“Mold eats souls”
-Mark Deubert, January 2006
Soon after Tarp Crew started, I caught up with Jane and Cora.
“So, Will, have you heard about Team Hope?”
“I most certainly have not.”
“What do you know about…” Jane paused, and smiled. “…mold remediation?”
“Um. Not much.”
Sometime in the week and a half I had spent on my LSU romp and going on tarp crews with my new friend Ryan, Benjammin’ had started up a new crew. Mold remediation. Cleaning houses of mold once we’d finished gutting them. It was a natural step, but one that I hadn’t even really considered. While interior demolition was a necessarily permanent facet of the flooded homes of the Mississippi Coast, one couldn’t go back in and immediately rehabilitate the frame and slap up sheetrock. By and large, there were all sorts of molds and mildews propagating in each piece of wet wood that had sat untouched in the hot months since the hurricane.
At the time of the first conversation, I felt I’d been losing touch with Jane and Cora, as well as Benjammin’, and welcomed the opportunity to get on a crew with some of my original friends. I resolved to work on this “Team Hope” of Jammin’s; he had even created a logo for Team Hope and painted it on all of our new and excitingly unfamiliar mold equipment. Mosquito sprayers. Angle grinders with wire brushes attached to them that spun like miniature juggernauts. Boxes of full body protective suits made of Tyvek paper, complete with hoodies. Half-face respirators with changeable filters. Yes, it seemed to be as close to my childhood dream of being a Ghostbuster as possible, and it was a go.
We woke early the next morning, loading new, strange machinery into the back of the old red truck that Jammin’ had borrowed from Joe Foster (a Biloxi resident we’d worked for.) Other crews readied themselves with the traditional yellow bars, boxes of dust masks, and gawked strangely at the small group of us combining forces to lift a generator just high enough for the wheels to grab the tailgate before heaving it forward. I sat comfortably in the bed of the truck as we rolled out onto Pass Road and the wind began to whip Jane’s hair around her face. She furrowed down with Josh to catch the wind shield behind the cab and I joined her, lighting a cigarette and stretching back.
“Where’s Cora?” I yelled as we bumped over the train tracks toward Irish Hill. Jane smiled and started talking in that slight up-and-down alternating intonation that she only employs. I could catch the sarcasm even in the wind.
“Cora might be doing work with Amy today.”
“Well, she had an accident yesterday.”
“What do you mean, she had an accident?!?!”
“With an angle grinder.”
I glanced at the sharp, evil-looking hand-held machines bumping around in the 5-gallon bucket.
“She cut her stomach open with an angle grinder yesterday.”
I stared at Jane unbelievingly. She winced her teeth, and swiveled her hand left to right, and yelled over the noise.
“Not so bad, she’s fine. But taking a day off.”
I leaned my head back on the roll of extension cord and looked at the clouds waggle with each bump of the road.
We arrived at the job site on Nichols Street behind Yankie Stadium. After unloading our equipment and bringing everything to the front porch, Jammin’ instructed boys to one side and girls to the other side of the house. I looked at Josh quizzically.
“They didn’t tell you about naked Tyvek?” He grinned and walked away. Jammin’ called out,
“Will, not naked. Just boxers.”
I trusted this (groupthink a bit, but these were my friends anyways,) stripped down to my boxers, zipped up my Tyvek, and put my boots back on around my Tyvek booties. I was an impenetrable Ghostbuster. Jammin’ soon came around the corner suited up, and offered me an American Spirit. We stood and smoked in front of the house.
“So you want to know what we do?” Jammin’ asked without looking at me. I paused.
“I mean, as much as I love hanging with you guys –“ Benjammin smiled at my hesitance from beneath his hood. “…yes.”
And it was at that point I was provided with the first iteration of exactly “what” a mold remediation crew with minimal funding and volunteer labor might actually do to correct a substantial and extensive issue like this.
“Well, it’s sort of a coup because we got these guys from Salvation Army Seth-“ he hoisted up a plastic mosquito sprayer, “and we can use them to do the first step. We gotta go through the whole house and spray all of the wood down. All of it, with this Shockwave concentrate we’ve got here.”
“How much do you dilute that chemical?”
“One-to-one. So we let everything soak up and sink in. Don’t breathe in the chemical, it’s bad stuff. See the label? Shockwave kills Hepatitis, Herpes, the H.I.V. virus, and mold. Anyways, it’s a multi-day process because you have to give the chemical time to sink in. We’re going to spray this house down, and then we’re going to go start Step 2 at the house we began yesterday.”
“What’s Step 2?”
“O.K., so after the wood sits for a day we come through again to grind and wirebrush the surface mold. We’re essentially pushing millions of dead and live mold spores into the air, so that’s why we have these full-body Tyvek suits, half-face respirators, and work gloves. And that’s why we have the generator to power the angle grinders, which will work faster than the brushes. And then on top of that, we’ll have people with Shockwave rags shadowing the grinders to make sure we treat newly exposed wood.”
“Where does all the poisonous dust go?”
Jammin’ slapped one of the power vacuums.
“Not just the floors. The beams too. The walls. Everything will get a run through with one of these guys. And furthermore…” He cranked the top of the orange vacuum cleaner and revealed a cylindrical filter on the inside. “This isn’t the filter that came with this. It’s called a HEPA filter, it’s specially designed to capture the microbes that we’ll be cleaning out.”
“So that’s it?”
“Not even. After all of that we’ll go through the house one more time with sealant.” He motioned toward a bucket in the bed of the truck labeled Mold Shield. “That way the wood will stay protected. Last thing you want to do is come back to a worksite once they start rebuilding and see mold growing through donated drywall.”
“One more question. How do you know all of this?”
Jammin’ paused, his cigarette burning close to his fingers, and scratched at his mesh hat.
“It’s sort of a work in progress. We’ve been putting our heads together with some community groups, this guy from Catholic Charities that’s been doing some research. But it has to happen. We can’t just keep gutting houses and then let the humidity destroy what we’re trying to save. These guys in East Biloxi, they can’t afford anything less than what they absolutely need; if we can save the structural integrity of these houses, it will go a long way.”
I nodded, standing in the crunchy brown grass of the lawn dressed like a fumigator. Jane and Josh came back, we loaded up, and entered the gutted house armed with mosquito sprayers and wearing face masks. It was immediately a different experience from gutting- even though you wore a dust mask when you gutted, you could still get words through to your friends, comment on the crumbling walls and the popcorn asbestos. That was not the case with the massive half-face respirators with the pink cartridges— it was a mean-business get-up. Furthermore, as hot as it was gutting inside of a structure radiating with Mississippi heat, that was no comparison to how hot it was in a full-body suit. Heat was reality, and Jammin’ made sure we were all perfectly clear on how often we were taking water breaks (every fifteen minutes.)
We split the house into quadrants, and began the task of spraying down all the wood with the chemical concoction in our hand-pump pressurized sprayers. We wore thick chemical gloves. Every 10 minutes I’d take them off for a second to reveal a sticky film of sweat and dirt; I just wiped them on my Tyvek. I didn’t even wonder where the dirt came from each time; I was always dirty and it was nothing new.
Even with just four, houses in Biloxi were never that big and we were done in 45 minutes or so. We emerged into the late morning heat, and the shade that the broken walls of Yankie Stadium had provided earlier had dissipated to Gulf Coast sun all over us. We got in the truck and headed out to the job Team Hope had started the day before. The dust kicked around turning onto Division Street and heading east toward Point Cadet. We turned onto Holley Street about 4 blocks past Lee, and stopped in front of a house at the end of the block where it loops onto Bowen.
“Hold on here for a second,” Jammin’ told the three of us. He turned and jogged up the ramp to the FEMA trailer on the side of the house and rapped. Josh, Jane, and I pulled orange buckets out of the back of the truck and cleared a space to roll out the red generator. We pulled it out carefully (pulling the generator down was a very precise task, and we were careful to treat it so) and moved the machine and the tools to the side of the open door of the house. I peered inside— it wasn’t the usual bare skeleton, there was still some cabinetry. I asked my friends about it and they shrugged. There was a reason for everything, I guess, and I could imagine whoever this homeowner was walking an interiors crew around the inside of the house, pointing at what he wanted to keep, what he didn’t. So it goes.
Jammin’ walked out of the trailer and toward us at about the same time a dirty, blue sedan rolled up Bowen Street and parked outside of the house. A thin, white man stretched out of the vehicle and began walking toward us.
“Y’all are here for the mold treatment, right?” he called. Jammin’ turned and met the man straight up, hand outstretched. This was how I met Gary Cobb.
Gary didn’t live at the house. His mother did, or did before Nettie Cobb moved into the block trailer next to where her home had been. Gary was a good son, and out to make sure that his mama’s house was taken care of best it could. It was good, and through the open squares where windows used to be, I watched Jammin’ and Gary walk purposefully through the house. Jammin’ nodded up to the rafters, over to wall studs, gesturing toward the kitchen as Gary followed behind with his hands in his pockets. I watched this for a bit before turning back toward the tool inventory. We had a bucket of grinders. Another bucket of wire brushes. The generator. Four extension cords. A few splitters. Two vacuums. It was an operation for sure, and we began plugging cords into the generator and running them into the house via the doorway and window holes. Quadrants again. Gary came out of the house and approached us.
“Hey listen, I just want to tell y’all how much I appreciate you doing this for my mama and all. Truly, you know. Do you need anything? I might have some iced tea or soda in the fridge, or I could run down and pick something up. Anything?”
We were alright, but Gary went off in his car anyways to get us something. Jammin’ fired up the generator and the four of us walked into the house. He picked up a yellow DeWalt angle grinder, and turned to me.
“Alright!” he yelled over the noise of the machine outside. “This is how this works. There’s a safety latch here, you flip that down and squeeze and it starts spinning.” He did just that and the circle of wires began rotating in a dangerous looking blur. “Put your mask on!”
Jammin’ took the grinder and centered it before a wooden stud with the tell-tale black splotches of mold infestation. He slowly pushed the grinder toward the wood. As soon as it hit the surface, sawdust spun out in a cloud around his hands. Undeterred, Jammin’ slid the grinder down the piece of wood lengthwise, making slow circles with the machine as he moved down the stud. The formerly blackened wood dusted away to reveal a white, cleaner surface beneath. Once he had gone down almost to the floor with his knees bent, he stood up and released the handle. The grinder whined but kept spinning, and he pushed it against the wood once more to stop the cup.
“That’s how you do it!” he yelled, muffled through his facemask. I nodded.
“So grind what you can, and for the parts you can’t grind, use the wire brushes! MOST IMPORTANTLY though, never, EVER lose control of this machine. Never hold it at a bad angle, always, ALWAYS have control. YOU GOT IT?!?!” He handed it to me and walked to another part of the house.
I took the handle and gave the grinder a practice spin. The small machine vibrated violently in my hand, and I clutched it harder; even with my hands hardened from hammers and crowbars I still felt the muscles in the palm of my hand slightly whine with the vibration. I squared up on the stud before me, bent my knees slightly, and slowly extended the grinder toward a chest level spot.
As soon as the machine hit the wood, the grinder jumped out of my hands and hit the wooden floor on my left with a resonant thud. Its upright spinning smirked at me, slowing with the safety latch off. I had not expected that sort of power, and Josh turned and caught my eyes through his goggles. He took his own grinder and pushed it firmly onto the stud in front of him. Pressure, of course— the thing was rotating at God knows how many rpm’s. Pressure, Will. Pressure.
I went for Round 2 and this time pressed firmly as soon as the grinder was spinning again. The vibrations shot through my forearms but the dust shot off the wood as it had with Jammin’s demonstration. The angle grinder naturally wanted to go in small circles due to the rotation, and I saw that the goal here was not to fight the machine but to control it. I pulled back, and examined my momentary handiwork. A circle of white wood now marked the otherwise darker and molded frame piece. And mold-free. Satisfied, I went back to work.
I was initially reticent to reach above my head, but gained confidence as I went. Yes, this was a dangerous machine, and yes, even more so standing on footstools, but damned if it wasn’t efficient. And there was a certain satisfaction to the moldy sawdust coming off and settling down to the ground. I paused my work at one point to look over my shoulder at Jane. She was taking wire brushes and grinding at the crevices that the grinders could not reach. It seemed much more precise work, and much safer as well.
Between the four of us we went at grinding that house for a good hour or so, left to grab lunch at Salvation Army, and came back to continue. We’d finished by about two o’clock and took a long break to switch out the angle grinders for the awkward orange vacuums. We only had two of them, so the process bottlenecked a bit as we switched off who vacuumed and who sat outside to drink iced tea and talk with Gary.
“So do y’all like movies much?”
“Yeah definitely…I haven’t really thought about movies though.”
“Well tell you what, I’d love to take your crew out to see a movie sometime. There’s that new Britney Spears movie out, do you think you guys would want to see that one?”
Before I could reply with whatever might have come out of my mouth, Jane thankfully interrupted.
“Well, you know what I really do want to see is the Johnny Cash movie that came out? Walk The Line?”
Gary nodded. “Yeah, that seems like a good one too, I wasn’t sure if you all would be interested in it though, being younger and all.”
Jane’s eyes got wide and her mouth opened as she shook her head vividly. “Um, I love Johnny Cash, who doesn’t?”
(As a sidenote, while this has changed since, I am ashamed to say that at that moment in my life I could not name one Johnny Cash song. So I let the conversation continue without overtly embarrassing myself.)
“Alright then, tell you what. We can go see that movie down at the Grand on Friday, make sure you bring the girl that was hear with y’all yesterday too, and any of your friends.”
We finished up vacuuming and went forth with confidence in the last step of spraying down the wood with our Mold Shield. By 4:30, we called it a done deal and began breaking down and loading up the truck. Jane and Gary traded phone numbers for our movie date, and we hopped up in the truck.
Jammin’ pulled the truck back down Bowen and stopped before a home that was literally diagonal on its foundation.
“Ummm, I am not sure how helpful we’re gonna be here, man.”
“Not this house. That one.” On the other side of the street. Right.
We got out to spend the last minutes of our day scouting out tomorrow’s job. However, as we approached the house a blue midsize car came around the corner from Division and screeched to a quick park, blaring Tribe Called Quest music. A slightly stout white guy with black hair and too clean sunglasses turned down the music (but not off) and exited the vehicle. Jammin’ turned and walked back over toward him, and they began talking in the middle of the street. Jane smirked, as usual.
“Who is that?”
“Oh, you don’t know?” She turned to Josh. “Will doesn’t know who that is! Who is that Josh?”
“I believe it’s Catholic Nick.”
Catholic Nick was actually Nick Heyming, an independent volunteer spending time in Biloxi helping however he could by, well, basically figuring out what needed buying and buying it. In this first iteration of Catholic Nick’s gifts to the volunteer community, he had purchased respirator cartridges for us and in fact done much of the legwork researching our initial charge at mold work. I walked over to the two of them talking, and Nick turned.
“I don’t think I’ve met you yet- I’m Nick.”
“Will.” Nick continued talking, and I listened in on the conversation.
“…so the method is going well, and if we follow these steps things should be alright. We’re setting up a meeting of all of the volunteer groups and we’ve got a few experts coming in to talk with us. One is a professor from Tennessee, with expertise in air quality. Then we’ve got Travis flying in from California, he’s actually the brains behind this whole process. But yeah, I’m envisioning bringing people together, disseminating the protocol and the information, and then getting these houses ready for rebuilding as soon as possible through coordinated efforts. It’s all a learning experience you know. But anything you need, anything at all, just call me. You need more cartridges? Here.”
He opened his back door and produced a Home Depot bag filled with cartridges.
“Thanks Nick, this is awesome. It’s a really big help. We’ll definitely give you a call if we need anything.” Jammin’ took the bag from Nick.
“No worries. Anything at all, guys. I’m just here to help. See you guys later.”
Nick got back into his car, turned the music back up (pretty sure it was “Award Tour”) and sped down Bowen Street toward the Holley turnaround. Jammin’ turned to me and raised his eyebrows.
“Nice enough guy, right?”
“He gets us things. No complaints.” Jammin’ threw the bag of cartridges into one of the Homer buckets in the pick-up bed, and walked toward the house past Jane and Josh.
“So whatdja think of Catholic Nick?” Jane asked, smiling.
“Seems nice enough.”
“Yep. He does. He sure does.”
I lit a cigarette and sat on the curb. A few minutes went by before Jammin’ and Josh came out.
“What’s the verdict?”
“We’re going to need some ladders tomorrow,” said Josh.
“Hmmm. Ladders? Not stepstools?”
“Ladders.” affirmed Jammin’. “Let’s go home.”
When we got back to base, Billy Beckett was standing outside the side door of the church with some sort of shit-eating grin on his face.
“I’ve been waiting for you.” he pointed at me.
“How in the heyallll did you manage to avoid telling your friends that your name is Guillermo?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t think it was that important.”
“Well,” he smiled and shrugged at me. “It is now. Because I will never, ever call you Will ever again. Guillermo.” Billy walked off and announced to no one in particular across the grassy field one final time: “GUILLERMO.”
Jammin’ and I shared some post-work swigs of Maker’s Mark with his brother Micah in the supply tent, dinner happened, and then we did the usual retreat to the fire. To be honest, I never considered the moment in which I would start going by my true namesake, my grandfather’s name and my father before me (although my father never adopted it and stuck with Bill.) And I certainly never could have imagined a more puzzling and yet so perfect a situation to do so. At the campfire later that night, Team Termite shook their heads at me and accused me of robbing them of some amazing entertaining experience by going by “Will.” Guillermo. Guillermo. Angelica said it was a beautiful name. I shrugged. But there it was, yet another way that the Coast has permanently affected me. After that night, I never introduced myself as Will again. I embraced that which I had been embarrassed of through the entirety of my elementary school career.
A few days later, we saw “Walk The Line” at the D’Iberville Grand with Gary.