“Don’t think twice. It’s alright.”
In the midst of everything happening that I’ve described, Janos started making out with a girl on the Sacramento AmeriCorps team. Her name was Evelyn and I still remember his excitement at presenting the progress to me over dinner.
“Dude, do you know AmeriCorps Evelyn?”
I was still caught up in the trauma of Ryan, Mark, and Rohde— none of whom Janos had been very close to. I had admittedly made out with girls since then, a couple on Andrew’s AmeriCorps team, but nothing that seemed as though it would lead anywhere. Suzanne and I had fizzled a bit. She was ten times more mature and together than I was (I mean, I was 22 and she was 24. This seemed like a world of difference to me at the time.) So it ended. I randomly made out with people, and she maintained a strong hold on her heart and her life. It was fine.
“No, I don’t know AmeriCorps Evelyn.”
“How could you not? She’s 100% the hottest AmeriCorps girl here. We’ve been making out a bit. You know, the girl from the Sacramento team?”
I shrugged again. No clue. He pointed out a freckled brunette sitting at a table across the room. I nodded.
“Yeah, she’s pretty cute.”
“You’re ridiculous, she’s hot. Anyways, it’s good.”
A week later things had not worked out with AmeriCorps Evelyn and Janos, which I didn’t really care about. Although Mark and Rohde were gone, Hope VI was going full force and we’d secured the contracts we needed with all appropriate parties. We had a team trained in emulating the Mississippi bleach method, the Canadian had already flown down to talk us through his method and when his team would go out. Everything was on-board.
My birthday happened at some point, and I didn’t think anything of it. Janos grabbed me after the dinner meeting and insisted that he take me out to drinks, but first he had to go out to Gulfport to sort out a work order. I paid no mind and flew down the highway, content with my new-found 23 year oldedness. We drove around a bit and eventually flew back toward Biloxi. Janos asked if I minded it we went to Just Us and I smiled and said that was fine, I hearted karaoke. So we arrived there and walked in and the entire inside was decked in streamers and signs and 40 people from Hands On screamed “Happy Birthday, Guillermo!” and I was staggered. Janos gave me a big hug, and then Nick and Cora came up with 80 quarters and insisted I take control of the jukebox. Elly and Suzanne had made me a ridiculously opulent cake and I was shy to think people cared enough about the passing of my age to do all of this. But I took control of it and made a night out of it. When “Don’t Stop Believing” started playing, the fire of the piano chords drove my soul to the stage, and I grabbed everyone I could to belt out the words to whoever did or didn’t want to listen. When the guitar solo started, I dove off the stage and aired it to those paying attention (at a birthday party, everyone.)
We drove home and that was that. It was nice though. A few weeks later, Janos was leaving. He, unlike myself, had driven forward with his law school applications and got a reasonable package at Fordham in New York. It was strange to me, a bit. Janos was a year older than me at Dartmouth and we had certainly gotten along alright at Chi Gam and everything else. But we weren’t as close and didn’t know each other as well as we got to living in Biloxi. Finch had floated through, and even Grant (another 04) had come through for a few weeks as well, and they got respective glimpses of what things were down there. But to see Janos off was as intense a goodbye as all the previous ones. I unhooked a large fancy Hands On Gulf Coast banner, flipped it to the back, and set out to spray-paint a banner on the backside that said “Janos Is Awesome.” I guess I could have chosen more eloquent words, but those worked for what it was. I stenciled out the words, made sure the lettering was red and the background was yellow, and then invited everyone I could to come sign it in the Spin Cycle. At the start of his last night, Janos stood up to give a departing speech to the crowd and we all stood up and clapped. Cora had experienced Jane’s departure, so I figured this was my own moment to see a good friend off. We all went out to the Pub, I made sure that the Janos banner was hanging in the background, and saw him off in a good way. The next morning, he packed all of his things into his Subaru (he called it “Subi,”) we had a big hug, and Nos drove off and away from Hands On.
It was right around this same time that Teach For America had invited me to an interview for a position in their teaching corps for the 2006-2007 year. During March Madness I’d supplanted law school thoughts with a coastal affinity— with that in mind, I’d gotten to the second round but with the knowledge that TOC wasn’t sure where their New Orleans program sat. I didn’t like it, but wasn’t sure what was on the horizon for after I finished all of this Coast stuff. I prepared for the interview and left base at 5:30 am one May morning to drive down I-10 in the dark before dawn, drinking coffee, listening to music and staring down the road. I borrowed someone’s car so that HOGC wouldn’t have a fit and I drove along the familiar artery, past the dark off-ramp to 603 and Bay St. Louis where the over-turned car had been. Over the Louisiana border, veering left at the split between I-10 and I-12, which went toward the North Shore. I went on past the Slidell billboards, onto the flat green west before Pontchartrain and then onto the I-10 bridge. The sun came up and I drove over the orange and purple water flanked by a few trucks and purple. Across into Irish Bayou, where I looked left and smiled to see the ridiculous house built like a castle that sat across a swamp on a peninsular local road. Then on into East New Orleans, and I grimaced at just how the dawn hit the housing projects and the abandoned Wal-Mart. I thought to myself it was though everything had been born broken here. I was listening to the Supremes and thinking about nothing and everything.
I was prepared for the interview. I arrived at the parking lot 20 minutes early, parked on the edge, and smoked a cigarette. Over the hood of the borrowed car I saw a few more suits and skirts park up closer to the entrance of the building and walk in. I watched and pawed the ground.
Then I got in my car and drove away. I called TC and told him I’d happened to be in New Orleans that morning and wanted to come by Hands On New Orleans and see what was happening over there. So he gave me directions to their Dryades address and I drove up, hopped out of the car, and gave my old friend a big hug. He walked me around base, I saw some NCCC* kids that had spent a few days in Biloxi, he showed me the bunks, the outside grass area where they’d built some hammocks. He said things were good, he was happy to have come over and helped set up something important. He wasn’t coming back to Biloxi, but he wasn’t sure how long he’d be in New Orleans. I smiled and nodded, told him it looked great, they had jobs and heavily secured trailers for tools. He paused and smiled, agreed, said it was good.
“You seen Ryan yet?”
“Yeah, he comes by now and then. Kristen sees him more. You know.”
“So, you’re just randomly in New Orleans? Is it mold related?”
“I had an interview for Teach For America this morning. I drove there, but I didn’t go inside.” I paused as TC chuckled and let me continue. “I don’t know, man. They don’t know if they’re going to do New Orleans yet. It…I don’t know.” I’m sure I looked a little lost in trying to explain what happened, so T.C. waited.
“I guess I don’t want to do anything right now that isn’t here. Like, for sure here. You know?”
“So you just decided not to even interview, wait and see what happens, and say no later?”
I shrugged and looked at my friend. “Yeah, I guess I did. Doesn’t really make a lot of sense retrospectively. Maybe other things about it bothered me. I guess…I can’t really live outside of here these days. Even in my mind.”
“Well, you gotta do what you gotta do, right?”
I smiled. “I guess so. Come on, let me see what kind of kitchen situation you have in here. I could use some more coffee.”
* * *
A few days later I was at the Pub again, sipping on a beer, chatting with Harlow and a few others and watching the general scene. Eveln was around and shooting pool with Maggie. I think I stepped forward to put some quarters down on their game. I think I watched Evelyn clean house, laughing and not paying too much attention to the game, but simultaneously lining every shot she took with delicate and nonchalant care. Pocket. Pocket. Pocket. I nodded and got on table pretty soon after that.
Evelyn is about 5’6” or so, with brown hair and thin spark eyes. She was skinny. She was always laughing about something. We chatted a bit over the game, I can’t really remember how it all went down. But we laughed and talked about AmeriCorps, about how she was from Cincinnati. I asked her whether she was upset about Janos leaving and she laughed, threw her hands in front of her, and insisted it was completely fine.
Like I said before, I’d never paid too much mind to this girl, but there was something about just watching her move around the bar that intrigued me. We kept talking, and walked back to base together. She had a lot to say, she was interesting, whether it was music, mold crews, home, anything at all. We entered base, and the lights were dark. We meandered over to the entrance of my room (when Janos left, he had bequeathed his single room to me. This was a space next to the church offices, and this was where Darius had lived before him. There was a pullout futon for a bed, and on top of that an extra couch. And an old television. It was like heaven.) We paused in front of my room, and I stumblingly asked if she wanted to come in and watch some TV or something. Evelyn laughed and said she should probably just get some sleep and get ready for work. I nodded, and said it was really great hanging out with her. She nodded and walked away toward the staircase and I went into my room to fall asleep and think about this a bit, realizing that Janos was right. Evelyn was a really, really solid girl. I thought about her for a bit and then I fell asleep.
Hope VI prep work continued. Hands On Network set up an Usher Raymond event, and Erika gave me the heads up that he was coming to see Hope VI during his Biloxi part of the Gulf Coast tour. So one morning I stood out at the edge of the cul-de-sac where Usher was set to come in. Hands On Network folks were all on hand, as well as a number of crews and volunteers waiting to see the man. I didn’t think much of it in terms of dress— in the same way I’d worn the cut-off sleeves and my multiply ripped jeans when Bush came, I wore just what I would wear any other day when the star came. Stallworth the councilman was on hand, along with a firm camera crew, the limousine turned the corner, and out stepped Usher. I stood third in line behind Bill and Erika and waited as he shook their hands one by one, and then I stepped forward and shook his hand. He was clutching a bottle of water for dear life under the Mississippi sun, and seemed less than thrilled with the event, eyes hidden behind sunglasses and a low, bleach-white visor.
Erika had talked me through everything that would happen. We’d take a short stroll around the backs of the houses on the west side, I’d talk about low-income housing and toxic mold, and then we’d fit Usher with his own white-paper Tyvek suit and a respirator with brand new filters so that he could come inside and see how great these houses were. I had my doubts, but shrugged them off.
So it began— I took a step and Usher walked beside me, and I explained the houses, the numbers, the mold problem, the opportunity, the volunteer labor, the experiment. He didn’t even really look at me or seem engaged, even though we were followed by an entourage of at least two dozen people and three different camera crews. The whole time I spoke, his head was tilted down and slightly away from me, glancing away from the houses toward the grassy gully on the back side of the project. I guess I hadn’t really expected much from the whole thing, but it was pretty rude regardless. I could talk about mold and housing for hours at this point, so I continued talking and Usher continued mmm hmm’ing and then we were behind the house we had picked out for the walkthrough.
“So, Usher, if you’re interested we can take you in through this door over here, with the proper safety equipment and I can—”
As if I’d said some magic word, Usher suddenly stopped and glanced over to his burly security guard. On cue, the guard stepped between Usher and myself and explained that Mr. Raymond was allergic to mold. I paused, and glanced over to Erika and John Jowers who both gave me furtive shoulder shrugs and head shaking. Right on cue, Stallworth saw his moment and guffawed forward between us. I fell back in the entourage and continued following it for a little bit until I had my moment to thankfully peel off and I cut into a crowd of N-trip’s sitting on the grass.
“I can’t believe Usher’s here!”
I shook my head and looked over at Evelyn, who gave me a little smirk. I smiled and put my clipboard under my arm, and turned to walk back to the other side of the neighborhood to do mold readings three blocks away. I almost escaped unscathed before a reporter caught me.
“You, so you’re in charge of the work here at Hope VI?” A woman asked me. I affirmed and paused to talk about the experiment. She continued.
“So are you really excited that a rap star like Usher came to see your work?”
“The publicity is good, and his commitment to the work down here is good. I think it’s great for both the organization and for Biloxi.”
“Uh huh. So what’s your favorite Usher song?”
I can’t imagine I looked anything but a combination of pained and annoyed at this, but I put on my best news crew smile. Behind me, some of the volunteers started yelling “Yeah!” (a song he’d done that was popular at that time.) I shook my head.
“You Make Me Wanna. For sure.” The reporter looked puzzled, and then quickly turned to interview a sprightly young blonde girl that had yelled “Yeah”. I walked on away from the fanfare with my clipboard and my bag of scientific equipment, and didn’t end up seeing how the whole Usher visit ended.
I should probably explain what “bag of scientific equipment” means at this point. By now, the prep work that Mark and Rohde had started was complete and we had begun the process of testing the different homes. So I marched around everyday armed with a weather reader, a moisture meter (a device with two metal needles protruding from the end to measure the moisture content of a particular area,) a bunch of oversized Q-tips to swab mold samples, a permanent marker, glass microscope slides with tape attached to capture mold samples, a clipboard, some forms I made back in the office. And I’d march religiously around this abandoned housing project going into house after house collecting this data. And every evening I would make sure to be at the post office on Pass Road before 5 pm to get envelopes of samples off to a laboratory via FedEx.
In this way it was a lonely existence I had in that project, but all the while I was collecting samples exactly two days before they were remediated, and more samples exactly two days after they were. I had a method and a purpose and I liked it. I’d been trained to do what I was doing by local IAQ experts, and even if Nick was around sparingly, he was still there to support the project. Everyone supported it. Every evening I stood up at the meeting and gave the same 60 second speech on how epically important this work we were doing was, and how it would change the way we all did mold remediation for every storm forever. I believed in it, and so did Hands On. At least the volunteers.
* * *
I pursued Evelyn. I grew to admire everything about her, but in a way that Janos had been unable to describe to me when he was making out with her. She was so confident. She was so focused. She was such a hard worker. She put her all into every day of work in a way that other AmeriCorps workers didn’t. She was the most attractive girl in a gray t-shirt with an oversided A on the right breast that I’d ever seen. I very soon was seeking her out at the end of work, and soon after I was making impromptu extra checks on her work site when she was there to see if everything was ok. When I took days off from science and went into the field, I wanted to be on her crew. She was beautiful. We came together in a way that so many other things came together, but it wasn’t stressed. It was just how it was. Furthermore, she wouldn’t sleep with me. She valued sex in a way that I had forgotten to, and somehow that made things all the better. She was a good kisser. She was shy about funny things, and she was, above all else, strong. She was so strong.
We continued seeing each other in that Hands On way, but one weekend we planned a trip that would be just the two of us. We burrowed into a borrowed car, threw the iPod on, and headed to Gulf Shores, Alabama for a weekend at the beach. We got a cheap hotel, we went to a piano bar, we went down to the water, we ate terrible food. Evelyn had this beautiful red bikini that I may never forget, and she wore it in a way that I will definitely never forget. We drank some beers, we made out, and then we got back to it in Biloxi.
Some new faces came into play around this time as well. The original AmeriCorps team was there, Evelyn’s team was there, and there was a new team of “West Seneca AmeriCorps” that was there as well. Julie Kuklinski, Clint Magee, Brian Shingledecker, others. And also some notable independents. Karissa McLane arrived, a blonde, strong-willed and silent woman from rural Washington state. It took me some months to talk with her, but as you will see, she was really important. Araceli came as well. Brannon, and Amanda, and Bil and Robyn and Fat Matt and Ice Cream Josh and Charley Burks and T and J and Ike the painter, and Deke and Zach. And Kristen Kernan and Marj Russow. God damn it, too many names to remember but they were all important in their own way. At any rate things changed in the field a bit, new faces, new people, like always, but I was always caught up with Hope VI, loosely with Hope VI, and other times still clinging to the friends I had in the back of the field.
The day came when her team was leaving. People always left in Biloxi, at times it felt like everyone left except for me. I remember standing outside in the parking lot with Niko and John, other staff member types I didn’t feel affinity for, but hugging Evelyn and letting her go help pack up her van, watching her talk to Caroline and Maggie and Van and Erik and realizing just how unique of a woman she really was. And then all of the sudden she was back in front of us, saying “well, this is it,” and we gave each other a big hug that I didn’t want to end, and she turned away and went on with her business.
The van started, the big green van, and we watched them pull off past the parking lot and put on a faded blinker, off to Sacramento by way of the road. Niko laughed and hit me in the back.
“Look hard Guillermo. There goes the prettiest girl you’ll ever be with.” He laughed and walked over to the chainsaw rack.