“Should a man wax tears, when his wooden world fails?
In town, leaves were paper, but the hills were a flock of faiths…”
We were ghosts in the building over that last week of December. Everyone else was still home from the holidays, and in that huge place with just the three of us— well, it was big and lonely. And with everything that had happened and weighed on me, it gave me a lot of time to think. Here I was back in Mississippi, without a job, without my old room, trying to sort out exactly what it was that was next. I wondered often whether I might leave that state, I wondered whether I wanted my old job if it was available, I wondered whether my heart would stop hurting, I wondered about everything and I couldn’t sleep. I went with Eddie and Deubs in the day to assist with prep work on some new home builds; at night, we got high and watched Season Two of Lost on the projector wall in the main building. I surfed the web looking for apartments in Biloxi, but was secretly unsure how I would pay for such a thing. It was worth it to search regardless, it was worth it to have something to do. I worked on formalizing a report on the Hope VI data, I worked on an action plan for an EPA grant that HON had asked me to assist with sometime in my absence. I smoked cigarettes in the pre-dawn bayou air, sober and restless, thinking about being 23 and so old, remembering being a child at some point before Biloxi and Dartmouth and high school, and sorting out what exactly all of this had added up to.
We didn’t make a thing of New Year’s Eve; Sheli got back to town and the four of us got high and watched DVDs until it was 2007 and we stepped outside to acknowledge it over cigarettes behind the church. The next morning I sat by myself with dark roast New Orleans coffee, staring out at the army tents and trying to figure out whether my life added up to much, and then went inside and read Derek Walcott poems for the next few hours.
A few days later I took a shot at my first poem in years. Pride was copper, I thought to myself, tapping my pencil against the table in the middle of the room. That was my problem. Like a robot monarch from a past life, sorting through how my great adventure had gone all wrong and going through the motions. Pride was copper, and my pride felt like an old rusty clock trying to strike seven.
My friends trickled back into camp as January got its footing. I waited patiently and welcomed them back in ones and twos. Erin, however, did not come back. There was a bubbling excitement that Eddie wore on his sleeve.
“They’ll make Cora the director. It makes the most sense, and she’ll make things happen. It’s all going to change, I can get access to tools faster. We’ll actually have a leader, G.” And he shook his head laughing and walked across the parking lot.
Cora was not made the Director of Hands On Gulf Coast. Instead, Caleb was. People were floored. I was floored. But then understood. Caleb was controllable. He was also older than the rest of us, 29 or 30. And he was a yes man. He’d do whatever Network told him to do. I congratulated him personally, and asked about whether there was a place for me to come back on a contract basis since I was back in camp and back to pro bono volunteering, assisting on construction crews and building instead of mold. He said he’d work on it.
So through January I waited, and tried not to think as much as I knew I would inevitably do. I dragged my guitar out into the golf course at dawn on a few mornings, plucking through my normal panoply of C’s and G’s and A minors and cheated F’s where I muted the sixth string. It was a rough run of it, fighting through that month and living in myself. I had too much time to think about the women, the dream, living to live.
The dawns went on. I obsessively looked up tabs to sad songs, I read books, I drank coffee, I drove the Just Us kids to Just Us, I went out on construction crews, and I sat with Helicopter. As I bubbled forward, there was a similar restlessness at Hands On Gulf Coast. There wasn’t an easy answer to why everything seemed so bleak, and people seemed to be settling into the newness of the camp post-Erin. Fortunately the construction crews had a new project in which to bury themselves, this week where the cast of a soap opera called Guiding Light were coming down to build houses as part of their 75th Anniversary Celebration. I dodged around with Eddie and Brian for that, made myself available. Woody came back from Scotland to work; he’d impressed Eddie enough for them to have kept in touch, and it was good to have the big guy back and this time in Biloxi instead of New Orleans.
January wasn’t that interesting. I didn’t drink alcohol, I moped about having lost Evelyn, I smoked a lot of weed, and I leaned on Brian and Eddie and Luc and Karissa and Marj and Kristen Kernan in order to remember who I was. I was pretty much out of money, and while Caleb had promised me a contract to continue mold trainings, it was stuck in payroll.
One day after Guiding Light was over, I leaned against one of the soap opera produced walls of Ethel Curry’s house on Midway and spoke with Cora. Tony the plumber was frying catfish for us, a post project sort of tribute for the 20 that were there. I was talking to Cora about what may or may not happen, the Network screwing me over again but I was taking steps toward futures. She asked me what I wanted to do down here. I said I wanted East Biloxi rebuilt equitably and fairly, or as close to that as possible. And I said I want to be part of an organization I believed in from the top down, not one of incompetence, nepotism, and misleading. And I said, yeah sure, maybe I was always 50% as useful as I could have been before, 50% of myself in anything that I cared 100% about for months and months and maybe I’m a man in transition now, but I am dead serious when I say that I will stay down here and I will see a low-income building program happy and successful. Cora asked if I’d rather work with the Network and write building grants for them.
“This whole thing is turning into a farce,” I responded shaking my head, and walked away and around the house to smoke a cigarette. Guiding Light was over, but it hadn’t gone right…after my friends had lived and breathed Guiding Light, who made the announcement at the news conference but Erin (who I suppose was still on payroll for Hands On Network, just not present in Biloxi anymore.) Who took the reporters on their first walkthrough, because it wasn’t Luc, and it wasn’t Deubs, and it wasn’t Eddie.
Leaders aren’t born, god damn it all. I kicked a divot of grass. I wanted things to start going right for my unappreciated friends, the good men and women with their levels and nail guns, with so much respect in the community and no love from corporate. I had the chance to speak with Jowers for a moment this week and he says even Michelle Nunn hates the falseness of things at times but there’s nothing to be done.
I was sick of it, of this diffusion of responsibility here, and stagnancy there, and a life that for all these months and all this effort simply ended with “making it work” with Atlanta, working with Atlanta, appeasing Atlanta. If Atlanta has shown us what they’ve shown us so far, their final solution and timeline for ending building prematurely and turning this place into a B&G revolving door, a “civic action center”, well then what?
Admittedly, it was sometimes hard to differentiate between my frustration with my own perceived shortcomings and my legitimate grievances with a centralized 501c3 organization completely disconnected from the work on the ground. But with Guiding Light in the books and still jobless and poor, I now needed to be open to the possibility that this Hands On Gulf Coast staff thing may not work out. Atlanta was certainly not the answer, writing grants for Network. Cora asked me that on purpose, so I’d feel this way, so visceral and real.
On February 2nd, a tornado struck a town in Florida called Lady Lake. We all heard about it on the news. At the time, many of the staff members were in Atlanta at a conference with Network. I was around though, and we were in a lull at camp. And it hit on a Friday. I sat outside the building with Karissa and Bicycle Ben and Doug, getting excited, getting mobilized. We were ready to go, we were ready to jump in our vehicles and load up our chainsaws and our crowbars, our gloves and our spirits. By the time we’d all come together the next Saturday morning we were about 15 deep. I talked to Cora on the phone, who respectfully asked that we avoid taking Hands On vehicles to an engagement out of our disaster jurisdiction. I nodded and agreed, pacing around the field with my cigarette and watching across the gray sky as my friends loaded up Homer’s orange buckets and chainsaw oil into the back of Astro. Yup, no Hands On cars. No problem.
“She never said anything about equipment,” I shrugged. And with that our caravan was off. We hit I-10 and mapped our way to central Florida, arriving at the FEMA staging area in the early evening of 4 pm or so. A local resident had welcomed spontaneous volunteers to camp and tent in the field in the back of his house, so we made ourselves comfortable. I sought out the man in charge, other people in charge. We had fifteen or so bodies, and we’d put ourselves to work however we were needed. We had both Bicycle Ben and Anne Kotleba, one of whom officially could run saw and one of whom subjectively could (I’m sure you can guess which was which.)
I stood there watching our people intermingle. A group from Hands On New Orleans had come up with the same plan; the blue and purple shirts shook on it and sat together over the fire and the beers. I recognized Kenda from the year before, she was still down in the Big Easy. It was early and the food lines were already manned; we had nothing to do but kill time before going out the next morning. I crossed my arms, walking around camp, having some chats. Around 10 PM I retreated to Astro to turn on some music and do some journaling.
Then my phone rang and I didn’t recognize the number. I picked up.
“Guillermo?” I knew this voice.
“…Dally?” She laughed.
“Did you lose my phone number then?”
“No. I mean, maybe for self-preservation…I didn’t expect to hear your voice. Dally. Huh. Wow. Where are you?”
She was in the Florida Keys with her Americorps NCCC* team running conservation projects in a national park. But Florida all the same. Why was I in Florida. I laughed and we talked. She laughed and I listened. It was good to hear from her. It was good to talk to me. She wasn’t sure if we’d talk again but thought she’d call. I was glad she had. Let’s talk again soon. I’d like that. I’d like that too.
Dally hung up and then I was alone with the music again, Tears For Fears softly singing in the shadows of Astro the behemoth, surrounded on both sides by broken power lines in this tornado street, the cracked facades of homes only visible by the light of the half moon. And the ember remnants of the field fire off to the side and the tents of my friends the volunteers. I laid my head back and looked at the green velour ceiling of the van.