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Sandy Took Staten Island Man's Home and His Partner, Leaving Only Memories

By Aidan Gardiner | October 29, 2013 7:32am
 James McCormick lives in a Staten Island nursing home after Hurricane Sandy drowned his longtime partner and swept away nearly everything he owned.
James McCormick
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OLD TOWN — Hurricane Sandy destroyed everything James McCormick held dear.

He lost his partner of nearly a half century, a 64-year-old former Marine named David Maxwell, who returned to the couple's Midland Beach bungalow to protect it against the storm's wrath and was drowned in a surge along with their cat, Mittens.

He lost every photo chronicling their relationship — leaving him to rely only on his memory to picture his longtime love and the boisterous life they once lived in the '60s West Village and later on Staten Island.

“I don’t have a partner anymore. I have no more pictures of him. They’re all gone,” said McCormick, a 74-year-old Navy veteran who has been paralyzed on the left side since a stroke last March and who has lived at the Carmel Richmond Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center ever since.

“He was a wonderful person.”

McCormick has never been to Maxwell's gravesite — he's unable to navigate the journey and the terrain at Long Island’s Calverton National Cemetery.

But he's grateful to the people who helped him ensure Maxwell's rightful place in the military burial grounds, rather than the potter's field where he had been headed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Gary Gotlin, Staten Island’s Public Administrator, was tasked with identifying Maxwell and any relatives. With little money for a funeral, no identifying documents, no remaining military service records and no next of kin — Maxwell was estranged from his relatives and it was unclear if any were even alive — he was among those set to be buried in a potter's field.

“This was unprecedented,” said Gotlin, who inherited eight cases of people who died without any representation during the day of Sandy — a total that typically takes about two weeks to accumulate in a normal month. “For me it’s a moral issue. How in the world can you let someone go to potter’s field when I have the authority to take jurisdiction to bury someone in a dignified manner?”

Gotlin said he visited the bungalow where Maxwell died, and walked away deeply moved.

The flood had pushed the home’s furniture against its back wall and left a water mark that climbed within two inches of the 8-foot ceiling.

“I stood where he died. I could only imagine the rush of water coming at you with furniture mixed in — the terror of knowing you’ll die in those moments,” Gotlin said. “He probably couldn’t get out if he wanted to."

In a group effort involving Gotlin, good Samaritans, city agencies and veterans groups, Maxwell was properly identified and given a military funeral and burial service.

During his funeral at a Brooklyn church, Maxwell lay in a blue casket with his name written on top.

“It was beautiful,” McCormick whispered, adding that he was grateful that everything was donated, but “sad, because I couldn’t do it for him.”

Maxwell would visit him nearly every day at the senior home for supper. He’d bring pasta or grilled steak.

He visited one last time on the eve of the hurricane, carrying a bag of bagels that they split and ate together, McCormick recalled.

McCormick and the workers at the senior home begged Maxwell to ride out Hurricane Sandy with them, where he’d be safe and have company.

But Maxwell, always the determined former Marine, returned to the couple’s yellow bungalow on Mapleton Avenue to guard against looters, McCormick said.

His body wasn't found until more than a week later.

“They found him 11 days after," McCormick said, with tears in his eyes. He added he didn't even know "what he looked like."

McCormick often thinks of his time with Maxwell, fondly recalling the way they met at the One Potato, 518 Hudson St., and immediately liked how tough and small the ex-Marine was, he said.

“He only stood about this high — about five-four — a little roly-poly,” McCormick said, holding his hand aloft.

They bonded over their shared military past and soon moved into a one bedroom apartment on Christopher Street for $1,500 a month through the 60s and 70s.

They fell in love over long afternoon walks through a West Village church garden.

“They had tea roses that had no thorns on them.” McCormick said. “They all smelled so sweet.”

The same man who hosted lively house parties for Gay Pride and enjoyed watching drag queens sing in Village bars wouldn’t discuss his parents or the violent encounters in the Marines that left his body pocked with bullet wounds.

He also rode motorcycles, composed music for keyboards, and worked with model trains, McCormick said.

Their interests dovetailed, as McCormick made and sold doll furniture, a craft he learned from a 79-year-old toymaker he met at Oktoberfest while stationed in Germany, he said.

Their Village house parties, which once drew a visit from Bette Midler, moved with them to their modest yellow Staten Island bungalow in the '80s.

And when McCormick had to move into the nursing home, Maxwell kept him well fed and entertained as often as possible.

All that is gone.

McCormick hates the food in his new home, he said on a recent Friday. His room is down the hall from a common area where white-haired residents sit around tables marked by numbered white cards. A paper on the wall lists the sandwiches served each day of the week. Friday's was turkey and cheese.

Some visit him regularly, including relatives, two priests, and a Marine who brings a flask of Crown Royal to share. That day, a woman sat upright on a gurney outside his room, clutching her bone-thin legs to her chest, barking.

McCormick has a single memento of his life with Maxwell — a black leather baseball cap with a blue Navy seal on the brow that still carries a whiff of mildew from the storm.

“I’ve got one thing left now. My hat in my closet on the top shelf,” he added. “They said it washed out with the water.”