HCS (III, 8): Seven Stories About The Fall of 2006

80s Prom September 2006. Pretty sure belting out “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” with Dan. Wow, my face does not look like it did when i was 23.

“Trouble, feels like every time I get back on my feet she come around and knock me down again.”
-Ray LaMontagne

Story 1: Niko Leaves

Niko and the Boss were out very, very suddenly, and without fanfare or celebration. I was just as happy. There was value in the good-byes, they came so often. These dinner speeches, short and long, where everyone split faces between “I barely knew him but I think he was important” to “there goes one of the most valuable people here, what the fuck are we going to do now.” Niko wanted none of that and never told anyone what was happening until it happened. Even for those that saw him, he didn’t make anything of it but something like what conspired between the two of us:

Me:     Wait, you’re leaving?

Niko:   Yup. BOSS! GET OVER HERE!

Me (chasing him as he walked around picking things up): Yeah?

Niko: Time to go, Guillermo!

Me: …

Niko: No, really. I’m leaving in 20 minutes.

Helicopter and Boss frolicked some more but soon enough Niko was getting into a car. I don’t know if he drove out, I can’t remember who gave him a ride. But he left, and Luc and John and Evelyn and Karissa and I gave him a big wave.

It was getting so tiring, you know. People leaving. I walked inside and sat down with Catholic Nick on a couch.

“You’re not going anywhere anytime soon, are you?”

Nick yawned and turned to me.

“I mean, when’s soon?”

Story 2: Evelyn Leaves

I just ignored it until the day it came. She did too. So just like that, one evening she stood up to talk about how she was leaving tomorrow and a collective “awwwww” came from the audience. I made sure she had a t-shirt on the Wall of Heroes— she talked about not wanting her own, so I made her a combination one with Julie Kuklinski, Araceli, and Elizabeth Ryan. A medium termer shirt didn’t happen often, but I decided this time it would and no one complained. But when she gave her speech, I pushed food around my plate with my fork, or shuffled music tournament votes, or anything besides look at her. She finished and sat down and looked at me and I nodded. The next morning Karissa and I drove her to the Gulfport/Biloxi airport and we walked in. And then it came time for her to go to security and Karissa backed up to let what would happen happen.

What happened was we both had done a fantastic job of ignoring anything that was hard to talk about. Ever, really. So like that, it was time for her to go to Cincinnati and to England and it was time for me to stay in Mississippi. Like that, I’d successfully convinced her to spend her remaining time between AmeriCorps and her Masters program with me. And like that, she was leaving and we hugged. I thought it was going to be a normal sort of thing, but Evelyn hugged me harder than she had ever before and when she pulled back she was a little teary eyed. She laughed.

“Well, see you later.”

I nodded. She paused.

“I don’t know what to say, I guess.”

“This was good. You’ll be good. It’ll be good.”

Evelyn nodded and turned to go through security. I stood around with my hands in my pockets to see her turn around on the other side and give me one more wave through the glass. When I came back down the stairs, Karissa was waiting for me. We walked out of the airport back into the big open asphalt parking lot in front of Biloxi-Gulfport and headed toward Rissa’s Hands On vehicle.

“You OK, honey?”

“This sucks.”

“Yeah. It does.” We turned right on Cowan-Lorraine and I looked at the Gulfport animal shelter buildings on the horizon. Dog walking back in December seemed a long time ago, dog walking crew. I chuckled to myself and lit a cigarette.

“That was a good thing. You know?” I looked over at Rissa’s, her blond curls pushing back a bit in the wind of the open window, her stern countenance staring purposefully over the steering wheel, her nodding and then the silent heat of the fields and bridges and homes of Cowan-Lorraine. It was a good thing to have something for a period of time. It never had definition but nothing really needed definition— I liked it that way. My need for finality and nomenclature had always been the end of me. Evelyn and I defined ourselves through actions, maybe we didn’t need the words. Maybe that was a good thing.

Story 3: The Fence

John left soon after. We had some moments to rehash this and that, some good nights. There was one particular morning that stands out in my head. Ryan was in town for the weekend visiting from New Orleans, on his way back to the East Coast for a bit. The three of us were sitting alone around the embers of the campfire in the back of the field one Sunday morning. A couple nods hello, but mostly the three of us taking in the morning silently. Then John broke the silence.

“You know they shut off the golf course, right?” I looked at him without moving my head much.

“What do you mean they shut off the golf course.”

“Caleb had Paul board it up while we were all out at work. Go look for yourself.”

I stood up and pushed my way through the foliage to the entrance to the golf course. It was just a piece of the fence that had broken in the storm, and we’d pulled it back enough to allow escape to the idyllic overgrown brush back there. Yes, someone had taken time to painstakingly board up the hole with a half dozen planks, each drilled through with small holes and secured by immense amounts of wire. I crossed my arms and heard John and Ryan pushing through behind me.

“You see?” I didn’t say anything, but I did shake my head. Then I turned around and walked past them, past the campfire, across the field toward the toolshed. When I returned, I was holding a maul axe. Ryan and John by then had returned to their seats and Ryan laughed outloud.

“What are you going to do with that?” I ignored him and walked back through the brush to the golf course entrance. They followed once again, and this time I turned to them.

“They’re not closing off the golf course.” Then I turned around and swung the axe as hard as I could into the planks. The head came down into a splintered buckling. I jerked it back and then swung again. John stepped forward.

“Let me see that.” I handed him the axe and backed away as he took a few swings himself. Ryan stepped forward and did the same. It didn’t take long at all before Paul’s handiwork had been destroyed (I didn’t think he would have minded, he only closed it off because he was asked to) and we had pried the entrance open once again. I ducked through with the axe still in my hand and stood up to the golf course morning. This would still be something for people to know someday. Then we went back into the property, leaned the axe against a tree, and sat back down in the lawn chairs around the embers of the fire.

Story 4: Life Check

John left a few weeks later— in the time between that departure and that moment, I settled into the obsequious reality of new beginnings. Without Evelyn (although we spoke on the phone) things seemed a little haphazard. The coming and going of the anniversary left me with something open in myself. I was not sure what I expected of it, but with its arrival and departure I suddenly was not sure about what came next. The names and faces of the long termers had done another full cycle; it was like accelerating into another generation too quickly to count. I spent many of my mornings going over the Hope VI data, running regressions and figuring out what came next out of this grand experiment—or at least what I envisioned should come next. I spent my afternoons at JHB with Karissa checking on the planters, or reviewing mold crews, or stopping in with Luc at the Thornton’s. I made my own schedule with Astro now at my disposal, and plugged in wherever I thought was appropriate.

Dan’s brother Eddie soon arrived— like most new people I kept my distance, ascertaining what it was that that I thought of someone settling in “for the long haul.” He was good. He was energetic and 100% in town to build. He was skinny, bones and muscle, but brought a demeanor that either said “respect” or “pride,” depending on your point of view of the man. Regardless, there he was in mid-September, and just on time with the docket of homes and the finishing up of the Thornton job. He was there to build, and after some weeks we began talking and getting along very well.

Within the structure of September more AmeriCorps teams came and faster. There was always a new on-boarding going on, and even within that more long-termers came and stayed. New societies within societies and movements beyond movements began to permeate in and around camp. Some had been there for some time but maybe in the blindness of JHB and Evelyn and being wrapped up in my own things I hadn’t given them the chance to sink in. The architects, for one— the architects were a stalwart facet of camp. They were based out of the University of Minnesota and had been bopping around for a number of months. They were affiliated with this guy Mike Grote, an Alabama product running building crews out of the East Biloxi Coordination Center on a separate contract. They were in and out on rotation but always around. Jody was the first, and I think it was that fall that she began dating Bicycle Ben. Which was an odd pairing but a nice one all the same.

September went and there wasn’t much to it. I started partying a lot and had a string of hook-ups with AmeriCorps girls, more so than usual. I missed Evelyn, and dealt with that by making out with somebody new every week. The leeway that our little society gave to long-termers with regard to their romantic habits was nothing short of baffling. Seriously. Baffling. So all of that was happening, and in the meantime I was going full force with music tournaments and the social facets of camp. We had an 80’s Prom in one of the Israeli army tents out back and Karissa and I got voted Prom King and Queen. Russell and I got into a fight one night. New teams came in and out, the Community Garden project kept going, some new people came to camp, or were already at camp but I suddenly noticed them, more than I can name or remember. Eddie and Brian and I became friends, and I started thinking of Brian as more of a friend and less of Deubs’ little brother, thinking of Eddie as more of a friend and less of Dan’s older brother.

Story 5: Sober October

So mid-September the administration decided that we were going to start a “no drinking on base” experiment for the consequent month called “Sober October.” It was a thinly guided policy change, one of those “let’s just try this for a bit” even though we all knew it was going to be the start of something more permanent. The mandate was an alcohol-free base. To coincide with this new rule, the administration began doing bunk sweeps while people were at work. One of these bunk sweeps resulted in the discovery of a cardboard box that had formerly held a case of Budweiser that Tim Boon was now using as a trash can. This was apparently enough to spread a rumor that Boon was getting kicked out of camp sometime in the consequent days. Boon himself was confused about it, and when I asked him he said that Erin was “mulling over what to do” but that he was probably going to be asked to leave.

The next day Erin announces an emergency long-termers meeting. It even includes the TL’s from the current AmeriCorps teams and I think in the midst of looking around the office at the cramped meeting space I realized that this cute new AmeriCorps girl in the meeting was in fact that same girl with the librarian glasses I’d noticed in Charleston. Then Erin began speaking and I stopped thinking about that for a second.

She gave an awkward speech, but the hegemony of camp and her strange authority dictated that we silently take in the words and listen. She began by explaining the situation, that Boon had broken the rules, but that she was going to make an exception and let him stay. She said it as though this was this great decision that had taken a Supreme Court years to ponder. No one really responded. Then she continued.

“I think the important thing to emphasize here is the following, and I would ask everyone to think really hard about this.” She paused for effect and I continued staring down at my sandals, cross-armed on the wall. Cora was doing the same from directly across from me, I noticed out of the corner of my eye. Brannon was sitting on the floor. Eddie was looking defiant but taking it in. Boon said nothing.

“We are all here as volunteers, giving parts of our lives to this community. To East Biloxi. But for us to do that in the most appropriate fashion means we have to respect the rules of this community. If we don’t respect the rules of base, we aren’t respecting East Biloxi. And—“

“That simply isn’t true.”

The words came out of my mouth without me thinking or forming them in my mind and suddenly every head in the room was turned and looking at me. I had said this without raising my eyes. But then I did and Erin was looking curiously at me.

“What do you mean?” I stood up straighter and responded:

“These rules of base have absolutely nothing to do with what happens when we go to work. We give our lives as volunteers and that is independent of what the rules are for October, what the rules are for September, whatever. Boon does case work and does it well, and is a valuable member of a short-staffed social work component of this larger, amazing thing that we are all part of. Just because he has an empty case of beer for a trashcan…I mean, that has absolutely nothing to do with his respect of his clients, with his respect for Biloxi. That simply isn’t true.”

I stood silent with that across the tiny space with twenty people crammed in, and Erin nodded.

“Is there anyone else that agrees with Guillermo?” She looked around almost daring someone to speak. Again, a silence proliferated for an awkward moment. And then—

“I do.” Brannon’s voice broke it.

“This guilt that I feel like is being imposed on us over the rules, when the rules come from nowhere and when the administration is doing tent searches while we are at work. I mean, there are issues in that we won’t get into, but respect? You can’t equate this decision with our respect for our work. That’s ridiculous.”

With Brannon’s comment, one by one more and more people began to follow suit and agree with Brannon, agree with me. With every new voice Erin seemed to shrink further and further into the wall. Finally, after ten minutes or so, Erin’s only response was tremulous.

“Well. I will take all of this into consideration. Thank you, meeting is over.”

I walked outside immediately and barely got my cigarette lit on our back porch before Eddie was lifting me up from a moment.

“That simply isn’t true? THAT SIMPLY ISN’T TRUE? God damn, Guillermo! You ballsy motherfucker. That was a moment!”

I’ve never felt more like a folk hero than I did that night. It was almost as though there were some deep seeded oppression that I’d given voice to— everyone had an opinion, Yvon, Luc, Brannon, Kristen, Brian. Erin was nowhere to be found the rest of that night. Boon stayed. Sober October continued, but in a strange sort of way I’d given an identity to pushing back against a questionable authority. Of which I guess I was technically a part of by contract, but not by association. I certainly was not winning political points with Hands On. I didn’t care.

Story 6: Dally 

Amidst riding the high from that night, I set out to pursue the librarian. I even dared myself to do so out loud one evening with Brian and Eddie. Go for it, they said. A green shirt? Never been done. Janos did it once, I mused; Brian responded that neither of us had. By that point, Brian and I had built up laughable reputations with our penchant for AmeriCorps girls, but I was smug in my folding chair as I nodded and feigned confidence in this feat. I was going to try to make out with the cute girl with the glasses. Her team had been around for a few weeks at this point. Honestly, in an environment of constant ephemery, you never really have anything to lose.

Her name was Dally. That’s a lie, her name wasn’t Dally, but if she ever reads this she’ll like that her name is Dally in this story. The day after I made this promise to see about the librarian, I checked in with Dally as she sat on the couch in the main hall looking over a book. I asked her if she was thinking about going to the Pub later and she said she’d think about it, and I told her we should go. So we went and drank some beers and she had a quick wit and laughed a lot and was a lot sillier in person than she came off from afar. We drank some beers and played some darts and came home a little too late and I asked her if she wanted to come into my room to hang out, so we did and I put a movie on.

Then we were talking and I suddenly felt nervous like I didn’t know what to do or how to make the move from having my arm awkwardly stretched out on the futon to something else. And then probably two minutes before I would have made a move, Dally interrupted whatever I was babbling about mid-sentence and said:

“So are you going to make out with me or what?”

She laughed and smiled and I was super confused by this comment for some reason. And in the midst of me thinking of how to respond to this, I leaned forward and she leaned forward and we made out with each other at the exact same time. That happens sometimes when two people kiss, people should notice those moments more often— they’re good ones.

Things with Dally were not like they were with the aforementioned women I drunkenly made out with that fall. I was not intimidated by those women, but as Dally and I continued on for a week-and-a-half affair of sorts I started having moments of actual openness. That was intimidating. There was one night she seemed off after work one day, and I instinctively wanted to check on her and support her. And then suddenly I was talking with her in the parking lot and she was in or near tears and walking to the edge of Pass Road to sort something out, and I knew I wanted her to be ok when she came back. I’d been on a spin for a bit of the fall; Dally was a special sort of thing that popped in at the right moment. We spent Halloween together, she talked to me about her team, we spent nights together.

And then one day Dally left in a big green van.

But I did get her phone number.

Story 7: The Death Of Hope VI

Camp was high highs and low lows through most of the autumn. Getting over Evelyn’s absence was a constant. There were other things I’d rather not detail, but mostly the same version of impotent anger that underlies my feelings over what had happened with Ryan and Mark earlier that Spring. I’ll tell one more, but this is the last one. I loved my mistake-prone friends, and they were certainly mistake-prone. Charley got kicked out of camp in mid-October; he’d drunkenly crawled into bed with an AmeriCorps he’d been flirting with after she was asleep. A deal breaker for camp, 100% understood, but he was still a friend and it was still a terrible drive to the Greyhound terminal for a guy I’d gotten to know that really got something special out of camp. Charley had jail time back in Alabama, but that wasn’t a concern of mine— more of a concern was the way he cried about how much camp meant to him, how he’d fucked up, how he wanted to take this volunteering, this new approach thing back to Huntsville, that we were the best. In the hours between finding out about this debacle and his bus home I sped out to the bookstore in Gulfport and back. When Bicycle Ben and I dropped him off at the bus station, I handed him a thick G.E.D. study guide for the ride back. He cried and hugged me and hugged Ben, and then through the windows I watched him smile down the aisle and sit in the back. He banged on the windows goodbye and held a fist up as the bus departed the terminal.

Separate from this, I was unsure about my future at camp— I was wrapping up Hope VI, I was popping in here and there, but the Outback money had just about all been allocated and no one had approached me about any follow-up responsibilities. And then like that, I got a phone call from Dr. Ahua that he was still awaiting his check for the academic study.

I had dropped all the data off at Ahua’s office at Southern Miss with Catholic Nick months before- I still had hard copies, but he had copies of everything, a CD with the mold counts on three different types of tests for 51 homes, before and after, my preliminary analysis I’d presented in Charleston, everything. I figured some sort of hold up had occurred with Hands On Network so I followed through with e-mailing the woman that was the primary HOGC contact in Atlanta. I received a response the next day.

“Hi Guillermo- Hands On Network has elected to discontinue funding for the Hope VI project. We no longer feel it is an appropriate use of dollars for Gulf Coast recovery.”

I read it three times, stood up in my office, and walked outside into the November sun. I took my phone out and called the woman immediately. She picked up and I explained as calmly as I could how the crux of everything we had done, everything that I had promised every one of my hundreds and hundreds of volunteers that had worked in that housing project, and everything resting for better approaches for rebuilding after future hurricanes rested on having a tenured academic analyzing the results. She said all funding from Outback was to be redirected to housing builds. I explained I’d already allocated dollars for three complete builds in addition to this spend and the contract was already signed. She repeated herself.

I went to find anyone else on staff and found Caleb. He listened to me explain my conversation and nodded, repeating that it was unfortunate, repeating that he didn’t understand either how they could do that. I left Caleb and went to Erin’s trailer and knocked. She called me in and I went inside.

Erin had barely been seen unless she had to be seen since our meeting when I spoke up against her— literally, been a recluse around camp and only seen in moments when stakeholders were visiting. I ignored addressing any of that and told her about the conversation with Atlanta. She nodded, and said that it was unfortunate. And that she didn’t have any control over those decisions.

I felt like I was talking to a series of marionettes over and over again. I left Erin’s trailer, marched to the back of the field by myself, picked up an axe, and started chopping wood. Over and over. Over and over. As hard as I could, I buried myself in dead stumps and then into the ground with the head of the axe, and then suddenly the handle of the axe broke in my hands. I dropped it, then I dropped myself.

I pulled my phone out of my pocket, looked at it, and flung it into the woods.

“Done-zo. So. Fucking. Done-zo.”

(End Part III)

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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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