“Talkin’ bout a dream, try to make it real, you wake up in the night and the fear is so real.”
There was a problem with the skid steer, John told me. What was the problem? Well, we don’t have the keys for it anymore. I jumped up and sat on the edge of the stage and listened to Harlow explain. Behind him, Niko paced angry and huge in his greased overalls.
“So the Dumbos..” John began.
“FUCK THE DUMBOS!” Niko screamed and kicked a chair. Nearby a group of short-termers darted their eyes up from their spaghetti dinner. Niko yelled “FUCK!” and stalked out of the building through the back door. I turned back to Harlow, who raised his eyebrows and continued.
So the work at John Henry Beck involved a good amount of heavy machinery and earth-moving equipment. When Hands On USA handed off the Pass Road project to Hands On Gulf Coast, Dumbo Sr. had invested separate money into a project in Pass Christian called OVERCOME. It was headed up by Dumbo Jr. and I didn’t honestly know much about what was going on out there. There were so many groups popping up here and there over 2006. And I didn’t care much for Dumbo Jr. anyways. However, I kept my mouth shut and when it came down to acquiring the equipment necessary for the JHB renovation, OVERCOME had offered to let HOGC borrow their skid steer. I had nothing to do with the terms of this agreement, and all I knew was that work was going. Harlow and Niko knew they were on a schedule to get the machine labor going to a place where unskilled labor could come in and shovel/plant/patch behind the machines. The park project involved a massive clearing out of existing top soil to be replaced with new soil, as well as the installation of a sprinkler system, a community garden, and eventually a KaBOOM! playground to coincide with the one year anniversary of Katrina. So through June and July, team Niko/Harlow prepped the park. They had a schedule and a budget. Many a hot afternoon one could drive by and see the two of them sweating it out in goliath metal heat boxes moving dirt, clearing old metal from decades past buried in the ground, large random chain link fences from the 50s somehow buried in the mud from past hurricanes, getting everything prepared for August. The time pushed on them, but things were going fine until three days before I got back.
As John described it, out of nowhere Dumbo Sr. pulled up in his truck followed by his son. Without approaching Niko and John, who were on a water break at the time, they circled the machines, pausing every few moments and conferring without looking at each other. After observing this for a few moments, my two friends approached them.
“How’s it going, fellas?”
Dumbo Sr. continued staring. Dumbo Jr. turned to them.
“It doesn’t look like you’ve been maintaining the machines.”
With that, Dumbo Sr. climbed into the cab and plucked the ignition key from the console of the skid steer. He then walked over to the Kubota and did the same. Niko spoke up.
“What are you talking about? You can see the grease on the joints—”
Dumbo Jr. about-faced and followed his father to the edge of the park. They got into their pick-up truck and left.
“Wait, so the machines are just in the middle of the park?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter, there’s no key, no one can move them. But they could be vandalized or fucked with, yeah.”
“Why would the Dumbos think you weren’t greasing the machines?”
“Dude.” John looked at me with his wide-eyed “what the fuck” smile, his arms turned up under his wifebeater tank top.
“Because they are assholes.” I mused. The Dumbos in my opinion were assholes and most of my friends would readily agree. I didn’t know Sr. as well as Jr., but they were DC coattailers from the start, I never liked them. Still, they were doing their thing and we were doing ours. This series of events made little sense. How would they have even known whether the machines were greased or not, they hadn’t been on-site in weeks from what John told me. Unless they realized they shouldn’t let other groups borrow their machines if they could contract them out instead. Hmmm.
“Was there ever an MOU between the two organizations for the equipment?”
“Not that I know of.”
“OK. And we’ve been out of service for three days?”
“Pretty much. I mean we can do supply runs, but we do those as we go. Guillermo, this is fucked.”
I nodded and thought. “OK, I’ll get on this. I’m sorry this all happened, we’ll either get the keys back or rent out new equipment. I’ve got room in the budget.” John nodded. I spent the rest of the evening touching base with Erin on what was going on and talking to Nate Harrold about MOU’s.
I got on the phone with Dumbo Sr. the next morning. We weren’t greasing the machines. I told him I didn’t think that was the case, but regardless the incident revealed the need for our organizations to have official documentation for equipment sharing. He was amenable as long as we reached a negotiated agreement. Probably involving cash changing hands, so I told him I’d take a look at what we could do. I drafted up an MOU, checked the comp prices on rentals from Puckett to see what we were working with, and got things settled. It was an annoying hiccup, and we ended up drawing up a flat contract to get the work done with the machines by the second week in August. The big takeaway from the whole situation from me was a reminder of how different the disaster community was across the gamut. I didn’t like Dumbo Jr. before, but now I knew I’d never like him— my guys were good and reasonable, and there was no reason for the keys episode to have gone down in the way that it did. It was a dick move, but bygones, etc.
Once the work with those machines was done, the Dumbos came and took their big machines back. The ground was now set for setting the irrigation system, which would criss-cross around the park to provide water to the seventeen trees as well as the new sod we were laying. To dig the necessary ditches at depth for the pipe we’d need to rent a Ditch Witch— which the Dumbos had, but we didn’t want to rent from them anymore. So I drove down to the Puckett rental in D’Iberville with the boys to negotiate that. They told us they had a policy that forbade them to rent equipment like that to anyone without an in-state driver’s license. We had no one on staff that fit these qualifications, but this happened to be around the same time that my six month suspension in Virginia was up. I drove down to the MVA, sat patiently with my bank statement that had been mailed to 2113 Pass Road as well as my passport, and an hour later walked out with a newly minted Mississippi state license. Back into Puckett the next day and a few minutes later we were loading the Ditch Witch onto the trailer bed.
This whole while, the Mississippi August treated us something horrendous. It had been hot for some time, but there was something about August or the way everything was always dusty and heavy that weighed on all of us. I pitied the mold crews suiting up in their body suits and actively encouraged Naked Tyvek crews (it was a rite of passage at first, but that summer I couldn’t imagine doing mold crew in anything but the fewest layers possible.) At the same time, Mark’s little brother Brian had arrived that summer and taken control of the roofing jobs, which could often mean early morning departures on tin roofs before they got so hot they melted your work boots. But being in that park, where crews were often digging and pushing wheelbarrows— that was something else.
Hope VI had pretty much wrapped up by that point. Catholic Nick and I had some meetings with our academic at Southern Mississippi who ran community health programs, a pleasant man by the name of Dr. Ahua. After showing him the site and walking through the data, he agreed to take the results and do the write-up for $5,000 while giving credit to myself as Project Investigator and mentioning the role of Hands On as well as AmeriCorps. With the experiment on the back burner and taking mornings now and then to shore up my master spreadsheet on which I transcribed all the results, my days were freer from the normal administrative work. I took many days in August to actually get out to the park where Niko taught me how to run the smaller Hands On Kubota and box scrape. Additionally though, I still loved sweating in the sun, shoveling dirt at the community garden site or on lucky days taking pick axe swings at blocks of concrete we’d find in the ground. Separate from the park work, Luc had interiors crews at work rebuilding a home that belonged to Pat and Sandra Thornton— a lovely elderly couple that’d won the lottery for first house that we would take all the way. Dan in the meanwhile had taken ownership over the school component of the Outback grant and was negotiating with local schools to build an outdoor classroom and a greenhouse at an elementary school off Pass Road. Nate’s Moss Point project was long done by then— he was still around but was on the verge of renting a house out on the Back Bay and launching into less HOGC, more local engagement opportunities. He had an enormous skill set both architecturally and personality-wise, so I was happy to see him continuing to find things to do and advice to give.
On the home front, the faces had changed but base warriors kept things going. Kate Magro and Astrid shared office responsibilities over time and manned phones while coordinating field needs. Bicycle Ben had taken his namesake to an extreme; in July he managed a giant drive to bring used bikes from across the country down to Biloxi to be delivered to high-need residents. We had a full-time volunteer from Huntsville, Alabama named Charley Burks who now served as our full-time cook. Charley was a 5’5” twenty-seven year old black guy without a high school diploma who was always smiling, joking, and partying— everybody loved Charley, and he was a good-hearted friend. Everyday Amy De Huff, Falcon, and Sheli hunkered down at their desks and kept answering phones, touching base with clients, and continuing the social work component of HOGC. Caleb was around running budget for the camp, although I was never quite sure why that was a full-time job and why he never came out for field work. Cora did development work along with some caseload jazz, and Erin mostly stayed in her trailer.
Evelyn was going out every day on different crews and when I could I tried to tag along with her. I was happy to have her back in Mississippi, and with our shared bedroom it brought something special to my Gulf days I hadn’t had before. Every evening regardless of activities, I could come home and climb into bed with my beautiful girlfriend. The serenity of constancy in a world where nothing ever stayed the same was nice, even for a minute. I knew the day would come when she’d leave me and fly overseas but I tried not to think about it.
Finally, she decided that she did want to have sex with me, and that we should go together to get checked for STD’s. She and I took a morning off and drove to a community health clinic in Gulfport for a $40 checkout. The lobby was a little crowded—being my first doctor’s visit since college, I’d never been in a place like it before. Like the Atlanta bus terminal in diversity of personage but less noisy. We checked in and 15 minutes later Evelyn got called to go see the nurse. I sat patiently and played poker on my phone, and time went by. I saw people coming in after us get called up to the front and disappear into the interior clinic doors. Finally after an hour a woman called my name and I entered the clinic. I sat down with a male doctor to get my blood pressure taken and he asked me in Spanish how much I weighed.
The man looked at me curiously.
“Oh you speak English? Oh man, we had you in the queue for Spanish speakers. I’m the only one here who is bilingual so it’s a little harder to get Hispanics through. Why didn’t you tell the nurse at the desk?”
Thirty minutes later, I exited into the lobby and gave Evelyn a big thumbs up.
“Oh don’t mind the wait. I got racially profiled. Or linguistically profiled, if that’s a thing. Apparently there is a different line for people with Spanish names.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah. And you get put in that line regardless of whether you, you know, speak to the woman handling paperwork in English. Yeah. Let’s go.”
“I love Mississippi.”
“Me too, darling. Me too.”
* * *
Life around base was getting simultaneously busy as August passed. All of the sudden the summer had ushered in a regular rotation of AmeriCorps teams and it was harder to remember who was who. When that first team came around the same time as Bush, they were part of who we were, Andrew, Ali, Erica, Nora, Evelyn, Erik, Caroline, etcetera. Now it seemed teams were coming in as quickly as they were leaving, and I didn’t even have time to notice in the daytime because of JHB. At nighttime, however, the partying was the same. I continued to become closer to guys like Bicycle Ben, Mark’s little brother Brian, Charley, Harlow. Simultaneously, Evelyn was back in her group of Julie, Karissa, Araceli, Emily Chen, Clint Magee. She was an independent woman as it was and I did my own thing, so more often than not as those weeks passed I would be out later with the guys than she would be with her girls. I still came home to her though. It didn’t stop me from getting drunk every night.
Dan, I became closer to as well. His no-talent talent shows continued along with my public music tournaments— two at home facets of the Hands On experience that made us different and drew us together. Dan was passionate about working with kids, and about art. While we were away, he commissioned a project at a paint shop in Mississippi and got a bunch of local children to help out painting a public mural. Working with him on the school project gave me some work experience as well. Dan was good, and one evening the two of us ended up at Shady’s drinking and talking and getting honest. I confessed that I thought I was boozing a little hard. He nodded.
“You know, my older brother is coming down at the end of the month. He’s sober, you’d like him.”
“Yeah? What’s he coming down to do?”
“To build, man. To build.”
“Huh.” I stirred my whiskey and coke.
The park went on and on and although we were spending 14 hour days it still seemed like nothing was for certain with timeline. And the 29th loomed. We needed the sprinkler system set regardless of the holiday, because we had needed the ditches full and the trees planted and everything set for Darrell Hammond to come build a KaBoom! playground and for everyone to see how far we’d come in a year. For John and Niko it was such an obsession— Niko made it very known that the day the park was done he was gone, and I was sure John would be gone soon after. It was understandable.
My departure in January had given me a little bit of space to split the HOUSA crew from the February Hands On Gulf Coast crew. so many of their old cadre had gone along on their way, and the third crop was significantly different. Some good ones for sure— in early June these two girls Marj and Kristen showed up to do animal rescue. But with the regiment of the Americorps kids, the visits from the corporate sponsors, etcetera, there was a change in the air. Parallel to that many of those Spring friends had gone on, Jim, Sean, JP, Russell, Miami Mike, of course Mark and Rohde and Ryan as well. The stalwarts that had been in the field and worked that hard and judged people by their ethic, that was what was left in the crew leads still going, in that park, on the roofs that Brian scouted, in the Thornton’s house where Luc dictated orders. But even before August 29th I think you could tell something was changing in the air. The chaos, you know, it was ok when it was productive. Not all of it was anymore. But in that park, that hot, god-awful hot park, it was what was born out of the straight-shooters in the chaos. We could all get wasted, set things on fire, blare Pub music, make out with girls, smoke pot when we had it, all that stuff— but we’d be out there the next day doing it. That made it ok and good.
We’d work into dusk until it was too dark to see. On the other side of Elmer Lane was this foreboding billboard with two mug shots and large marquee lettering stating “STATUTORY RAPE IS A CRIME.” I’d stand in a ditch with my shirt off, pick-axe sitting on the ground, barely conscious of the bullets of sweat running down my chest and more conscious of the gut I’d developed over the summer. Heli and the Boss would lounge below the tree with their water dishes or in the bucket of a machine not in use. People came in and out to do work but I remember Karissa, John, Niko, and Evelyn the most in those weeks leading up to the big event. We got the sprinklers set and an electric control box set up on a pole by the magnificent oak tree at the Division Street entrance. We brought in sod and laid it down. We got 17 trees from a nursery and planted them at determined spots where we had set up the slow trickle sprinkle heads. We broke that ground on the community garden plots, digging deep trenches 3 feet into the ground to give plot owners space to grow. We measured out the fence line, we moved dirt, we moved rocks, we jackhammered random concrete footing we’d discover in places. We went and went, and finally the day came.
The morning of August 29th, 2006 a group of us got up before dawn and drove out to the broken Ocean Springs bridge. They had started rebuilding from the other side of the channel. To us, the pylons were still clear and the staircase to nowhere was still accessible. I can’t remember who exactly came but there must have been at least ten of us watching the sun come up over the water with a stillness that betrayed the events of the anniversary. Across town, Governor Barbour had funneled tons of money into getting the casinos up and running. As that was a main economic driver and all. There was a large extravaganza down on Beach Boulevard for the grand re-opening of the Beau Rivage. The biggest and best casino.
We did not attend. Instead we got breakfast at Burger Burger in East Biloxi, and then headed out to the park to prep for the day to come. It was a Tuesday, but it seemed that most of the town treated it like an unofficial holiday. By 8:30 or so the KaBoom! team was there along with a number of corporate volunteers as well as more than 50% of our volunteers. Watching a KaBoom! playground go up from scratch is a pretty awesome thing, to be honest. They had staged portable trailers on the edge of the park and as soon as it was go time, playground Team Captains barked orders on the construction of different pieces of playground equipment and everyone fell into line. There were hundreds of people there, including Councilman Stallworth and other notables from the City. John Henry Beck park was to be the beacon we had always hoped for. As the sun rose over the City, the playground began to take shape and form.
I helped out, touching base with John and Niko. Cora and Suzanne were out there working hard, along with the AmeriCorps teams, along with Rissa and Brannon and Evelyn and whomever else. Luc and Amanda were at the Thorntons, Brian was on a roof job, but most people were there. And of course, Erin and Caleb were there marveling at the work and talking the talk.
About halfway through the day, the news crews got set-up for a big announcement and speech from Erin and Stallworth. I stood at the back of the crowd with my arms crossed as the people gathered round. Suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder, and I turned to see Caleb with an African American man I didn’t recognize.
“Guillermo, this man here has a mold problem in his house.” The guy nodded with his arms crossed. “I told him it wouldn’t be a problem for you to go take a look and do a quick assessment.”
I stared into his glasses. “Right now?”
“I only live a few blocks away, it won’t take long.” The man spoke up. “I got real bad mold up in the ceiling, at the joists.” Caleb nodded matter-of-factly and turned back to me.
“Can you go do that for him?”
Caleb threw me under the train. I wanted to be there to see the speech and the ceremony around the park, the park he had not done a leg of work on. And now I couldn’t say no because all things equal, of course I would go scout the job, on of all days this day— that was why I existed. I smiled and took my keys off my belt loop.
“Sure thing, let’s go. Can I follow you?”
So right as the festivities started with the speeches and the watermelon, I drove away from JHB following a man to his home on the other side of the train tracks to scout a job. It took 10 minutes or so and the guy was very kind and thankful. It was a rafter job, I scribbled down, crew of 5 to 6 given the size of the home, nothing too bad so we probably wouldn’t need angle grinders, done, and done. I told him we’d follow up, he thanked me, and I drove back to JHB. The ceremony was over. I caught up with Evelyn and she affirmed it had gone well. Years later, I look at the pictures from that day, including all of the group shots that I’m not in because of the scout job. I pretend it’s not a big deal. Although it was. So it goes.
After everything was done we went our separate ways to have a slice of reality to ourselves. I stuck around on Evelyn and Karissa, tending to the Community Garden project, and eventually headed back to camp. From there on out it was a drink-fest. DC and some of the older HOUSA alums were back in the area, floating in and out of the camp over the late afternoon hours— they’d secured some bunks at St. Vincent de Paul across the street. I didn’t pay much mind. I stuck with Niko and John, who were still mulling over the last of the plans for the coming days. Niko had a quickly approaching departure date and things needed to get done beyond the façade of what was prepped for KaBoom and the anniversary. Things like securing the irrigation system, things like measuring out the beds for the community garden, things like whatever it was that we were going to do with that random red building on the property. However, it was the anniversary, so the mulling was quick before we lit up some joints, got a buzz going, and headed off to the Pub around 7:00 P.M.
We grabbed our Budweisers and retreated to the darts area to drink and sit with whomever might join us. Anniversary time meant there were all sorts of people down that had been here before, been short-termers or medium-termers. Every few minutes someone was walking up to someone asking if they remembered them, if they remembered that amazing day on that awesome crew with blank and blankity and blankity’s sister. Then Dumbo Jr. walked into the Pub with his girlfriend and posted up at the bar, and Johnboy nudged me to point it out.
“That fucker.” He did his typical Harlow heavy breathing and shook his head.
“Forget about it.”
John breathed some more and nodded and it was almost forgotten. However, at one point it was my turn to buy the next round and I was suddenly next to him because it was convenient.
“Dumbo, how’s it going?”
“Hey Guillermo.” Next to him, his short, tan, curly haired girlfriend gave me the evilest of stares.
“Things are going well out in Pass Christian? Four Buds, Miss Kay.” I called over his shoulder.
“They are, they are.” Dumbo Jr. coolly replied. He then slightly turned away and continued talking to his girlfriend. I thought for a moment to let this be. We had both been on the Mississippi Coast a long time and even if I’d never liked him, it was better to have neutrals than enemies. But I couldn’t stop imagining him roller-skating around Thanksgiving, I couldn’t stop imagining the way Pat and Liz professed their lack of understanding in how he’d become suddenly uncool to everyone and especially to his Boston University friends. When he stopped being friends with anyone but the administration back in the HOUSA days, because he was a privileged insider to the Campbell-Dumbo Boston thing. And hadn’t earned anything from his peers. I gritted my teeth but paused. Time in was something valuable, even if he was a dick. And if we were both posting up to stay interminably, I wanted to make sure he knew where I stood on this thing.
“Hey, so about the tractor fiasco in John Henry Beck earlier.”
“What about it?” He didn’t turn toward me. His girlfriend continued throwing eye daggers at me over his big oafish shoulder. I didn’t lose a step.
“Well, I just wanted to make sure everything was cool between us. I know it was a little charged out in the sun that day and—“
“There’s really nothing to talk about. They weren’t taking care of the machines so we took them back.” He continued to not look at me but instead was gazing across the bar at the bags of chips and cash register in the island.
“Yeah, well here’s the thing. They were greasing the machines. I know they were.”
“They weren’t.” It was only then that Dumbo Jr. turned and stared at me.
“They definitely weren’t greasing the machines.” His girlfriend piped in. In that moment I really wished Evelyn or Rissa was around to punch her in the face. I saw John and Dan at our table suddenly watching this interaction. Dumbo’s beady eyes didn’t waver and the girl was giving me a “what are you going to say now” look. I shook my head.
“Alright man. I know they were, but I’m not bringing this up to argue about it. I’m just saying I get where you are coming from. And I appreciate you and your dad lending us the machines for the time you did, and I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”
“Right.” There was an awkward silence as Kay put down my beers and I paid her money.
“Well,” I picked up my beers and spoke to Dumbo once more. “I’ll see you around, I guess. I’m glad to hear things are well with OVERCOME.”
Our group left soon after for karaoke at Just Us, where we ran into more old friends and I belted out a traditional “Don’t Stop Believing.” The drinks flowed and we all swayed back and forth in the moment. The anniversary, one year, August 29th, 2006. And things were sort of normal in some parts of town. But it was all lopsided. Casinos were up, homes in various states of completion were not. However, the bartenders knew us, the city knew us, knew me. I was overcome with the combination of muted disappointment and thankful belonging. Disappointment that things didn’t happen faster, belonging in that underneath the storefronts, the dramas, the things I couldn’t control I had these people, from everywhere that I cared for and cared with. I appreciated that so much.
I drank and drank with my friends, and eventually Evelyn went home, eventually others went home and I stayed behind to drink some more. I barely remember the things after that, but I know these things happened: Marianna had come back for the anniversary and I ran into her at Just Us after most of HOGC had departed, and we caught up and I caught a ride back in a pick-up truck bed with others. We spoke for a bit back on Pass Road, and eventually I walked across the road to base camp. But I didn’t go inside. I walked straight back to the campfire and fished around for a beer. I found one and opened it— it was warm.
I sat on a log and stared at the embers of August 29th, sipping that beer. It was after 4, there was nobody up. When I finished my beer, I stood up and walked inside to my room. I got into bed with Evelyn, who sighed in her sleep and put her arm around me. I took it and stared at the ceiling. And then after longer than normal for someone as drunk as I was, I fell asleep.