A frame that sparkles within a dimly lit room houses a women once full of life, itching to break free. With blonde bangs and oversized silver hoops swaying to beat of the music, Alicja, is caught smirking at the camera with fiery eyes and plump red lips dipped into a glass, or two, of wine.
When asked to describe her naive emotions behind that exact frame, her first time in a New York City bar, Alicja said, “Freedom. There is no obligation, no gossip, no neighbors looking at you…There are no rules to anything, so I don’t have to follow somebody’s steps to be accepted. You can do whatever you want, see whatever you want you, wear whatever you want.” All she ever wanted was to be free, so was she?
Well before, Alicja was trapped in the post-communist movement of Poland in 1989. Alongside Czecho-Slovakia and Hungary, Poland had switched electoral systems and parliamentarism-presidentialism courses. From a singular dictatorship came a more collective, democratic vote. Naturally, a transition in power would instill a life of fear, accompanied with temporary rules and an uncertain future.
It was at this time when she had finished her first year of university in Olsztyn, Poland and heard of the latest trend her friends were following: immigration to the United States. Alongside the government, the economy was beginning to change, and forty dollars in the Polish currency of zloty allowed a family to live comfortably back in Eastern Europe. A monetary incentive like this one lured in college students who were eager to start up their adult lives. As a result, at the end of the decade, 2 million Poles had immigrated to the United States to work for a while, make a profitable income, and return.
Alicja decided to join the crowd, but reasoned with this: “At that moment, I did not even think about it as a trip solely for the money, but more of an adventure. My plan was to come back.” Alicja was the middle child of three, and was hence explosive, wild, and grasped for any taste of freedom and fun. Never afraid, she took a gap year with her boyfriend, now husband, and was the first of her siblings to test out the rough waters.
Stepping off the plane, “I wasn’t impressed if you want to know that”, said Alicja, with a response so quickly rehearsed it was as if lingered in her mind every day. As she drove to her new home in Far Rockaway, she was passing by trash, graffiti, and a memorial of a recent shooting outside a grocery store. This reality was a far stretch from the movies streamed back home.
She entered her mother’s friend’s apartment, alone, as her boyfriend went further down to another caregiver. This woman now became her superior, and Alicja, with no language, no money, no knowledge, was to stuck follow her every command. Nevertheless, the following day, she had a job arranged upon arrival at a nursing home in Far Rockaway. Feeling obligated and indebted per Polish standards, Alicja was overworked and overwhelmed, housekeeping on the floor all day long. Since their communication skills lacked, Alicja and most foreigners turned to manual tasks and physical labor. Needless to say, “It was not so pleasant..But I did not care too much only because I knew I was going to go back. I had a plan.”
Little did she know her plan would fail her…
“I don’t know why I stayed. I was only 21, in that age you don’t think maturely”, she sighs remorsefully. Alicja missed her family, but Poland was still in the same state of despair and everyone was telling her not to come back. She managed to obtain another gap year and justified it all, thinking, “okay, one more year, a little bit more money.” She was falling into the trap.
And another year turned into another and another, now her older sister, Bozena, was by her side. Alicja smiles reminiscing, “I was not so lonely anymore. With her it was going to be comfortable, great, fun, and everything changed.” Together, they discovered possibilities to get anything, and began to look into things Alicja would be afraid to do on her own.
“The whole idea of us being here just came together as a plan for life, I felt safe again, and it became more and more difficult for me to go back, and so, I never did.”
A few years later, she was established with a new job in dentistry, a new apartment alongside the Far Rockaway beach, a husband and two kids, Alicja was free of her past worries. She learned to let go and live amongst different cultures. Life was pulsating and chaotic, it was impossible not to mix with others. And this way, “life was more interesting.” From a past country of sheltered individuals, Alicja became open minded amongst other immigrants from Jamaica, Guyana, the Dominican Republic, Antigua and Barbuda, experiencing cultures far different from her own. Together, they all spent every free moment basking in the sun and breeze of the beach, never bored. “The ocean became my escape”, she said.
It soon became her worst enemy.
On the night of October 29, 2012, Alicja tucked her children to sleep in the same bed, as she headed to the window, patiently waiting for the rise of Hurricane Sandy’s wrath. She watched her favorite waves change course and ruthlessly destroy everything it their path.
Fires engulfed more than 100 homes, and the remaining thirty to fifty percent of households had countless power and heat outages. Health facilities and grocery stores were shut down and the community was depleted of its most basic necessities. Nearby was one hospital that remained open, overflowing with forty percent more patients during the immediate aftermath. It was official now, the Rockaway Peninsula was one of the most severely affected areas of the five boroughs. Darkness surmounted the streets and her community was lifeless.
Alicja was back to square one. “I was completely isolated, and felt as if I didn’t belong to the rest of the world.” And in fact, she was. Her hometown was one of the last areas to receive rescue relief.
Her sister was not there, but she was not alone. “What’s special about New Yorkers, I don’t know if all of them are like that, but the Rockaway community has people that know each other and look out for one another” says Alicja. Doors opened and hearts warmed as people united together to survive. Those with cars drove, those with running water cleaned, and those with gas cooked. Each neighbor felt the pain of others suffering, even to the point where people were willing to suffer, torso deep, in freezing, polluted water, rescuing every last one.
Though her apartment on the sixth floor was safe, her neighbors a few levels below her and across the street were robbed of everything they owned, houses flooded and engulfed in flames. The community she created was now in a way united, but afterwards, consumed with their own personal struggles of having to rebuild their lives in a constant state of depression. Alicja felt helpless, trying to reach out, but never able to reconnect in the same joyous and carefree ways they did in the past. She decided to escape the heartache of Rockaway by moving to Howard Beach- but she was still not free.
From streets of tightly knit apartments to ones of distanced grand mansions, something was still missing… She was observant, “How big does a house have to be for you to be happy in it? The less rooms, the better, because then the family and neighborhood are closer together. And now I think that people build big houses to get lost in them.”
Surrounded by an average yearly income of $65,373, she was confident that in Howard Beach, “,oney captured the human: the more you got, the more you wanted, and it never ended.” Those living in Howard Beach had long forgotten about their true self, as their materialistic desires overshadowed everything Alicja valued. Growing up in Poland at a time where her father secretly traded personal belongings for extra food stamps, Alicja could not dare to relate to those obsessing over the latest trend, a luxury that wasn’t even necessary in day to day life. She was sickened by the wealth that surrounded her, consuming the lives of all the people she knew.
“I wish people here were more outgoing”, Alicja said longingly. Yet, Alicja soon became another carbon copy of her hermit-like Italian next door neighbor, who was copied from their next door neighbor, and so on. She too, had admitted to have being caught in this endless cycle, infatuated with the idea of a boutique inspired kitchen or her new Mercedes van. “My worth was with ownership of quantity”.
“But if I worked until 9pm every night to earn more money, when would I have the time to spend it?” She had a point…money could buy almost everything, but not time, and that was all Alicja truly needed. She wanted to read a book, laugh, go to the movies or on a walk with her kids. “A normal life with happiness, health, and free time”, she said, “so that you can take something from what you have, and not kill yourself over what you want.”
But she achieved the American Dream, right? Stretched out on her pull-out sofa, she laughed, “American Dream? From what I heard, it’s to have a job, a house, two children and a golden retriever.” Looking back, Alicja had done just so, but the price of those was heartache and imprisonment.
New York and Alicja had a love hate relationship. “New York can give you anything you want in bits and pieces, but without old friends and family, a part of you is left behind.” Was she ever fully satisfied? “I wish sometimes I did not stay.”
To this day, Alicja dreams of the old Rockaways, a 10 minute drive from her home in Howard Beach. “My heart lies there, where life was easier, simpler.” The days before Hurricane Sandy were filled with laughter and love, and though Rockaway was renovated again, the communities were forever scarred by the trauma, living in perpetual fear. Standing by the ocean that once hurt her so much, she finds peace knowing that her true home is far, but on the other side.
“Don’t”, she tells her old self. “Stay in your own country. You didn’t have to come to America to make your life better.” She didn’t know. The girl in the frame didn’t know, that freedom was only temporary.
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