Tuesday, October 25, 2005
The Surreal Life: East of Eden
Life has become too big, too complex for me to relate. I'm insufficient to the task. My words and photos useless. I sit here, staring blankly at the glow of a computer screen, unable to organize the flood at the gates. I feel the massive hum and throb of humanity, the hive, coming at me through the wires and wireless. If I touch it directly it could kill me, it's that huge, a power line down across my desk. I'm talking about you, here. All the help that's been sent, the words, the relief, the supplies, the thoughts, and yes, the prayers. You've kept a family alive, you know.
Hurricane Katrina blew my family into the ether, and it's the ether that's saved their hope. We've come to a strange and wonderful fork in the road, and it's all because of the internet. I have to tell you this amazing story, a single one in this huge hum, about a small family in North Carolina that was touched by the plight of a little Cajun woman light years away, and yet right next door. It's a story of hope in dark times, of absolute strangers caring like family, of renewal and love and the power of art in the internet age. My mom says it's the strangest thing that's ever happened to her, and that's really saying something.
And no matter how hard I try, I will be unable to convey to you all that I experienced, all that transpired. This can only be a sketch, as this whole site is only a sketch, because I'm insufficient to the task.
I had just evacuated my family to Las Vegas, and was returning to New Orleans, to see if I could reach McKain Street, and my family roots, when I received the email from a guy named Kenny, in Carteret County North Carolina. It's tone was a strangely comforting mix of military succinctness and polite Southern comfort, and was simply titled "An Offer Of Assistance."
In it, he told me how his "sweetie", Elizabeth, had stumbled upon Operation Eden, and how she related to my mom's life, and to her plight, and had been moved to tears by this post. He told me about how they had been aching to reach out and help someone that had been displaced by Katrina since the storm first hit, and had, like many others, been rebuffed by bureaucrats. He told me Elizabeth's daughter, Toni Marie, had just purchased a rental property, and wanted to offer it to my mom and little brother for a year, rent free, until we could rebuild my mom's Eden.
What? I'm sorry. Life up to this point has done nothing but make me a jaded and cynical bastard, and FEMA hasn't done anything to dispel that, so my first instinct was to call bullshit. This guy's yanking my chain. Maybe they want to lure my family in to harvest their organs. White slavery, perhaps? When I read my mom the email, her only reaction, weary from negotiating FEMA lines and the strip malls of Vegas, was "Whaaaat?"
Starve a man for long enough, and food might kill him. A shock to the system. Survival suspicion. Ever try to feed a stray dog?
So while I was in New Orleans I exchanged emails with Kenny, and then Elizabeth, and as I got more comfortable with them we made plans for me to visit them in North Carolina and check it all out. I was weary from things that had happened to me in New Orleans, and things I had seen, including McKain Street finally, which I'll talk about later. I had the weight of my family on my shoulders, and the knowledge that Las Vegas was going to eat them alive in short time, despite meeting some wonderful people there. So I was a glass-eyed zombie, apprehensive, at the end of my rope, when I made the ten hour drive to see Carteret County for myself, hoping that it was what they said it was, but fearing it wouldn't be.
It was. And more. It was as if Katrina had ripped open a hole in time and space, and shifted the Gulf coast to the east coast. Like the Gulf, before it was destroyed. Delicate marshes, huge forests, small country roads, churches everywhere, white cotton in the vast fields, the beaches. Beautiful, but with the far off threat that coastal living carries with it. I started to understand. These people knew, really knew what my people had gone through. Where they came from. It could have been them, after all. And that's when the offer made sense to me.
Kenny and Elizabeth couldn't have been sweeter, or more down to earth and genuine. I was given a whirlwind tour of their small community, Kenny called it the nickel tour, and I soon realized it wasn't just their family that was reaching out to mine, it was the whole little town. It was the mayor, who's office was a golf cart under an oak tree at his nursery business. It was the local water company executive, it was the real estate agent, the insurance agent, and long-time family friends. They'd all pitched in for the effort. The local banker had even set up an account under the name "Katrina Survivor."
I told my mom to roll. No more motel-living in Vegas. No more quasi-homelessness. She rolled.
In the meantime, Kenny had taken to calling the beautiful little trailer they had for my mom East of Eden, and that's an indication of how sensitive they were to my mom's perceptions and needs. This was not charity, this was giving and relief in it's purest form. Selfless, empathic. They had furnished the place sparingly but tastefully, knowing my mom would want to pad her own nest. The attention to detail was astounding. Pots, pans, dishes, bedding, silverware, glasses, appliances, bathroom items, household items, all left in its packaging, so my mom could put it where she wanted it. A local business had donated a computer. There was a ginormous TV, cable, high-speed internet.
They even bought some damn Pepto-Bismol for the medicine cabinet.
Desperate, my mom cleared over 700 miles a day, and each night I'd give her updates on what I was seeing of the place, and the people, and the community. The next day, spurred by hope, she'd drive a little harder. The last day she cleared over 900 miles, and arrived exhausted, in the dead of night. Before she got there the rest of us, Kenny, Elizabeth, and my girl Katie, had spent the night putting the finishing touches on the place. Assembling a TV stand, framing some photos that had been salvaged from her Eden but that she hadn't seen yet, lighting candles. Elizabeth made beautiful arrangements of tulips throughout the house. It was like Christmas Eve, we were so excited for them to arrive.
My mom and little brother were shells when they finally got in. Beyond exhausted. Zombies. They had been going non-stop since the day before Katrina hit. Being a survivor is more than a full-time job. When your future is only as far as tomorrow it's tough to sleep, even when you're a lucky one with a bed. They stumbled through the house, barely able to absorb it all. Only able to point out this or that, like they were tourists at the museum of their future. I could tell they were having a tough time processing it all, waiting for the rug to be pulled out, the other shoe to drop, the catch.
We hovered in the kitchen, speechless, resting, and my mom just slumped towards me, hugging me. That's when I could tell she was slowly crying. Tears of joy for this refuge from the storm. I just held her up, stood there with her, cried with her. She let it all out. It wasn't home, but she felt like she belonged.
Elizabeth and Kenny sat by us as we hugged, quiet and respectful, as always. This is the picture that shows the moment when two American families came together. It shows the hum of the internet made tangible. The ether made solid. Touchable.
And there it is, for now. The internet saved my family. My camera saved my family. I'm a high school dropout, but my writing saved my family. If this had happened ten years ago, my photos, my writing, wouldn't have saved anybody, because nobody would have seen it. It wasn't on CNN. It wasn't on the broadcast networks. It wasn't even on PBS. It was on a plain, small, free website, and that's the only reason Elizabeth saw it, and brought her family into the effort.
Katrina has shown me some things. She's shown me that the American government is unable to protect anything we hold dear. She's shown me that the American people are an amazing, giving, tough, resourceful, huge people, and that they're not being represented fairly by the current class of small-hearted politicians and lazy bureaucrats. She's shown me that people around the world care about us after all, despite our government. She's shown me that it's not about FEMA, it's not about the Red Cross, that it's about amazing families like Elizabeth and Kenny's family in North Carolina. Like I've said before, it's just about people like you and me, on our own, together.
And at the end of the day, I'm just very happy to see my little brother smile again, laugh again, play again. But I know I can't call this a happy ending. We still have so much to do, so much to rebuild, so much to recover, so many pieces to pick up, so many questions to answer. This is a sunny day, but the end of the road is still clouded. No, it's not a happy ending, but thanks to this small, loving family in North Carolina, and all of you out there in the ether, it's damn well a happy end of the beginning.
And that's more than any of us hoped for a month ago.
Posted by clayton cubitt at 12:45 AM