Sunday, September 14, 2014

We Killed Anthony

This is a story about a man named Anthony (not his real name) who became my friend while we rebuilt his house in 2008.  Over the next few blog posts I'll explain how we killed him.

About a month after I joined the The Rebuild Program, Katie Mears asked me to meet a potential homeowner. Anthony was in his mid-50's and living in a half-gutted house on France St, two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina.  My job was to build a relationship with Anthony and ease his anxiety about having volunteers working in the house.  In the chaos of the storm he was evacuated to North Carolina, while his octegenarian parents were sent to Atlanta.  Anthony suffered from mental illness, and when the social services system in NC was tired of him they packed his belongings in a trash bag and plopped him on a bus back to New Orleans.  This is called Greyhound therapy, and it was a common practice among the overburdened, underfunded state-run social services programs after The Storm.  This is what the safety net really looks like.  Greyhound therapy only happens to our most vulnerable brothers and sisters.  Anthony walked the three-plus miles from the train station to his Upper Ninth Ward neighborhood and began squatting in his old home where he had lived with his parents.  There was no running water or electricity.  I met Anthony and his parents at the same time--his parents traveled from Atlanta to New Orleans to discuss rebuilding the house. "Hi, I'm Pete Nunnally, nice to meet you.  I think we're going to rebuild your house."  It was the first time Anthony had seen or talked to his parents since the storm.  He was not a cute picture of hopeful poverty that you see in brochures, a farmer with his arms wrapped around a goat like on the cover of Heifer International.  His eyes were a watery yellow and far away.  His teeth were mangled and decayed.  He had a gut and his hands were knarled and cracked like pieces of ancient machinery.  Anthony had no sense of order or hygiene, and there was only one time I thought he may have bathed.  This could have been because there was no plumbing in the house and no place else to bathe, but also was likely an effect of his mental illness.  He smelled like rotten urine and faintly of shit, and had the acrid body odor of someone who lives, awake and asleep, in one food-stained pair of sweats.  
Inside the house was much worse.  From the outside it was a beautiful lavender shotgun, narrow but long, with white and teal striped awnings and an iron gate around the porch, the kind found in inner-city neighborhoods where crime came to live during the white and black flight of the 60's and 70's.  We walked up the concrete stoop past the iron gate and inside to take a look at the place, and as the door opened the situation went from bad to appalling.  The walls were gutted halfway to the ceiling, exposing the scuffed old wooden beams and rusted nails and the thin wooden lathe that kept the house together.  It was like standing inside a skeleton dressed with strips of cloth.  Closer to the ceiling the walls were intact, plaster over the lathe to make the imperfect walls of the early 20th century, but they streamed toward the floor like jagged fingers. Half-eaten cans of fly-ridden food--tuna, beans, and Saghetti-O's--crowded the window sill beside used plastic forks.  The front room smelled like piss, and you could tell Alvin either peed in a corner or indiscriminately all over the place.  Clothes and trash littered the ground like an old dumping ground and you couldn't see the floor.  I kept looking for the bed, and finally realized he simply slept on top of the clothes and garbage, using a patchwork of cardboard and a thin piece of plywood.  Beside his "bed" were fifty or sixty empty Sweet and Low packets.  I fought for air as we walked in, turning my nose into my shoulder to avoid retching.  As we kicked our way through the trash and into the rest of the house I was acutely aware that despite Anthony's mental illness, he seemed embarrassed at the state of things.  I felt wildly uncomfortable knowing I'd be going home to sleep in a nice bed in a well-appointed house in the Uptown neighborhood of Broadmoor, socioeconomic light years away from Anthony.  We all struggled with that part of our work but couldn't talk about it.  

How do you reconcile a world in which you are born into good favor and others aren't?  Where is God in a world where you can go back to your air conditioned home, away from this horror, and unwind on your couch with a nice craft beer?  Why do you have this privileged life when others don't?  How is this even making a difference? 
You think you are godly, beating out your white guilt on the pavement of France St, don't you?  
Don't you?
So you open up a beer and then another and then another and push the questions away.  But they never go away.  You can leave New Orleans and get a regular job and make new friends and try to ignore them but the questions never go away.  
Does God go away?
Where is God?
Can you hear me?

Just off St Claude Avenue--once a thriving corridor of commerce--Anthony's house must have been stately in another time, with soaring 13-foot ceilings and the strong bone structure of old buildings in New Orleans that were often built with barge wood.  Like the street itself, the house suffered the indignity of watching the neighborhood slowly arch away from a lively, bustling community to a pock-marked, addled place nice people quickly pass by with locked doors.  France St was as rough a street as there was in post-Katrina New Orleans.  Most of the houses were gutted and empty. Even those that were inhabited bore a garish "X" on the front, the spray-painted tattoo leftover from search teams who came after The Storm to pluck bloated dead bodies out of attics and living rooms.
Still, France St was alive.  People on their stoops, people walking, people biking, young men hanging on corners.  Everyone waiving and greeting with "alright," a New Orleans version of "hello" favored by many black residents.  It felt lawless, but strangely not unsafe because we were (mostly) white volunteer do-gooders.  A corner store two blocks down (which was jacked three times while I worked on Anthony's house) let our volunteers use their restroom, and most people on the street were at least outwardly friendly.  Our volunteerism seemed to create a bubble around us, the community and even the very obvious criminal element acknowledging that we were "off-limits."
That attitude slid from appreciation to passive toleration to exasperation as the years wore on.  

"What we'll do is finish gutting the house, starting in the back and working our way to the front, so Anthony's room isn't disturbed too much, then he'll have a clean place to sleep while we work on the front room where he's staying now."  
As we walked around the overgrown perimeter of the house Anthony showed us his toilet, a used 5-gallon bucket half-full of shit, baking in the sun next to a bottle of bleach. 

The next day I grabbed a couple Cokes and headed down to visit Anthony.  "How you doing, Anthony, want a Coke?"


"What do you think about us rebuilding your house?"

"It's good."

"I know you're not used to having strange people in your house, but they're all nice people, and we're going to rebuild it really well for you."

"Will they be there all the time?"

"No, just during the day, and I'll be here too.  If you ever feel anxious or nervous, just make sure to tell me and we'll leave for the day, ok?"

"Ok.  Do you know about the Word?"

"The Word of God?"


"I do, man.  I'm a church-going man myself.  Actually, everyone who is going to work on your house knows about The Word."

"God says He's going to save us."

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.  

Friday, September 12, 2014

We Killed Anthony Part III

We continued to make progress on Anthony's house (I've changed his name for this blog) throughout the weeks.  The longer we were there the more I got to know Anthony and the neighbors on the block.  The wonderful thing about long-term disaster recovery work, when it is done correctly, is that you don't drop in for a photo-op and then leave.  You stay.  You are present.  You build honest relationships.  The recent pendulum-swing around mission work criticizes mission trips, arguing that they a) are a misallocation of resources (or inappropriate/unsustainable), b) create dependency, c) dehumanize those served, and d) promote paternalistic cheap thrills and a messiah complex for the volunteer (complete with look-at-me-helping selfies; poor, often black/brown people in the background, smiling [usually] white volunteers front and center).  This is all too-often true, but the fault lies not with the individual but with the leaders of both the individual groups and the mission organizations.  Mission work is a wild and complex place into which volunteers step for a short period of time because they have families, school, jobs, etc.  Importantly, volunteers have a heart to help, which is beautiful.  A mission agency operates in the field full-time (churches and dioceses should too.)   It's their responsibility to hold tightly the humanity of those they serve and help their volunteers understand the razor-thin difference between helping and hurting.  In the Rebuild Program we always tried to protect the agency of our homeowners.  That means understanding the power dynamic in the relationship, and being careful with requests.  A simple "can we take our picture with you?"  can force a homeowner to weigh their actual desire with the guilt of declining someone who is rebuilding their house for free.  It can put them in a position where they have to say yes.  Remember, the people you serve don't owe you anything (that whole unconditional love thing).  A story circulated online recently, penned by a horrified young woman who realized that she went about her mission trip all wrong.  She forgot about the humanity of the people she served, and selfied away, posting photos of herself around black kids to show people what a great person she was, and to get as much credit as possible (google #InstagrammingAfrica for more on the subject.)  I'm glad she's realized her mistake, but I'm sad she feels solely responsible--the people who led that trip should have gone over all this.  Too often volunteers aren't properly oriented to what is a completely unfamiliar reality, so, naturally, they never shift their paradigm.  It's the duty of the leaders of the trip and the host agency to correct this.  It's easy, and it's a magnificent thing to do.  THAT piece of the trip, really understanding your position of power as a volunteer and the perspective (personhood) of those you serve is the difference between a hand reaching down and a hand reaching across.

Weeks passed and other groups came and went.  Anthony's neighbor Stephen would often visit with us, and chat up the volunteers.  Stephen was extroverted and affable, and looked at life a little differently.  
"I always tell the people at the register to keep the change."
"Why is that?"
"Because I'm gonna build up credit, and then I'll just go in there one day and get something for free."
"You sure that's how it works?"
"Yeah, man, I know that's how it works."
Another time: "I made up my own money."
"Yeah?  Whaddaya got?"
"This here is a two dollar and eleven cent piece."
"Let me see that."
He had taped a dime and a penny in between two one dollar bills.
"That's awesome, man.  Let me know how it goes."
"Oh I ain't using it.  Just gonna keep it here at my house."
"Why is that?"
"It's valuable, man."
Stephen brought some levity to an otherwise dour situation.  While hanging in the street during a break with some young men from a private school in Virginia he asked them where they were from.
"Where y'all from?"
One of the boys answered "an Episcopal school in Virginia."
"Oh, that right?  So y'all religious people."
This was funny, because we all know the relationship between students, a religious school, and religion is not always straight as a poker.  
One of them stammered "um, yeah, kind of."
"Y'all believe in Jesus?"
More uneasiness.  "Yeah."
Stephen stretched his hands up to the sky and his eyes grew wide and he said "I believe in Jesus Christ Superstar."  Then he walked back into his house. 
We all giggled.  Oh, the power of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
After talking to Anthony's parents we framed out an extra room in the back to serve as Anthony's apartment, with his own entrance.  The house had been gutted, and the smell of cut lumber and sawdust ushered in a different feeling.  Anthony played Christian talk radio for us every day, and his appearance began to improve some.  He became a little more social, and was even making eye contact with volunteers.  One day a volunteer noticed he needed a new can opener, and offered to bring him one the next day, which was a Saturday.  We don't work on Saturdays, so she asked me if it was alright for her to drop it off.  "Go ahead."
The next morning I got a call from the volunteer.
"I found Anthony face down on the porch this morning," she cried.  "I called the ambulance and they're on the way."
I called Katie, and met her at the house.  By the time I got there the EMTs had ripped off the iron gates to the porch, put him on a gurney and taken him to the hospital.  We rushed to the hospital and waited for a couple hours before someone finally came out and talked to us.  Anthony had had a stroke due to a blood clot in his brain.  His condition was not good, but the doctors couldn't say much more than that.  Anthony's parents lived in Atlanta and we eventually got in touch with them that day, and a nice couple who were family friends.  But at that moment, with Anthony in a coma, and no family or friends in New Orleans, it felt like we were his guardians.  And to me it felt very lonely.