Here we have the third and final installment of a three-part series that has taken entirely too long to complete. This is my attempt to recall my experiences in the morning I spent at Reliant assisting with the refugees from Hurricane Katrina in September of 2005. Parts 1 and 2 are drifting around in the WBW archives somewhere. As the years have gone by, details are already escaping me, so I wanted to chronicle these experiences...lest I forget.
After spending a couple of hours in a nearly-empty showroom at a scarcely-visited snack table with a group of volunteers who clearly didn't care whether I was there or not, I got up and left and joined a man in his late fifties who was going from table to table and refilling ice chests and drink supplies. I regret that I don't remember this man's name. He was quite friendly and likeable. He had a huge smile fixed upon his face and he was whistling a tune constantly--at least, when he wasn't making friendly chit-chat with me, volunteer workers, or refugees. At one point a small boy from New Orleans followed us around for five or eight minutes, and the man let him help hand out chips, push the massively heavy ice cart, whatever. When the boy's mother finally called him back, the boy gave this man a big hug and trotted back to his mom.
I remember thinking how remarkable this man was and how infectious his joy was, and how much fun he seemed to be having. For an instant, I wondered if a hint of senility that often comes with age may have had a slight hand in it. After all, this man wasn't OLD old, but he was at the point where I've seen age start to play a factor in some adults. It wasn't an unreasonable thought, and it's one I've often heard suggested by the young as they look upon anyone at least twenty years older than they are who seem to be having a good time.
And then a realization hit me, and it probably had the most profound impact on my life of anything that happened that day.
This man, possibly triple my age, had lived far more life than I had. He's seen times of war. He's seen economic recession. He's probably scraped by for every last dollar at some point, experienced the frustration of trying to get that first job and land your feet for the first time. He's been through quarter- and mid-life crises. He's seen the nation swing from the left to the right and back again more than once. He's seen things that I've read about as "contemporary history" and thought, "Wow, that was dumb." And if he's lived in Houston for not even half his lifetime, he's seen storms and what they do to people, houses, families, and communities. And here he is, surrounded by despair and desperation. And he's joyful.
He's seen the worst the world has to offer. And he's joyful.
At his age, he's experienced loss, most likely of at least one parent, definitely of grandparents, who knows about friends, possibly even siblings. And he's joyful.
Not only that, but his joy is contagious. It is so real, alive, and vibrant that even folks who've just lost their homes have to laugh with him.
I mentioned yesterday that I wouldn't really classify myself as an optimist, and that's true. In fact, there was a time when I was incredibly cynical. I'm kind of ashamed of that now, not because I ever thought/felt it, but because I really had no right to. At twenty-three, I knew probably half as much about life as I know now. It's amazing what you learn through marriage and parenthood. It's amazing what you learn when you're married and living on one intern's salary for half a year. It's amazing what you learn when every day of your life for over a month is spent driving from home to work to the hospital and home again at 10 p.m. What you learn when you have to decide what to do with your family during a hurricane. What you learn when your dreams come true. What you learn when you realize it's time to let go of your dreams. When you start paying taxes. When your savings is almost gone. When your boss loves you. When your boss hates you. When you injure your back but have to keep working. When you high school classmate is murdered. When your friends are getting married. When they're getting divorced. When a baby is found in a dryer outside your apartment. When you see a city come together to help another after a natural disaster.
I was a cynic without a good reason. This man probably had tons of reasons to go around moping that the world was going to hell in a handbasket.
And he chose joy. He looked at all that life had given to him and decided that there was enough to be joyful about that he could enjoy his days.
I fight back against my cynical impulses now, because I can. I can give in to one side just as justifiably as I can give in to the other. I look to those I know from the Greatest Generation and realize what they lived through, and I stand amazed at those who will still tell me that life is good and worth living, no matter what happened in the 1930s and 1940s. I want to be that when I get old. And if cynical twenty-somethings think that makes me senile, well I guess the joke's on them.
After while, I went back to volunteer central for a new assignment. They sent me to the place where folks went once they got off the buses to try to find family. We were in another showroom with a huge wall that had posters, papers, yellow notes from husbands, mothers, children trying to find their wives, fathers, grandparents, neighbors. (This is hard to write, by the way) Notes essentially saying, "We are here! Please find us! We're okay!" Huge, handwritten "We miss you, Daddy!" followed by 'we are waiting in the southwest corner of the building. Please come find us!' There were also notes of "If you see a person who fits such-and-such description, send them to this place." This wall was completely covered. Survivors coming through the doorway and searching every single note, aching for hope. My job was to find people as they came in the door. I had to ask "Are you looking for someone?" and if they said yes, send them back to the computer date input folks who would ask for as much information as they had on the person and see if, by chance, that person had already arrived. One man I asked, a thin, dirty-looking fellow who appeared not to have slept for a couple of days, dryly asked, "How could you tell?" I didn't fault him for the snark. Most of the people were just stunned and very polite, following my instructions directly. They were in such a daze, they'd go wherever anybody told them. One man absolutely broke my heart as I approached and asked if he was looking for anyone. He was looking over my shoulder, then looked straight in my face and said, "My mom?" as though hoping I'd say, "Oh yes, I just talked to her! Right this way, please!"
There was a bell that rang whenever a family was reunited. It didn't ring often, though I'm told as they week rolled on it started to become a frequent occurrence. I did get to see several reunited couples walk out the door, and every one of them thanked me as they passed for volunteering. I didn't want to be thanked, honestly. This was four hours or so out of my life. I didn't feel like I was doing anything praiseworthy, really. But I was very glad to be there.
One other thing worth noting, probably the second most influential thing that happened that day, and it was as I left. After awhile, the steady stream of people coming in off the buses was on the decline, and there were more volunteers than were needed. I'd intended to get home around lunch time, anyway, so I took my leave then. I walked back to my car and navigated through the hundreds of buses in the Reliant parking lot.
As I was about to turn onto the street, I caught a glimpse of a man who hadn't changed clothes since the storm hit. He was about to cross the street where there was a K-Mart (or Target or Wal-Mart, you get the idea; most of the refugees were given gift cards to buy some food/clothes, and I know a lot of hotels and apartments opened up vacant doors for awhile). The man was pushing a shopping cart in which two small children sat. His wife was on one arm, and she had a purse with her. And that was it. That was all they had as they walked away from Reliant Park that afternoon.
But I'll never forget the look on the man's face. At that moment, he was the wealthiest man in the world.