“I pull up in the black Lotus, your plaques are bogus, so I stripped them off the wall waiting for my cue to corner pocket eight balls.”
My life was already defined by Hope VI in mid-June, but once Evelyn left it was a reason for living. Every single day I marched out into the neighborhood, taking mold sample with these microscope slides and also by swabbing areas and dropping q-tips into thick plastic bags, taking air traps, and making sure I got to the post office before 5 pm to mail FedEx packages to our microbiological laboratory in Ocala, FL. I monitored John Henry Beck as well, and made sure Niko and John were doing alright in their work at the park. But inevitably every single day I was catching a ride out to the fence of that housing project, walking around to check on the weather readings and to see if a house was ready for post-inspection. Every day.
In this way, I made myself a little bit of an independent. Of course I still caught up with Harlow, Bicycle Ben, and other new implants. There were two girls that worked with Animal Rescue Ben, Kristen and Marj, and every now and then I’d sneak away from the building to smoke a joint with them. By and large though, mold was who I was and mold was my life. I was obsessed with Hope VI. I knew that what I was painstakingly doing would not only help us, but help everybody in the long term. It would help everyone trying to rebuild after the next Katrina. That was the most important part, I mused to myself in silent moments setting up air traps in homes, marking the studs I took mold samples from with permanent marker so I knew where to take the post-treatment sample, charging across an empty housing complex with big jeans held together by a rope in a knot and a clipboard. This would change everything, and no one would ever have to through what we went through in December ever, ever again.
At this point, Erin had extended contracts to super long-termers. This was separate from the contracts that Cora and Caleb got as co-directors. I was a Grants Manager, and had a quarter million dollar budget under my eyes— it basically consisted of Hope VI, John Henry Beck park, and a few home rebuilds to fill up the rest. Suzanne, Amy, and a kid named Jack got the rest of them. Suz and Amy made sense. Suz was an artillery firewoman, stepping up to the plate every moment she had to get shit done. Amy was in the trenches leading up the case work parts of HOGC with Falcon and Sheli, meeting one-on-one with homeowners all over the city. Jack did not make that much sense, and it was hard to talk through at the campfire later that night. Donnie specifically grabbed me to vent (if you could consider Donnie being upset venting, because he never said anything loudly.)
“Guillermo, you know, I get it for the most part. But Joel is my boss? Joel just learned how to set a nail last month. He’s the construction lead? That makes absolutely no sense. And I didn’t get anything. If I don’t make any money soon, I gotta go back to Michigan.”
I nodded and agreed. It was sort of bullshit, and everything Donnie was saying was true. At this point, I was honestly happy to have some money in my pocket— who wouldn’t? But he was right. Not only did Jack not know too much of anything in the field, but he also didn’t have the respect of the grit ones. Sure he had fans. Erin. Astrid in the office. Nebraska Andrew. Others. But it was a poor choice, and it was almost dictated from the start that Jack would have an awkward uphill battle with being the paid leader of the construction crews and trying to awkwardly relate directions to individuals who had lived by the hammer before Katrina even had a name. This wasn’t a problem that most people in the office cared about, but since I floated between the office and the campfire, I was the one that heard the most. It was a shit situation, and you could tell it from the exasperated look on Jack’s face at the end of most days.
Erin asked me to meet her to talk through some stuff one day, so I landed myself in a chair with the door closed. She sat down and started.
“Guillermo, there’s a big meeting in Atlanta in a few weeks about how things are going here. Particularly mold.”
I nodded and motioned for her to continue.
“I can’t go. I want you to go, and explain to them what we are doing, how mold works, Hope VI, etc. We’ll pay for your plane ticket and your hotel.”
I nodded again. Perfect. I could go to Georgia, meet the people that gave us the money, share the big story of how important mold was, and chill out on Peachtree in my down time. So like that, I was booked on a flight to Atlanta a week later.
I’d still been in contact with Mark on and off. He’d gone back to Coxsackie. Beth had left camp as well by then, and the two of them had crafted up a trip to Costa Rica. And coincidentally they had an overnight layover in Atlanta the exact same night I was going to be there. Perfect.
I instructed the new AmeriCorps teams on what houses would be worked on, what the method would be, etc., and like that was in Atlanta. I always had imagined that the Hands On Network headquarters was a fancy floor in the downtown area. It wasn’t, it was in a non-descript and decrepit seeming office building on the wrong side of Georgia Tech. Undeterred, I entered the building to take direct part in the review of how things were going on the Coast.
I met with the major grants guy, Sam, and we sat down in a conference room to hash through what was happening with Outback. He was cordial and it was fine. I saw Jowers in a back room and gave him a little wave— he was this tall black British guy that had some role in managing the dialogue between Atlanta and Biloxi. He was a good one and had a daughter named Prudence that he’d brought down to visit during the whole Bush thing. Soon enough, all the big wigs came into a room and sat down with me, we got Erin on conference call, and started the review.
I guess the whole meeting was about Biloxi in general, but what piqued everyone’s interest (and the reason I was there) was mold. This made total sense, as they had admittedly committed thousands of dollars in equipment and contracts to an issue of which they had no understanding. I got grilled on what it was that we did, why we did it, and what exactly Hope VI was. I breathed, and explained the contract with the BHA, the 6 month window, the promise of re-doing all the houses that failed with the proper method once we identified that method, etc. As I explained, the HON staff looked at me with various levels of interest. Then suddenly, one woman interrupted.
“Listen, Guillermo…and Erin. I get that this mold thing is an issue. But to be running an experiment in a low-income housing project? I don’t want us to be framed as the new Tuskeegee or anything…”
Everyone paused and stared at the woman. Inside myself, I became furious at not only the insinuation but the general lack of understanding implicit with a comment like that. I responded and explained everything all over again and this woman stared back at me and did not nod. I glanced over at Sam for a moment and he nodded. But my explanation ended with a shrug of her shoulders and the exclamation that she just didn’t feel comfortable trusting the livelihood of low-income individuals with a handful of kids out of college. I bit my tongue and waited for Erin to speak up on the conference speaker. She gave me a go ahead to elaborate, and I explained again that what we were doing was the most substantial thing any volunteer group in any post-Katrina area was undertaking when it came to the mold question. I explained that the EPA was totally hands off with answers to this and that what we were going to get out of this time and effort would save time and stress for everyone, for every Gulf Coast hurricane that would ever come in the future. That most importantly, if we were undertaking the mission we purported to serve, to assist the neediest communities, then this was absolutely paramount to fulfilling that mission.
The five or six Hands On Network staff members nodded in a noncommittal manner, and then Erin suggested we talk about something different. And like that the conversation went on and I sat back in my chair with my notebook and mused.
They didn’t get it. They hadn’t said or not said anything about the experiment that changed anything, but I left with a stronger feeling of disconnect from the global HON than I could have imagined. And I had imagined it before I’d even arrived. I took a taxi back to my hotel (I wasn’t flying out until the next morning) and stared out into the Atlanta streets. I wasn’t even really sure why I was there, or what had just been accomplished. It was fine I guess, but for my entire mold explanation it just didn’t seem like anyone cared. Why didn’t they care? Didn’t anyone realize that you can’t build a house that’s rotting from the inside-out? Or that you couldn’t put a family in a home with poisonous air seeping out into their air ducts? I racked my brain and tried to find some logic in how this could be such a dismissive thing to the leadership of a well-funded, well-connected national 501(c)3 organization. I couldn’t.
Mark and Beth were randomly traveling through Atlanta the same night I was in town, on a layover en route to a Costa Rica vacation, so I naturally told them to come crash in my hotel room on HON’s dime. It was really nice to see both of them, we grabbed beers and shot the shit at a bar near the hotel. Mark seemed like he was ok. Caleb came up at one point and he just shook his head and smiled. I nodded and we talked about other things. The night got late and the three of us walked back to the hotel to all crash on the queen-sized bed, Beth between the two of us, everyone with a pillow. The next morning we got on with it to the MARTA and I wished them the best in Central America.
Hope VI continued, and John Henry Beck Park continued, but the weight of the summer began to tax on all of us. The puppies stole to shadows by day, and anyone moving a car from the field had to make absolute sure to check for dogs under wheels before starting an engine. On a thermometer, it may have looked like 95, but it felt like 110 and the air always felt like gelatin. Literally as though there was an invisible shear of Jello in front of you, and you just ignored it and moved through the humidity, you made your way through your day. You worked hard and you’d take your lunch at D’Vine’s when you could get away from the short-termers (they went to Salvo, of course) and spoke through rusted wire windows to the women working the shack on Nixon Street and getting a delicious cheeseburger as the sun beat you into the ground. Yes, the summer went on.
Hope VI continued. An obese Canadian flew down for $2,000 and fogged some homes. We contracted out some pest specialists out of Gulfport to do the borate homes. We went on and on and it seemed as though monotony would be the given, but it wasn’t the moment I mailed the last samples out to Ocala.
And like that, Hope VI field work was over. I had started the most monstrous Excel sheet I could possibly imagine, rife with column headings like “Temperature,” “Penicillium,” and “Moisture Content.” I’ve never been as thorough with anything I’ve done in my life as I was with that spreadsheet. I walked around base with a notebook bound by yellow caution tape, I had a spot in a shared back office where I just ran numbers, staring at the before’s and after’s of each method of mold removal, driven forward by the firm belief that I was some Edison. That no one understood just how important this was, and furthermore, I didn’t care if they ever did. I only cared if disaster response cared. I only cared if the EPA would stop handing out bleach and start handing out ammonium chloride. If we were right.
* * *
A short month after he’d left, Janos’s maroon Subaru showed up in the parking lot one more time. It coincided perfectly with the end of my field work at the housing project, and he was on his way to a Freedom From Oil conference in Indiana. At the same time, my parents had expressed their willingness to gift our old conversion van to me. And I’d been down there for what seemed like years although it was only February to July. So I took Janos’s trip as a godsend— I’d ride shotgun to this conference, I’d get dropped off at home, I’d pick up Astro, and loop back down South.
In the waning days before this adventure started, Erin approached me about a phone call. Apparently our reputation for our relief work had gone as far as the AmeriCorps NCCC* bases, and they wanted to hand an honorarium to someone to come explain how to be safe on the Gulf Coast. And just like that, I wrapped up a free hotel stay and gas money as long as I stopped in Charleston on my road trip vacation to explain how to wear Tyvek and how to not get too hot. I found a wonderful chart on USAToday.com that explained such (temperature) in a fashion a 4 year old could understand. It was good and I through together a PowerPoint presentation for my stop.
So mid-July, as the skidsteer work in the park continued and as my last mold samples flew by postal service toward that random microbiological laboratory in Florida, I called a vacation for myself and hopped into Subi. Ben, Kristen, and Marj watched Helicopter, I’d be back in 3 weeks. And like that, Janos and I drove north.