In the Rockaways, some Sandy survivors find solace in Phil Collins

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
The Lookout

NEW YORK—Twelve years ago, Heather Kramer was fed up with Valentine’s Day and what she believed was its inaccurate depiction of love. So she and her friends came up with an alternative holiday to honor someone they believed told the truth about the rocky nature of life, love and relationships: '80s pop icon Phil Collins.

Since then, Kramer, 28, has spent every Feb. 15 celebrating Phil Collins Day—a made-up holiday that at first was marked with Phil Collins sing-alongs at her childhood home outside Seattle. When she moved to New York—first to Brooklyn and then to the Rockaways—the parties became bigger and bigger.

Two years ago, Kramer attracted national attention when she organized a parade that featured a giant paper-mache head of the former Genesis drummer. The stunt gained notice from Collins himself, who posted a link to the parade photos on his official website and asked, “Is this real?”

This year, the celebration was decidedly more low-key. On Friday, Kramer, a filmmaker, could be found on a largely deserted section of beach off 112th Street in the Rockaways. The spot was near her former apartment, which had been severely damaged during Superstorm Sandy. She was taping various photocopied images of Collins’ face—some with an intense smile, others with the singer making an anguished face of a man hitting a high note—onto a string tied between two tiki torches, creating the effect of a kite blowing in the chilly ocean wind.

On the ground were drums and several pots and pans that could be used as improvised banging instruments.

“This year, we're celebrating Phil Collins as a drummer,” Kramer explained, as she slipped on a paper mask depicting Collins’ face. “Being able to beat on a drum and sing and wail out loud is very cathartic, and I think that’s what the Rockaways needs right now.”

Four months ago, Kramer had watched as a massive storm surge flooded her adopted neighborhood. Like many of her neighbors, Kramer and her roommate hadn’t evacuated, convinced the storm wouldn't be worse than Hurricane Irene. They were wrong.

“It was like watching white-water rapids,” Kramer recalled. “The water just came up so fast.”

As the storm surge overtook their porch and flowed into their living room, Kramer and her roommate rushed to move their belongings to the second level. Soon, the power went out. As they debated whether to evacuate to safer ground, their upstairs windows were lit up by an orange glow. A block away, an entire row of homes was on fire—a blaze spreading fast because of Sandy’s high winds.

“That’s when things got really terrifying,” Kramer said.

Kramer ultimately lost her apartment and many of her belongings. She has spent much of the past four months couch-surfing at friends' homes, recently finding a new apartment about a half-mile away from the celebration—which this year she hoped would bring more attention to the Rockaways, a tightly knit community that continues to struggle in the aftermath of Sandy.

To understand their plight, just consider how tricky it is to even get to there. Before Sandy, the commute between Manhattan and the Rockaways was about 45 minutes by subway. Now, it can take two hours, frequently longer. The stretch of train track connecting the peninsula with the rest of Queens was badly damaged in the storm, so anyone trying to get to the Rockaways is forced to take a bus around John F. Kennedy airport and connect to either another bus or a small stretch of working subway line. Many residents have been forced to leave the neighborhood, unable to get to their jobs without reliable transportation.

City officials say they're working to restore the train and add other public transportation options. But add to this problem a litany of other woes, from vacant, damaged houses to businesses that have yet to reopen, and the result is a part of the city that feels eerily empty, especially to those fighting to stay and rebuild their lives.

“People feel really cut off, just abandoned,” said Thomas Reicherter, an ex-Marine turned surfer who was at the beach to mark Phil Collins Day, and who bragged that he'd "been listening to him forever." A hulking presence known around the neighborhood as “The Big Kahuna," Reicherter, 44, grew up in the Rockaways and has vowed to stay there no matter what. “People here are doing everything they can to keep it together," he said. "They want life to get back to normal, but it’s been really hard.”

Teasing the group of mostly 20-something hipsters who had turned out to commemorate the singer, Reicherter said laughingly, "I actually remember him from the '80s." But, he admitted, he was there largely for the company and camaraderie. “We're all trying to stick together,” he said.

As the sun began to set, a small crowd gathered. Kramer handed out handmade commemorative cups featuring a stencil of the singer’s face. There was discussion of Collins’ brief acting career on the television show “Miami Vice” and confessions of favorite songs. “'Easy Lover,' definitely,” Kramer said.

Nearby, Scott Riehs, a 27-year-old actor and filmmaker from Manhattan, discussed how he had portrayed Collins in Kramer’s parade two years ago—bald cap, sports jacket and all. And he said he looked forward to playing him again next year—when the celebration gets back to normal.

“I'm more of a Phil Collins fan now that I know about Phil Collins Day than I was before, which I think is a testament to the power of the holiday,” Riehs said. “We are spreading Phil Collins awareness. I didn’t know anything about Phil Collins, and then I knew everything about Phil Collins.”

The group soon began banging on their makeshift drums—a furious thumping of sound that one attendee joked was modeled after the furious drum solo from “In the Air Tonight,” a 1981 single that is one of Collins’ most famous songs. The backdrop to all the music? Empty buildings, including a nursing home and a school vacant since the storm, and large planks in the sand where the beach's wooden boardwalk used to be before Sandy washed it away.

In the past, Kramer said, she had never thought about contacting Collins about the holiday she invented, feeling "it would ruin the mystery and fun of it all.”

But in the aftermath of Sandy, friends encouraged her to reach out in hopes that the singer would make an appearance or do something to help his fans in the Rockaways. Kramer said she did try to contact him, without success. But, she added, bringing people together in Collins’ name was enough.

“Everybody should be celebrating the multifarious nature of love that he talks about in his songs. It has nothing to do with me. It only has a little bit to do with Phil Collins. He's just kind of our front man for all of this,” Kramer explained. “We just want people to come together, no pressure to do anything or be anything but just have a good time. We need that, especially here."