“This is the way to burn,” the fuse seemed to say to the more docile, slow-witted candlewick. ‘Brilliantly, ecstatically, irrepressibly. This is the way to burn.’”
About 20 minutes after I left the tattoo parlor, Eddie emerged onto the gently lit sidewalk. It was cold enough to think about shivering, but warm enough to get away with a jacket. I paused mid-smoke and turned to my friend.
“How does it feel?”
“Good, man. It feels good.”
Karissa and Deubs followed shortly. I nodded and reached my hand up to feel the puffy bandage underneath my sleeve. Yeah, it felt good.
We’d gone on strike for a morning a few days before and I think we’d gotten our tattooes as a way to let out some of the pain. There had been rumbling for a little bit. Eddie didn’t have money for tools. Motivation was waning further and further as the mild Mississippi winter settled in and people got angrier and angrier about little things. Luc’s father Yvon was upset, Eddie was upset— it was all a big deal. One Monday morning instead of anyone going out on a crew, all of the long-termers sat under a tent in the field out back. Maybe thirty of us, but familiar faces. I sat on the periphery and watched as Caleb emerged from the building and walked over to the tent, Sara H at his side.
The conversation was muted but powerful in the way it was muted. It started with a lot of people looking at the ground, or looking away. Then Caleb demanded we all go to work. The volunteers expressed their dismay at how things were going, how the disconnect affected them, how this was their lives they gave, how everyone should be on the page. Caleb dodged and parried behind his glasses, explaining that he supported us but he had little control when it came to Atlanta. The big moment of the meeting was when Yvon spoke:
“Caleb, do you look in the mirror in the morning? Go find a mirror and look into it. Look into that mirror and tell me if you see a leader. Look hard. You are not a leader. And if you expect all of us as volunteers to follow you, knowing that you are who you are…would you follow you?”
Caleb stuttered for a second and said that he would. That there were things behind the scenes we couldn’t understand, but he tried his best for us and to get us the things we needed. Yvon stared him in the face as he spoke.
When the meeting was over nothing had really been solved, but I don’t think that was the point of the strike. Everyone went back out on crews and I joined Woody, Eddie, and Deubs to go back out toward Division to install a bathroom. Nothing was going to change, I realized as I sipped my Monster energy drink on the way toward East Biloxi. Eddie may have made a comment about how that was true, and I probably acknowledged it with a nod. We had a mini-strike because we were angry— maybe that’s how unions started before they got more organized and informed. Over the consequent weeks, nothing really changed, and the rift between administration and crew leads became that much more pronounced. There were people in the middle, a growing population of Falcons and Annes, but it was what it was. The writing was on the wall, and to be a building crew lead meant to be at the mercy of Caleb’s leadership, in whatever form it took.
Strikes don’t work very well in volunteer camps. We were volunteers— we weren’t fighting for pay, we were fighting for fraternity. In those early months of 2007 I existed as a ghost on the side— I worked, but I also strived to figure out what should come next. After that meeting, I realized the culmination of everything I’d also seen through my years there. There would not be a place for me, and the camp I had fallen in love with was now torn by the petty issues that only come after the third, fourth, fifth redefinition of a civilization. If my Lord of the Flies society had been real, it was surely gone by now. It had been replaced by the reality of funding, the push of corporate, and the instigation above all other things that volunteers were replaceable and therefore not necessary for any discussion of continuation or goals. Erin was gone, Cora was not the Executive Director, and Caleb would do whatever Atlanta instructed him to do. I watched all of this from my ghost pedestal. It was real and it was happening.
So I restarted the tattoo conversation that evening and a few days later we went and did it. Getting a tattoo is just enough pain to take out the stress. Eddie and I had been planning them for some time. He’d wanted to get an homage to Stephen Sherman, the oldest Sherman brother, the one that had died in Iraq. I simply wanted to remind myself to live like a fuse at all times. Like a firecracker, and not to lounge through life. Brilliantly, ecstatically, irrepressibly— this is the way to burn. I touched my sleeve a few times on our drive home that day, on our way back to the tent life behind the church.
A few days later, my alternator kicked out and suddenly I didn’t even have an escape route. My trunk had sprung a leak and my library of books and notes was all but destroyed. I had one thing going for me at that time though— I had adopted Miss Sue’s tent complex (tent complex being three tents connected through doorways insulated together with duct tape) so in the least I wasn’t sleeping in the van. It was still a rough spell for Helicopter and I though, undoubtedly.
“What does it all add up to?” I asked James Wheeler one evening in that tent. James was an architect with the University of Minnesota— I’d actually call him their de facto leader. He had taken up my slack in being a spirit leader of camp that winter. He was opinionated, bearded, and thoughtful. And he shrugged as we sat in my tent, talked with guarded passion about the East Biloxi Coordination Center, about rebuilding this Gulf Coast right. I nodded and drank water out of a large Frullati cup.
That was the thing about being a volunteer in 2007 that knew how it was in 2005. Everyone was passionate, but there was no system to take it up to the next level. Even those that had put in so much time, so many months of their life…it just wasn’t apparent how to transcend upward. I’d started out as a silent gutter, or a tree branch puller for Jerry. Then I was a crew leader. Then I was managing all of the crews. Then I was mobilizing resources from left and right to figure out how to run a mold crew best and create a model of recovery. I was trying to make it better for the next storm. And it was all logical until Hands On Network pulled the rug out from underneath me. Probably because they were too disconnected to have a clue what was going on. Or Erin wasn’t telling them the right things. I don’t know. It was a bureaucratic fuckfest though. And to be an intelligent person that had seen it from start to finish, it was utterly, and I mean utterly, deflating. For James, architecture was a different beast and there was more structure and support for him. I lauded that. But for me, reflecting on mold— Jesus, what the fuck do you do with that?
One day I received a mysterious letter in the mail. It was postmarked Oakland, California, it had no return address, and it consisted of a ripped off piece of green construction paper and these words:
“For a second- you see- and you seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second, there’s meaning.” One of my favorites, too. Hope you’re well, healthy, happy.
I never did find out for sure who sent me that letter. Nor was I sure what the quote was from. I turned it over again and again, I shared it with friends, I even tried decoding it assuming there was some deeper message in every second or third letter. It didn’t bother me, though. It was a nice little mystery to consider. Better than trying not to check Evelyn’s MySpace page (I did,) better than the mystery of how Evelyn could be “in a relationship” only five weeks after Christmas.
I did other things to pass the time besides working and smoking and not drinking. I started swimming again, with Luc and a new architect named Jenny. The Biloxi Natatorium was open in the neighborhood off Irish Hill. We’d go now and then, nothing regular, but it was good to be back in the water. It had been a long time since I’d swam, and I was rusty for sure, but the laps were good meditation. I started losing weight pretty quickly- I had always been hovering around 186 or so, and to my surprise on a Wal-Mart visit I stepped on a scale that said 175.
Some of the long-termers started to plan a movie festival of some sort, they called it “Sundance of the South.” People looked to me originally to emcee, but I stayed on the fence. Luc gave me a hard time about it. Why would you skip Sundance? Sundance embodies everything you love about Hands On, Guillermo. I shrugged. My chagrin over Caleb and Network had simply seeped into everything I did a bit— I was living and working in a place wherein I finally and definitively no longer believed in the management. It speckled everything with a different sort of feel. James took the reins, Michelle Hamburger did too. I didn’t go— I slept in my tent instead and saw the videos my friends had made later.
I carried a lot on my shoulders that winter. There was one thing, however, that I did start to get more passionate about. I started thinking obsessively about why there had been a strike, why Hope VI had died, and what I could have done differently to prevent it. I started thinking about what came next. I daydreamed about organizing a brain trust of smart, departed, young long-termers and starting discussions about a specific non-profit, one where all the pieces worked the way they were supposed to.
“Imagine numerous unilateral goal-specific operations under one big umbrella, but on a large, hidden level, and have each operation retain its own quality-control through advanced recruitment techniques.” I told Eddie. “A building program in Biloxi. An art program in the Pass. Let each of these operations retain its own identity but be supplemented by an ‘advanced vision’ of sorts wherein all of the aspects coalesce into a larger idea, a better, more equitable community where all residents and children are empowered and given outlets, from the cultural standpoint to the fiscal.”
Eddie listened and nodded thoughtfully.
“Sign me up, man. Let me know when it happens.”
In late February, I started googling things like “non-profit management” and “grassroots organization.” I withdrew physically and mentally from any thought of law school. Law school had been something I figured might be fun and what my friends were doing. But I wasn’t passionate about it. Watching Law & Order: Special Victims Unit did not count as a reason for loans and for spending your life doing something. I needed a bunch of changes and I needed them fast. I needed to reclaim my direction, as opposed to spending my time working on my van and going out on crews.
So one morning I talked to Amy de Huff and she let me know about some positions opening up with some other community organizations. There was one that was an absolutely terrible match for me, but a great match for a friend— a position running a place called Moore Community House and setting up some synergistic opportunities for women in East Biloxi. Something like “Women In Construction.” I sent Amy to Karissa for that.
There was a second opportunity though that piqued my interest. And although at first glance it seemed like everything I’d decided not to pursue years before, it was a perfect opportunity to use some skills for good. It was a financial counselor position with an organization called Enterprise Corporation of the Delta, providing advice to Katrina victims receiving federal funding via block grants. I nodded and started touching up my resume.
One last thing happened that winter that I’d be remiss not to mention. Michael Julian got kicked out, Armando left, Brannon left, I made out with an AmeriCorps girl, John Wildeman arrived, other things. But what I will remember the most from that winter beyond the strike, and the tattoo, was this moment that no one else knows about.
In early March, after I had fixed Astro’s alternator and had her up and running again, I woke up one morning, drove to the Circle K to get some coffee, and hit Route 1 along the Mississippi Sound at dawn. I drove along this highway on purpose, listening to music, past the new random Waffle Houses between destroyed lots, until I got to Highway 49 where I cut north. I hit I-10 after that and soon found the exit for Bay St. Louis. I drove down the road until it was into the town, and turned back toward the bridge they were working on. Out past the sand was a pier with a parking lot and there was a lone black truck.
I pulled in and parked, and exited the van with my coffee. I walked over to the truck and knocked on the window. The window came down and the man driving the truck smiled at me and acknowledged my arrival with a tall can of PBR in a brown bag.
Ryan got out of the truck and we walked out to the edge of the half-made parking lot. He had a story about why he’d been kicked out of Kristin Burlage’s place, something about a kid that was staying with Kristin and a fight. He was probably going to head out to Denver. New Orleans hadn’t worked out. He didn’t have a place to stay. I caught him up on my new plan.
“So you’re leaving Hands On?”
I mean, I think so. I’ll keep doing advising work of course. I’m working on an EPA grant that should pay me some supplemental money. But I gotta do something else. It’s broken.
“Huh. Well, you could come out to Denver if you wanted.”
I shook my head. I’m gonna buckle down here for awhile. I think I’m supposed to be here.
“Things got crazy in New Orleans, man. This kid was nuts. And Kellie never set me up with the tool bank, I don’t know why she called me in the first place.”
I’m gonna get a real job soon and a new place. And I’m gonna move out of the tent and into Biloxi. If you swing back through ever, you know you’ve got a couch.
Ryan nodded and swigged his beer. The sky was beautiful that day. My coffee was cold but still dark and still good. Sitting on that pier, pacing that pier, even if it was a different pier than any I’d been on before, it was still so good. I remembered Thanksgiving, but not 2006— 2005. Quinnelly at his greatest, dangling like a mad man off the Grand Casino pier, holding onto a broken pylon with one hand and clutching a rope attached to a crab trap with the other, convinced fishing was going to work, as we watched in awe and stupor. It had been so long, yet so many things had happened. We walked back over to our vehicles after some time and hugged it out.
“Thanks for coming out to meet me, Guillermo. I’ll see you soon.”
Yup. Take care, man. I will see you soon.
Ryan nodded, swung back into his black truck, backed out, and drove away with a wave and a sly smile under his red mesh trucker cap.
I watched my friend’s truck turn down a Bay St. Louis road and past a home, and then vanish. Then I drove to the Barnes & Noble in Gulfport and bought a study guide for the GMAT.