Election Day also marked the resumption of mail service in hurricane-ravaged Rockaway. And, though there was scant discussion about who might be president, there was talk everywhere about the tragic absence of a truly beloved government official, 67-year-old letter carrier Rick Gold.
Rick was an Army veteran and former computer tech who had not joined the U.S. Postal Service until he was 50. His death during the storm was recognized as an irretrievable loss of part of what made the neighborhood the neighborhood. He was a letter carrier unlike any other, or perhaps exactly like the iconic mailman of another era.
“He was my personal mailman,” says Mychal McNicholas of Rockaway. “He was everybody’s personal mailman.”
Rick lived as well as worked in Rockaway and there seems to be nobody who was not the beneficiary of some small kindness from him. He would bring stamps for the elderly and the infirm. He would also save them an arduous trip to the post office by signing their names and making the delivery himself. He never let some silly bureaucratic rule stop him from performing a simple good deed.
“He did everything for everybody,” says his wife of 42 years, Linda Gold.
On his days off, he would visit people on his route who seemed in need of company.
“He would say, ‘I have to take you to Millie’s house. Millie’s alone and she’s lonely,’” Linda recalls.
There was great distress in the neighborhood when his route was changed several years back, excluding some longtime recipients of his sunny cheer and personal attention.
“People would come over to me and say, ‘I’m so upset. My mail isn’t the same!’” Linda recalls.
When one of his two daughters got a dog, Rick took it on an off-duty walk along his route.
“To introduce the dog to the other dogs,” Linda says.
After he became a grandfather, he would set out through the neighborhood on a day off with his grandson, Lucas.
“He would knock on doors to show Lucas off,” Linda says.
Rick had been a gifted athlete in school and he proved himself still fleet of foot when he vaulted a fence to chase down and capture a mugger. He had been a medic in the Army, and he put his training to good use helping a man who had been impaled on a fence. He was just as quick to do whatever he could when a plane crashed on his route shortly after 9/11, only three blocks from his house.
“He was on the corner directing traffic and putting emergency vehicles in my driveway,” Linda says.
In keeping with the postal mantra that “neither rain nor snow nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” he trekked through the great blizzard of 1996 to get to work. He thereupon discovered that his dedication was not universal.
“The post office was closed,” Linda says.
He himself remained as spiritedly determined as ever on the Friday before the storm hit, when one of his daughters suggested that he did not have to worry about going to work in the immediate aftermath.
“He said, ‘What are you talking about? I have to go,’” Linda reports.
Linda is cautious by nature, and since 9/11 she had always kept her gas tank full and stocked her car with food and water.
“I traveled like I was a Girl Scout or something, not that I ever have been a Girl Scout,” she says. “He thought I was crazy, but I could have broken down and I would have been good for a week.”
She is of the opinion that you never lose by evacuating, and she had convinced him to leave the house at the approach of Hurricane Irene last year. The house escaped unscathed.
“He came back and said, ‘It’s ridiculous. Why did you make me leave my house?’” Linda recalls.
Irene was just another storm whose aftermath offered a good opportunity to collect shells on the beach.
“We had quite a collection of shells throughout the years,” Linda says.
As Hurricane Sandy bore down on the city, Rick insisted on remaining in the house even though his family evacuated.
“He truly believed that if something happened in the house, he could hold the house up,” Linda says. “He truly believed he was the captain of the ship.”
The basement had always stayed dry inside in even the wildest weather over their 33 years there. But as this storm without precedent began to strike, Rick told Linda over the phone that there were four inches of water in the basement.
“He couldn’t find a good enough mop,” Linda remember him saying.
He reported that the water was coming in from seemingly every direction and Linda passed on some advice from a friend.
“If it’s coming in from all ways, you’re not going to stop it,” she says.
She dialed Rick again as the storm was nearing its peak, but there was no answer. She tried again and again.
“I had a very bad feeling and I was just hoping I was wrong, that it was just his cellphone battery,” she remembers.
She did manage to get hold of McNicholas, who lives across the street. She asked him to check on her husband, but the block was flooded with five feet of raging water and he was unable to get to the Gold house until the following morning.
McNicholas knocked and called out, but there was no response. He enlisted the help of three fire marshals who happened by.
“I can’t find my friend,” McNicholas said. “He won’t respond.”
One of the fire marshals ended up shouldering open the front door, but found no immediate sign of Rick inside. A fire marshal then peered through a basement window.
“He said, ‘We got a DOA,’” McNicholas recalls.
McNicholas afterward spoke of Rick as a friend who loved the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Grateful Dead, who was himself a kind of Gil Hodges or Jerry Garcia among letter carriers, a guy who delivered in every sense.
“He was the kind of guy who went out of the way to get you the mail,” McNicholas says.
The funeral was set for the Monday after the storm. His supervisor gave his fellow Rockaway postal workers the day off and arranged for a bus to transport those who had trouble getting there with some of the subways still shut and gas scarce.
Rick was as beloved among his co-workers as he had been in the neighborhood. He had been ever ready to come in on his day off to fill in when a fellow letter carrier fell ill or had a personal emergency.
“They knew they could count on him,” Linda says.
The funeral director proved to be yet another person on the route for whom Rick had made extra efforts. Those good deeds were now rewarded as the funeral director told Linda and her daughters not to worry about the cost of the funeral or about trying to find a suit for Rick.
“He said, ‘What size suit is he?’” Linda recalls. “My husband would have done the same on the other end. He’s coming full circle.”
At the funeral, Linda learned that mail carriers have their own language when they speak of people on their routes.
“They don’t talk names,” Linda reports. “They say somebody’s address.”
The day after the funeral, which also happened to be Election Day, the post office announced that it was resuming mail delivery in Rockaway. But it would be without the letter carrier who knew his route more by names and particular needs than by street numbers.
Had he survived, Rick no doubt would have been distraught to see that a half block of his route had been gutted by fire during the hurricane, including his favorite restaurant, the Harbor Light, where he loved to have dinner and would sometimes just stop in during the day for a cup of soup.
The gutted houses included the home of FDNY Lt. Tommy Woods, who had rescued his 82-year-old mother from the wind-driven fires with the help of his 14-year-old son by securing her to a surfboard and conveying her five blocks through the storm surge to safety. Woods and his son, Brendan, had returned to where the fire was raging, and used a kayak to rescue a next-door neighbor who has multiple sclerosis.
Woods was now staying in the house of a relative around the corner, and you can bet that Rick would have known how to track him down there. Woods had lost his house, but his family would have at least still gotten the mail.
“Rick knew everybody,” Woods says.