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."

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