Making God Laugh

Denver: Tonight I was supposed to be home. I would have arrived around 11 PM, picked up my truck at the airport, and gone home. I would have seen to the old German shepherd in the yard, put the dirty clothes from a week on the road into the wash, thrown some clean ones in the same bag for the next week, and thankfully slept in my own bed until catching a flight on Wednesday morning to Tampa. Instead, I’m on a plane to Tampa in some odd version of last year’s Tom Hanks movie and uncertain, when or if, I will be back in New Orleans and whether there is even a home to find once I’m finally there. One is reminded of the old one-liner: see God laugh, make a plan!

  The truck may, or may not be, under water where it sits on a Park n’ Fly surface lot a couple of hundred yards from the New Orleans Armstrong Airport, but it is clear from every newspaper article and news report that the airport is definitely closed and underwater. Who knows when the airport will open again, but that did not keep United, despite my Premier frequent flyer status, from making me buy an entirely new ticket to fly to Tampa though the original flight was cancelled to New Orleans, simply because I recognized reality and made the reservation before they cancelled, rather than waiting until after they did so.

  The old shepherd ended up being caravaned to the closest kennel we could find in Hattisburg, Mississippi. On Friday as the hurricane bore down on New Orleans we sat on cell phones and internet connections toggling between finding planes and kennels, and tried desperately at long distance to walk our oldest, Chaco, through the million tasks he had to perform alone to close up the house, pack up his gear for school, hurricane proof the yard and patio, where everything might soon become unguided missiles, and wait in line for hours to get gas in this truck to leave. Beth and I were already in Colorado taking the first days of vacation this year before a weekend meeting. Suddenly, instead of enjoying the sunsets and mountains of the West, we were hunkered down trying to parachute Beth into the city, so that she and Chaco could leave together. We spent our time on that Saturday morning, like millions of Americans and virtually all southerners with lives and livelihoods on the Gulf Coast, flipping switches between the Weather Channel and CNN. Finally, Beth flew into the storm.

  You might ask, what does one do in situations like this? Well, I answered overdue emails pushed aside in a short couple of days off. I wrote the bulk of a proposal requested and due September 9th to support the development of a new organizing model for workers and communities. Ate a bowl of chili made with buffalo (delicious) and had what my staff calls one of my “beers of the year” — called a Fat Tire (also, pretty damn good) near midnight on Larimer Street in Denver, while reading about the evangelical Graham family in the New Yorker, before watching more of the Weather Channel and worrying incessantly about my people in New Orleans.

  Waking up early on Sunday morning, I ran along the Cherry Creek trail before dawn and came back to find three messages the upshot of which was that I needed to call my dad and talk him into evacuating. I was glad to call him, but there is no such thing as talking my dad into something. He is going to do what he’s going to do. I could throw some words in his direction, and he might — or might not — consider them, but I was under no illusions. The day before they had planned in a not unusual New Orleanian tradition to check into the old Monteleone Hotel (one of the few remaining locally owned hotels in the city and therefore one that maintains full staff and services during hurricanes — they don’t advertise this, but if you live in the city 50 years or so, then eventually you stumble onto some of the things that make it work). My mother, watching her stations, had decided it was time to leave, and so had my brother, but this was a vote that required unanimity, and my dad was holding out.

  When I called and asked for him in these hours before the deluge, he was out. He was down the block at a neighbor’s house checking on things, and, as a testament to how this native Californian had become such a dyed-in-the-wool New Orleanian, he was also according to my mother, watering their yard. It is what he did early on Sunday mornings before church, and it was what he was going to do right now as well. Within an hour the tide had turned and they were all leaving, but had nowhere to go, since hotels were booked to 100 miles north of Jackson, Mississippi. Within another hour they had all found places through in-laws of a friend in Magee, outside of Jackson, and were on their way to spend six hours to reach a destination that would normally take two.

  Sunday cell phones were already going down, but I was able to reach home by calling the landline there. Chaco gave regular reports, but he was exhausted from doing everything he could and doing “his best” as he movingly assured me several times. He was right obviously. There was no way to do everything that needed to be done. There was no way to even know how much could ever be done to prepare for the unknown, therefore he did his best, and that was more than enough. 10:15 AM CST/8:15 MST on Sunday morning was my last conversation with him. They were getting ready to leave soon with only a few more things to do and hoped to be out on the highway within the hour.

  I finally heard from my daughter, Dine’, now organizing in Florida and like a thousand organizers who work with us, she had been so busy she had only just realized what was happening and how worried she should be. From that point on I could feel her worrying a thousand miles away as I would get emails from her worrying about what would happen to her “poor sleeping house” and asking about the news from hither and yon. It made me remember Betsy in 1965 which we weathered in a downtown building as I began my senior year in high school, and then Camille, when I was organizing in Springfield, Massachusetts, and had to make the same calls that she was now making as I tried to find my family in New Orleans when that killing storm came through the Gulf.

  I then pretended to run a meeting until finally hearing from them more than twelve hours later. The connection was bad and coming from a 601 area code in Mississippi. The home team was fried! The story was brief and unforgettable. They had tag teamed two vehicles to Slidell over the twin spans (which are now destroyed and impassable) and the normally 30 minute drive had taken 2 1/2 hours. With one of the cars almost out of gas, they considered themselves lucky to finally find some fuel. Another 6 hours found them in Hattisburg, where they were able to kennel the dog and thanks to the good graces of the kennel owners, leave one of the vehicles behind to be retrieved at later date.

  Piecing the story together later in talking to the lady at the Baptist Church that sheltered them, it seems that they stopped for something to eat in Laurel and said that they just “couldn’t drive another mile,” and local folks had directed them to the church, where they hunkered down with 60 other people stranded on the road and sheltered by the local Samaritans living there. She told me the story when I called back, because they were already fast asleep at 10 PM from their exhausting and trying day.

  All of Monday and Tuesday I spent moving from the meetings to TV, waking up and watching for the reports at 3 or 4 AM for several hours, and pushing on. One spends huge amounts of time and energy in denial and speculation. Taking snippets of non-existent information and trying to convince oneself at long distance that ‘it could be worse,” or that the house is on higher ground because it’s near the River on the alluvial flood plain or the office is close to the French Quarter and the camera shots do not seem to indicate flooding there or that the levee breach was farther down from my neighborhood or closer towards Metairie and farther from downtown, or whatever. It all seems such nonsense when one thinks about it, but denial is what it is, an act of self hypnosis convincing oneself that the reality could not be quite so real, so personal, so terrible, and devastating. And, at the same time one feels guilty, because caught in the personal denial one is repressing so deeply, is the certain knowledge when seeing the Lower 9th Ward under 5-6 feet of water and hearing the stories of “roof rescues” that there are now going to be hundreds and thousands of ACORN and Local 100 members who will lose everything and in some cases may have lost their lives, while I obsess about it all in Denver a mile high above sea level. You don’t want it to have been someone else, someone you know, anyone at all, but at the same time, you don’t want it to be you either! When the reports would say that 80% of the city was underwater, you still were playing the percentages and thinking that you might have been the “lucky” 20%.

  It’s maddening, and during this temporary insanity one also wrestles with the fact that no cell phones work, and as much as you are convinced that everyone is safe and sound, you are petrified that you can not find anyone, and you have not heard from them in close to 40 hours. The only thing you know how to do is to keep “maintaining.” One step follows another. One hour comes after the next. The work goes on. It is important too. You do your laundry in the hotel. You buy a couple of shirts to supplement your packing. You survive. You adapt.

  Heading for the airport with my closest comrades, each sharing 30 years of struggle with me, and knowing me well, they start sharing the news that I was missing. They share reports that the city is now 100% underwater and undergoing 100% evacuation, that the Mayor is saying the utilities may be out for 4-6 weeks, that no one can go home, that dead bodies are floating, that the 17th Street Canal has opened up over a 3 block area and that nothing is stopping the Lake from allowing water to rise to its own level and fill the bowl of the city, that one saw a boat rescuing someone on Elysian Fields, the street where our office is located. In the car I finally reach my brother, Dale, in Mississippi and he has heard reports of people rescued in the Bywater neighborhood from water as high as the first storey of a house. No matter how hard I press him about whether or not he was hearing someone say that it was “by water” rather than in Bywater, he was clear and firm that it was Bywater, and we both knew that meant that both of our houses in that neighborhood were also underwater as well. There were other reports of 3 feet of water on St. Claude, which runs by our office and only blocks from where both of us live. The denial was over. It was now a question of looking at the real cards on the table, rather than guessing at the percentages. One could spend time quibbling with oneself over how bad water inside your home would be at 2 feet as opposed to 10 feet, but that was a fool’s game, especially if the water was rising, and nothing about the arrogance of men and women tempting nature to live in New Orleans was still working in any way whatsoever.

  It is impossible to describe the feeling of having thought one might have dodged the bullet when the hurricane just missed the city and lulled oneself into some false relief and then in a feeling of total impotence being reminded again not to make God laugh even harder, as one gets sucker punched to your knees. Denial goes to dread and there is a great emptiness behind that.

  Finally, on the blackberry, a message came in from Chaco’s address penned by the both of them, saying that they were all right! They had made it to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, not far from Nashville and were now holed up for the night at a motel there. It seemed that they had been trapped in Laurel and sheltered, thankfully, by the good Baptists there for 2 nights. A tornado had followed Katrina’s path near I-59 and whizzed right by them. Branches and trees had fallen all over the roads, trapping them into the shelter area. They had spent much of Monday chain sawing trees out of the roadways and pulling pines to the side to clear a path to finally leave Tuesday, before finally being on their way.

  As I heard from them, one of Beth’s brothers called me on the other cell, somehow confounding technology and getting through. I told him Beth and Chaco were fine and after this experience deep in the bosom of the foot washing Baptists, they might have been “reborn,” which gave him a good laugh, since he is the most religious of her siblings, and she might be among the least. He of course said that as soon as he finished a job later in September to count on him being down for a week to help put some skill into the job of rebuilding or doing whatever could be done. The relief of finally find them on the road was cathartic! One was linked back to a family, a larger community, and a larger and more precious world of people and recognition of what matters.

  Throughout these two days as the pictures of New Orleans became worse and worse, I heard from more people, some I might have suspected, and many that simply surprised.

  For example, Janet Reasoner working for ACORN from Wyoming emailed to offer to relocate part of the office across from her place for as long as it might take. Mac England, who I had not heard from for years, who used to manage the radio station in Little Rock sent an email offering to come to New Orleans from Flagstaff where he was now living to help “twist wires together” and rebuild some of the members’ houses. Josie Mooney, the head of a sister SEIU local in San Francisco, offered to raise money for Local 100 members wiped out by the storm. Adam Bass, the vice-chair of the huge sup-prime lender Ameriquest, with whom we often fought hammer and tong, but also had partnered with in recent years on struggling to create best practices and current sponsor of the Rolling Stones tour, somehow got through on my cell in the Denver airport to ask what the company could do to help their borrowers in New Orleans and how could the company help ACORN families who must be losing everything. There were many more. Each one was moving, and reminded me what a hopeless idealist and romantic I continue to be, while hundreds of other messages continued to indicate that the world really went on just as it always did, focused on the immediate, the personal, and whatever itch had to be scratched at the time.

  Comrades from years as always proved their friendship by reaching out and finding me someone. I am continually reminded how lucky we are. Michael Kieschnick of Working Assets, Tony Fazio of Winning Directions, and Drummond Pike of the Tides Foundation, all called separately to offer places to stay, places to work, and anything else we might need and that they could do. Other friends were ready to go in Houston, Tampa, Boston, Chicago, New York, and Little Rock. It was heartwarming and embarrassing. We never return our friendships to full value, and we are often surprised where we find them.

  Others who I might not have expected also reached out to express concern, thoughtfulness, and not infrequently prayer: Barbara, Chris, Greg, Sarah, Pat, Lisa, and literally scores of others too numerous to mention, all humbled me by reminding me with every message of the great gifts people bring and the depth of character that is a necessary requirement of a good life.

  All of which made it impossible not to write this in many ways as a “thank you” note to so many who realize that it may be a Faustian bargain to live in the New Orleans paradise and ignore the snakes, but that they understand and forgive it as human and the search for a home and community that often defies simple logic and reason, along with nature’s constraints, is also something that so many of us share.

  This blog may not be up long.

  In days I will eventually find my family and assure myself of their well being. Reaching Tampa, I will see my daughter in coming days, and while both of us are working, we will be able to more easily weather this storm at a distance, as she forges her life and future. Within the week I will find Beth and Chaco in upstate New York where he is about to start school after Labor Day, and Beth will once again tell me that this blog was out of line, that it is not my right to share private and family business, that it proves that I have a problem with boundaries, that I must be insane and whatever, and I will promise to have it taken down, when she asks, and it will disappear as quickly as it comes before you, but doing so I will shrug, because it is true and I can not really help myself.

  It is a cliche that a disaster brings everyone together. There are separate and scalding memories and challenges that defy such facile unity, but that does not mean that we do not learn many things. About ourselves, and about many, many others, as well as re-measuring the meaning of much in our lives and the world around us and reassessing true values at the foundation of what makes us who we are and care to me.

  Thanks for thinking of us and the many, many thousands of our members who are now facing this crisis as a challenge.

  I mean it!

P.S. Donations are welcome and needed for the ACORN Hurricane Relief Fund, to help us reopen, rebuild, and organize and serve our communities as soon as possible in this time of need.

A helicopter over the flooded neighborhoods of New Orleans.
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