HCS (III, 6): How To Chain Yourself To A Door, How To Wear Tyvek, and Other July Tutorials

“Until you say you don’t know, you won’t know until you begin.”
-Van Halen

The conference wasn’t a conference per se. When you think of a conference, what do you think? You probably think of some convention center next to a harbor or adjacent to the intersection of two interstates in some mid-sized city. You think of vendors and tri-fold boards, salesmen with oversized belt buckles grinning at mild-seeming farm borne customers. This was not a normal conference, as this was a conference in Paoli, Indiana, a town about 80 minutes northwest of Louisville. And a little further, because the conference wasn’t in Paoli proper (if you could call the handful of stoplights around the ovular town green in the center a “proper”) but rather in the woods outside of town.

According to their website, “the Ruckus Society provides environmental, human rights, and social justice organizers with the tools, training, and support needed to achieve their goals.” This description is obviously open to many interpretations to the unwise web browser. Janos explained as we drove that it was a pretty far left organization hosting a “Freedom From Oil” gathering at which he hoped to make some contacts in his always expanding political career. They could have been protesting the illegitimacy of clown colleges for all I cared; I just liked the idea of young fun people camping out in the woods and learning about oil. It sounded like summer camp, and since summer camp was not too far of a stone’s throw away from what the Beauvoir field felt like at times, I was in. Plus it was vacation.

Janos and I plodded through the night, started a World Cup style music tournament, and arrived at the conference a little after 10 o’clock the night before things began. It was a turn off a state road, more directions denoted by landmarks as opposed to road signs, “drive 7/10 of a mile and turn left at the barn with the white sign shaped like an owl on the post at the corner. Shaped like an owl, not a regular sign.” That went on into a road plunging into dark moonless woods, and the road lost its asphalt right as we slowed to a careful crawl, oak branches skimming off the side of Subi. After another 5 minutes, we came up on the faint glow of lights in the distance. A cabin. A posterboard sign stapled to a wooden stake that we could have missed quite easily that said “RUCKUS! HERE!”

We parked and a white woman in blonde dreads tied back with a green scarf thing greeted us on the porch. We checked in, paid our registration fees, and she let us know where we could pitch our tents and what time to be at the morning meeting. We walked through the dew grass behind the house, which opened up into a large field with some shadowy construction set off to the side. We walked past tent after muffled tent and finally found a spot at the end of a line. It looked as if at least 50 other people were here. It’ll be good to meet people, I said. We pitched our separate tents by headlamp and went to bed.

The next morning was misty and gray, no sun as I walked toward the outdoor shower and got to it. The first meeting of hippies, old and young and middle was in a larger wooden building. We sat down and listened to the Directors talk about the history of Ruckus, about how happy they were that each of us had found our way to their circle, how important it was for us to stay in contact, strength in numbers, etc., etc. I nodded and glanced around at the big smiles on the young and jubilant Golden Gate climbing crowd, the stern nods of agreement from the veterans that wanted to seem like veterans, the lackadaisical “been there, done that” looks of the really serious ones that had it all figured out at 26. And then of course, the other newbies drinking the Kool-Aid. I pulled Janos aside after our first two workshops.

“It’s cool, man. There are some pretty cute girls here. This’ll be good.”

I nodded and meandered through orientation and free time, striking up conversations here and there. The highlight of the week, I was quickly informed, would be a staged protest exercise where we would be split up into different actors and simulate a “chain yourself to the door of the World Trade Organization and get media attention.” That structure I’d seen in the darkness was a giant scaffolding built in this field in the middle of the Indiana woods— separate from the group of protesters chaining themselves to the “doors” section, there would be another group ascending the scaffolding to hang banners, all while moving fast enough to avoid “Police,” “Security,” and “Secret Service.” Yes, things like this really happen, and I guess if I’d thought about it ever I’d have figured something like this existed. People don’t just show up to events and on the fly come up with Woody Harrelson strategies to ascend major American monuments. The WTO wasn’t just a perfect storm. But to be in the thick of activist protest training camp was a far cry from what seemed in juxtaposition like a kumbaya Hands On Gulf Coast existence of HELP. I felt like I was swept up in some new, furtive thing, that the people around me would one day be arrested or tear gassed in the name of the mission. I didn’t know how I felt about it. Falcon was the activist of camp, and she always carried this blind obstinacy about her with everything she did and every opinion she had, frankly to a point of annoyance. She relished in it in this way I couldn’t relate to, but maybe I didn’t try hard enough— this wasn’t civil rights. And I didn’t always trust the motivations of the activists, of these people around me. The first day, I kept my head low.

The day went on with more white boarding, communal lunch out of our own bowls and utensils, water out of a drip mechanism, etc. The day continued and I met this girl, that guy, saw Janos here and there. That night, as happens the first night of something outdoor and unfamiliar like that, I wandered from field to corner to dimly lit structure to rocky path, looking for a place to grab the periphery of a scene. I talked to people, Janos was the more social one, and we struck it up but nothing doing— these were a guarded people, and we hadn’t found that “in” yet. We had some pot, but not a lot, so the two of us split a spliff without finding people to share with and then wandered back into circles and nodded at nothing. Then we separated for the night and for the second time in 24 hours I stared up into the vinyl sky and breathed out, trying to decide what I thought of this, of the past, thinking of Evelyn now and then. I turned on my side and tried to call, but there was no service. So I stared at my phone and played Blackjack on it.

Maybe I was just tired from all of the Hope VI hullabaloo, but the answer was obvious as soon as I woke up that next Tuesday morning. I walked with purpose over to the breakfast pavilion and waited until Janos joined me. I told him I wasn’t feeling the scene, and wondered if he’d let me borrow his car to crash in a hotel outside Louisville for a few days and write. He acquiesced, we split the marijuana, and I headed out. The organizers nodded, asked if I wouldn’t stay, but welcomed me back in a few days after I’d put a few thousand words down on the computer. By 9:30 A.M. I was back on the road, rumbling past the much clearer landmarks on the relative directions, and pulling good Suby onto the highway.

In the first 20 minutes I smoked one of the pre-rolled spliffs and lost myself in the music. I was paying for gas and felt free, behind the wheel, for the first time in so long. It had been too long since I’d driven, since the road trips of February, since the trek out West with Lydia, and it felt special to be putting asphalt behind me. Beyond beautiful, the speakers were buzzing, Tom Petty said one thing, U2 said another, and I drove South past Paoli into the unknown, knowing that I had absolutely nowhere to be. And it was wonderful. I got through Hoosier National Forest and signs for the Paoli ski slopes and soon skidded down into a state road headed west. My iPod was on shuffle, Jewel played at some point, and at another point I pulled over into a gravel parking lot, stepped out of the vehicle, and looked across a rolling field lit up with the 2:00 sun stretching toward Bloomington somewhere far north. At least that’s what the map said.

People don’t take drives for the sake of driving anymore, but I did. I imagined I’d end up near Louisville at some point but continued meandering along the roads on the southern edge of the Indiana Kentucky border. At one point I crossed into Central Time and my phone adjusted. Why there is a time zone split in Indiana, who knows. I eventually looped back toward Louisville and headed north to Jeffersonville where I hoped there would be a cheaper hotel option than downtown. From there, I spent the next two days drinking and writing and got about 7,000 words down. I wrote the story of Alec and started outlining my road trip with Lydia. Episodes of Law and Order played in the background and the carpet was coming up on the wall. I drove back to the Ruckus camp on Thursday evening.

On Friday morning we conducted our exercise on civil disobedience in the Indiana woods. Eight activists and I chained ourselves across the theoretical entrance to the building represented by the metal structure. On the far side of the metal tower the “climbers” had already made it as far up as they needed to get to escape the grasp of the “security guards” and were gingerly setting up a banner on oil freedom. Camp organizer ran to and fro wearing masks of Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, and Condoleezza Rice, others dressed up like Secret Service agents. My fellow chainees and I looked down at the ground and gritted our teeth as police yelled at us and attempted to hacksaw our shackles. I didn’t really understand what was going on, but it was a good lesson in fun and the climbers did get their banner up before the police climbing after them caught up. We debriefed, feasted, hiked out to a nearby pond to smoke joints, drank whiskey, and some people probably made out. I didn’t.  I stumbled home in that bare and powerful marijuana-alcohol stupor it would take me many more years to healthily respect. Halfway in and out of my tent I pulled out my phone and texted Evelyn I missed her before somersaulting on top of my sleeping bag and falling asleep.

The next morning Janos and I packed up our stuff, said our farewells, got some phone numbers, and headed off into a Louisville adventure. We got a cheap motel on the outskirts of town and taxied in. All things admitted, I am not quite sure we had any clue where to go or what to do, especially since we ended up at an underground bowling alley. Every city was a potential adventure, but sometimes things don’t end up as interesting as one would like. We pushed through the evening, drinking and wandering and eventually ended up in a combination bar-strip club with no intentions of actually tipping strippers. This worked out for 20 or 25 minutes until an off-duty stripper started getting heated at Janos’ refusal to buy her a drink. Things got awkward very fast and from the sneer of the red-faced bartender we figured it was time to go. By this point it was late enough to call it.

We got an early start the next morning. I got an earlier one and gave Evelyn a shout, paced the railing outside the motel room, listening to how graduation in Sacramento had gone and seeing what her plans were.  I took a leap and suggested she come back down to Hands On with me, that I’d come pick her up in Cincinnati, that she could lecture AmeriCorps with me. She laughed. But said she’d think about it. I smiled, returned with bagels from the lobby, and soon after Janos and I set off on a straight shot to D.C. by way of the West Virginia mountains. Nos had spoken with someone in Paoli about the shale/coal fiascos of those Appalachian communities and we agreed it would be something to see. We purposefully detoured into a town whose name escapes me to see what all the fuss was about. I’m not sure what we were thinking we’d find— I think we got out of the car and walked around a few blocks, into a tourism agency to pick up some brochures. It was good to be there in the least. That was the only notable stop I remember, but the ride was not uninteresting as we had almost finished the World Cup tournament.

Explanatory Note: In the World Cup, 32 teams compete against each other in 4 different groups, and the top 2 teams from each group advance to a Sweet Sixteen of sorts. So in a World Cup music tournament, 32 songs are grouped into 4’s and over the course of the tournament play every other song in their group. Then you listen to the pairs of songs and each voter gives each song a score between 0 and 10 for how the song strikes them in that moment. The goal is to find the most consistently awesome song through a democratic process. So, for example:

 

 
“Bad” by U2
“Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey
“More Than A Feeling” by Boston
“Scarlet Begonias” by Grateful Dead
“Bad” by U2
X
16.5-18
16-16
14.5-13
“Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey
X
X
19-18
18-14
“More Than A Feeling” by Boston
X
X
X
15-16
“Scarlet Begonias” by The Grateful Dead
X
X
X
X

 

So in this situation, “Bad” went 1-1-1, “Don’t Stop Believing” went 3-0-0, “More Than A Feeling” went 0-2-1, and “Scarlet Begonias” went 0-1-2. 3 points for a win, 1 for a tie, so DSB and Bad advance. Once we got to the Sweet Sixteen, songs that received tie scores enter a 30 second playoff at some random point in the song. To select the moment, Janos and I would seek out a number from the side of the highway or a passing license plate. “Oh, we are passing exit 215. So we’ll do a playoff from 2:15 to 2:45 for the songs.”

 We were never at a loss for creativity.

 Given the style of our tournament, we had 48 one-to-one match-ups in the first round, then ultimately 15 more for the Sweet Sixteen forward once we got to that stage of play. The 2006 World Cup Tournament Final for us was between “Don’t Stop Believing” and “Jump” and it occurred right as we got on I-78 in northern Maryland around Cumberland. Dipping and diving in the dark hills past the mountain towns, both songs hit hard and we had to take it to Triple Overtime before we figured out that Journey had inched out Eddie Van Halen by just this much.

We crashed in my parents’ house in Germantown that evening, Janos slept in the basement, and the next morning we did our fond farewells. It was a good farewell once again. Although my friend headed forward into his familiar Manhattan and whatever awaited him in Fordham while I was a day from an about-face back South for who knew how long, it was again inevitable that we would cross paths again one day.

Astro was waiting in the driveway for someone to love her once again, and I marveled at my old friend. My family had purchased this conversion van when I was 11 or 12 as a convenience to our constant life dodging amongst my sister and I’s swim meets, soccer games, basketball games, and the occasional family trip down to Paramount’s Kings Dominion. I’d had her in college, where it had been redubbed the “Chi Gam Mobile” and proudly took mantle as vehicle of choice for more than one fraternity event (including but not limited to retrieving prospective brothers for their Sink Nights.) It was in no way outfitted for the New Hampshire winters, and I remain shocked that it wasn’t spun into the wilderness of I-89 or I-91 during any particularly high volume nocturnal jaunt. But it had remained a good friend, this behemoth white van with blue tarnished racing stripes and a step-up platform adjacent to the sliding door with a large crack down the middle, resulting in a thick piece of plastic hanging just closely enough to the vehicle to not be a hazard. When I was younger the television on the inside got local channels and we had a score of videos from which to entertain. Since 2004 the eject button on the VCR had been broken, with a single VHS tape forever occupying the player. DuckTales: Lost World Wanderers. Dinosaurs and ghosts, I think the gang solves a cartoon version of Hound of the D’Urbervilles. Can’t keep a good duck down.

I was coordinating with the payroll people in Charleston to make details on the schedule of my CTI lecture, honorarium etcetera. I stayed in touch with Erin as well to let her know all was going according to plan and I’d be there in a week to represent HOGC. I gave John a call every few days and so far things were good. I had a week before I had to be down there, so I kept calling Evelyn as well, seeing if she’d come with me and seeing if in the least I could swing through Cincinnati to say hello. Our conversations got longer and longer and it wasn’t too soon that she finally said: Yes. Come visit me in Cincinnati. You’ll have to sleep in the basement. But I will come with you to Charleston and back to Mississippi until I leave for London.

I let my parents know I was leaving sooner than planned, and how much I appreciated them letting me have Astro for another adventure. They had been on the verge of donating it to Goodwill for a meager tax break, but were just as willing to sign it over to me. To them, the van was taking up space in the driveway and more of a hassle to turn on and drive around once a month than it was worth. My mother and I got along better on that trip than we had in February. I think all said and done I was back on the road on Wednesday, back the direction I had come days before but aiming a little higher North.

I arrived in Cincinnati on a Wednesday evening, skirting up through Wheeling and Columbus before coming down the Ohio interstate connector. Her home was in a suburb to the north not too far from downtown. I met her mother, who was kind and lovely and interested in so many things about me. I had meals that felt like they came from a home, with salad and pasta and sliced up pieces of chicken. In the daytime Evelyn and I went to coffee shops to work on our PowerPoint presentation for Charleston and decide who owned what part. I had packed up mold remediation equipment (Tyvek, facemask, HEPA filter, gloves, the whole 10 yards) into Janos’ trunk, so we at least had an experiential part of the presentation. We filled out the rest of it with slides on what was mold, what wasn’t, my USA Today heat map, preliminary results from Hope VI. On breaks we strolled around blocks and grassy promenades around the city, holding hands and kissing sometimes. At night we’d alternate staying in and going out, one night to a German-style beer garden across the river in Newport, Kentucky; another night at a random bar with pool tables to shoot some games. Evelyn and I hadn’t had sex yet, but that was fine— I was just happy to be back with the prettiest girl I’d ever met. And she wanted to be with me too. It baffled my mind, but I tried to keep my cool and roll with it.

We drove to Charleston and checked into a hotel off I-26. The AmeriCorps NCCC* base itself was stationed on a retired Naval base on a long island in the industrial section of the city, so we weren’t in downtown or anything but it worked for us. I scoped out a billiards restaurant while Evelyn hopped into a nearby grocery store to buy us lunch and snacks. We prepped our slides and rolled around in the big bed for a while. At one point I checked my phone messages with one missed call from John Harlow. It was serious sounding and said there was trouble in the park with the equipment. I called him back and he didn’t pick up, Evelyn called me back to bed, and that was that.

We showered and drove down to the NCCC offices with the directions I’d received from my contact. The nondescript hallways of the converted base made it seem like a summer camp for soldiers. I’d grown up in a military family of blank workplace hallways always a little too small, whether it was at the Japanese base of my youth or later the basements of the Bethesda Naval Medical Center. So here it was that same comparable minimalist architecture, but instead of blank walls, bulletin boards with pictures of smiling young adults with gray t-shirts and big A’s. Photographs of young men and women on their hands and knees building steps for trails, wielding hammers against frame walls, bent over in kindergarten classrooms, handing out supplies in lines. There were still old plastic signs with cold arrows and block fonts, it wasn’t a complete conversion. But it was enough to note.

We got situated with the projector and the stage and soon the first of our two cohorts filled the dark auditorium to learn exactly how to be safe on the Gulf Coast, courtesy of team Guillermo-Evelyn. Scores of gray shirts were juxtaposed by the olive green Team Leader shirt every dozen seats. I remember watching them file down into their seats, at the tail end of their two week training before these twenty or so teams were deployed to different projects and corners of the country. One skinny, cute brunette wearing librarian glasses stood out as looking a bit more business than the others— I reminded myself that I was the most professional man wearing torn jeans in this entire ten mile radius. Another body ran forward out of the tide and I recognized Joe Baker from that very first team we had on the Coast. We hugged it out and he said things were going well, and then we’d catch up in a bit.

From there we started our 45 minute presentation. If I had any trepidations about presenting to an audience of federal employees, I don’t think I showed it. I walked back and forth across the stage, my voice booming through the auditorium, talking about air quality, work site safety, heat, inviting teenagers to come try on Tyvek suits, passing the clicker to Evelyn at the appropriate moments. As with most of those authoritative situations over my Katrina years, I just pretended I was braver and older than I actually was. In truth, I just hoped I was giving the right information and that not too many people guessed that I was 23 years old.

            The presentations went smoothly and soon we were on our way to downtown Charleston to traipse around for lunch and sights. As was my style, sightseeing on the road never amounted to tours and museums but rather free public art and walks in parks. We meandered into a part of the city next to the river with a large fountain that sprayed water in random patterns, and Evelyn took a picture of me thrusting my face and hair into the stream. We finished up there and got back on the highway headed South. I had negotiated with Erin over the phone to have Hands On comp Evelyn and I to stay at a hotel on the way between Charleston and Biloxi. “Comped,” as Erin hinted that we should stay somewhere nice and it was fine as long as we were back in Mississippi the next evening. So we drove to Jacksonville, Florida and got a hotel on the beach with a hot tub in it. On the Hands On Network dime after all of the antics in Atlanta, I had no qualms with this.

I got drunk. Evelyn and I were in our hotel room making out in the hot tub and things were well and good, and I’m not sure how it happened but at some point I stood up and began rambling about London and longevity, this or that. Whatever I was upset about wasn’t reasonable, I couldn’t say what exactly it was. I marched downstairs intent on sleeping in the backseat of Astro. I closed the door. I stewed for a few minutes. And then sheepishly went back upstairs to our room, where Evelyn had already toweled off and put on her pajamas. I apologized and she nodded and suggested we go to bed. I remember staring up at the ceiling, over at Evelyn hunched with her back to me at the edge of the bed, and then back up at the endless dark ceiling. I was upset and embarrassed, and felt simultaneously justified and unreasonable. It was no way to feel in a Florida town so far from all homes. I curled over and put my arms around Evelyn, who similarly wrapped her arm around my own. I kissed her on the back of the neck, she kissed my hand, and we fell asleep.

The last part of our trip was a straight shot from the start of I-10 on the coast through the Panhandle and Mobile and back to Biloxi. We listened to NPR a good part of it. Tensions between Israel and Palestine had heightened to a boiling point along this same drive, and we listened to news reports detailing such. We stopped at a rest stop at one point attached to an enormous, ridiculous gift shop. After going to the bathroom, I emerged to find that Evelyn was nowhere to be seen. I walked around slowly from aisle to aisle, past the shower stations for truckers, through the arcade, and was on the verge of panic when I finally spun around one last aisle and found her parsing through a postcard aisle cap. I hugged her without explanation. We got back on the road and soon enough were coming back down I-110, up Beach Boulevard to D’Iberville street, and down Pass Road to the old familiar. The sun was still up when we pulled into the parking lot, and my friends smoking outside let out shouts of approval as I pumped my fist in the air and parked Astro in the field.

Across the way I spotted the puppy pack poking around the periphery and I yelled out. One little black head perked up, looked my way, and began sprinting like a firefly across the orange dirt.

“You’re getting big, baby, aren’t you, aren’t you?” I smiled as Heli nuzzled my chest and wouldn’t stop licking my face for anything. Evelyn smiled as our friends approached from all sides with strides and grins like everything and nothing at once had happened. Everything happens in two and a half weeks, and yet nothing happens.

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About g-mo

The day I was born, Michael Jackson's Thriller album was at the top of the Billboard 200. I've been trying my best to live up to that expectation ever since.
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