even get enough social services when the sun is shining.” Katchor would later read from a few of his comics with the help of a laptop and overhead projector.
The night’s emcee, familiar public-radio voice Kurt Andersen, started the evening’s program with a little history lesson about the origins of Red Hook, which was continued by a historical reading by novelist Rivka Galchen. Writers Chuck Klosterman and Joseph O’Neill read from fictional selections that took place in the neighborhood.
The historical legacy of Brooklyn was a common theme throughout the night. Phillip Lopate read a passage about the Red Hook coastline from his own nonfiction book, Waterfront. Robert Sullivan read from his My American Revolution about the underappreciated role of Brooklyn in the Revolutionary War, and he noted that the areas of Brooklyn that the Continental Army defended as strongholds against British invasion are the same areas that Brooklyners are now fighting to defend against the sea itself.
Sam Lipsyte brought some comic relief with his depiction of an old-school Brooklyn accent when reading an excerpt from Thomas Wolfe’s short story “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn.” In the selection he chose, a group of “wise guys” are arguing, appropriately and timelessly, about the best way get to “Bensonhoyst” by train.
Other readers addressed the upheaval of the storm. Philip Gourevitch read a chapter from Moby Dick about one character’s traumatic near-drowning. Deborah Baker chose “The Storm” by American poet Theodore Roethke. Meghan O’Rourke read a personal essay she wrote right after Sandy hit, recounting both her own memories of growing up in Brooklyn and the strangeness of Manhattan’s quiet in the days following the disaster.
Torrey Maldonado was a highlight, and a crowd-pleaser. Born and raised in NYCHA housing in Red Hook, today Maldonado is a teacher and has just published his first novel, Secret Saturdays. He spoke first about the different moments in his past that would eventually inspire him to write: one was a “devastating” and exploitative spread in LIFE magazine about the Red Hook Houses in 1988, another was a chance meeting with a childhood friend whose path had diverged from his—Maldonado was volunteering in a prison as a college student, while his friend was an inmate. He said he wanted to tell stories about his life in Red Hook, “the good, the bad, the truth.”
Then Maldonado read a particularly suspenseful excerpt from his book, a reading of which he stopped short—at a literal cliff-hanger. The crowd gasped and yelled when he shut the book before the end; he said whoever wanted to hear the end of the scene would have to go buy it in the lobby, with all book sales going to the relief effort.
The two musical acts of the night had different tones but were each moving in their own way. The finale of the night was the seven-piece band Stew, who played a sweet little ode to “sexy Brooklyn mommies,” leading the audience in a sing-along about how, even as the water rises, Brooklyn is “still sexy.”
Steve Earle, the other musician performing, spoke while strumming his open-tuned acoustic with one hand. He said that he’s been hearing about the threat of rising water from a big storm in New York for all of the years he’s lived here.
“[But I was] as shocked as anyone else about how quickly that came true,” he said. Then he introduced “This City,” a song that he originally wrote for the HBO show “Treme,” about Hurricane Katrina.
“I never thought I’d sing be singing it twice in ten days at a benefit for victims of a storm in New York City,” Earle said, before launching into his anthemic lyrics:
“Doesn’t matter, because come what may/ I ain’t never gonna leave this town/ This city won’t wash away/ This city’ll never drown.”
Mary Karr was the final reader, and she chose a short and beautiful piece called “A Brief for the Defense,” by poet Jack Gilbert, who just passed away this week at the age of 87.
“I think art demands of us that we… the real purpose of it is intensity,” said Karr, in introducing the poem. “This is a poem about horrible things happening, and being commanded, in fact, as a people, to come together in joy, which is not always what we think of in these times.”
Before everyone left, about two and a half hours after the program had begun, Kurt Andersen had one more excerpt to read, and it was a good one to end on. He read from Rebecca Solnit’s nonfiction book A Paradise Built In Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. The excerpt posited that, while horrible, disasters can inspire, and even force, great change—change that ultimately benefits the event’s survivors.
“[It] is the disruptive power of disaster that matters here,” Anderson read. “The ability of disasters to topple old orders and open new possibilities. In the moment of disaster, the old order no longer exists, and people improvise rescues, shelters, and communities. Thereafter, a struggle takes place over whether the old order will be reimposed, or a new one, more just and free, will arise.”