Sunday, September 14, 2014

We Killed Anthony Part II

Please forgive the delay.
This is the second installment of a story about Anthony (I've changed the name for this blog), a friend and homeowner I worked with through The Rebuild Program, the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana's post-Katrina gutting and rebuild  program.  It takes place in late spring, 2008.

A few days after I met Anthony, Katie and I stopped by his house to prepare for volunteers to begin working the next week.
"Anthony, how would you feel if we cleaned up your room a little bit?"
"We'll just put the trash in a bag, and then your clothes in another bag over here in the corner."
Katie and I put our gloves on and began picking up the trash that littered the front room where he was squatting.  I picked up all of the empty Sweet and Low packets and put them in the trash, wondering where he got so many, how many he ate at a time, and why.  I held up an open, crusty can of food.  "You going to eat any more of this?"
Anthony picked up another half-empty can of beans with sauce that had spilled all over the outside of the can, now dried and cracked like desert clay.  He looked hesitantly at us.  "Do you want to throw that away?"
He nodded.  "Yes."
"Here you go, drop it into the bag."
It was the end of spring in New Orleans, which comes and goes in a breath, shoved away by big brother summer, which sits on the chest of the city for almost six months.  Inside the house the air raged thick and stagnant, pungent with garbage and urine and raw human survival.  We did not wear masks--Anthony lived there, how could we don protective gear to clean his house?  I took in air through my mouth to lessen the stench and fought the taste.  I tried to breathe in big gulps of air, pulling my shirt over my mouth when Anthony wasn't looking to escape in my own sweaty exhaust.  We worked as fast as we could, trying to ignore what we were doing, that this was someone's room.  That a human being lived here in this piss-drenched garbage can.  That two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina two white kids from out of town were clearing a 10X15 foot space in order to give Alvin a better quality of life.  That it would take months to complete this one house in a city with tens of thousands like it.  And that is what keeps you sane: ignoring where you are and what you're doing.  You cannot look up.  You cannot look around.  You just clean the room.  And it gets harder and harder to reconcile.

In twenty minutes the front room of the house was uncluttered, Anthony's clothes in the corner, and the bags on the street.  The sun found open spaces to spread out on the floor, and all three of us felt a change in the place. "Next week we're going to have some volunteers come and we're going to start taking the ceiling and the walls down so we can rebuild new ones for you."
Katie and I walked back to the truck in silence.  We stopped and looked back at the house, and then at each other.  "Jesus."
We had just trudged through what felt like man's abandonment--God's too--and the detritus was all over our arms, our clothes, and in our nostrils.  Working in post-Katrina recovery was not a sterile, sing-song, feel-good time.  You left the worksite with the tangible wreckage of the storm on your body.  You didn't wash off just sweat in the shower.  Two, three, and even four years later you washed off soggy gunk from someone's old waterlogged clothes you threw out, or putrid floodwater that filled a vase during the storm, sat through three New Orleans summers, then broke open and bled all over you. You washed the grime that collected in your fingernails as you desperately tried to wipe clean family photos you found, hoping to save anything that might be valuable.  The images often wiped clean off, leaving streaks of developer, fixer, and wash.  And you looked at those pictures. You saw the denizens of the house, smiling, posing for graduation pictures, wedding photos, old family reunions.  You wondered where they were now.  If they were ok.  How they were going to be able to come back from Atlanta, Houston, Memphis.  It was a five-sense experience, each reinforcing the others.  When you gutted a house you had the storm, the city, and the lives of strangers in your hair, smeared across your ankles and arms.  It does not all wash off in the shower.  Some of it never washes off.
I threw my gloves into the truckbed in disgust, and looked around at the neighborhood, glanced back at the house, and then at Katie.  She was the smartest, most astute person I'd ever met, and her calm, analytical manner reassured all of us, especially in unpredictable situations.  You knew it was going to be okay because Katie was there.  She stared back at me in pain.  On our way back to the warehouse she broke the heavy silence and asked me to bring Anthony a mattress.  
The next day I brought Anthony a twin mattress we had at the warehouse.  He beamed as I laid it down over his cardboard bed.  He thanked me, then we sat and talked on the front porch for a while, waving at neighbors through the iron bars.
He went and got a raggedy bible, and started showing me passages out of the Old Testament that he'd marked with strips of newspaper.  "God is going to come and save us."  As we talked about God, Jesus, and the bible, Anthony grew more animated, and began to make some eye contact with me.  I enjoyed listening to him recite scripture--he focused on salvation and the passover.  "Not all will be chosen."  He flipped to another spot, and the marker fell onto the floor.  I picked it up.  It was a faded photo ripped from a newspaper of a beautiful woman in a lingerie ad.  I handed it to him and we looked at each other.  For the first time a broad smile opened across his face, and we both giggled.  We talked for a little while longer, and when I left I wasn't a white upper middle class kid and he wasn't a poor black man, we were just two human beings sitting on the porch in the Upper Ninth Ward.  I wasn't the helper, and he wasn't the helpless.  
"Ok on Monday we're going to have the first crew of volunteers come to the house.  They're good people, I know them from Virginia, where I'm from."  
On Monday I met about 8-10 volunteers from St James Episcopal in Richmond, Virginia at the warehouse and told them Anthony's story.  "We're going to be gutting the inside of a house, and Mr Anthony will be there with us.  We haven't worked on an occupied house before, but I've been spending time with Mr Anthony, and he's ready for y'all to come and help out."  I explained his social anxiety, and asked the volunteers to be open and respectful, and to let me know if they felt uncomfortable at any time.  
They followed me to Anthony's house and he was waiting on the front porch.  "Y'all, this is Mr Anthony.  Anthony, these folks are from St James Episcopal Church, in Richmond, Virginia."
The folks from St James were great, and introduced themselves to Alvin on their way inside.  I have them a tour of the house and explained how to properly gut a house--ceilings first, then walls, then the floor, everything put into the ubiquitous black construction bags and set out on the sidewalk.  At the end of the day I checked in with Anthony--he spent most of the day on the porch, but wandered in from time to time.  "How did that go?"
"It was good."
"Ok, same thing tomorrow."
 It took a couple days to get things gutted, bagged, and set on on the street.  The group was wonderful in every way, sensitive to Anthony, and hard-working on site.  They took to heart Anthony's story, and worked with purpose and efficiency.  
"Agh!  Oh God, gross!  What!? Ugh!!  Aw, man," I heard someone scream from the back of the house.  I walked around to the back of the house, where they were pulling off old siding.  People were spreading out away from a volunteer who looked surprised, confused, and angry.  "I just kicked that bucket over and it spilled all over me!"
He had knocked Anthony's crap bucket over and now had baked, soaking feces all over his shoes and socks.  I laughed.  "Man, that's rough.  They might let you clean up down at the France St Market."  We all kick over buckets of crap sometimes.
We finished the day and brought Anthony's radio back to him.  After lunch he had tentatively walked into the middle room and set his radio down, facing the volunteers as they were working, then resumed his post on the porch.  It was tuned to the local Christian talk station. He was evangelizing.  

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