11.23.12 2:48 AM ET
In Sandy’s Wake, a New York Doorman Without a Home
When a wall of water slammed into his front door, Nic Reeger was lying on the sofa, watching Hurricane Sandy on TV. Suddenly his living room became a roaring sea, as water rushed in at a frightening rate, and Reeger rushed out through a window. Outside in the night, the streets of his Long Beach, N.Y., neighborhood looked like "white-water rapids," he says. "I've never experienced anything like that, and I was in the Navy."
Reeger, stately and silver-haired, describes the nightmarish evening while manning the front desk of a historic apartment building in lower Manhattan, where he serves as head doorman, presiding over the comings and goings of hundreds of tenants. He himself is now without a home.
Swept away in the storm: his lifelong collection of 5,000 vinyl records, along with an ancient stamp collection handed down by his grandfather and an array of vintage baseball cards that he wanted to pass on to his son. Also gone: several beloved guitars and amps, plus hundreds of VHS tapes of "music that will never be on DVD," he says.
Like many New Yorkers toiling away in day jobs, Reeger has a secret second life. A guitar and bass player, he has been collecting record albums and strumming in bands around the city, playing the blues, zydeco, oldies, for the past 50 years, ever since he was a teen. His record collection—78s of Elvis, Gene Autry—were a part of him. He is trying to wrap his head around the idea that his treasures are simply gone. "They don't give you a manual for this," he says, shaking his head.
Reeger, 64, had lived in the oceanfront community of Long Beach for nearly three decades. He had been renting his current place—a ground-floor apartment in a house on a hill—for the past four years. Before the hurricane hit, he barricaded the place with sandbags and wooden boards, he says, but didn't evacuate, as the media had "cried wolf" so many times before.
Now staying with his son and daughter-in-law in their small apartment in Bayside, Queens, he is facing two battles. The first is trying to collect insurance money, as he lost everything he owns, except for things he doesn't exactly need, like a random stone ashtray once given as a gift. His landlady, he says, is not making it easy. She's trying to claim he didn't live there, he says, to keep more insurance money for herself. The second fight is finding a new place to live, when real-estate agents are getting flooded with requests from suddenly homeless people like him. "Some of these guys don't even answer the phone," he says.
Reeger calls himself a survivor. "I survived Vietnam, 9/11, and three marriages, and I'll survive this," he jokes. He has connected with a lawyer to get some advice, thanks to a referral from a tenant in the building where he works, and is taking it day by day. "I've had a number of setbacks," he says with a sigh. "I'm still here. They can't keep me back."
Indeed, the hurricane is not the first disaster he's faced in his 25 years as a doorman at the building, which itself has stood since 1899. Located at 15 Park Row, across from City Hall Park, the 29-story building is one of the first to ever be called a "skyscraper," once holding the title of tallest office building in the world. Its lobby gleams with marble. Over the years, it has housed an odd assortment of businesses and schools including a court-reporting school and a nurses-aid school. In June 2001—just a few months before 9/11—the building was converted into apartments, handily located a block away from the Twin Towers.
Reeger was there at the front desk the day the World Trade Center fell. He remembers the sound of the first plane hitting—"like two tractor-trailers in a head-on collision at 60 miles an hour"—and rushing outside to see the tower on fire. "You think your eyes are playing tricks on you," he says. Then he saw the second plane coming and bodies falling through the sky. Coated in "two inches of dust," he went back inside the building and spent the day going door to door, checking on people and helping them pack up and get out. By 5:15, everyone was gone.
In the lobby that evening, he says, "all of a sudden 150 firemen are at the door." They needed a place to stay, as their firehouse was in the shadow of an unstable building. "I pulled out some rugs so these guys could take naps," he says. "I was here all night." At six in the morning, he stepped outside to see a "nuclear winter."
Still, the crisis didn't make him want to leave New York. Instead, amid the stark reminder that life is short, he says, "I bought myself a 32-inch TV set—I always wanted one."
He does, however, want to leave Long Beach. "I'm done with it," he says. "This will happen again. The people who are rebuilding out there should have their heads examined." Then he pauses and says, "Al Gore was right." He describes his neighborhood as looking like a war zone: "You've got the National Guard, the boardwalk all ripped up, debris everywhere." He knows about war zones; he served in the Navy for two years in the 1960s, spending six months in Vietnam, an experience he describes simply as "a fog."
Going back to his severely damaged home the week after the storm, he says, was "surreal." When he rooted through his soaked belongings, setting a couple of broken amps out on the street corner, he was astonished to see someone drive by and swoop them up like they were a find. "Those amps were waterlogged with sea water," he says. "You can't fix that stuff."
Reeger grew up in the Bronx, marrying a childhood sweetheart he had known since the fourth grade. Two more marriages would follow. He remains good friends, he says, with his most recent ex-wife. He has two children, both in New York. His son, 38, works as an electrician, and his daughter, 22, works in health care at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Reeger was hoping to retire next year, and considered moving to Arizona, but instead says he will be "rebuilding my life."
He initially took the doorman job on Park Row to tide him over, he says, when he lost his job as a photo retoucher, working on film. He had planned to find another job in the field, not yet realizing that the entire industry would vanish, as cameras went digital and film became a thing of the past.
He spent Thanksgiving this year with his son, who "rode in like the cavalry" when Reeger needed him, he says. He worries about overstaying his welcome and looks forward to feeling stable again. "I travel a little bit lighter now," he says.
He notes that one of his records did make it through the storm: a 78 of the song "Peggy Sue" by Buddy Holly. He says, "I'll have that framed, and hang it in my new place."