Where Music Comes From
Things look so bad everywhere
In this whole world, what is fair?
We walk blind, we try to see
Falling behind in what could be—
Bring me a higher love…
Where’s that higher love I keep thinking of?
-Steve Winwood, “Higher Love”
I quit my job at Enterprise Corporation of the Delta in October, but I’d be remiss not to share this story. In September, I was asked to do a special assignment outside of reporting to my desk in the Gulfport Outlet Mall to see homeowners for appointments. Instead, I was put on duty driving around Hancock County to seek out grant applicants that had been approved, but hadn’t sent in the next form and thus were stopped in the pipeline. Their money was sitting and waiting for them to pick up, but no one had heard from them. And at this point, why not go pay them a visit to make sure they were aware?
At about 2 pm the day of the assignment I’d been riding along the coast for about five hours. My cohort from our legal-side partner organization was a paralegal named Joe that happened to also be running for County Coroner. By 2 I’d pretty much listened to him talk about how great embalming is, and how he’s really excited to be the coroner, and no one knows the business like he does since he’s been embalming people from the age of 12, and his daddy was a mortician. For four and a half hours. He’d only stop his rambling to point out his yellow “County Coroner” campaign signs on every other street corner, just to make sure I noticed.
After a number of stops closer to the coastline, we headed north toward the Kiln. I was excited. That’s Brett Favre’s hometown. I’d been on the Gulf Coast for 2 years, but I’ve never had a reason to explore rural northern parts of either Hancock or Jackson County. We had two houses to visit. Joe navigated us past the Broke Spoke (the famous shack dive bar owned by the Favre family,) and we soon turned down a small dirt road.
As we continued, there were some nice enough double-wides and small single-story homes for the first quarter mile or so. We kept driving looking for the address— and as we got further from the main road up the dirt road the conditions of the houses got worse and worse. But not worse like Katrina-fucked-up-that-house worse, worse like, “Holy shit. Those guys have clearly built those rotting shacks out of pallets and billboard tarp. And why are there so many grown people sitting in this junkyard of a back road at two o’clock in the afternoon on a Friday?” worse. These were the guys that didn’t even apply for FEMA trailers— because they didn’t know anyone with a phone. This was the rural Mississippi right back behind Pass Road that I so rarely broached. Behind us, I noticed four pitbulls chasing after our car, tearing up dust that lingered in the sun.
We drove all the way down to where the road dead ends at the same location that two massive transformer electric lines crisscross. We have two addresses on the same road, and sure enough, it’s Shack A and Shack B at the corner of this strange open space with edifices so far removed from the main road. When we stopped through my open window I could hear the drunks we passed screaming down the road, gibberish in the wind. The dogs were thankfully left behind. I paused.
“You want to come with on this one, Joe?”
“Fuck that. I’ll yell at you if I see any dogs. You need my eyes.”
Joe had not left the vehicle the entire time; I guess it was my job to knock on doors as the younger one? I exited the car and ran up quickly to the door of Shack A. I knocked and waited. After a second, the door opened. Standing before me was a wrinkled, track-armed gaunt man with a black gnarled beard down to his waist. He was wearing only boxer shorts, and behind him I immediately noticed a shotgun leaning on what might creatively pass for a dining table.
Then I looked at his face and the guy only has one eye. Not even a glass eye or a patch or anything. Just a right eye and a left crusty black hole that looked oozy and infected.
I asked him if he’s Mr. Whomever Was On My List, and he grunted. I repeat the question, and he muttered “Don’t know.” And stared at me with his eye.
“Well, is this the right address?”
“Yeah this it. Who you looking for again?”
I tell him.
“Maybe that’s the guy I bought this house from.”
I ask him if he remembers the name of the person he bought his house from.
And then he just sorta looks at me angrily, steps back, and slams the door.
I look back at Coroner Joe, who gives me a rage-inducing grin with a thumbs up and yells “How’d it all go?!?!”
“It’s not him.”
“Well, you win some you lose some. Hey, you better get back in here in the next 15 seconds, the dogs are on the other side of the field.”
I ran down the path and hopped back in right as the dog pack raced by us, sending dust up in the sky once again. They paused in the one-eyed guy’s yard, then in tandem all ran off together into the woods.
We drove a little ways down the dirt road to Shack B, and I decided we should not exit the car until we get out of the Kill. On the porch sat a woman that must have easily weighed 500 pounds, with rolls of fat drooped over each armrest and even hanging through the spaces in the wood underneath like a strange stalactite cave of human skin. We called out to her and she lurched forward with a sudden strength I didn’t expect, to her feet with a cane and then started hobbling over, past the small dogs, two goats, and rooster that were puttering about in her yard. When she reached us, she leaned up on my window. The skin on her neck and chest rested greasily about 18 inches from my right shoulder. She smelled awful, and her pupils are the size of half-dollars.
“What y’all want, what y’all want?”
“Hi ma’am, my name’s G and I’m with the MDA. We’re looking for Ms. White, have you seen her?”
She shook her head.
“Nah, I don’t know any Ms. White.”
“Well, have you lived here long?”
“My whole life.”
She looked down for a second, and then back up quickly with a strung-out recognition.
“Wait, maybe you guys mean my mother!”
“What’s her name?”
“O.K., well is Ms. White here?”
“No, she left…ummm…maybe like 2 weeks ago? Or maybe 2 months ago, I don’t know.” And she started giggling hysterically.
“She ran off with the guy next door to the Appalachians.”
“The guy next door that just moved away?” I asked. Through the windshield, a third miniature goat had escaped the pen and was stumbling around in her front dustbowl.
“Yeah! They ran off to get married!”
“Do you have your mother’s phone number?” Joe asked.
“Ummm….” She moved her neck in a big circle. “Um, no I don’t. We don’t really talk much.”
Then she stepped back from the vehicle, dropped her head in her hands, and started humming through her legs. I looked at Joe, who just had his mouth covered with his hand laughing in a tongue-bitten way. Then the woman stood up really quickly and said:
“My sister! My sister must have the number! She lives in Bay St. Louis!”
“Well, do you have your sister’s number?”
She shook her head and pushed out her lips out in a pursed, woe-is-me face. I sighed.
“Alright, well tell you what. I’m going to give you this information and if you see your sister, or figure out a way to contact your mom, you just call us, OK?”
And then Joe yells out,
“Ma’am, I think you lost a goat.”
She rotated around and took a few steps toward the kid. She picked it up and started rocking it.
“You are such a rascal, aincha! He’s a pygmy goat you know.” And then she gets all serious and gave us the hard stare. “A pygmy goat.”
“A pygmy goat! No way! I didn’t know they made pygmy goats, did you know that Guillermo?” Joe yells.
“No. That’s great ma’am.”
“Yeah, he’s a little runt though. I bottle feed him at night, you know.”
“Listen, we have to get going. It was really great to meet you, please try to get that information to your sister to get to your mother. Do you know where she lives?”
The woman by then was already ignoring us, staring longingly instead into the eyes of the complacent goat she was awkwardly grasping. Without even mentioning his intention, Joe put the car into drive and started turning back around toward the road.
For the next few years before he retired, TV announcers would say “Brett Favre from Kiln, Mississippi. I wonder what that’s like, John?” And John would chuckle and then they’d move onto game plans. That day sticks with me forever— I can tell you what real poverty is, not the strange casino poverty of East Biloxi but the brusque reality at the end of Camellia Street. These people were living in shacks made of tarp and wood all but off the grid before Katrina was even a household word.
It wasn’t like this whole thing shook me so badly that I needed to leave. But house visits like that, like the Kill but like so many other cities like the Kiln in so many parts of the country. That’s real, the meth and the alcohol and the lack of electricity and the departure from the look of normal neighborhoods. There couldn’t be anything more real, and it had a lasting effect on me.
I tried to relate that story, and the rest of my stories to an oil businessman in Houma two months later during my Stanford MBA interview. Admissions had given me an option to drive out to Atlanta, or to go down into deep watershed Louisiana. I took the latter, and that put me face-to-face with a gentleman from whom I immediately sensed judgment. It wasn’t that I wasn’t suited up or anything like that. I’d been hoping to meet someone inspirational, and figured this was a sure thing to be speaking to a Louisiana native, someone who could relate to my atypical path to a management degree, somebody who would see that combination of intelligence and empathy that I was sure would bring me success in California.
Instead as I sat in front of him and explained my choices, volunteering, ECD, tents, and why I wanted to take all of this to Stanford, he looked at me thoughtfully and bored simultaneously. I went through my stories about John Henry Beck Park, about the Hope VI experiment, about sitting with all the Katrina victims with the financial counseling thing, and he nodded. Eventually there was a pause.
“Katrina was hard for us too.”
“Oh I can only imagine. In Houma?”
“Well, I mean more for the business. We lost a number of rigs in the storm, it took us a few years to get P&L back to the right place.”
The most awkward two-second silence followed. One of those brief lulls in a conversation that you are immediately aware has signaled the end of any recovery to the tone of the dialogue. It only got worse after that. I asked him why he wanted to Stanford, and he responded that his whole family had gone to Stanford so it was just the place that made the most sense.
By the end of the interview it was clear neither of us wanted to spend another uncomfortable second with the other. I might as well have been sprinting out of the strange oil building standing on the outskirts of flat Houma, tearing my suit jacket off and lighting a cigarette all in the same frustrated motion. Dally stood by Rhona; she’d come down with me for support. I leaned against the car and blew a stream of monoxide into the air. Dally looked concerned, I shrugged it off, and we headed back north toward New Orleans.
* * *
It wasn’t so crazy to me. Dan and Erin had shipped out to Oregon at the beginning of the Fall. A couple of the other couples had left together. For me, by the time we’d gotten into November I knew I was leaving at the end of the year. I didn’t know where I was going to go to business school, let alone whether I could even afford it. But I didn’t want to stay on the Gulf Coast right up to the last minute— I felt finally right about shoring up my departure plans and being someplace lovely before returning to the books.
Dally was finishing up her contract in December and had always been planning to go back home. I even flew out with her to spend Thanksgiving with her family, and also secretly to make sure Denver seemed like it would suit me. It seemed like it would. My taking in of the city was less hurried this time around than it was the year before, and I got some good looks at the mountains, some good breaths of air. Denver seemed good. And things with Dally were good— really good.
I never would have imagined after the whole Evelyn fiasco that there’d be a different woman I’d always associate myself with in the Katrina context. Early in my relationship with Dally I second guessed myself a couple times, which led to some fights. And ultimately to a firm and vocal realization over a surprise candlelight light dinner I made her on my back porch that it was almost laughable to compare the two. By December we were very in love with each other, and staying together when we left wasn’t a question. Colorado seemed as good a place as any, and it was all too convenient that Denver had produced a woman like my girlfriend.
The word went around slowly— the viral nature of communication in 06 had gone to the wind with the field diaspora. It wasn’t any shock though. 2007 had quickly gone by, and become one of protracted steps forward in many different parts of my life. I’d somehow gone from whatever shell I had emerged from at New Year’s into a man with a dog, a woman, a future city, and outstanding applications to the best non-profit slanted business schools my research had brought me. All those things were good, and none of those things made the impending departure any easier when it came to my friends. I’d done two goodbyes already and ended up back, but this one— well, everyone knew it was permanent.
I’d had so many farewell conversations with friends that it didn’t seem necessary to rehash anything. The cast of characters had changed slightly— JP had been back to work since the summer, Erica Winslow too. Dan and Erin were gone. Some new people, some other people I didn’t mention leaving left. I never meant for this account to become a series of pseudo-eulogies to the hundreds of people that had some sort of effect on me and disappeared from my life. I didn’t make a big deal out of my imminent departure, and I’d already gone through the emotional toll of my two previous ones.
So I kept quiet as that year ended. My last two months was work focused on HOGC’s mold program, a new grant that they had received for mold education, getting things in place on facilitating that going forward. On the side, Dally and I continued going to dinners in new places on date nights, making each other mix CD’s, and being generally happy. Once I quit ECD, I went out at any chance I could with building crew. The best were special days without short-termers. Those were the days I could walk around and do some menial task like set measurements or help hang a door or dig. It was a goddamn pleasure to work alongside Eddie and Deubs and JP and John Wildeman when I could, I treasured those moments that Fall. Dally was consistently out with all of my best friends, so it only made these days that much more fulfilling. Everyday I went out with them I learned something I could use for the rest of my life. I bet a bunch of carpenters get to say that about their lives. By this point, Eddie and Deubs had struck up a lasting friendship with a timber framer out of Cherokee County, Georgia by the name of Goldberg. We’d sit around smoking pot after work and I’d listen to them talk so respectfully and excitedly about timber framing, about Goldberg, about building houses out of trees instead of 2×4’s. I understood a tenth of what they were talking about, like always— but that was kind of the beauty of it in a way, and why it was so important to me.
I’d been there over two years by the time I was set to leave. One of the constants of the whole experience was that I always had more respect for the crew leaders than I did for the management. Non-profits on the administrative side had been so utterly disappointing that I’d set myself up to go get a graduate degree and figure out why things worked the way they did so I could come back and fix it. In the meantime though, I’d always watched the way leaders led, and for the most part I did it silently. But I became obsessed with this facet of the recovery effort. Leadership. Making examples. Doing the right thing beyond the minimum, and certainly beyond the policy. Caring about people’s development. Seeing it beyond the numbers. Being caught in that awkward spot between administration and the people was such an unnerving facet of my whole experience.
In the end, all I wanted to do was work. All I wanted was calluses on my hands once again, and to learn something. I wanted to know how to build a house, how to use tools— I wanted real skills. I wanted to be an asset in an unforeseen situation, not a liability.
Closing things out with everyone came in iterative bursts. Moments here and there. Not as many as you would have thought with any particular friend. There was no need for overkill. I knew for the most part that I would see many of these men and women again so I didn’t sweat the goodbye so much. Or maybe I’d become so numb to goodbyes after so many of my friends left over and over again that I just didn’t pay much mind to them anymore.
So there wasn’t much fanfare when I left, and it was Christmas time. Holidays made it hard to tell whether people were just leaving for family and coming back, or leaving forever. If you really wanted people to care about your departure, you’d leave in holidayless August I suppose. I dropped Dally off at the airport around the 20th so she could fly back home to spend the holidays with her folks. I did a long drive around the Coast. I walked out onto that pier I’d stood on so many times before. I got an egg and cheese biscuit at D’Vines. And a Ga Roti with extra meat at Le Bakery. I went by Swifty Mart and said goodbye. I drove around to do many things like that, many ritualistic things involving train tracks and routes and the way things looked two years ago versus how they looked that day.
Leadership. I always thought about leadership. Dally, Eddie, Deubs…hell, everyone I’d truly been close to, Ben, Billy, TC, Ryan— we all shared a very grounded and very serious opinion about the importance of good leadership. We were a crazy crowd to be sure, but what we were not was lazy. What we were not were liars, or credit stealers. We got up early and got shit done. We stayed out until it was finished. We worked like madmen, and we made good decisions. Or if we made bad decisions, we swallowed it, learned, and went forward. We were humble.
I got so angry at the idea that someone could call himself or herself a leader without working in the trenches. I got so angry about management, and ownership, about Hands On, about Erin and Caleb. It was only years later after more experience that I realized this wasn’t an issue of Hands On, or these particular people doing this particular thing. It was just something particular about this random crazy thing that happened to me at this moment of my life.
I was twenty-two. My first job out of college was responding to the biggest natural disaster in American history. And the Red Cross didn’t put me in a fancy hotel in 2005, and IBM didn’t put me up to provide business consulting for the recovery effort— when I eventually did go to business school, I had two classmates that respectively fell into each of those categories. I didn’t begrudge them for it, but I quickly realized that it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t the same as that field, or those people, or that sociological phenomenon that I had somehow fallen into and become a part of.
No. I got on a bus. Then I worked. And I broke down whatever half baked adult development I’d realized in college, and rebuilt myself.
Earlier in 2007, this guy Alex Howe was working at camp. He’d been Parkhursted from Dartmouth and was waiting out his time volunteering. He wrote this article about me. When he interviewed me for it, he seemed so excited about telling my story. I was wary but went with it. When it came out, it ended up being a piece I was proud to have come up when someone looked me up on the Internet. It wasn’t all 100% correct— he messed up the part about my “gc” tattoo and wrote that it stood for “Gulf Coast.” I had that tattoo before Katrina even happened. I had that tattoo because my first and middle initial are G and C, and also because the protagonist in James Joyce’s “The Dead” uses G.C. as a pseudonym for his newspaper editorials. And when I published a story in the Stonefence Review, Dartmouth’s literary magazine, I made sure my author identification was G.C. Olivos.
The point is, besides tattoos and newspaper articles, I somehow slipped into an existence wherein I inspired people everyday, in a reality where progress was palpable. I left the Coast as the grassroots mold expert of Katrina recovery. And that was just something I did because no one else wanted to do it. I managed the restoration of a park in a city thousands of miles from where I live, and it would not have happened if some of the best men and women I ever knew weren’t working for me. Because they weren’t working for me, they were working for themselves. In short, I learned more about not only myself but about people, and what is possible of people that believe in what they do and are supported by a network of camaraderie beyond anything I’ve ever seen in my life. You know what is possible? Anything.
When I loaded up my car to finally leave, it wasn’t hard. The first few times it felt like I was running away from something I was disappointed in. The last time, I was simply going home. I was off to Maryland to do Christmas, and then wait for Dally to fly in after her birthday, after which we’d start our three-week road trip to move to Denver by way of the entirety of New England (she’d never been and I had an interview at Yale) as well as the Canadian highway north of Huron. So it was just an issue of packing up my belongings, donating some others to friends, and making the perfect mix CD for the drive out, the last drive out.
It’s not that when the sun sets and God is Pooh Bear that I think of old Ryan Quinnelly and paint him into a modern-day Neal Cassady. I don’t. And similarly it’s not that I hold up Dally to the sky and scream “this was love, this was when two heroes fell in love and it was perfect and I want the world to know that this happened to me.” It wasn’t perfect. I don’t think of Eddie as an Okonkwo, I don’t think of Brian Deubert as a Starbuck, and I don’t think of JP as a Horatio, even if they were all that and then some. That would be giving something away from what I have with these real people— respect and friendship. Shit, maybe I’m a character in someone else’s book that they’ve been writing, and I am simple and 1 ½ dimensional and just a go getting “gc” kinda guy. That’s easy. It’s easier to be a side character than it is to be the protagonist. It’s easier to be great when people don’t look at you as long as they look at the stars— it’s a stage time question, time to fuck up, time to say the wrong thing, etcetera, etcetera.
In writing this I don’t think I wrote a perfect book about volunteering after Katrina. I do hope I wrote a perfect book about how it was for me though. That’s all I was really hoping for by the end. We were all heroes sometimes, but we are villains too— I’ll call it like I see it. No one is perfect. There is no such thing as a great man and there is no such thing as a pure charlatan. We are all capable of being something to someone and another thing to another. I have lived a rich life as best as I can imagine, and come to this conclusion staring at the horizon of 30: we can’t chase dragons forever. We can’t say one thing to the outside and another thing to our peers. We can’t be heroes everyday. There is no great balance and there is no great life, from the ends of the roads we walk to the nadirs of the hills we descend. All of this, the things back home, the dogs and the smiles and the tides, it has all happened. Tom Robbins says, ‘we waste time looking for the perfect lover, instead of creating the perfect love.’ Maybe we waste time looking for the perfect life instead of creating one out of the opportunities right before us. Or around the corner. I’ll still wander until I find something to stop for, but I’ll be damned if I’m cheated out of something spiritual along the way. I try to keep that in mind, I’ve tried to keep that in mind since driving out of that base for the last time.
There was no greater existence in my brief life to date than working on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I knocked it out of the park everyday. We all did. We were all the best versions of ourselves for a brief period of time. I pray that dealing with the weight of that in the years after was easier for my friends than it was for me, even though I know it wasn’t. We were so young, most of us. We were so young. Now, many of us are versions of adults that don’t seem quite the right age, quite the right look in our eyes. I can’t tell if it was that Katrina drew together a group of people that are simply not normal. Whether giving up your life and security and everything you are told is important to go help people you have never met, whether that is simply not normal. I can’t tell if it was that we were all these strange people before or after the experience. Even if all of us have our own backstories that are so different, so separate, we all got to one place and we worked together and grew to love each other in that process. We loved each other because it was hard, we loved each other because we were drunk, we loved each other when our bosses didn’t care about us, we loved each other when we hated someone else, but I think we mostly loved each other because all of us in our own twisted way were learning to love ourselves for one reason or another, even if we didn’t acknowledge it. Everybody had a backstory. Everybody had a backstory. After Biloxi we all had the Biloxi backstory. But before that, we had those things about our lives that drew us down there. Maybe that was where the magic came from.
It was something in our hearts, smoldering and rough and flaring and tender in that way that true beauty works, a cacophony of wrong-placed adjectives. The way that true love works. True love is not scripted. I know that love was in the souls of everyone I have taken forward with me in my heart ever since I drove out of that camp. They had something special that changed me forever in those years, an ephemeral perfection I’ve been chasing through the years since. Love is supposed to make you better, a better version of yourself. That’s how I always imagined it. These people in this story of mine did that, and at a level beyond imagination. I wrote earlier that Katrina became me. That’s the wrong version of it. Katrina didn’t become me— these people became me.
I drove out of that base blasting Track One of one of the best mixes I ever made. It was “Radar Love” by Golden Earring. I turned left to head to the Cowan-Lorraine bridge to I-10, and bopped down Pass Road with my dog hanging her head out the window, biting at the bayou air like it was the Jello we imagine it to be, toward I-10, toward what came next.
B: December 19, 2005
F: March 23, 2013
Wisconsin Dells, WI