Gigi Dorr does not shake hands.
“Come here, I hug, we hug,” she declares, pulling me in to one of those deep embraces usually saved for reunions between long-lost friends. But Gigi effortlessly pulls it off and instantly, I see why my crew and I have traveled to Union Beach, N.J.
On the banks of Raritan Bay, Union Beach is about an hour’s drive south of New York City. From where we’re standing at the water’s edge, we can see past Staten Island, to the Manhattan skyline, just starting to twinkle to life on a Thursday night. It’s an incredible view.
For 14 years, Gigi put that panorama to work for her customers, running a bar and restaurant named for her sons.
“Jakeabobs, my sons’ names are Jacob and Bob. Bobajakes just didn’t work.”
She laughs as soon as she sees me crack a smile. Gigi is quick on her feet so you need to pay attention. It’s pretty clear this is one of her ‘go to,’ lines and it obviously works. It’s commonsense, Jersey-style.
But for the past year that warm and wry humor has been more of a cover of denial than a welcome greeting to customers on the waterfront.
Hurricane Sandy leveled the bar. The only thing that’s left is the concrete footprint with outlines where the toilets were bolted to the ground and shredded pieces of water lines, coming up through where the bar once stood. After the storm passed in late October 2012, there was no point in trying to save anything that was standing. Jakeabobs was one of some 70 homes and businesses wiped out by the high winds and storm surge that would ultimately leave hundreds of families without a permanent place to stay.
But if you get even a small sense of who Gigi is, you won’t be surprised to know that she was not about to let her love and livelihood wash away. The size of her personality is matched only by her determination. Which explains, Jakeabobs Off the Bay. Just a few blocks from that prime waterfront real estate, Gigi set up shop inside a building that wasn’t too badly damaged from the storm. Smaller staff, no deck, no skyline sunsets, no 400-person capacity, no waiting list. It’s not even called, “Jakeabobs.”
“I call it, ‘Jakeabobs Off the Bay,’ because ‘Jakeabobs’ is IN the bay.”
This time, she doesn’t wait for me to catch the punch line, she just laughs. By now, we have a rapport after she tells me just how hard this past year has been.
‘People think we’re OK, and we’re not, we’re broken. It’s beyond, it’s pieces. You can’t even figure out how to pick it up.’
Gigi shows me around the new place, quick to tell me that it’s only temporary. Pictures of Sandy-damaged houses line the walls. We walk past a few couples deciding on what to order and Gigi greets them by name. Along the tour, Gigi points out a close-up snapshot of her and broadly smiling man.
“This is my buddy, Carl.”
Carl Williamson is the pastor of Gateway Church of Christ in Holmdel, not far from Union Beach. His congregation is small, only about 50 members. And it hasn’t been around for more than two years, which makes their work, and his relationship with Gigi, all the more impressive.
Immediately after the storm, Carl’s church reached out to communities offering to raise money, collect the essentials like toilet paper and tooth paste, and perhaps most importantly, be a listener of those that lost it all.
Meantime, in the thick of her own recovery plan, Gigi was leading fundraisers and organizing cleanup projects around Union Beach. The community that counted on her for cold beers and warm sunsets was in need of something much more basic. Gigi and her fiancé were so selfless, they opened their home to more than a dozen neighbors looking for a place to stay.
Carl admits to me that if it weren’t for Sandy, he and Gigi might never have met.
“This storm, I think one of the things it did, was break us out of our bubbles. Because Gigi and I have worked really well together, the bar owner and the pastor, we’ve been able to make a huge impact.”
If you look at what these two have done, it’s apparent that humility is something Pastor Carl takes pretty seriously. Over the past year, the ‘pastor and the bar owner,’ have helped raise more than one and a half million dollars for local relief. They’ve organized 24 people to handle local Sandy relief efforts on a full-time basis. And for Gigi, alone, their alliance rallied some 17,000 people to volunteer time to help Gigi get the temporary bar up and running.
Still, there is work to be done. Families are trying to figure out if they can afford to rebuild. Insurance claims are still being argued. And winter is fast approaching.
But while uncertainty may haunt the town for a while, the bond between Gigi and Carl has been an encouraging reminder that under the ugliest of circumstances, something beautiful can be found. For as diverse, as unlikely, as unsuspecting these two people are, they share a passion for humanity and have found a way to multiply their individual strengths.
As we pack up our gear and head back to the city, Gigi gives me and my crew one last hug. Carl settles for a firm handshake.
Before we hit the door, Gigi yells across the bar, “Go kick some ass!”
With a sheepish grin, she turns to Carl, “Sorry Pastor.”