The Sheepshead Bay Occupy Sandy distribution point—housed in the stripped main room in a storm-damaged restaurant—was a jumble of tools, bottled water, donated kids’ books and clothing. Paid workers were polishing up the newly-restored bar to my right. They were cordoned off by a rope, from which hung a hand-lettered sign: No Volunteers Beyond This Point.

Which meant me. At 10 a.m., I was the only volunteer in the place.

Occupy Sandy sprang from Occupy Wall Street. They’ve been working with victims of Sandy since the storm hit in late October; in fact, they seem to be one of the few volunteer organizations around here still doing clean-up. Sheepshead is not far from Brighton Beach and Coney Island in Brooklyn, and it’s still struggling. I had tried to sign up on-line to help, but the link on Occupy Sandy’s email update was faulty, so I hoped that the clean-up was still on, even though nobody seemed to be here.

The glass door swung open. A young man with a Brooklyn Hipster look that I’d come to associate with OS—spare body, tight plaid shirt, shaggy hair in a watch cap, lots of piercings—swept in. He introduced himself as Alex. I explained about the faulty link, and he waved his hand. “I don’t know anything about techie stuff.”

He plopped onto a folding chair and punched a number into his cell phone. He spoke, nodded, snapped it shut.

There would indeed be a team of us, and we would do demolition.

I helped Alex drag tables out onto the sidewalk, and was stacking donated goods on them when the rest of my team straggled in—a young Brooklyn couple, Farid and Sherlein, and a Canadian woman named Catherine. We grabbed goggles, disposable masks and coveralls, crowbars and a couple of hammers.

I also took a hard hat. I’d pulled down a ceiling on my last OS adventure, in Rockaway, and the first big piece of drywall had come down on my head. I have a learning curve.

Alex led us around the block, to a neighborhood of small homes.

On the brief walk, I learned that Sherlein was from Ireland, but lived here in Greenpoint, the Polish section of Williamsburg. She worked as a bartender.

Catherine, a drug company rep, came from Ottowa specifically to volunteer her vacation days. “We’re neighbors, after all,” she said. A number of non-residents volunteer; I’ve cleaned yards with southerners, passed out meals with New Englanders, and torn down the aforementioned ceiling with a visitor from Wisconsin.

Farid worked in Human Rights. It turned out that he lived near me. “Oh—you’re Kym’s mom,” he said.

I sighed. I thought I’d regain my own identity when the kids grew up and moved away. But here in Brooklyn, I am once again “Kym’s mom.”

Our assigned house was tiny, 90 years old, three blocks from the water. It was one of many in a neighborhood where the “street” separating house rows was a paved sidewalk; all of them had flooded nearly to the ceilings of the ground floor. For our house, that was the only floor, except for an unfinished attic. It was already gutted to the walls for mold abatement and we were to rip up the floorboards and break out the remains of a cement knee-wall in the front room. Once this was done, the state’s Rapid Repairs program would do the rest.

The knee-wall, backed with wire mesh, had to go before the floor in that room.

My three teammates began on the floorboards in the rest of the house, which had been partially stripped. There was no cellar; I could see a stretch of sand through the joists.

I took my crowbar to the front room and set about smashing cement. The neighbor across the sidewalk had given me wire-cutters for the backing, but they were frozen with rust; ultimately, I snapped the wire mesh with the end of the bar or pried up the nail brackets that held it.

It was all daunting work. By 2:30, they’d levered up most of the floor in the rest of the house, and I was down to one nasty corner.

A fresh volunteer arrived; she gamely took over my hard hat and crowbar, and I walked back to the OS distribution point with Farid, Sherlein and Catherine for lunch.

Catherine had spent the day before at the OS Bay Ridge headquarters, cooking meals for volunteers and community members. They had made the tasty vegetarian kale with garlic that we found in one of two foil casseroles on the outside table (outside, both because the workers inside were refinishing the floor on the OS side, and because OS serves its meals to anybody who might need them, volunteer or not). The other dish was ravioli that was, Catherine confided, canned Chef Boy-Ar-Dee.

Catherine had enjoyed working at the headquarters, but had found OS somewhat baffling. The organization prided itself, as Occupy Wall Street had, in having no set leadership; it was the ultimate democracy. “I asked who was in charge, and they told me nobody,” she said. “Luckily, they had people they called floor coordinators who seemed to know more than others, so I tagged after them and asked them what I could do.”

Farid had gone to a distribution point in Rockaway early in the clean-up process, and found himself alone, manning the place. “It was crazy at first,” he said, “but I admit, I found it very empowering in the end.”

We grabbed water, and hiked back to our assigned house.

I found the new volunteer prying womanfully at the remains of my wall, and a strange woman in disposable coveralls and a respirator mask on the pull-down stairs that led up to the attic from my little room. She descended and introduced herself as an inspector for the EPA.

I had, in my earlier ceiling-demolition gig, met FEMA personnel signing up homeowners. I’d met a pair of wandering OSHA inspectors, who inspected my protective gear and asked me if I’d been coerced into the job. But I’d never met an EPA inspector.

She looked less intimidating than her title: in her 30s, dark-skinned, tiny. “I’m afraid I have to close you down,” she told me. Her voice had a Caribbean lilt. “We have had a complaint. I was just inspecting the attic, and there is a pipe wrapped in asbestos there.”

She launched into a lecture about the dangers of asbestos.

“We’re pulling up the floor,” I said. “The asbestos is in the attic.”

She said there were pipes in the floor. I looked through the joists, and yes: there they were. All quite bare.

Those pipes probably had asbestos somewhere, too, she insisted. “So you cannot work on this house anymore. This is your house, yes?”

I told her I was a volunteer. We were all volunteers. Perhaps she should speak with Occupy Sandy (I mentally wished her Good Luck).

She apologized; the young woman prying cement off the wall had told her I was the homeowner.

“A natural mistake,” I said, “since I’m old.”

The inspector didn’t crack a smile behind her respirator mask. “Well, you cannot work here anymore. You must leave this for the men from Rapid Repairs.”

After the inspector left, the new volunteer said, somewhat sheepishly, “I thought you were the homeowner, so I told her to talk to you.”

“A natural mistake, since I’m old.”

She looked distressed. “Oh, no! I didn’t say—“

I laughed. She smiled, obviously relieved.

We trooped back to OS. There, I told a zaftig young tattooed woman who had replaced Alex at the non-existent helm about the inspector. “She said we should leave it for Rapid Repairs,” I concluded.

The young woman took a puff on her cigarette. “Rapid Repair, my ass! They’ll be here in two, three months. And by then, the mold will be worse.” She blew a long stream of smoke. “You can go back. Just wear a respirator mask this time. The kind she was wearing.”

It was 3:30. I glanced back at my team and the new volunteer. They were preparing to leave. “I think we’re done for the day,” I said. “You should probably warn whoever goes there tomorrow about the mask.”

She waved her hand and sucked on the cigarette. And we left.