October 10, 2005 — January 8, 2006
“A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear.”
-W.H. Auden, Leap Before You Look
“Did you get your FEMA check?
Yeah, I got my FEMA check.
Will you tell me what you spent it on?
I’ll tell you what I spent it on.”
-jZ 94.5, Biloxi, Mississippi FM Radio
Everyone had a back-story. Ben-jammin’ came from waiting tables, managing web pages, and filming artily. Ryan had a bad break-up, sold all his possessions, and came down from Chicago to find a bigger disaster than himself in which to immerse. Chuck left his third-grade classroom for a week, which turned into six weeks because that’s what happens sometimes at Hurricane Camp. You’ve got the “I’d rather volunteer for a cause than sit around in college for a semester” situations of Interiors Alex and Shortstack Mark. And then you’ve got the recent college grads that are too flighty and antsy for anchors just yet in life, the Becca Rich’s and Sara Schnitzer’s and T.C. Kida’s and Lydia Smith’s of the world. I guess I’d put myself in the last category too. There is a fine line between Romantic wanderlust and directionless vagrancy, but I think we helter-skelter it just fine for who we are. Anyways I can’t tell everyone’s in as much detail as would be appropriate, but this is the story of how I came down.
Hurricane Katrina made its second and most devastating landfall on August 29th, 2005. I, like most of America, had taken a particular interest in the course of this storm. It skimmed the Florida Keys and then floated off into the Gulf of Mexico. I had no recollection of any hurricane ever doing that. It waned to a Cat 1 and waxed to a Cat 5 as it approached Louisiana and Mississippi. At the time, I had been living in my family’s basement for the past 3 months, interviewing for this legal assistant job or that legal secretary position. To pay the weekend bills, I started doing isolated landscaping jobs in Potomac and a semi-steady stint lifeguarding at a pool in Clarksburg. I guarded with a Bulgarian named Ygevny, and picked him up every morning from his flat on the other side of Germantown. The day before Katrina hit it was cloudy and public schools had started— the combination of the two made for a slow morning at the pool. Ygevny and I smoked Turkish Golds outside the entrance.
“You know New Orleans, Ygevny?”
“With the Mardi Gras?”
“Yeah.” I took another drag. “I think this hurricane is going to be bad.”
“Hurricane Katrina. I think it’s going to be really bad.”
The next few days I brought the newspaper to the pool to time myself on Sudoku puzzles and follow-up with Katrina. It seemed to get more and more apocalyptic every time I took the Post out of the wrapper. The Superdome was fucked. People were jumping off of rows. The poor couldn’t leave. I kept thinking about the watershed on the coast. I read somewhere that it was too high so when the dead were buried they couldn’t go underground. They had to go into mausoleums. I kept thinking about that.
I quit lifeguarding and started concentrating on the LSAT. On the side, I contacted the Red Cross to find out about volunteering. They told me I had to take some multi-week course. At the time, I was in contact with my old friend Janos Marton up in Hanover, and we traded some e-mails about the frustratingly appropriate red tape that the RC threw at us, and how we should figure out a way to go down and help after the test was over.
I told some friends I was thinking about coming down after the LSAT, including an ex-girlfriend from Dartmouth. At that time, she was working as a research assistant for the Council of Economic Advisers and got to see President Bush every couple weeks. She sent me an e-mail, subject title “How You Can REALLY Help,” really in capital letters, with a link to a Red Cross donations site. I was too bogged down in studying to be angry, but I decided the day before the test that there would be an A or B to the course of my immediate life.
A) Secure a legal assistant position with Michael J. Eig & Associates. Special education law in the D.C. area. They were in the midst of preparing for a Supreme Court case regarding the burden of proof in the case of Individualized Education Plans (family or school.) I got a second round, and thought it would have been just swell to work with a well-intentioned firm such as theirs.
B) Don’t get the job, pack, and go to Biloxi, Mississippi. Janos knew two girls from Dartmouth, an 04 named Carrie O’Neil and an 05 named Kate Gage, that were going down to work with an organization called Hands On USA. He wanted to pick me up on his way down. I checked out the website and shot them an e-mail. They said come on down, bring a sleeping bag and a book
I took the LSAT on October 1st, partied like a rock star in Baltimore with a girl I’d been seeing that summer for two straight days, and then I waited. Janos called me on Tuesday from New Jersey to ask one last time whether I’d come with. I couldn’t yet, but if things worked out I would see him in Mississippi on Monday (the beauty of A and B options like these is that things always work out.) I didn’t get the job early Wednesday evening. After 30 minutes of procrastination and revaluation, I booked a bus online out of the Washington D.C. leaving late Saturday night.
The thing about leaving a life in a moment of acuity, even a life that’s not as full as it could be (should be), is that you’re never quite sure you’re going to do it until you do it. When Mike and Mike came to pick me up from my house, I had told my mom I was leaving but I don’t think she believed it until I was on my way out the door with a sleeping bag tied to my grandfather’s old rucksack. She started sobbing, telling me I was going to die on the bus ride, I was throwing my life away, etc. I left her in the doorway and rode down to the bars to get drunk before I left.
Walking around Adams Morgan with a backpack turned out to be much finer than I had expected. All the bartenders graciously let me throw it behind the bar once I told them why I had it. Before I had even left to be a Katrina volunteer it had already earned me three free shots and two kisses from random girls that felt guilty for laughing at my deadweight. Our celebratory outing ended prematurely when Mike Collins got thrown out of the third bar. I grabbed my backpack, said my good-byes, and left with Mike Williams to find Mike Collins sitting on the curb with two homeless men. The three of them were making fun of the bouncer for being a “Russell Simmons-lookin’ motherfucker.” We grabbed Mike Collins and dragged him away. I left my friends at the Metro station a few blocks down, and headed underground on my way to the bus station.
The bus left Washington at 2:55 a.m. and I slept until we hit Richmond around five. I smoked a cigarette with a guy from Ottawa on the platform, who relayed a sketchy sounding story about losing his passport and identification in Boston and having to take the bus to Roanoke to get photocopies that were locked in his father’s safe behind the family portrait at his summer home in the mountains of western Virginia. Smiles and nods for that. I walked into the bus station and sat on my bag in front of the departure gate. The Canadian found me after 5 minutes, accompanied by an amicable elderly man with two huge boxes. The Canadian took me aside and asked me to help this guy out, he was on his way from Philadelphia to Georgia on my line and wasn’t strong enough to move his luggage.
I carried his boxes for him as the line boarding the bus slowly moved forward. The man sloppily ate off of a Styrofoam tray, allotting an unfathomable quantity of syrup for three small pancakes, and complained about the porter at the door. I didn’t pay mind to his complaints until I saw the two actually interact. The callousness of the Greyhound employees threw me off a bit. Clearly they had a policy in place that they couldn’t make exceptions for— you had to pay extra if you wanted help with your luggage.
“Hey, my man, can you help us move this over to the bus?”
“I told you sir; you didn’t pay the extra fee. Now if you don’t move you’re going to have to go to the side and let everyone on.”
All around were dozens of older men and women like my friend, struggling to push their boxes and bags across the floor of the atrium. I ended up running and helping two other people get their boxes to the loading station next to the bus. Not just me, there were a bunch of guys my age doing the same all around. I thought, if we weren’t there, how desperate was this? This kind of thing shouldn’t happen, yet all along the edge of the building the Greyhound sentries just stood at the doors of the gates, watching the travelers struggle.
We boarded the bus. As I closed my eyes, I heard my friend in the seat behind me muttering.
“Goddamn motherfucker, who does he think he is. Can’t help us get our shit back on home.” He smacked his lips and I heard him sucking the syrup off of another bite of his pancakes. In the dark, I took a swig of whiskey from the flask in my hand and fell asleep again.
We changed buses in Charlotte around noon, and were joined by a third friend, a woman who had been on our route since D.C. I’m sure we all did introductions at some point, but the names escape me. Eventually we got back in line for the next leg and produced our re-board tickets to get line priority. The Pancake Lover swore to the porter he never got a re-board slip (I watched him get it an hour before) and we vouched for him. The porter asked him to wait on the side so they could sort it out. I reluctantly continued through the doors and boarded the bus. For the first time since I began traveling the bus was completely full, and the Pancake Lover was not on board. I stood up as the doors closed, looking anxiously for my friend, torn between jumping off the bus and finding him and staying put. As I started forward down the aisle, the woman quietly said
“Charlotte has buses coming in and out all the time, I’m sure they’ll get him on another one if he’s not on this one.”
I sat back down as we pulled out, slightly defeated. The guy next to me took off his headphones and turned to me, leather jacket, about my age and looking eerily like a younger Dr. Dre, same eyes and cheeks.
“There’s a second bus on the same route right there.” He nodded his head across me to another bus pulling up. He put his headphones back on and leaned back against the window. I bit my cheek thinking of my friend, and took out my Vonnegut.
Charlotte to Atlanta was a daytime ride, and I wasn’t as prone to dozing. I took out a logic games magazine after awhile and started filling out X’s and O’s in a grid, deciphering which scientist invented which invention which was what color and what place they got.
“Is that your college homework?”
I turned to JV Dre, confused.
“No, it’s just…it’s just a hobby I guess.”
“But, you went to college I bet, right?”
“Yeah… I just graduated in June.”
“What do you do now? You a lawyer?”
I knew my seatmate had the best of intentions, but for some reason I was thrown off still.
“No, no…I’m a lifeguard. Well, I was. I’m on my way down to Mississippi now.”
“What are you going to do down there?”
“I’m going to Biloxi to help out with hurricane relief.”
JV Dre threw his head back and laughed.
“No shit. Things are real fucked up around there, man. I’m from Brownville, in Texas. We got a little bit of Katrina but a whole lot of Rita. Things are all kinds of messed up man.”
I nodded and extended my hand.
“Ray.” Firm shake.
“Where you coming from, Ray?” Ray shook his head, smiling.
“New Jersey, man. I’ve been on the bus since yesterday afternoon. It’s been crazy man, did you hear about Philadelphia last night?”
“Yeah, I heard some one got shot? Like a STING operation at the station or something?” I had overheard some people talking about this at the beginning of the first leg of my trip. Barely noticeable, a man in sunglasses across the aisle and one seat up from us craned his head slightly toward the conversation.
“I was there too.” The woman I’d met in Charlotte spoke up. “Right across the street, just gunfire.”
“You saw that too then? Those dudes went down. He wasn’t getting up for nothing.”
The man in front of us, an Indian guy probably five years older than us wearing dark sunglasses, turned around and spoke softly.
“I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation about someone getting shot in Philadelphia. It’s kinda weird, because…” He started chuckling and looked down for a moment. Then up. “Because I actually got shot in Philadelphia about three months back.”
We nodded. Ray asked where he got shot.
“My friend and I were up there for business, just walking home late at night and a guy ran up to mug us. I was taking out my wallet when he just started shooting. He shot me three times, my friend once. Here,” He pointed to his upper thigh.
“And here.” He unbuttoned his shirt sleeve and pulled it up to reveal a discolored creviced scar on the outside of his left arm. He pulled his shirt sleeve back down, reached his hand up to his sunglasses and took them off.
His left eye stared straight at me, brown and handsome. His right eye was a milky pink, the formerly mahogany cornea gone a sickly yellow and staring off to the side without any sort of focus.
I never wavered from meeting his eye. That singular action, I later decided, was very important. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah.” He replaced his sunglasses. “I’ve been in the hospital until about a week ago. On my way back to work now.”
“I work for Delta.”
I sat back in my chair. Ray was already staring out the window. The man nodded, and then turned back face-forward, leaning his neck back on the headrest. I buried myself back in the logic game.
We hit a traffic jam about twenty miles from Atlanta, and it got everyone restless again.
“So do you have family up in New Jersey?”
“Yeah, I got some uncles up in Hoboken. Took the bus up when Rita was coming with my family.”
“And you’re moving back down to Texas now?”
“Hell no, man. At least no time soon. You know why I’m going back?”
I shrugged. Ray reached into his jacket and took out a folded up piece of paper. He lowered his voice.
“Keep this between us, right?”
“Yeah, for sure.”
Ray unfolded the piece of paper and handed it to me. It was a tax refund check, United States Treasury stamp in the corner. But instead of United States Treasury printed across the top, it said Federal Emergency Management Agency. $2,000 dollars for Raymond Whittaker. I looked at the FEMA check in my hand for a few moments, and handed it back to him.
“You’re going back for the check?”
“Hell yeah. I got to go to my bank and get this money, man.”
I decided it would be wiser to not explain that he probably could have just opened an account in Jersey.
“Does your home have a lot of damage?”
“Man, this isn’t even my home. This is my apartment I lived in with my boys. The way I see it, I move up to Jersey, work up there, move out of my folks place after awhile, and I got a nice little roll in my pocket the whole time. I’m getting some nice sneakers, some CDs…this is a gift, man.”
Ray smiled and put the check back. I laughed.
“That’s not a bad plan at all, my friend.”
“I know, right? Shit now if we could just get to Atlanta so I don’t miss my next bus.”
We arrived in Atlanta within the hour. I wished Ray the best. Ahead of me in line, the man with the sunglasses moved slowly down the aisle and off the bus. I smoked a cigarette and watched him hail a cab and leave.
I had a 5-hour layover in Georgia from 7 until 11:30 p.m., so I was all ready to find a good corner to sit and finish Sirens of Titan. I entered the station and stopped short. The entire inside was packed full of people and boxes, squeezing out into the ramps in front of the doorways. No one had any less than 2 huge pieces of baggage. It was what I saw in Richmond, multiplied a hundred times over. I squeezed through the room, dropped my backpack underneath the payphones in the corner, charged my phone, and finished my book.
It didn’t really hit me full force until I got in line for the bus to Mobile. I was the only white person in the line. I was also the only one with a single bag. Behind me, an older woman was talking animatedly to another and referring to a newspaper in her hand. I looked up discreetly from my perch on my sleeping bag. It was a New York Times from mid-September. The woman on the front page, looking down at the ground before a flood-ravaged porch, was the woman standing behind me in line.
I boarded the bus to Mobile and helped carry boxes and bags for the Gulf refugees I had been traveling with for the last 24 hours, the ones returning after five weeks away to see what was left. The bus was the fullest I’d been on yet. Three babies cried and cried. The seat furthest back on the bus was broken and I’m pretty sure people sat there anyways. Once we hit I-75, I cuddled up with the cold glass Atlanta midnight and finished the rest of my whiskey. The babies eventually stopped crying, and I fell into a drunken doze with my cheek against the window, listening to Dylan’s visions of a girl named Johanna and thinking thickly that this moment, this space is what beginnings were always meant to be like, that if anything, this was a beginning.