It was roughly 11:30 p.m., and I had just concluded my shift as a dishwasher at a café downtown. I was walking home in a particularly foul mood. My clothing was damp; I was covered in bits of vegan cuisine that didn't quite make it into the compost heap.
It was a relatively quiet evening. Last night, the hordes had been celebrating Halloween early, shuffling about in their costumes, as inebriated as they were obnoxious. Church groups were also distributing propaganda on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Sixth Street. I remember having been in an even fouler mood last night and sharing unkind words with a gentleman who inquired if I had "found Jesus yet."
But tonight, it was a different story; it was quiet.
I encountered one man while making my way through the Fourth Avenue underpass. He appeared to be in his mid-30s, haggard, wearing a white cowboy hat. I feigned a grin and offered a polite nod. He returned my nod before stopping.
"You wouldn't happen to have any use for a bus ticket leaving for Louisiana tomorrow, would you?"
I asked him to elaborate. He told me that he had originally intended to go to New Orleans to serve with the Red Cross for three weeks. But he'd since found work, leased a motorcycle and made other commitments. He was returning from the Greyhound station, where he was denied a refund. The ticket was to have taken him as far as Shreveport, where he had made arrangements to meet with the volunteer coordinator for the Northern Louisiana chapter of the Red Cross.
He presented me with the ticket.
My inner dialogue raged. What about school, or next month's rent?
Suddenly, I realized the frivolity of the preoccupations that had weighted me down for far too long. I don't know why I was put on this Earth, but it was not to wash dishes in downtown Tucson.
I looked him in the eye, accepted the ticket graciously and bid him good night.
I ran home, bursting into tears. I thought of a quote from Julia Cameron's book The Artist's Way: "Leap, and the net will be set."
I woke up my roommates to tell them what had happened. They were supportive and willing to do whatever they could to aid me. I made a few phone calls to friends and teachers, to inform them of what I was about to do. Though concerned for my well-being, they trusted my judgment, and wished me luck.
All I had inherited from this strange gentleman was his ticket. I would have to bear the burden of making arrangements with a volunteer organization while in Louisiana.
Monday, Oct. 31
At 9 a.m., I left to run a few last-minute errands. I collected a few provisions I would need: three new notebooks, a bag of socks, a telephone card and a $6 Spider-Man watch that I could not, for the life of me, figure out how to set. It was 75 minutes slow, so I would be forced to calculate the time accordingly.
At 11:30 a.m., I was on a bus with a trunk full of clothing, $100 and only my moral compass to guide me. At 17, I live rebelliously (if not illegally) on my own. I had moved out of my parents' house at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base four months before to pursue my art, renting a house/studio space downtown with other youth artists.
At this point, no one from my immediate family knew anything about my impromptu excursion. I had neglected to call my mother, for fear that she would have been rationally terrified. No need to worry her. I believed in what I was doing, and for the time being, that was all that I cared about.
Although I was more terrified that morning than I have ever been in my life, it was exhilarating, too. In between feverish fits of fear, my ego would flare, and it would all seem so romantic. There I was, some clueless young artist from the Southwest, summoned to duty ... then, my ridiculous self-admiration and grandeur would dwindle, and I was again reminded of my sparse savings account and the fact that I was abandoning three jobs and school--a comfort zone, albeit one I wasn't all that comfortable with.
Tuesday, Nov. 1
I had anticipated arriving at some sort of post-apocalyptic frenzy. But Katrina's rampage did not extend as far north as Shreveport, although the city was housing an influx of Katrina evacuees.
I was given directions to a library from the staff of the Greyhound station's food court. I toted my luggage there, and was given permission to log on to a computer. I compiled a list of phone numbers for libraries, hotels and cab services in the area. I had just enough money stored up in my savings account to rent a room for a few nights. All I needed right then and there was a place to sleep, and access to a telephone and the Internet.
I was taken to a hotel by a polite young cabbie named Kendall. He gave me a brief overview of the city as he drove. Shreveport is home to numerous casinos, which are, I was told, the chief generators of revenue for the city. It is also home to a heavily Baptist population. This led to no small amount of conflict when the casinos were originally proposed. It is a bustling city, but, I was told, not nearly as densely populated as cities farther south in Louisiana.
I was very tired, having spent almost 30 hours traveling and getting settled. It's a day to rest.
Tomorrow, the real work begins.
Friday, Nov. 4
My hotel room was conveniently located near another public library, and over the course of the previous three days, I had budgeted my time between trying to find volunteer opportunities and experiencing the city. Days were spent on the computer and telephone; evenings were spent observing and absorbing.
I met Vernon, a scrawny retired Cajun chief. I found him one evening sauntering about one of the surrounding neighborhoods with an ornate oak cane. I met a robust young waitress, her visible front teeth crowned in gold caps. I've met a few Katrina evacuees, among them Brian, who lived for a time in Phoenix, where he worked at Alice Cooper's Town. Then there was Tyrell, a former gangster from the streets of New Orleans. He was sickly in appearance, the flesh of his face stretched taut across his skull as he puffed his cigarette.
It all felt so exotic to me. So alien. Yet, I felt secure there.
But security wasn't leading to success. I'd spoken with representatives from the Salvation Army, groups coordinated through Louisiana State University and volunteer coordinators from every chapter of the Red Cross in Louisiana. Everyone had rejected me, as I had not taken preparatory classes. In the case of the larger organizations such as the Red Cross, there are volunteers from all over the country waiting to be deployed to New Orleans. I am but one of thousands eager to serve.
It was disheartening to think that, despite my efforts, there may not be any relief groups willing to take me. I had exhausted virtually every conceivable possibility. Frustrated, I considered catching the next bus back to Tucson.
But there was one number remaining on my list: Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, in Covington. I spoke with Pastor Dave, who gave me the contact information for the coordinator at a volunteer encampment in Metairie, in the New Orleans area. He was receptive to my tale and seemingly appreciative of my desire to help.
He questioned me only when I referred to my approach to volunteering as the "stupid" approach. His parting words to me: "In the search for God, there are many paths one may take. There are the more traditional paths. And there is the 'stupid' path. Who is to say which is best? But again, that's your choice of wording, not mine."
Immediately after I finished my phone call, I called and spoke with Seth, the volunteer coordinator for the site in Metairie. He promised that there was work to be done, and that they could use another set of hands. We made tentative arrangements to meet the next day, and I prepared to leave for New Orleans.
Before I left, I called my mother for the first time since I left to bring her up to speed. Though alarmed, she invested full faith in me, believing that I was "fulfilling God's wishes."
With that, I called a cab and was greeted by a delightful, plump, Caucasian woman named Ellen, clad in a golden blouse and sipping from a plastic Burger King cup. We made pleasant conversation along the way.
Friday, Nov. 4, and Saturday, Nov. 5
I purchased a Greyhound ticket for New Orleans, and, 15 minutes later, I was on the road again. This bus was packed a little more tightly than the previous one, and with no available storage space in the overhead compartments, I was forced to straddle my luggage.
The farther south we traveled in Louisiana, the more Katrina's wrath was visible. Blue tarps were stretched across countless rooftops. Trees had ended up in all sorts of contorted positions in the soil. It was much like looking at a still photograph of trees being blown in the winds of a hurricane.
When we arrived in New Orleans on Saturday, there was little visible evidence of the damage that the downtown business district had sustained. One could have driven through downtown New Orleans without seeing anything conspicuous, except for the relatively low amount of activity.
I called Seth from a payphone, and within an hour, he met me at the terminal. At 28, he was younger than I had expected, given the gruffness of his voice. As he revved the engine of his TrailBlazer, he informed me that he would show me some of the areas that had been hit the hardest, before we retreated to the campsite. Seth is a former director of Christian education for a Lutheran congregation in Norfolk, Neb. One afternoon in September, he received a telephone call from his district president regarding the site being established in Metairie through the cooperative efforts of several Lutheran humanitarian groups (including Lutheran Disaster Response, and the Orphan Grain Train). Seth spoke to his congregation, who enthusiastically commissioned him to serve on behalf of their church. At the time of my arrival, he was concluding his third week of duty, as both a volunteer coordinator and spiritual counselor.
He inquired of my spiritual background. "Though I was born, baptized and confirmed Lutheran, I do not subscribe exclusively to any one system of beliefs."
With a sly grin and a wink, he replied, "Don't worry; we'll set you straight."
As we drove, I saw things that were incomprehensible. Entire neighborhoods, entire suburbs were destroyed. Street signs and mailboxes were displaced by the floods, making it impossible to discern one street from the next. Riding in Seth's vehicle, I felt as though I were visiting a horrible disaster-themed attraction at some theme park. I was having a problem convincing myself that the carnage before me, and all of the men in respirators operating Bobcats, were indeed real.
In the city of Chalmette, a faint brown line ran across the width of the houses. This was the watermark, signifying how high the floodwaters were. The water levels differed from neighborhood to neighborhood and were anywhere between 7 and 11 feet high. By the time of my arrival, the floodwaters had been drained, revealing the wreckage.
There were small signs posted everywhere, similar to campaign signs. They were advertisements for contractors and companies offering services that so many families desperately needed. The demand for hired hands of all sorts was great. Some private contractors were making as much as $80 an hour, well beyond the economic feasibility of many flood-damaged residents.
Keepsakes, heirlooms and photo albums were all reduced to mounds of filth strewn about the streets. In front of some houses, the filth was helter-skelter, whereas it sat in tidy heaps at the curbside of other houses. Seth told me that the heaps at the curbside indicated that the family had their house "gutted." To gut a house is to strip it completely of all interior contents; the church group that I was to work with specialized in house-gutting.
Some homes were still filled with sludge. This sludge (more commonly referred to by relief workers as "muck") consisted of many unsavory substances, including oil from nearby refineries and raw sewage--resulting in quite an unpleasant odor. Many snakes had taken residence in the muck (but I was told that they were dormant, given the cool autumn weather).
After the muck was shoveled and the house gutted, the interior walls were stripped to the paneling--leaving a hollow shell. The family then awaited FEMA inspectors to determine whether or not the house was still structurally sound. According to Seth, even if a house passes its initial FEMA inspection, that does not necessarily mean that the house is, or will ever again be, fit for occupancy. In some neighborhoods, there was no electrical power or plumbing, and there were only the vaguest estimations as to when those services would be restored. Seth went on to tell me that many homeowners were reluctant to seek help from charity organizations, or hire contractors, as it was in their best interest financially to have their houses completely demolished in order to collect insurance. However, I was told that there were great discrepancies in the ways insurance companies were handling claims. As a result, thousands of homeowners were left oblivious as to what course of action they should take to restore their lives.
The salt content of the water was so great that it had depleted the vegetation in some areas. It was the eeriest sight I have ever seen. It was the sight of absolute lifelessness. Even the insects were left with nothing to feast upon.
But not all areas were so bleak; others were recovering rapidly. It was perplexing. In one instant, you would be surrounded by businesses that were thriving, with citizens commuting to and from work. Then, you'd reach another area, and was as if someone had flipped a switch. The transition from mundane activity to sheer devastation seemed to occur so suddenly.
There was Lakeview, one of the more affluent suburbs stricken by Katrina. It was just a short drive from our campsite. We drove along Veterans Memorial Boulevard past the dozens of businesses that were up and running again, rabid for new employees, and there were only the subtlest indications of damage. Then we'd turn into Lakeview, and extending infinitely in all directions was destruction of inconceivable proportions.
I was startled to learn that the homes of some middle/upper-income housing districts were stricken just as ferociously as the lower-income housing districts I had seen photographs of in news reports while back in Tucson. Families who had never sought federal aid had found themselves, for the first time in their lives, standing in line to receive food stamps. Stockbrokers, lawyers, janitors and convenience-store clerks were all subject to the same cruel fate, indiscriminately.
We pulled into the campsite, which consisted of three large tents pitched near Atonement Lutheran Church. One tent housed male volunteers, another female volunteers; the third tent was for work supplies. Showers had just been installed in a camper, and they were to be fully functional the next day.
I found a group of men huddled around three pizza boxes stacked on a card table near the supply tent. There was Phil, our on-site cook, who'd just arrived in from Benton, Ark. He was 56 years old and spoke with a distinct Southern accent. He had a deep rumble of a voice, a thin white beard and as sweet a disposition as any man you'd ever hope to meet. There was Jerry, of Grand Island, Neb., a tireless workaholic who was working furiously to restore the home of a retired pastor, to fulfill the last wish of the pastor's terminally ill wife--to die peacefully in her home. Then there was Pastor Ray from Creighton, S.D., a kindly, goateed man with intelligent eyes and a calm manner.
The men sat, their conversation switching from their day's activities to barbecued road kill. All spoke highly of squirrel meat. All were silence when Phil spoke of barbecued armadillo. "Ya know what we call armadillos in Arkansas? Possums on the half shell."
We sat sharing stories. It came time for me to share mine, and I spoke candidly. I was surrounded by the very kind of people that I would not likely be fraternizing with back home. My newfound comrades were tobacco-chewing, middle-aged, devout Lutherans, who may not have thought very highly of me under ordinary circumstances.
But they were receptive to me, just as I was receptive to them.
Thursday, Nov. 10
And so it went. I worked long and hard--shoveling/hauling wheelbarrows full of mud and things like soiled Teletubbies dolls to the curbsides--all day, before returning to the campsite in the evening to dine on Phil's Southern barbecue. Finally, I would join fellow volunteers in prayer before bedtime.
The work was demanding. I found that you had to do things to preserve your sanity. If that meant singing Christmas carols in falsetto as you shoveled snake-infested muck out of someone's living room, that is precisely what you did.
And I did. Two choruses into "Jingle Bells," I dug up a baby cottonmouth. That was yesterday.
More taxing than the physical labor was the often-overwhelming emotional impact. I'll never forget the woman in Chalmette who cried hysterically as we carried her mildew-infested sofa to the curbside.
Today, I worked for Raymond, a man of 65, a lifelong resident of New Orleans, a retired middle school teacher and a president of Mount Zion Lutheran Church, a predominantly African-American church in downtown New Orleans. He had spent the past three days gutting the house with his eldest daughter, Nichole, who was born in the house.
He had become so desensitized that he disregarded his belongings as rubbish. There's not much else he could do. His daughter's soccer trophies, his wife's porcelain elephant collection--everything was cast into the heap.
The sight of two cases of root beer, obscured in the muck in his kitchen, left one of the strongest impressions on me. One day, you're purchasing groceries, just as you would on any typical afternoon. Do you even consider the possibility that these sodas will, within a week, be scattered among the rest of your belongings in such a fashion?
It was yet another startling reminder of life's unpredictability.
Sunday, Nov. 20
Today, I helped a man named was Scott. He was a computer analyst for Lockheed Martin and a former U.S. Marine. He lived in a two-story home with his wife, Jill, and son, Philip, in St. Bernard Parish.
Initially, I felt conflicted. I was to help a man who appeared to be in excellent economic standing, while thousands of displaced people were ailing. By virtue of his profession, he was seemingly on the complete opposite end of the social spectrum from me. I was forced to suspend all judgment and surrender all ego. I had done a decent job of adapting so far, attending church services and actively participating in daily devotions and prayer sessions. I was there to offer my help, and not selectively.
He had been staying with relatives in upstate Louisiana and had taken the weekend off to return home with his son, in hopes of making some progress cleaning out the house. The home had been looted on multiple occasions, and he now hung his Marine Corps flag near his front door. Posted near it was a sign which read, "Warning: No Trespassing. Violators will be prosecuted." The word "prosecuted" had been crossed out with a black marker, and scribbled below was the word "SHOT," accompanied by a crude illustration of a skull and crossbones.
We had arrived yesterday, a crew of seven men, to find a kitchen floor covered in grime and shards of dishware. Chunks of the ceiling were scattered throughout the house. The entire first story had been submerged, and the top story collected as much as four feet of water.
After a brisk, seven-hour workday, we managed to clean out the entire kitchen and all of the downstairs bedrooms. We returned today with a crew of 18 volunteers, male and female, ages ranging from 17 to 74. After an intense nine-hour workday, we managed to completely gut the house.
We'd completed our task and were preparing to return to the campsite when Scott burst into tears.
Scott was industrious, a proud family man, hyper-masculine, successful by all conventional standards. But in that instant, everything else vanished. All labels and preconceived notions were now nonsense, of lesser value than the heap that had accumulated at Scott's curbside.
A man of his stature was driven to tears.
Monday, Nov. 21
It was time to go home.
When my grandfather had heard from my mother about my trip, he insisted, for whatever reason, that I not return by Greyhound. He purchased me a train ticket, leading to my very first train ride, 44 hours in length. It provided the perfect opportunity to do a little reading and to reflect.
I was saddened to leave behind my newfound friends in Louisiana. After church on Sunday, I was given several gifts from members of the congregation of Atonement Lutheran Church. An elderly couple offered me a glass jar filled with "spiritual vitamins" (biblical scriptures, printed on little strips of paper). A gentleman who I had spoken with a couple of times after services offered me a check for $25. I had to accept it, as I knew he would not have offered it had he not genuinely wanted me to have it.
I had no intention of ever cashing it. I decided to void it. Better to keep it as a memento.
The most difficult part was saying goodbye to Phil, the cook. He was among the first people I spoke with at camp and had been a source of several memorable stories.
I said goodbye to Seth at the train station and thanked him for giving me the opportunity to contribute my services.
Throughout the train ride, I was feeling pretty burnt out. I didn't feel much like conversing with anyone. A few other passengers who I sat with in the dining car made sincere attempts to speak with me, sharing stories to which I could only offer the most generic, hollow responses.
After arriving home on Wednesday, I was to spend the weekend with my mother and the rest of the immediate family. Thanksgiving weekend. How very appropriate.
The whole thing stands as a strong testament to unpredictability and impermanence as it pertains to our existence. At any given moment, a job may be lost. A house could collapse. Life could be turned upside down.
I've learned to live life fully, to live compassionately and to retain some core sense of self when I become entangled in the distractions of our daily drudgery. At any given moment, it could all be taken away.
God, synchronicity, divinity ... call it what you will. My faith is affirmed.