I planned to write this before I took a nasty spill off a ladder earlier today, so if it turns into a lot of unfinished thoughts, blame the Vicodin. I want it posted before I pass out.
The moment came for me while I was standing in front of the building where I worked, having a cigarette and afternoon coffee. It had been all over the news, of course, we all remember that- but in hearing two women yell to each other across the parking lot about it, I knew what I had to do.
I remember next to nothing about the process. I remember standing in the gravel parking lot of my apartment, talking to my landlord. He wasn't much older than me, and eventually, we were just making small talk. It was the only time. I remember my boss telling me she wished she could go, and I told her that as I was not a business owner, home owner, or parent, my position was more uniquely suited than hers. And in all honesty, there's not much else short of standing in front of the airport, waiting for the shuttle to the main headquarters which was in Metairie. I sat on my bag and smoked with a man who was a courtroom security guard from Iowa- many of the other volunteers, I would later discover, were from the Midwest. We were told this was because there had been fewer relocations away from the south and East coast, and that no fringes of the storm had reached that area. Like many things I heard then, I doubt it now. The process of signing in was a long one. Lines, forms, pictures for ID's, classes, and a lot of waiting. It was night by the time I made it to La Place, where I'd been assigned. I have no idea what determined who went where, but I lost my friend the courtroom guard. I, and a few others, were introduced to the Red Cross staff for our shelter, one of whom, in my memory, is essentially Kathy Bates, and her younger assistant, an over weight Native American boy whom I never saw without his ARC vest on. The kitchen of the church was fully stocked with snacks at all times. The cots were along the walls and between the pews of the church. There was one bathroom for each sex with a few shower stalls in it.
I had a walkman and three tapes: Sinead O'connor's 'I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got', Husker Du's 'Warehouse', and The Replacement's 'Don't Tell A Soul'. One of these would not make it back. I had a number of books: 'Titus Groan', by Mervyn Peake, and some Salinger and Ghibran. And of course, a spiral notebook. It was never filled with anything of note.
I don't talk about this experience too often, but under any kind of microscope, it quickly reveals itself to have been the single most formative time in my life thus far. I learned enough about people then to take Balzac to school, I think. The Human Comedy, indeed.
I went seeking redemption. I went seeking the catapult's cradle that would hurl me into everything I'd prayed, begged, coerced, lied, and worked for myself to be. I thought I'd be the only one. I thought I'd be a stranger on the Mayflower, hunkered down with the Pilgrims. I found the boat has as many rats as saints, and I was at least among the humans. Even now, six years later, I am writing this on the verge of tears for many reasons, not the least of which is that loud, echoing, exasperated ache: "These people". A man in my shelter was at a bar, one evening, and met a woman. She was flirty, and handsy, and he told her he liked where it was going. She told him that for sixty dollars she could do a lot more. He gives her the money, goes to buy them more drinks, and as he returns, finds her similarly engaged with some other guy. Having essentially solicited hr for prostitution, he had little to say. This too, I would doubt, but I met the guy. There were stories of the rental cars the Red Cross provided disappearing, one even supposedly turning up in Vegas. True? I don't know, but certainly some were stolen. The worst of it, to me, was a day off we all had. That morning, a group of 6 or so older volunteers were asking around if anyone would like to ride into the city to see the levies. The alternative being sitting round the church, I took the once chance to get out. I regretted it almost immediately. We were tourists, here, in this disaster. My stomach sank when I realized what I'd done, what I was doing, and the disposable camera in my hand seemed like a child's toy, like I was too old to carry it around. Needless to say, I took no photos. We saw the levies, and on those roads we were not granted access to by the armed soldiers at the check points, our driver would make a lot of noise about us being the Red Cross, and had a right. I was mortified. I saw the one, single, most terrifying and bizarre sight of my life. On a median, in the street, three National Guardsmen sat by a trashcan fire. One of the young servicemen saw a dog across a parking lot. He took his rifle, aimed, and pantomiming recoil, popped it's barrel up as though he'd shot the dog. We left the city for the south eastern toe of the state, where the damage was greatest. We poured out of the van to speak to a man who was shoveling debris and rubble in to the back of his pickup, and as we chatted, one member of his group began picking up random object, examining them, replacing them. These were this man's belongings, and here, a Red Cross volunteer was treating them like items on a flea market table. Amongst that great body of volunteers there were fights, slurs, insults, and theft. All not only in a church that was so graciously housing us, but by people who were volunteer a great deal of their time to help those in need. Perhaps it was a late lesson for me, but that some could be dedicating themselves to doing such good, and still behave like that.
They rang so false to me, then. I thought they were empty. I was empty, but in a different way. My void demanded a different volume. It's a very hard lesson, to learn so viscerally, the difference between good people and those simply doing good. Harder still is wondering which of the two you are. Simplicity is a thing that once gone, can never be returned. I couldn't tell then if many of them were there by mistake; I wasn't sure if the smell of rot and sulfur had been brought down with them puked up by the gulf, or was simply my own bitterness simmering and rising up. The immense, multiple fronts of pure shock made this kind of inner monologue hard to take, I sought comfort in the bizarre gothic world of Peake's 'Titus Groan' and Crown Royal. I paint all of them as vain, petty, and loud, but they are good people, they are not characters in some play I'm writing. Was anyone down there prepared to need to forgive? There was my lesson. I can't hear the word 'Crucible' without thinking of that time. There's much left to say, and I didn't want this to simply be a rant. But this time formed me in many ways, not the least of which was my understanding of people. There were good people, too, of course. Beautiful, wonderful people. How sad that I've let them be shouted down by the ugliness I was next to, but looking back on it, I'm just filled with such sadness, it's hard to help.