I don’t know when I’ll be coming back again,
It depends on how I’m feeling.
Soon after getting home, I decided that I was going to write a book about my two months on the coast. I began the first pages on December 19, 2005, and this what I wrote that day:
My first night back from Biloxi I woke with a cold sweat at 8 a.m. In my dream, I had been scouting a beach when I spotted a tidal wave approaching the shore. I ran back toward the city and grabbed two families along the way. We ran up the stairs of the plaza and through the revolving doors. The water splashed into the glass on the first floor and the plates cracked. I threw them in one elevator and got in another one once I saw there was no room. I got up to the 7th floor and exited onto a balcony. The water rising higher than possible— they say Katrina floodwater rose a foot a minute but the water was rising a building story a minute this time. There was a balcony parallel to mine on the same floor and I could see the parents and children on the other side. There was suddenly a corporate employee on the other side of me; I grabbed him by his solid tie and demanded to know how to get higher in the skyscraper. The elevators were now out. He ran to a stairwell door and yelled out that they were locked. Then the water reached the balcony and I wrapped my arms around a ledge to hold myself in place. The yuppie did the same. There was a piece of a flagpole string racing by, and I grabbed it and tied it around a raised stone. I floated out and grabbed a young boy and girl flying by and held them close to me. I realized that as the water rose I could hold onto a vertical gutter and so keep everyone afloat. I couldn’t see the other balcony anymore, or mine— at this point it was just building tops and a raging torrent down the main avenue. Right as I started choking and holding these two kids above water, the yuppie got a call on his Blackberry and exclaimed that his friends just called him and we could have used the stairwell in the first place. He had just accidentally turned the door handle the wrong direction.
I’m in Starbucks now at 11:30 a.m. I’ve been back in Maryland for a little less than 24 hours and everything around me looks ghostly. There are thin snow flurries and a biting cold to comfort the nothingness that I feel looking at the ghost town. It’s almost like I know something that no one else knows, something really important. More important than the Christmas line at Wal-mart or the special order of Caramel Macciado with ten qualifiers that the woman in front of me in line wanted. Bob Dylan is in my ears telling me to escape to the coast of Barcelona, but I think that’s out of my control at this point. All I want to do in this next week at home is reflect on my life and my friends and keep my head high. The simplicity of this narrative betrays the next level of maturity I think I’ve achieved in my life. A deeper maturity than stability. I got drinks with Abbey last night and by the end of the second beer she was simultaneously complaining about the monotony of her life and telling me it was unrealistic to escape to Portland in the coming month without a plan. Johnny Cash shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, so I don’t see why I can’t caravan to Oregon just to see the sun.
In Biloxi I met dozens upon dozens of people and everyone had a story. Volunteers, homeowners, tentowners, plotowners; hundreds of stories. I wasn’t as good as I hoped to have been keeping the running journal while there (mostly due to the blatant stress-related alcoholism that our secular volunteer group perpetuated among the long-termers. PTSSASAD: Post-Traumatic Secondary Stress and Seasonal Affectivity Disorder. Just wait for the peer review in the DSM-VI, it’ll blow your mind.) It ended up being a dual-layered experience in retrospect. On one side you have the Victor Robie’s, the Lewis’s, the Nettie Cobb’s and Kansas’s and Ashanti’s sandbox, the FEMA trailer sewage pipes wrapped with red lace to keep the Christmas spirit alive on Elmer Street. But on the other side of that, you have the stories that aren’t told. Our stories of firecrackers in a firestorm. The resilience of my friends, the long-termers through the tears and the stress and just trying to stay alive and strong in the face of the worst. Our hurricane camp stories, and I don’t want those to get lost. I don’t want us to float back into our lives and for everyone to forget what we went through. Laughs and love, but the final epiphany that kept me going was this: everyone has their demons. In one sense or another, and we all dealt with it differently, bravely.
When I finally left I had reached the end of my line and needed to get away before I broke down completely. I wish I hadn’t been as weak and could have stayed forever but I need this. I need to sit down and get as much out as I can, as soon as I can, before it slips away and I don’t remember what made Biloxi, Mississippi what it was for the long-term volunteers of Hands on USA. Our hurricane camp stories.
Besides that immediacy of need to record that I talked about above, I don’t remember much of that handful of days I spent at home. I caught up with friends here and there like Abbey, Mike Williams, my old friend Stephen, my ex-girlfriend Nikki. But by and large I was on my computer looking at photos of Biloxi, imagining the makeshift decorations and the sputtering electricity of Christmas Eve. Nights ended with beers and whiskey snuck into my basement so I could stare at pages of journal entries I’d made on the Coast. I felt only as old school romantic of a writer as my insobriety permitted before I stopped typing and started scrolling through the late night movies on my parents’ satellite television.
My folks asked me what I wanted for Christmas. They have always been good about getting me boxes of clothes I used to wear in high school from the Gap and American Eagle, some Polo and Nautica stuff here and there. At this juncture in my life, I was sporting a Carhardt felt jacket and ripped jeans on a daily basis and very comfortable with it. However, I thought about this and came up with one single thing I could imagine wanting from the folks: a guitar. I got my wish Christmas morning in the form of a $150 gift certificate to a local music shop. The next day I sat outside the door to the Gaithersburg store until it opened, walked in, and within 10 minutes was walking out with a starter Acoustic Fender on sale for $125. I spent the afternoon plucking awkwardly at the strings and looking up chord formations for more songs that reminded me of the South: “Wagon Wheel,” “Farmhouse,” “Boots of Spanish Leather,” and as a nod to Janos’ very different brand of music that played out of his car, “Heroin” by the Velvet Underground. Most of these were difficult, and I had no idea what a bar chord was. However, my big coup of the day was with Wagon Wheel; it’s just G, D, Em, and C over and over again, and none of those are too tricky at all. Granted, syncopation was struggling in my early musical career, but at least I could somewhat hear the tune with this new wooden stringed machine. I resolved to continue working on this in Mississippi and then later in Oregon.
Christmas as a holiday wasn’t too notable. My family always went over to my aunt’s house in Rockville, we’d eat and pray and catch up with each other. For years this had become more and more uncomfortable for me; I felt very out of place as the oldest grandchild at these gatherings. My sister Maegan had always done a better job integrating into the aunt and uncle community, baby-sitting and staying in touch with extended family, whereas I’d felt I’d become this strange anomaly caught between the older generation and the younger. On top of that, a good number of my extended family members were very religious. At any rate, at least during this Christmas I had stories to tell besides what life was like in New Hampshire. But even with the ease of conversation, I couldn’t get away from the false reality that pervaded my holiday experience. So much left to be done, so glad I had gone down there. I held it together for the afternoon with the extended family. Later, I spent the evening sneaking out to the store to buy beer and whipped cream canisters. I forgot about Christmas and closed it out by myself, pondering the nitrous-driven metallic echoes of my iPod, driving in aimless circles in the dark farm woods around my parents’ house.
I had been e-mailing with Ryan and T.C. since I’d gotten back seeing if anyone else wanted to join up for the ride back down to Biloxi. Ryan was taking his truck back but agreed to carpool with us, but the timing didn’t work out as well with T.C. Regardless, Lydia arrived at my home in Germantown around 7 pm or so on the night of the 26th, came inside for some quick fruit and sandwiches, and like that I said my farewells to my parents and hopped back in the Subaru for whatever lay ahead, South, then West.
Lydia stayed behind the wheel while I shared a CD I’d made of songs that epitomized our friends from Mississippi. Our trip struck north to Frederick, where we caught 340 through Harpers Ferry all the way to Charles Town, and then Route 7 until it met up with I-81. We met Ryan in a bright neon Sheetz gas station in Winchester, got the lay of the carpool. It was a shame we only had 3, but I committed to switching back and forth with my two friends to ensure that everyone had enough company. We drove until we got tired, and around midnight checked into the Blue Jay Motel outside of Roanoke.
Money was tight for everyone, so only Lydia and I approached the window to avoid the 15 dollar surplus while Ryan waited in his truck. Once we got settled in our room with a single queen-sized bed, we closed out the night by polishing an 18-pack and more than a few swigs of Makers Mark. We got just drunk enough for the three of us to pass out comfortably together in the bed and not think twice about it. Brotherhood and sisterhood. Or something.
The next morning we ate breakfast, continued south, tried to detour to Dollywood in Tennessee only to be rebutted by the traffic jam turning into the parking lot of the “Largest Knife Store in the World,” took a wrong turn in Birmingham thanks to Jerry’s trip advice, swung south in Meridian, Mississippi, and made it to the lone campfire remaining in the field around 10:30 p.m.
Placing oneself relative to the costs and benefits of atypical situations is difficult. The return to Biloxi was motivated by nostalgia, feelings of purposeless in our hometowns, and for me personally, a sense that the new South and West would be better than sentient complacence in the “real world.” How could I be a legal assistant after all of this? Mississippi was to be meaningful, active existence, a place where I felt I should be. Lydia had broken up with Patrick and was wondering about a spontaneous interest in Rohde. Ryan could reconcile his ever-present demons. I suppose I felt that this return back South was going to be a grandstand, where we could all continue helping the world we had immersed ourselves in and would be part of us for a long while. A sense of invulnerability had taken hold of my spirits.
I remember jumping out of the car and sauntering slowly toward the flickering lights of the southeastern grove, hands in pockets. Around the flames, Deubs and Rohde smoked cigarettes while Mike stared down the smoke billowing into the only corner where no one sat. Nate was there too, and was the first to notice us.
“Holy shit, look at these jokers. What are you doing back so soon, couldn’t stay away?”
He grinned beneath his blue cap, and I gave him a handshake hug. We grabbed some beers out of the cooler and sat down.
“So how are things?” I smiled, looking around at the familiar shadows, the campfire relics that had begun accumulating we’d grabbed out of dumpsters here and there. Bowling pins. Mardi Gras beads. A strange wooden statue that looked leftover from an Easter Island excursion. Bar oil for the saws here and there, gasoline canisters that were probably too close to the fire. The stumps and broken chairs we used to circle the flares.
“Things are things, brother.” Deubs sorta shrugged. “Christmas was ok. But there aren’t too many people left, you know? Everyone got out of here real fast. You know?”
Janos was around somewhere, I asked where. Deubs told me he was probably running around with some of the college girls in town. That was the thing with Janos; he was always meeting the newest girls, seeking them out to befriend and take to the Pub, show them around our crazy world. Lydia, Ryan, and I quietly sat at the fire and drank.
I suppose before Christmas, but maybe before Thanksgiving, our volunteers consisted of a culture blooming out of the individual spirits of us floaters, people that had all come down on our own to do some good for the coast. The collapse of those days was concurrent to the stepped-up administrative efforts, all precipitating what Hands On would eventually become. Evolution was just so fast then, so fast. I realized in the next few days that the Hands On to which I had returned to was overrun with dozens and dozens of college kids on winter breaks, more so than when I’d left, pods that pushed our veteran status out to a campfire in the back corner of the grounds, secluded from the university chaperoned tent city that had erupted throughout the field. We no longer even cared to attend the superfluous meetings, and by the time any of us thought to wander in to check on the dinner line Penn State or some other college was finishing up its third serving.
In the consequent two weeks I spent back at camp, I wandered as lost as I was in line at Starbucks. I found very quickly that we were beginning to drink earlier than before, having more safety meetings, and staring at each other’s worn faces across the flames, those that were left other than the three of us. Rohde and Wrecking Ball, destined sons of Biloxi until they could muster up enough money and energy to get that one-way ticket somewhere new. Deubs and Miami Mike, wearing themselves thin in the faces already. Sue and Marianna, the older women that theoretically knew it should be better than it was but for their wisdom, nothing. Age was not wisdom in a new reality, it was time in. But Marianna had been there from the beginning…she was just worn out, I guess. Even Adam, Janos’ fellow Panarchist, had only been there for a week and already found his niche in our whiskey-blues satellite.
Owen had taken up the mold remediation movement in my absence. I suppose I was expected to continue what I had started, but I stayed away from mold in those weeks. I didn’t want to get sucked back in, so I went on random crews with Deubs and Rohde instead. Owen was trying his best though, trying to inspire excitement, to make it fun and tricking newbies into liking the terrible task of spraying, grinding, wiping, and sealing wood studs to prep for reconstruction. Tree crews had dissipated with Gerry’s departure, so the space was open for Owen’s switchover. Why he would choose to I didn’t know. Mold crew was the worst, and it had lost its appeal without my friends— it was important, but I was still just too worn out from the psychological weight of a process I wasn’t sure about. I took Deubs aside one day in the dining hall and motioned over to Owen hunched over mold work orders.
“Deubers, how long has he been at this?”
“You kidding, man? Owen’s the mold king now, he loves this shit. He’s almost obsessed with it. All he ever talks about is mold, the mold problem, the mold revolution, stupid shit like that.”
“Deubers, do you remember when Jane and I left?”
“Barely. Everyone said you guys were going crazy though.”
Around that time, the mythology (yes, I’ll call it a mythology. Mythologies were indeed created in 40 days around those parts) heralded an unspoken two week rule with leading mold crew. The rule was that mold broke your soul after two weeks. I told Deubs to give Owen six more days. Four days later, Owen woke up one morning, put his stuff in his car, and drove to Virginia for a break. He never came back. Mold ate souls.
Sometime around New Years Eve, Dingo organized a large scale outing to Upstairs-Downstairs of the college students in town. Some big group was leaving, so we ended up twenty deep or so. I felt tired, sitting on a barstool and looking at a bunch of kids celebrating their five day contribution to the relief effort. We had a few friends, Wrecking Ball, Miss Sue, Janos, Adam. Ryan was there in full effect, and when Ryan was in full effect at the karaoke bar, he was either singing “Across the Sea” by Bobby Darin or anything by Frank Sinatra. He had a great singing voice in that way, and the eye of a performer (read: he had the “stand on the chair, lean forward, and step off it as the back falls to the floor” move perfected to a point that betrayed the number of times he must have been 86’d for it.) It was a jolly time, and soon enough we were all pretty wasted.
I went into the bathroom at one point in the night and Ryan was in there washing his face. We agreed to get a shot once I finished pissing. As I zipped up, I heard a loud scraping sound and turned to see Ryan holding the paper towel dispenser in his hands.
“Dude, it just came off the wall, what the fuck?”
“That’s crazy, dude. They must have installed it wrong or something, this place just re-opened.”
“What should I do with it?”
I look back on what I said next, and I’m not quite sure why I said it. Did I expect him to actually do it? I argued to many, many people that I obviously didn’t expect him to do it, but maybe somewhere inside I knew he would because he was Ryan, and he didn’t care about much besides fun and the excitement of pushing life, regardless of the consequences. The reason I would have wanted him to do it relates to the part of me that, when wasted, disproportionately values those same things.
“You should probably throw it through that mirror.” I said, grinning. Ryan smiled right back, turned, and shotputted the paper towel dispenser straight at the large mirror in front of the sinks.
When I was nine years old I remember this one time walking down the aisle of the Leisure World Giant Foods with a friend of mine in Rockville, Maryland— I was sleeping over at his house and his mom was buying the food we would eat for dinner. We were perusing the candy aisle, even though we weren’t going to buy anything, and then I thought of the most brilliant and hilarious idea. Daniel, watch this. And I took a plastic bag of gumballs and without opening it, put the corner in my mouth and chomped down on the gumballs. Daniel looked at me with shock for a second before breaking into giddy laughter. I grinned back at him and went to put the plastic bag of 99 cent gumballs back on the hook. I figured this was the funniest possible thing we could have been doing at the time. Then a Giant employee grabbed my shoulder out of nowhere, and gruffly told me I’d better be planning on buying those. I nodded, Daniel and I walked back toward the registers, and I ditched the bag three aisles later behind some loaves of bread.
It didn’t shatter completely, but half the mirror broke into large pieces that clinked into the sink. Part of that 9 year old me is in these crazy late-night events that have been an unfortunately familiar facet of my youth. That was the part that gleefully watched the shards sprinkling down through the air like oddly shaped stars for a moment, before realizing that the arrival of the proverbial Leisure World Giant employee was imminent.
“We gotta get out of here.” Ryan nodded, and we ran out of the bathroom, quickly slowing to a walk as we crossed the threshold back into the bar. A bartender was rushing up to us.
“Don’t move! What was that sound, what’s going on in there?”
“Get in there! Some guy is going crazy!” Ryan yelled at him. He looked at us for a second, and then Wrecking Ball Joe appeared out of nowhere and put his hand on the bartender’s shoulder.
“These guys don’t got nothing to do with it, there’s something going on in the bathroom, you better get in there.” The bartender nodded, and ran past us. As soon as he was three steps away, Joe, Ryan, and I walked quickly out the exit into the night. Joe began talking to the bouncer and I took a few slow steps off the curb, casually lit a cigarette, and continued walking across the parking lot with Ryan. As soon as we were out of sight, we broke into sprints and went different directions.
I ran toward the Biloxi Regional Hospital and found the doors to the Emergency Room. Retrospectively, that was probably a terrible place to hide, but I was tired and couldn’t see straight, so I sat there for a second to catch my breath and finish smoking. All thoughts of what had happened and why, why destroy randomly when all we do is clean up destruction, anything of that depth was replaced by do not get caught by the police. Keep moving.
Downtown Biloxi’s not the safest place to walk around and the neighborhoods got dark quickly beyond the hospital. I took a long walk around the hospital and looked around for Ryan, but couldn’t find him anywhere. I settled into a spot behind some hedges leaning against the outer wall of the building. I must have sat there for 30 minutes or so before my phone rang.
“Guillermo, it’s Ryan. Where are you?”
“Meet me at the ER entrance.”
Moments later, Ryan pulled around in his truck with Adam, and I hopped in. The next morning at breakfast, I sat down with Janos and explained what had happened.
“So I didn’t do it.”
“But you told him to throw the paper towel dispenser through the mirror?”
“Well, I suggested it, but I didn’t think he would.”
“Whatever. It’s both of your faults. You guys are assholes. They kicked us out after you two ran away, and banned Hands On USA from Upstairs-Downstairs forever. Now where are we going to sing karaoke?”
I shrugged and looked into my soggy eggs.
Nothing much happened. One night Ryan and I picked up some women in their 30’s, broke into a camper that had appeared on base, and then took them home to our respective tents. The next morning I proved it to Deubs via the pink feather boa my companion had left behind, and he laughed and nodded. Not eventful though. There was eventually a road trip to New Orleans for New Year’s Eve, but I can’t imagine it was notable because I only remember one part of it.
I have a vague recollection of strolling through the French Quarter in the early dawn of January 1st and seeing Beau on a balcony on Royal Street. And that’s it. No boom or bang to the beginning of 2006. I just remember standing in the cobblestone, damp squalor of Bourbon Street. I didn’t mind the stench, and I didn’t have an inkling of a purposeful idea. I just remember standing in it, squinting up at Beau on a balcony and delighting in the coincidence, as he had not come with whomever I came with for the night. But even that, I don’t remember.
END PART I