“In 99% of situations, people wanting credit for things gets in the way of progress. And how much sense does that make?”
-N8, November 2005
“N8” had been around camp since I’d gotten there, but had one of those personalities that is hard to nail down and even harder to approach— thus, he and I had a loose camaraderie for my first month. He always had big aviators. He was white, originally from Minnesota but most recently from Seattle, incredibly skinny, and yet always had the most energy of anyone on crew. He had been on my first job site and I remember him stalking around Candace’s home with a stout wrecking bar, pointing people around and confidently punching spots in the drywall to make it fall in one piece (a perfect drop, and much more efficient than taking it out chunk by awkward chunk.) He was always smiling at you, making jokes that he didn’t care if you got or not. He wasn’t always on interiors though. He had good communication with Dave, Dingo, and Scuba, and took days off to do who knows what.
Jane, always the wise one, relayed this story to me one day: “So Cora and I were sitting next to N8 at breakfast yesterday, and…”
Jane and/or Cora: So N8. What is it…that you actually do around here? Like what do you do? You’re an architect, right?
N8: Well…ok. It’s hard to describe, but imagine this. So you’re sleeping, right?
Jane and/or Cora: What?
N8: Work with me here, I’m just trying to explain this. So you go to sleep at night. What’s the first thing you do in the morning?
Jane and/or Cora: Um, eat breakfast?
N8: No, no, no, no, you are moving too fast. Think about it. What is the first, the first thing you do in the morning?
Jane and/or Cora: Take a shower.
N8: Still too fast. You gotta work with me here. What is the first thing you do in the morning?
Jane: Open my eyes?
N8: O.K., O.K.! That’s what I’m talking about. You open your eyes. Then what?
Cora: I take a shower?
N8: No, you had it before. Go back to that. Not too fast.
Jane: I get up?
N8: O.K., then what?
Jane: …I walk across my room…
N8: Uh huh?
Cora: And I open my door?
N8: O.K., we’re getting close now. You open your door, but you don’t just open your door. How do you open your door?
Jane: I…turn the doorknob?
N8: (standing up and clapping his hands together) Exactly. You turn the doorknob. That is what I do.
“…and then N8 got up and left. So if anyone is wondering what N8 does, that’s what he does.”
“Huh. That’s hilarious.”
“We thought the same.”
N8 and I had never spoken beyond campfire banter until one morning when he approached me while I stood outside with my coffee and a cigarette waiting for Team Hope to launch back into the city.
“Will, hey, can I talk to you for a second?”
“Yeah man, what’s up?”
He leaned back, the morning sunlight reflecting off of his too-large aviators.
“You’re from Dartmouth, you’re smart, right?”
“I mean, I’m smart enough.”
“Well, I’ve got to go do some building assessment work for this project I’ve got going with St. Vincent de Paul in Waveland, poke around some, and I need someone to come with me for a second opinion. You want to go?”
I looked over at Team Hope, which had since acquired new members including Bethany and Lydia. They had it. Plus it might be good for me to back West for a stint (I hadn’t been down to the Hancock County coast since that first jaunt with Janos with the flipped cars on 603.) Yes, I would go.
“Perfect, perfect, great. What was your major?”
“I doubled in English and Psychology.”
“Oh.” Nate sorta scratched his head and took the pencil from behind his ear, twirling it for a moment. “Well, whatever, doesn’t matter. We’re leaving in five.”
Soon after I was riding shotgun in a HOUSA vehicle with N8 Harrold, heading for who knows what out there. We cut up the Cowan-Lorraine Bridge and caught I-10 soon afterward, as my new friend explained exactly what we were driving toward.
Prior to the storm, Coastal Family Health Center had provided free and low-cost clinical services to high-need residents of the area. Nate had been talking with folks in Biloxi about needs beyond housing deconstructions, and had somehow politicized his way into taking responsibility for the revitalization of these clinics (read: Nate talks fast, Nate is an architect, and Nate is very good at presenting the facts and offering solutions. Or he talks so fast that it seems that way.) So, having whatever skill set Nate imagined me having from his one question interview, I was going to assist in this endeavor. As we drove along though, a thought occurred to me.
“So basically, when you’re not on interiors crews you are going around talking to city officials…like Stallworth?” (Bill Stallworth was the councilman for the district representing East Biloxi.)
“Well, you know, Stallworth’s a fish in a pond. I’m in at the Housing Authority, the city office up on MLK, you know, wherever. I mean, things have to keep going right? We can’t gut houses forever, so we’ve got mold, but why stop at houses? We can do anything down here, you know? Got a good idea? Do it.”
“Yeah, I get that, but how do you navigate government stuff? I mean who puts these responsibilities in your hands?”
Nate paused and took a drag of his cigarette, blowing it coolly back out the window.
“Alright. Life lesson here. So let’s say you get some great idea, right? A great idea, one that should definitely be followed through. Like, there is no doubt in your mind it’s a good idea. But you don’t have the power to put it into play. So what do you do?”
“Tell whoever does to do it?”
Nate shook his head firmly.
“You’d think that. But that’s not how the world works, Will. Guillermo. Whatever you’re going by these days. Let’s say I have this great idea for a transportation service that gets people from one city to another city as long as they pay a fee to ride the vehicles. And I know it would be perfect to use this—“
“Bus?” Nate held his hand up and shot me a look that said to let him finish.
“…this service, and that it’s needed. And I know that we have spare transportation vehicles in the next town over that could be purchased and easily rehabbed within the first town’s budget. So, yeah, that’s the problem, and also the solution.”
“But I can’t make the call. So I go up to the Mayor of Farfromjobsville and say, ‘Hey, you know I’ve been talking to people around the community and people are complaining about how they can’t get to where they want to go. I think it would really help the Farfromjobsville economy and stimulate jobs if we could just get them closer to Closetojobsville.’
“Then I go up to the Mayor of Closetojobsville and say, ‘Man, things are really messed up here, you are lucky to be so close to the jobs that are up and going down here, cause it’s the only thing going on right now. The people in Farfromjobsville are out on a limb right now, but you guys sorta hold the key right now. But if you had more workers, your job market would explode. I mean, Closetojobsville would be the centerpiece of economic revitalization down here.”
“And both mayors go, ‘Hmmmm, these do seem like problems.’ Three days later, I get a phone call from a mayor. ‘Hey Nate, I had this great idea last night while I was sitting at home having a sip of whiskey with a mayor from the next town over. We’re going to use some of the surplus in the budget to rehabilitate some existing unused buses that they have, and set up bus routes to get people without cars to their jobs. The benefit definitely outweighs the cost in the long run, and we’re going to move on it.’ And what do I say?”
I waited for him to answer his own question.
“I say, ‘That sounds like a great idea.’”
“But then you don’t get any credit, and it was your idea.”
“No credit, none at all.”
“But what had to be done got done.”
“Huh. I guess so.”
“Yup.” Nate flicked the long ash and the butt out the window at once. “We call that consensus building. Don’t forget it. It’s how to get things done. In 99% of situations, people wanting credit for things gets in the way of progress. And how much sense does that make?”
I took all this in and lit my own cigarette.
Soon we turned off I-10 onto 603 to head down to Highway 90. I stared listlessly out the window at the boats that were still in the trees and counted backwards in my head as we approached the shack where the flipped over cars had been back in October. I wasn’t sure what to expect until we drove past them— still in the ditch, but somehow it didn’t affect me. There was no way they’d let a body sit for that long after all that…I couldn’t lose my faith in that. So we drove past the flipped over cars and the boats in the trees, turned onto 90, and soon pulled into a half destroyed shopping center strip mall on the north side of the main thoroughway of Bay St. Louis. That’s where the Coastal Health Clinic was, and Nate and I got out of the car with flashlights in hand.
Nate’s contact met us at the door, unlocked the doors to the darkened clinic, and we stepped inside. The tiled floor was grimy with the slick muck of stagnant, moist, organic sludge, and ten feet past the doorway the hallways darkened quickly. I followed close behind as Nate and the Coastal manager talked shop about getting the clinic cleaned out and back online. It wasn’t a house, but it wasn’t the first job we’d had in a strip mall type building. Nate, myself, and a few others had gutted a Vietnamese store in a shopping center at the corner of Oak and Howard in East Biloxi. I had trusted such questions as lease responsibility and culpability to clean to those managing our crews, but in this instance I trusted the presence of the clinical representative as an indication of authorization.
The different rooms of the clinic had examination tables, x-ray viewers, medical supplies, all strewn, scattered, and knocked over. I curiously pulled open one drawer, which revealed a paper-mache-like gooey mess of yellow folders— patients’ records abandoned. I explored down the hall away from the two others and explored further, trying not to think of whatever scary movie might involve a darkened, destroyed medical facility. It was the same mess of tongue dispensers, tables, and grime. I wondered how safe it would be to bring HOUSA volunteers here. Was all the hazardous waste disposed of? Was someone going to catch a needle? Then I remembered the nail I had stepped on, and I also remembered that not much down here made sense anyways. It would just take a hand-picked crew of super responsible volunteers that would be careful and follow instructions.
We finished the walkthrough after a few minutes and Nate and I were soon back on the road headed toward 603.
“You don’t mind if we swing through Waveland real quick, do you? I’ve got to do a favor for a friend,” said Nate suddenly as he swung into the left turn lane and got onto Washington headed toward the water.
Waveland. Waveland, Mississippi was Katrina eye territory. It was the last town past Bay St. Louis that sat on the literal coastline; Pearlington was further west still on the Louisiana border, but set inland a bit. A few days before, an older long-termer named Richard from Damascus, Virginia had thrown a fit at Dingo about our lack of presence in Waveland, and how they needed our help more than Biloxi did. I guess I felt that relativity was at strong play when considering exactly who needed what on this flattened land.
My reserved judgment was tested as soon as we crossed the train tracks and turned down Central Avenue. Over the hump of the trestles, you could clearly see the sparkling water of the Sound. You shouldn’t have been able to. But you could, because there was absolutely, absolutely nothing but destruction in this place. In some places just a foundation with a toilet or a pipe sticking out (that’s why you hide in the bathroom during a tornado,) and the house was just gone. And then next door, at least the house was there, but it was nothing but the eaves of a roof propped up on a pile of wood, furniture, and the other things about a house that made memories. That water sparkled behind all of this, which was repeated over and over again on every parallel block, and I couldn’t put a name to what I felt inside at this.
“What favor are we doing for your friend?” I asked Nate without shifting my gaze from the water and the wood over his shoulder.
“Ha. OK. So, I did my graduate work at Tulane, right? And I have a friend that grew up in Waveland, except she’s out on the ocean doing research right now, not home. And her parents evacuated and they’re not back yet. And I mean, she knows what happened here, but asked if I’d take some pictures and shoot them to her satellite phone. So, you know, we’re out here anyways, and why not? Ok, here’s the turn.” Nate examined the GPS and turned the SUV onto a street. We began driving down toward the water. The car shifted and rolled as he navigated around the rubble and wreckage.
“Let’s see, let’s see, do you see any house numbers?” He grinned at me as I furrowed my brow, not sure if it was a serious question or not. “Kidding. I’ve got it on the monitor. Here it is.”
He stopped in front of a split-level that looked as if it had collapsed into itself. Sorta like how the house gets sucked into the nether regions at the end of Poltergeist, but like the Indian spirits quit in the middle and just left the house halfway condensed. Nate walked up to the edge of the street and began snapping pictures with his phone. I walked, hands in my dirty, hospital muck jeans, and ascended a long plank to the top of the rubble. Springs. Nails, A displaced drawer caught under some siding, with some office supplies miraculously still there. Books here and there. I shook my head. These were all families, these were all neighbors and people, that reality had not escaped me from the get-go, from Candace’s house on that first day. But to imagine that one of Nate’s old friends lived here, that I was standing on top of where this friend had grown up in their childhood— that floored me a bit.
“Was this friend a good friend?” I called out to him.
“Ex-girlfriend. So yeah. Sorta. You know.” Nate didn’t miss a beat as he continued snapping pictures.
I continued hopping from plank to plank, curiously examining the pieces of furniture, and now and then taking in the apocalyptic panorama that was Waveland at that time. There was barely evidence of people, just artifacts insisting that people had once been here. At least in Biloxi you’d see residents camping next to their property. But I’d heard there were some good tent cities out this way where people were staying. No, it was just a lot of material in places where it shouldn’t be. In the far distance toward the train tracks I could barely see dust rising from the vehicle of some similar resident or explorer like us.
“Ha!” Nate called out, bringing me back from my mind. “Look at this!”
He held some book up from his perch across the house from me, standing on the lower edge of the broken roof. He then opened it and ran his finger across something on the front page. He tapped it and then turned to me.
“’How to Survive a Disaster.’ I gave her this book. That’s funny.” Without another thought he tossed the book back into the wreckage, and began descending. “Come on, let’s get on back, we can still hop on a crew for the afternoon if we want.”
I got off the rubble, thinking about the book. I thought about grabbing it on my way over, but no. It was his to find, and his to throw away.
As we drove back to Biloxi, we talked about Coastal, and Nate’s plans for helping them with their clinics. I had no idea what these thoughts this early would eventually add up to for my friend, but who could have guessed anything at any juncture. Especially in November.