Spellbound / Houston
August 29, 2005
I teach creative writing to kids. My assignments don’t start for a month. I have time. To watch. For hours. Arrested. I sit on my living room floor and switch between networks and CNN.
It’s Monday morning. I watch live feeds from the French Quarter. The CBD. They say New Orleans dodged the bullet. The highrises lost windows, but look here—pavement, wet, but no standing water. No apocalypse. Only debris.
This is the high ground. Why don’t they take their cameras somewhere else?
Oh, the raised voices of the anchors. They act as if viewers are deaf and blind or somehow oblivious. What I would give for a BBC newsreader. Knowing. Truthtelling. Without the extra stress no one could possibly need.
I mute the TV, wait for the gravitas of the network anchors, the comfort of Aaron Brown. I’m afraid. I’m gnawed by intuition that the cameras are tethered to safety. That what lies beyond?
Then it’s Newsnight. Jeanne Meserve on the phone. Finally, someone left the high ground. On a boat. With a cameraman and his broken ankle. They sail away, and finally report what so many of us are desperate to know. Ms. Meserve softly tells of the screams. Of the pleadings. Of the calls for help from those huddled in their attics. Waiting. Praying and crying.
A million mouths form the same question: Where is the help?
“The Red Cross needs our help. I urge our fellow citizens to contribute.” —President George W. Bush, August 31, 2005.
Donate some money and you’re done.
Is that true? I want it be true. Besides teaching, I’m writing a novel. Each workshop response is better than the last. I’m applying to MFA programs in December and my prospects look good. If I write a check, then I can watch the news and not cry as hard, for I did what I could do.
Problem one: I have no money.
Problem two: I wouldn’t be done.
What can I really do?
Everyone has limits. Mine is our apartment. My husband and I live in a two-bedroom apartment. One bedroom for sleeping, one bedroom for shared workspace. My side for writing, his side for sculpting. This is a small room, overflowing with books, papers, and sculptures. The walls are thin. Thinner than the walls I complained about growing up—when I played the radio every night so I wouldn’t hear my step-father’s snores.
Thin walls. Japanese paper wall thin. There might as well be no walls.
This only works because we’re a couple. A couple extremely comfortable with one another.
After Katrina, Houstonians opened their homes. Single women adopted single mothers. Whole families adopted whole families. They gave them their spare bedrooms, living room couches.
That’s where I say no.
I once read that Americans do not sacrifice. They give of the surplus. When was the last time I gave from something I needed?
There’s a clothing drive. My husband and I go to Target. We’ve agreed to twenty dollars. We buy men’s and women’s underwear. A baby’s blanket. I wish we could buy more. But we’re so in debt as it is. There has to be limits.
At the Red Cross / Houston
September 3, 2005
Evacuees arrived last night.
It’s Saturday morning. I can give a day. I want to volunteer at the Astrodome. I assume I must go through the Red Cross to do this. I drive to the Gulf Coast headquarters.
I sign in, affix my nametag. Two seconds later I’m commandeered. To the phone bank. Now. They need people now. No matter this is my first time at the Red Cross, ever. I will be their voice.
They take a group of us to the phonebank: a square room, cramped, the air dense with fatigue and anxiety. There’s a long table filled with donuts and chips. Up in the corner, a TV, the volume loud. A shot of buses arriving a few miles away. We wait for instruction. A man recites a litany of things to know, keeps pointing at the wipeboard.
They walk us to the building behind. Up to the second floor. Not the third—that’s where management lives. We’re to stay on the second. In an expansive space, three times the size of the “normal” phonebank. Tables line the walls. Each table, phones. Phones that don’t stop. Unless you leave them off the hook.
There’s a supervisor. He sits at the table near the elevator. So much ringing. Talking, but hushed tones. Volunteers, from age 18 to 70. Men and women. Different colors. Again, that same tense air, humid with anxious mission. No TV plays here. The supervisor talks to one man as a circle forms around him–other phone bankers, all with urgent questions. He’s busy explaining something. Is he talking about fishing? He sounds like Cliff on Cheers. Someone says he’s a volunteer as well.
The supervisor turns to us. He shows us phone numbers on wipeboards. There are Xeroxed info sheets. But mostly, it’s the wipeboards:
Want to donate? 1-800-HELP NOW/ Church Shelters (713) 313-5231/ Wal-Mart Connection: 1-800-236-2875 Option #9/ www.familylinks.icrc.org/ Blood Bank: (713) 790-1200/ 211: United Way (Food stamps, United Way Help Line for Baby Supplies)/At Astrodome, a list, wall, “PA system” people are calling out/ Coast Guard #s (225) 925-7708; 7709; 3511 (get location, cell phone #, building address, on a roof..)/Medical volunteer? Go to Green Room, bottom floor of Astrodome. Bring your license…
Callers stump me often. If it is “How do I donate”? or “How do I come volunteer”? I can answer that. Everything else, well—the wipeboards never provide the full answers. I try to ask the supervisor. But that takes too long, and honestly, he’s not worth the wait. If you work in the phone bank, you need to figure things out for yourself, and fast.
Some things I say over my six hour shift:
“Right now, they’re not giving out vouchers. I’m sorry. But you should go to a Red Cross shelter and register, so if they do give something, you’re ready.”
“I’m sorry it took you six hours to get through.”
“You can try ‘Somebody Cares.’ It’s an organization, I think. Maybe a church group. We’re told they’re giving out gas and grocery cards.“
”You should try going to one of the smaller shelters. Just go there, and tell them that you’d like to take a couple, or a family with you, and they can help you. That’s my advice to you, person to person. Go to a smaller church shelter, that way, you can feel out the situation, make sure you’re comfortable, and they’re comfortable, you know“?
”Yes, they’re taking volunteers. Just show up. Just go to the Astrodome.“
”If you know nurses, please tell them that yes, they need nurses. If there’s anyone you can call and tell them, please let them know they need medical help.“
“I’m sorry. You have to try to get through on those numbers. We don’t have an Astrodome list.”
If I need a break, I leave the phone off the hook. A restaurant donates big tins of prepared food, but they’re licked clean by the time I get there. The soda machine is out, too. I ask a staff person if there is another machine. She says, “Upstairs.” But she turns to her colleague and asks, “Is she allowed up there”” The colleague laughs. “She can go get some soda.”
The third floor is hushed. Quiet. But heavy. I get my water and go out.
In the meantime, I’ve learned that the Astrodome is taking walk-in volunteers. I feel I should stick to the Red Cross. That they’ll get me over there when the time is right.
We have a new supervisor. She is an energetic woman who announces she’s only been there a day, but alas, she’s been picked. Regardless, she is more helpful than Cliff. I take my seat and answer calls.
“If you want to be a Red Cross shelter, there is a meeting at 10:00am in Classrooms E & F.”
“I know. I can’t believe it either. I don’t how they can be abandoned like this.”
“This is just me to you, OK? But you should try Lakewood Church, or Second Baptist Church. They’re the more affluent churches here. I know they’re helping people. This isn’t the Red Cross talking, this is just me to you. I’m sorry that the Red Cross can’t help you right now.”
“I’m sorry, I’m just a volunteer.”
“Sorry, you need to call the press officer.”
“I’m sorry I can’t be of better help. I know. I know. I’m sorry. Good luck.”
“You know, you might try calling journalists. Call CNN. Try to get your story out there. I know it’s not fair.”
The man next to me takes a call a minute as well. We haven’t introduced ourselves. There hasn’t been time. He’s early 50s maybe. He looks like a vibrant upper-manager. We exchange glances. Grimaced faces. Sighs.
A few hours later, he decides to get food. Fajitas. He came in from the suburbs to do this, and he wants Fajitas. Do I want anything? No. He comes back with white Styrofoam containers of chicken fajita nachos to share with our side of the room. He has to go. He brought them back just to feed us. I wave goodbye. I don’t know his name.
I leave my phone off the hook and eat.
On that Saturday, nearly a week after landfall, the Red Cross had yet to offer financial assistance to hurricane evacuees. No money. No grocery, gasoline, or clothing vouchers. Every second or third call, I choke up. Sometimes I cry. I try hard to keep it together, because a crying phonebank woman helps nobody. But it doesn’t take much. Someone talks about what they see on TV. Someone tells me their story of survival. And I tell them that the Red Cross can do nothing for them now.
A new batch of volunteers waits at the supervisor table. A real staffer comes through, asks us when we started. If over four hours, it is time to leave. No exceptions. It’s been 6+ for me. I’m ready to keep going. But the staffer is firm. I go downstairs, sign up for another sift. The 3:00am shift, later that night.
I don’t sleep well that night. When I leave the house at 2:40am, I drive on empty freeways. I stop at CVS and get alcohol pads to wipe down the phones. I don’t want to get sick. This makes me a little late.
When I show up, they make me supervisor.
After I sit through a 2 hour Red Cross Orientation that supposedly qualifies me to volunteer even though I’ve supervised the phonebank, this is what I learn:
The Red Cross doesn’t run the Astrodome/Reliant Center, or the George R. Brown. If you want to work there, just show up.
At the Astrodome
My friend Ronnetta and I work a lunch line. We hand out Chick Fil-A sandwiches. There are so many of us. Once Ronnetta and I have our assigned places, we are somewhat jealous of them, not wanting to find ourselves “role-less.” For now, the Houston volunteer response is incredible.
The shift goes smoothly. Without a hitch.
Spreading the Word
“Please. Go volunteer. You will not get jacked. These are normal people. Please help. And for those of you not down here, please hold charities accountable. All this money goes to them, but does it ever reach the survivors”?
Sid Blumenthal writes me back. He’s been a mentor to me for years. He tells me that what I really should do is listen to people. Get stories down. Now.
I resist. People still need corporal care. But at the Astrodome, and at the George R. Brown, there are so many volunteers. Maybe a glut.
I listen to Sid.
Labor Day, 2005
When I see evacuees on TV, they’re crying and screaming. I hear reports of violence and “looting.” How many Americans watch TV and declare the situation unsaveable? Maybe at one time human, and helpable, but now&mdah;the Leviathan. Every man, woman, and child for himself. If I could talk to people, and send my reports out, with photographs, of men and women that say look, I’m normal, I’m like you. (How could you forsake me?), then maybe the intrusions on their privacy will be warranted. Maybe more people will be helped.
So I go to a mega-shelter to record stories. 2000 evacuees reside in the George R. Brown Convention Center (GRB), in downtown Houston.
How to approach and not be horrible. After what they’ve gone through, this is a major concern. I don’t want to invade.
Across the street from the GRB is a narrow park. Tree canopied, plenty of benches. Evacuees go there—especially men and boys, it seems—to get some fresh air, talk, maybe smoke a little. I decide this is the safe place to interview. I’m not inviting myself to their air mattress. Either they talk to me or they don’t.
High shrubs and trees create a perimeter. I walk around it. There are openings. I could gently enter one, maybe get someone’s attention, quietly. This is when I see an older black man. Slim. Sitting peacefully, and alone. He wears black Ray Bans.
He smiles. He lifts his hand in greeting.
This is all I need. My first interview is with Eddie Dean, 50, of New Orleans.
Here is an excerpt:
“They treat us like family,” says Mr. Dean. “I’ve never seen people come together like they do now. Should be like this always.” Inside, he’s found several people he knows. “It’s like a funeral,” he says, smiling. “We get up every morning and hug each other.”
Mr. Dean waits on his wife, Lorenz, and his three children. He sent them to a hotel on Canal Street. $200 a night. He stayed behind to watch the house. He stayed, until he needed dialysis. Early Wednesday morning, he packed a toothbrush, razor, deodorant, blue shorts, and a shirt into a garbage bag. He left a few days food for his two pit bulls. He thought he was coming back?
Next, I interview two young men. When they speak, they seem slowed. Numb. There are bursts of anger, but no energy to sustain it. These are young men fresh from evacuation. When they speak, they don’t speak in long stories, or in fully formed narrative shaped from contemplation or retellings. They speak in fragments. In blurts. I know the young men’s pieces should be different somehow. That they should better reflect their states of mind.
How to do this, I don’t know.
After several more interviews, I leave the park. Nothing untoward happens. There is no aggression whatsoever. Much tiredness. Much kindness. But also, perhaps, acquiescence. As if their story is just one more thing the world is asking of them, and there’s no use mounting a fight.
I circulate their stories to friends, colleagues, and acquaintances all over the country and overseas. I send three “features.” At the end of the email, I add my first attempt at a different form. One that is bare-boned. Simple.
They Call Them Looters:
Talking with Justin and Maurice, both 19, Outside the George R. Brown Convention Center, Houston, Texas, 9/9/05
It was hard
being a survivor.
Justin finally had enough money
to get his 94 Mazda 626 fixed.
He watched his car drown
Four days on Starburst
honey buns and Chips Ahoy.
water was his
They heard helicopters,
The water sounded cold
like death was coming.
A truck was supposed to get them.
The water smelled like
rotting eggs and chicken.
People tried to make a way.
The response to the pieces is strong. Many friends across the country comment on the power of the bare-bones piece. I am bolstered.
Searching for a Form
I circulate. I interview. I write more pieces, including bare-bones pieces told in the first person.
As the immediate crisis subsides, and interviewees adjust to their new lives, the stories grow longer. While I love the bare-bones “monologue” form, I know that as a container, it isn’t always big enough to hold the stories. I speak with Alexander Steele, a mentor and friend. We talk about the project, and he mentions Studs Terkel. I have been a long time admirer of his best-selling collection of oral histories, Working. From then on, I know that I want to tell these stories as oral history essays.
Why Oral History
I came to this project with an enquiring mind. But I also came to this project as a novice. I didn’t know much about Louisiana and Mississippi–just what I’d picked up from books and pleasure trips. I came to this, needing others to explain, and to teach. As far as the locals went, I had few presuppositions. Those I did have, I tried to ignore. I tried to approach people as “thesis-less” as possible.
If I did have a thesis, it would be this: we ignore each other at our own peril.
If I have a second thesis, it would be this: we must listen to one another. (If we don’t, someday we’re going to get a big surprise. And it won’t be pretty.)
By reading stories told in peoples “own words,” I feel we can begin to understand each other, especially those that we perceive to be very different from ourselves. And with understanding, comes a better shot at justice, and peace.
State to state, parish to parish, circumstances varied and “Katrina experiences” differed greatly. I wanted to capture the differences. I wanted to spotlight survivors, but I also wanted to show what it was like to be connected to a survivor, as a family member, friend, or volunteer. What it was like be a role player—when your job and/or duty made you part of the story. I listened to interviewees in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, and in cities across the country. Police officers, teachers, mayors, volunteers, mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters. Survivors still angry over their losses. Survivors who savored fresh starts.
I hope these stories of sacrifice, struggle, and epiphany will open minds. And hearts.
Lest we forget. So we know what to expect.