February 23rd, 2006 — November 14th, 2006
How strange you are, you idiot!
So you think because the rose
is red that you shall have the mastery?
The rose is green and will bloom,
overtopping you, green, livid
green when you shall no more speak, or
taste, or even be. My whole life
has hung too long upon a partial victory.
-William Carlos Williams, Paterson
Janos picked me up on a non-descript February night outside of the Gulfport-Biloxi airport. The moment I got into his car we began to talk business. The cusp of five straight weeks of full capacity was starting in a few days, and crew arrangements were more structured than they had ever been. At any given point, we had five mold crews, three interiors crews, two or three roofing crews, an animal rescue crew, and whatever else the hodgepodge presented to us for the day. The loose “do-what-you-want” model of Hands On USA was still quasi-present in the Hands On Gulf Coast transition, but at this point organization was more of a factor than ever. Whereas in 2005 we made crew decisions on the fly at the dinner meeting and the crew leads worked every day until they ran out of psychic energy (poor Interiors Alex), here it seemed that we would finally have a system. There was now an intake procedure, and the college groups were no longer a strange anomaly but rather the norm of short-term volunteer labor. We operated at capacity at all times, and were set to mount on an unfathomable expectation of productivity and houses completed.
We pulled into the Beauvoir Methodist Church parking lot and disembarked straight into the Spin Cycle. Inside, the meeting was full swing. Twenty men and women, the vast majority in their twenties, mulled around sitting on buckets, the ratty couch, and tables. Cora stood in the middle holding a piece of paper and speaking about what we were about to do. Once we entered, Cora paused her speech and gave me that huge love smile that only Cora knows how to give, dimples abound. Around the circle I recognized maybe half the faces. Mark. Mike Thompson. Rohde. Miss Sue. Suzanne. Becca. Beth. N8 Harrold. Amy De Huff. By and large though, new faces. Suzanne rubbed my back as we leaned against the laundry machines and listened to the assignments. As this almost unfathomable number of crews would work in the field, functional leads would supervise in one of our four enormous SUV rentals, driving around to the sites on an as-needed basis and checking in with leads. The functional leads, or as we referred to them, the Big I (interiors) and Big M (mold) would get crews water and equipment when needed and otherwise drive around East Biloxi scouting new jobs. There was an interiors binder and a mold binder, and the both of them were filled with twenty as of yet scouted work orders. Work orders came in by telephone to the office phone, and were taken down by hand by Sue, Astrid (a new long-termer,) or anyone else working the office that day. They were indiscriminate— screening came when we drove around the field, and our work was limited to a particular section of East Biloxi. We had the equivalent of MOU’s with some of the other relief groups in the area— the Methodists (blue shirts,) the Presbyterians (blue or yellow shirts, depending,) Back Bay Mission (don’t know the color of their shirts or their religion.) We primarily had the area between the Interstate and Oak Street, and then north of Division. There was some sort of master plan of who controlled what, but I wasn’t privy to that. For now, I was sitting, taking a little “m” crew, and happy to be back.
Later that night, I stole to the fire. People hung out at Jungle Jim’s secluded spot— Gerry’s fire had long ago dissipated. Beyond a grove of trees lasting fifteen yards or so, Jim’s fire had lasted into the months, to the legacy of those that now owned it. I walked up to this fire; I’m not sure where Janos was, but it didn’t matter because I knew the routine. I strolled up, sat down in a discarded lawn chair, and stared into the flames until someone vocally invited me to do otherwise. Mike and Mark nodded to me. I wasn’t worried. I sat and stared, and listened to the talk and stories that went around the flames, listened to these new men that had replaced the hardscrabble men of old.
Niko— His head was shaved except for a particular six inch long tuft of hair about two inches in diameter at the center of his hairline crown. Seriously, I couldn’t make up something like that. Niko was from California, but had gone to high school at an environmentally minded spot in Putney, VT. He was a principal tree and parks guy, and he was twenty years old. He made it work. Niko stalked around the fire and spoke his word loud. “RASTLE!” “SHIT!” “HOWARD!” Ridiculously loud, there are no words to describe neither the cadence nor the meaning of most of his intonations. He’d come in January, and was already a mainstay.
Harlow— John Banks McFadden Harlow. Where do I begin. Niko’s right hand man. John was a romantic, a lover of the soft tones of a Lucinda Williams, the precise verve of an Otis Redding. He was a man of the South, with a North Carolina drawl to wit. He was a man that always spoke with meaning, a genuine man. He was a lover of humanity. One of the most handsome men to ever frequent our space, and every female let that opinion be known in confidence or directly to him when so nocturnally inspired. And yet John carried himself as though he didn’t realize it. Harlow was soft and thoughtful, and simultaneously strong-minded and delivered. He sat on the edge of the fire, a friend of everybody, silent underneath his shag of blonde hair and within his dirtied white tank-top. I have to admit that, as I felt when I heard about Beau, I was immediately suspicious of this Dartmouth ’04. I had a lot to learn about missed friendships and opportunities in Hanover yet. John built a park, and would become a true, true friend in the subsequent months.
Jim Schiller— Jim Schiller was a stick of a man. He was young, my age— we stumbled into that fact one late night, the same night that we strummed Reverse Cowgirl until the sun came up. Jim wasn’t a specialist, but he was part of the thing in the huge way. Interiors one day. Mold the next. Whatever we needed done, he was there, and strong, reliable leaders that didn’t maverick in the field and just got it done— those were a premium. At night, he spoke in poetic undertones and the ladies loved it. He always had a short-termer on his arm, usually a cute, littler girl. He purposefully sunburned himself with the word “ROCK” written in tape on his chest. It was pretty much amazing. He came with Garth, Amber, and Rad Sean, I think they were all from the Grass Valley, CA area. I know Jim was, at least.
Russell— This is a tough one; where to begin with Russell Freeman. He was our tree guy, the new blood now that the Termites had all but dissipated and Rohde had moved on to crowbars and interiors. Words were always coming out of his mouth, but whether or not his thoughts kept up with those words is up for debate. He had long, scraggle blonde-brown hair, he was always laughing at a joke, he owned tree spikes, he had a one-eyed dog named Alice, and he was very strong. Beyond that, he drank and he let his opinions take him around in circles. He cared a lot, I can say. He cared a lot about the region. He was also a bit of a vagrant, and had gotten kicked out of the Navy for a fight with a midshipman years before. He was from Humboldt County. When we met, it was friendly. Take it for what it’s worth; this would come to change.
JP- Another January entrant. By this time in February, you could sort of scout out who was pre-February 1st and who wasn’t by the type of sweatshirt they wore. J.P. always wore his Hands On U.S.A. shirt. He went out on tree crews, running around with Niko and John, but much like Jim he occupied a sixth man sort of utility for our mission— he could and would lead anything. He had long, curly blonde hair and was always smiling…everybody loved JP, and I can’t imagine he has an enemy in the world really. Many years later, I remember admitting in front of a group of our old friends in 2010 that of all people I had ever met in my entire life in the cities and crowds, of all those I would come to a semblance of kinship with in my twenties, I trusted JP the most. And couldn’t explain it, but just did. That’s the sort of guy he was.
Bicycle Ben— A few days after I arrived, Ryan showed back up in town from Chicago with a new friend he’d met at a downtown dive bar. Ben was immediately Bicycle Ben because all he talked about was bicycles. He loved bicycles, he knew everything there was to know about building them, taking them apart, fixing them, the merits of bicycle friendly cities, etc, etc. His specific mission was simple—everybody could get around anywhere they needed to if they had a bike, and if Pass Road had a bike lane. Chicago was like that, so why not Biloxi. Also, Ben was by far the best guitar player I’d ever met. He had “B-O-R-N” tattooed across the knuckles of his right hand and “2-R-U-N” across his left, and played well enough to justify it.
Donnie— Donnie was from Michigan, he was our roofing lead (pronounced “ruffing”.) He was supremely soft-spoken, and I don’t know if I ever saw him without a white t-shirt on, walking around with his head slightly down and his head shaved blonde. He came with Joe Shook, who sucked. Donnie did not suck, Donnie was awesome, and much like JP, didn’t ever really get on anyone’s bad side.
Animal Rescue Ben— Another reason Bicycle Ben was Bicycle Ben was so no one would confuse him with Animal Rescue Ben. ARB was 17 when he first came down from the Chicago suburbs…I guess he had enough high school credits to take the time to pop into Biloxi in January. It must seem that we assigned the Bens functional monikers arbitrarily, but honestly I can’t think of two more appropriate people to have such work inclinations attached to their names. Ben worked with the local animal shelters in concert with a group his mother was involved with at home, securing animal transport, setting up traps for feral cats, and anything else having to do with pets. He was a doer, and totally content with going about his business doing what he was there to do. A good one.
Any combination of these men, along with Mark, Mike, Ryan, N8, Janos, Catholic Nick (who had since left Catholic Charities and was now at Hands On full time,) or myself, comprised the campfire crew, along of course with curious short- and middle-termers. New names, new faces, but the same seats and the same drinks. I was psyched to be back in a place that felt familiar. Furthermore, little enough time had passed in my seven week absence that I still retained some of the credibility I’d built up in 2005. Not legacy per se, but like I’ve described before, disaster relief is a world where you have to prove yourself, and I was fortunately able to step back into the social graces of these new long-termers fairly quickly. That first night and over the consequent nights I met these new friends, and it was relatively straightforward. I felt I had returned to a place in the world that I belonged.
* * *
The next morning I joined the grind and led a mold crew. In my absence the questions that had plagued me for so long had finally been answered…the process was secure and it worked. Grinding. Vacuuming. Chemical wipe. And sealing with Kilz. Furthermore, we’d gotten it down to a multi-day procedure. And fortunately the increased capacity of camp allowed the specialization of mold crews into these different tasks. Managing three houses at once, each in a different stage of the remediation process, made the whole thing take a Ford assembly line posture, which in turn motivated the teams and the leaders. It certainly motivated me— once the day was finished and I was riding home in Suzanne’s vehicle and six short-termers, I relayed the same and Suz nodded in approval.
Suz and Beth were the big M’s, but it was only a few days before I was elevated into the position alongside them. Because of my early involvement and vocal advertisement of the excitement and importance of mold crews, I’d become something of a grandfather figure without even realizing it. I shrugged this off but also jumped at the opportunity to manage multiple crews and scout jobs with my friends. On a given day, one of us would lead one of the teams in the field and the other two would scout future work orders together.
Getting work orders was easy enough because without fail every house that an interiors crew finished needed in the least to be scouted, and in almost every case de-molded. On top of that, we were the only volunteer group providing mold remediation services so phone calls started coming in from other groups operating outside of our normal territory. Suzanne specifically pushed hard on the “teach a man to fish” mentality and alongside our day-to-day work started making outcalls to anyone who wanted to learn, but in the meantime there was always mold work to do. The way of things in a largely volunteer-fueled world of progress was one of time lag. In the fall and early winter, the Interiors work orders were endless. By the time Spring Break had arrived, the mold binder had begun to bulge slightly larger than the interiors binder. Within a week slightly became obviously.
I spent the next month running mold and getting familiar with the new landscape. Erin was the Hands On Network implant director, a dark-haired woman in her early 30s with a pixie-like short haircut. She was nice enough, and spoke with a lot of pronounced pauses. I could immediately tell she was extremely uncomfortable and out of element with what I had known from before. She was certainly not as accessible of a director as her predecessor, whether you were talking about DC, Dingo, or even Scuba. I don’t particularly remember our first encounter, but I do remember my reputation preceding me. I was very quickly brought into the inner fold of staff discussions, processes (loose as they were) were expedited to allow me to drive a vehicle, and most considerably, I was one of the first crew leaders to be offered a meager stipend of $1,000 for a six week contract midway through March.
The routine was nice, and with a more pronounced hierarchy of leadership I was happy to see my friends’ talents finally being utilized to the fullest. Mark, for example, was now the big I and took an admirable pride in his work. He obsessed over work order after work order, about the rate of the houses and where we were in the scheme of progress. Every evening he was putting tools away with this driven, stout demeanor about him, shovel on the shovel rack, crowbar in the crowbar bucket, stacking, stalking the pavement and then across the field to the fire to crack a beer. It was nice working closely with him, and I think it was then that we started to develop more of a definitive friendship. When we could, we’d scout houses together in the mornings, sometimes picking up beers or Sparks at Swifty Mart on our way downtown. Mark was funny in his combination of anger and extreme love. The latter was very hard to get a feel for unless you talked with him and walked with him and saw him speaking with homeowners at job sites, those few that had gotten FEMA trailers by March. But I saw it, and he oscillated between a growing frustration with what he saw as a disconnect between the leadership and the field work, and a staunch commitment to the community of East Biloxi, which he saw as paramount to all other stresses and problems. No matter what, he needed to help them, all of them, and needed to work so hard that the skin from his fingers and hands fell in scaly curtains of callused calluses and blood smears. And yet, here was Erin, and also a financial/budget oriented Assistant Director named Caleb, and neither of them would ever be seen in the field.
I nodded with approval, but for some reason (maybe my friendship with Janos and Cora who were both also Assistant Directors) I found an internal ability to balance any residual feelings on their field participation. Mark could have found that as well, maybe— Erin and Caleb were these others, but Janos, Cora, and Veenita had at least been there in the old days. Caleb he hated more than anything though. Caleb had never been seen in the field, and when questioned on it he always put on this faux “I’m overwhelmed” face and explained how much work it was to manage the finances of the organization. It was weird to me…I mean, Caleb guarded his little laptop so closely that no one really knew exactly how much work it was, but he made it seem as though he had to reinvent Microsoft Excel every day. But I tried to be a silent observer when possible, so just took it all in stride and kept up with Big M responsibilities, nodding to Mark’s daily diatribes but not really doing much besides agreeing with my friend. Mark continued working his ass off and getting it done. And he continued to get angrier.
* * *
One day I came back from hours of Tyvek with a film of mold dust around a goggle-shaped space in the middle of my face and found twenty-three puppies in the back of the field. There was a loose, quickly fashioned makeshift fence of orange construction tape and the sound of squeaking and wheeling was audible from the parking lot. I meandered through the field and looked at the scene of friends sitting on the ground, tiny dogs crawling over their laps, crawling over each other, mewing and poking and rolling around in the dirt. It was incredible. I stood at the periphery with my arms crossed, smiling and nodding with approval. Janos called out to me from under four dogs to get in there and play. I walked up to him.
“Why are there two dozen puppies at camp?”
“It’s a great story. But check this little guy out. He’s awesome!” He motioned to a tiny black puppy that had just begun to run away from him. I watched the dog for some moments. It had a peculiar way of moving about the crowd…jogging awkwardly on not strong enough legs from one person to another, rolling over other puppies in the process. Yet this dog moved with purpose, excited purpose, and I watched it youthfully amble about the pen.
“Who is this guy?”
“Captain Social? That guy is the man. I’ve been sitting here for twenty minutes or so and he is literally the friendliest puppy. Just runs ups to people and jumps on their lap, no big deal.”
I approached this little animal— it was tiny, black, with brown stripes up the backs of its legs. Maybe it was a Shepherd, but maybe also some Rottweiler? I didn’t know but I plumped myself down on the hard dirt and let the dog paw at my dirty jeans, scratching to catch a crease in its claws. It was immediately in my lap, reaching its legs up onto my chest as far as it could reach. I lowered my head and looked at it.
“Hey, little guy. How are things?” The dog let out a light bark and pushed its face into mine. I laughed as it started licking my face. Then after a few moments two more puppies trotted up to investigate the hulking man in the pen, and in another moment the three of them were ripping around again.
The story goes that earlier that day, Animal Rescue Ben and a girl named Brogan took the forty-five minute drive out to the Waveland Animal Shelter to do need assessments and scope out the scene in Hancock County. They entered whatever makeshift vestibule existed in the portable shelter operating as the Humane Society and began talking with a woman working behind the desk. As they were chatting, a cart emerged filled to the brim with puppies on top of puppies. Brogan interrupted the conversation between ARB and the HS worker to ask where those dogs were going. The woman replied that they were over capacity and this was just the weekly group of puppies that were being put down. Without hesitation, Brogan demanded that this woman hand over these puppies to their care, explaining the short-term volunteer turnover at camp and promising that she could get all of these dogs adopted. A short conversation ensued, and the long of it was that ARB drove back with 23 puppies. He did it without Erin or anyone else’s permission, but I marveled at the invulnerability of this choice. Ben was a ridiculously responsible individual and dedicated beyond rest— in the ensuing days, I’m not sure anyone doubted his ability to care for these dogs and in the least give them something better than euthanasia.
It took some short minutes before Cora approached me, wrapped her long arm around me, and said, “So Guillermo, which one will you take?”
I paused. “Am I taking a puppy?”
Cora shrugged. “Why wouldn’t you?”
I thought about this. I did always want a dog, and Ben had basically dropped the possibility into my lap. Already Catholic Nick had chosen a Catahoula and named it Scraps, and Niko had been wearing his humongous, beautiful grin for minutes stalking around with a pit mix he called Boss. I looked at the puppies one more time.
“That one.” I pointed to the black dog with the brown shading on her legs and on her snout. I walked over and picked it up. It squirmed around and I carefully spotted it with two hands on my shoulder. “This is my dog.”
“What are you going to name it?”
I took the puppy in my hands and looked it in the eyes. In that moment of proclaiming ownership, it had transformed from something adorable to something lovely. Not a colloquial lovely, either. I nodded at the dog and climbed my legs over the fence.
“Helicopter. This is Helicopter.”
Helicopter continued squirming in my hands until I put it down and started to lead it back to the campfire pit in the opposite corner of the field. Over my shoulder, I heard Cora call:
“You know that dog is a girl, right?”
I smiled and turned, as Helicopter ran ahead with the Boss and Scraps.
“Why can’t a girl be named Helicopter? This one’s going to be a prom queen.” I continued on toward the grove. And that’s the story of how I adopted a dog named Helicopter. My first week of dog ownership ended up pretty harrowing. A Parvo virus spread through camp and within 36 hours of that moment I was at the Biloxi Animal Hospital listening to a veterinarian explain that if Heli didn’t start retaining fluid soon, they had to put her down. That evening I barely slept; it was incomprehensible to me how quickly I had become so concerned and vigilant over my puppy. She got through it, and when I came to pick her up the next day, they insisted that this dog was a fighter. This dog wanted to live. I nodded with approval, and took her home armed with meds and soft dog chow. She was a fighter. I felt I couldn’t have chosen a better companion. In her hardest moments I sat in the Spin Cycle, looking at this tiny puppy quarantined from the other dogs, nursing a tall boy Budweiser, clumsily practicing on my new guitar, and looking over her with patience and concern.
25% of the puppies died that week. Helicopter did not. She got better over the next four days, and just like that was ripping across the field with the Boss and Scraps, dodging in and out of parked cars, tearing out through the hole in the fence that led to the golf course, disappearing for hours on end before plucking back into our campfire circles like little vixens with sparkling eyes in the flickering darkness. The dogs were a part of it from then on.
* * *
A couple other things happened in March. Dan got there and was nice enough, but I didn’t really pay mind to him until he’d been there long enough to be relevant. Same with Falcon. If either of them read this they would decry that I was an asshole, that attitudes like these were the heart of the problems between short-termers and long-termers. The thing about Dan and Falcon was that they independently and quickly ingratiated themselves into the cultural fabric of our volunteer community. They both tended on the less gruff, more artsy side of things. I am pretty sure it was Dan who started the No Talent Talent Shows, weekly events in which any and all volunteers were invited to showcase their various talents (singing, playing guitar, reading stories, performance art, whatever you could think of really.) And it was Falcon who started obsessively making t-shirt stencils for any cause, team, or general idea she could think of. Both caught like wildfire very quickly, and within a few more weeks these two were mainstays.
Sometime in the first couple days of this, I made out with Falcon. Only briefly, it was nothing to me. It was sort of one of those random things that happened, so it was fine that I walked her to her tent one night, and that she turned and kissed me on the lips, and then we crawled into her tent and rolled around for a bit before she said it wasn’t good. And that was fine, because soon after I began making out with Suz. We worked together, she was beautiful, tall, blonde, had a rocking body. Like I’ve said before, Hurricane Camp was the ideal sort of place where amazing people popped their heads up whenever it seemed as though one might be looking for it. Suz is awesome, it was a nice short thing.
Americorps presence was the first sign for me that HOGC had it together much better than HOUSA. For one, a federally-mandated agency was saying, “Hey guys. You know, you guys being Hands On Gulf Coast, we know you are new. And that you maybe don’t really have a true system. To be honest actually, we don’t really know what you do, but you do it well. And you do Katrina relief, which is where we want to be. So there are these teams of 18-25 year olds that, for one reason or another, decide to sign up to be on a National Community Civilian Corps team for a year, traveling around the country and volunteering here and there. We want to give you some of them for labor. They’ll work their asses off because they are trained to. What do you say about that?”
So one day we came back from work and there were these new volunteers at camp that all wore gray t-shirts with A’s in a circle on their sleeves. It was a funny sort of thing at first, I’m not sure anyone knew what to make of it. They were our age, but they got up in the morning a couple times a week to do Physical Training, and they wore these t-shirts all the time. The first two teams came in late March or early April— one was based in Charleston and led by a tall, flamboyant guy named Andrew. The other was based out of Sacramento and led by a stern no-nonsense brunette named Caroline. A given team was placed in a location anywhere between one and two months, be it disaster response outfits like ours, preservation jobs in the Florida Everglades, education programs in Beaumont, or any other volunteer opportunity legitimate enough to get a federal nod of approval.
We were suspicious at first— I mean, at the ripe, wise age of 22, I had a good amount of governmental distrust after FEMA and everything that happened in September. But eventually it dawned on me that there was high value in not only securing committed labor for 6 weeks at a time, but also in the legitimization of the volunteer effort itself. On top of that, the Americorps kids were solid. Not all of them, I guess, but any given team tended to have four or five absolute rock stars (and then 1 or 2 kids whose parents made them sign up for a year of service, or something else tantamount to brattiness.) There was an implicit strength in the decisions that these men and women made to work domestically for a year, wherever they were needed and wherever their silly olive-green AmeriCorps van took them next. They were the strongest, a bit, and I grew into a deep respect for these people, whether they knew it or not. I fell in love with one of them, and then later I fell in love with another one, but I don’t want the subjectivity of my memory to detract from standing strong on this: the AmeriCorps NCCC kids were good, and they were a permanent part of Hands On Gulf Coast from March onward.
It was somewhere around this time that the story of getting my license suspended in Virginia got to Cora. She stalked over to the campfire one night and interrupted me mid-beer. We had a brief argument where she did her thing where she tried not to speak patronizingly but spoke super patronizingly. Cora was carrying everything a little heavier as time passed, staying strong at all but it was sort of the same old story of the rift, the administrative rift. Anyways, the argument didn’t go anywhere because I think in my heart I knew that my license was actually suspended everywhere. I begrudgingly gave her the keys to my Hands On vehicle and looked down. She kept standing there.
“What do you want? I get it. I can’t drive anymore.”
“Guillermo, don’t be mad at me.”
“I’m not mad at you. I just don’t know how I’m supposed to do anything if I can’t drive. All I do is drive around and do things. And Nick and N8 have some project they want to start with the Housing Authority. I don’t know.”
“You’re too important to not get around to where you need to go. We’ll figure something out.”
She paused thoughtfully, nodded to herself, gave me a big everything’s OK because I have the biggest smile in the world Cora smile, and walked back toward the building.
And that was how I managed to secure my own spot on the job board for “G-mo’s Chauffeur,” and consequently how I got to get to know the NCCC kids very quickly.