I spent the past few days working at hotel ballroom that's been turned into a Hurricane Katrina Relief Aid center. 671 people were here who'd escaped the floods, shootings, thirst, hunger, stench, and fear gripping the Big Easy.
Note to self: The next time I hear someone complain to a waiter that there their filet 'isn't quite pink enough,' or that a traffic signal at the corner of Bush and Clinton roads just seems to last too long, I'm just going to reach over and slap the SKABLA out of them. No comment from me, just a open-handed slap.
If you're reading this, you have nothing to complain about. The people who I met this weekend have real problems-- of Baghdad-like proportions. Cecil B. DeMille was called in to direct this show. It's larger than life...yet, it is life.
A black guy named Devin sat in a chair staring at one the columns that, I guess, was holding up the building.
The room, at least seventy yards deep, was filled, on one side, with tables. The tables contained clothes. Clothes racks were along one entire wall. On the other side of the room were round tables. People were chatting, eating...kids were watching Sponge Bob, and volunteer workers were dishing out pizza and bottled water. Outside, about four black kids were playing basketball on the half-court. One black kid, about nine, was playing soccer with a girl who was barefoot and wearing a jean skirt.
People kept driving up in Toyota Sequoias and gold Jags. Every now and them, a Jeep Cherokee or a Hummer would stop. Fresh-faced, eager white people-- young and old-- would exit the cars with bags of clothes and supplies.
But Devin just stared at the column. He didn't blink. He didn't move. He just stared. I watched Devin and finally decided to go over to where he was sitting.
I started a conversation. (And yes, I actually said the stupid things that I'm about to write...I won't even bother editing my words....)
Me: Damn, man. Are you alright?
Devin: Not really. But I still need to be thankful to God. I got out, me and my family.
Me: What happened. I mean, what was it like?
Devin: (shaking his head, looking at the floor) Last Saturday I was at home playing with my kids...watching TV, thinking about how good it was to be off work. It ain't even been a week and I'm in Texas now with the clothes on my back, not knowing where my next meal is coming from. My Mom-- she's in Houston. I don't know where my seven year old son is. Say, how far is Houston from here?
Me: Four hours driving...I mean, if you drive the speed limit.
Devin: Four hours, huh. I've just been sleeping all day....staying in my room. I can't do anything.
Me: How long you will be here?
Devin: They said we gotta be outta here by Thursday...maybe even Wednesday.
Me: Leave? Where are you goin'?
Devin: They say I've got to go to Michigan. I don't know anything about Michigan. Where is Michigan?
Me: Why do you have to go there?
Devin: They told me I gotta go there, because we can't stay here.
Me:( I just stare, looking stupid.) What about getting a job. What did you do out there in New Orleans?
Devin: Construction. I want to get a construction job, but I got no place to live, no money--plus, I got little kids to take care of. Do you know of any jobs?
Me: I think there is a job fair tomorrow.
Devin: I'll give them the phone number in the room. I guess they can call me there.
Me: Yeah, give them the phone number in your room. That's a really good idea.
His girl walked up. Her skin was the color of chocolate milk. She carried two clear shopping bags filled with clothes and disposable diapers. He reminded her to get some bottled water to take back to their room. She asked me if I knew of any jobs she could get babysitting. I looked stupid and said, "No."
Devin shook my hand and left. I started looking at the column and thought about the movie, Hotel Rwanda. These people were living Hotel Rwanda, without the machetes, thank God.
My dream sequence got interrupted. A lady wearing a pair of jeans walked up to me and asked, "Do you know if the Greyhound bus goes from here to Passaic, New Jersey?"
I thought: Here, like from Grapevine, Texas.
She went on: "Do you know how long it would take on the Greyhound to get out to New Jersey?"
"Three, maybe four days I guess," I said.
"I've got a third cousin who lives up there and she said I could stay with her for two or three weeks," she said.
I thought: What is she gonna do after three weeks. I didn't have enough courage to ask.
"OK," I said.
The volunteers scurried about sorting the size 10's from the size 12's. They were putting the boys 'husky' from the boys 'slim.' A guy wearing a name tag from a local church asked my son how high the flood waters were before he left.
My son looked at him and said, "I don't know, I've never been to New Orleans."
The guy said, "Oh, you look like one of the people from down there."
Ryan, who think he's Chris Rock, didn't respond. I was proud of his restraint.
A pretty girl with braids walked up to me and started a conversation.
"Do you know where Section Eight is," she said. I started looking around, thinking there would be numbers or signs on the wall. Then, my brain engaged. She means the housing organization, Section Eight, not an area of the hotel. Of course, I had no idea where it was.
"We can go look it up in the phone book or something," I said. I was trying be helpful, but I just sounded stupid. She looked at me matter-of-factly. "I was told that I could help with housing through Section Eight. Can you help me get over there?"
"I don't know where it is,' I said.
" I was told that there is a Section Eight office in Dallas. This is Dallas, isn't it?"
"Actually," I said, "this is Grapevine. Dallas is about 20 or 25 miles from here. Depending on where in Dallas you're going."
"Well, I'm trying to get to Section Eight. Can you take me there? I have no other way."
Normally, this kind of abruptness would offend my suspicious Scorpio nature...but, there was no cause for me to get upset. This young woman, in the space of less than 100 hours had lost home, clothes, belongings and family. She was entitled to be direct or abrupt.
I excused myself for a moment to look for a map, or a volunteer who knew about the location of the Section Eight office. I learned that it's on Hampton Road, near Interstate 30. But when I got back, the girl with the braids was gone. Perhaps, she too, is going to Michigan.