It was last winter but seems like a long time ago. I had always admired the place with the decorative seagulls and waterfront treehouse. I had briefly met Ray, a gregarious 18-year-old, when he was burying logs in the sand as a barricade.
When I saw he had built a whole elaborate dock out of driftwood, beach lumber and pallets, it blew my mind. I thought it was such an inspired work of frontier artistry, an astutely political social comment about waterfront property, wealth, waste, boats, land ownership, recycling, and the art spirit persevering in the face of doom, a sand castle made with love and skill for the hurricane party. Walking the walk with functional art made from salvaged materials. Somebody give this kid a grant! So I went striding through his yard on a beautiful morning, trespassing, to meet the artist. He was wearing his pajamas, talking on his cell phone and pissing off his dock.
“Kind of awkward!” he snarled through dual lip piercings. He had “NERD” tattooed across his fingers, as you might LOVE or ROCK or OZZY, later revealed to be marker.
Somehow he forgave me and he and his mom, Juanita, wound up being good friends of mine. They are both hysterically funny and when they were together they would just feed off each other. Juanita was telling me about a friend of Ray’s stopping by and eating everything in her fridge. Finally the guy got to the Jello and asked, “What’s the story with this Jello?” “Hey!” she yelled, fed up. “It doesn’t have a story! IT’S JELLO.”
They lived there year-round, and it had been Ray’s home since he was three. “Ray’s Growth Chart” marked time on the wall. On the living room ceiling there was a casting of Ray’s little-kid hands in the plaster.
But the dock was gone and the treehouse was on the edge. Ray painted it with patriotic flair.
I did not want these pictures. I would have been ok with there being nothing to shoot. It was like a death in the family. For the first time I knew the people whose home it was and I was devastated. There was a storm the night of March 31, Juanita’s birthday.
Ray said Juanita woke him up around 12:30 am saying, “This is not a drill. The house is washing away, the shed’s gone in the back yard. Pack your stuff and get it out.”
“I immediately started making a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich,” Ray said. “My mom’s like, ‘I can’t believe you’re making a sandwich at this time of night, at this time, with what’s going on!’ But I was, like, hungry. I had the munchies, still. So I sat in my room and I’d take a bite of the sandwich, then pack. It was like, I finished the sandwich a couple hours later.
“It was like 70 mph winds. Everytime you went outside it was like, WHOOSH! and you’re getting hit with water and spray and getting soaked every time. It sucked. It completely washed away the deck and the back yard. The next morning we realized how close it was.
“I was walking through the house with an ax, just hitting everything, having fun. I heard this BOOM! and the floor had cracked and dropped. And I thought that was creepy and turned to run. I took this big stone we had by our fireplace and rolled it through the house, trying to make it fall, and it didn’t.
“A couple hours after that I was sitting out next to the campfire and my friends came over. They were there, we talked for a second, it was all still connected. Then like 20 seconds later you hear, KOOSH! I got up and turned around real quick and the house just dropped and, like, fell over and broke. It was just ridiculous.”
“I’ve had a couple little moments of instant bursts of sadness. I think it’s because I’ve been expecting this since 2007. I should be more upset, but, I’m like, what can I do about it? It was gonna happen. It absolutely sucks. I wish it didn’t have to happen. I can’t do anything about it. I just choose to be chill about it.
“There’ll be that point in my life when I’ll be gone and want to come back home and I’ll be like, wait. I don’t have a place to come back home. “
Ray moved to his Dad’s in North Dakota, where there are more opportunities for a young person with a brain. Juanita moved into a rental house in town, about a block from the ocean.