After four different routes, I’ve settled into ERV 1166 on Long Beach C. We’re part of the five-ERV contingent which serves Long Beach, a working-class community adjacent to Gulfport. It’s on the other side of the tracks (literally) from the devastation on the beachfront, but still suffered a lot of destruction. There wasn’t much flooding, but many homes are badly damaged, with fallen trees, crushed porches, holes in roofs, etc. Some homes are abandoned, some have been condemned by the authorities, and many people are living in FEMA trailers or tents — often in their own front yards.
My driver Bill and I have been together on this route going on ten days or so. For some reason we have not been able to hold on to a second support person. It’s been kind of amazing how many different folks have passed through our ERV: Ron, Jen, Marty, David, Etta, Mark, Patty, and now Steven, whose last work day is Friday, so I’ll have at least one more person to train before my deployment is done. We’ve had people get sick, we’ve had folks on their last day, we’ve had people from HQ who wanted to ride on an ERV (she got car-sick riding around in the back)—we even had an a-hole who I requested get transferred off.
Long Beach C is a small network of streets mostly made up of single-story, single-family homes, with a couple of small two-story “apartment buildings” sprinkled between. Like the VFW Communities I worked on my first ERV ride, this is a very integrated neighborhood, with white folks, black families, and even a couple of Vietnamese households, living all amongst each other. The kids play with each other, the moms all watch out for their neighbors’ kids. I’m sure I’m romanticizing it, but it’s seems like a real community, a word we use a lot but here has a real meaning.
We also serve the typical allotment of work crews, roofers, phone repairmen, and other laborers who are everywhere you look all over this area. Oddly enough, this neighborhood also houses a contingent of retarded guys who are regular clients. (Do we still use that term, “retarded”? One the guys is a total Rain Man type. Wayne is about 40, often is shirtless, and walks randomly around the neighborhood until he finds us. “Two dinners. Thank you very much.” Without fail.)
The Long Beach routes are out all day, leaving K-35 at about 10 a.m. and not returning until 7:30 p.m. or so. We get re-supplied for supper in the field. Some time between 2 and 3:30 after our lunch run, we all meet at the rendezvous point (a select spot right on Route 90 in the heart of the disaster zone), and a box truck shows up from the kitchen with our dinner Cambros, additional snacks and drinks, and other stuff we need. In exchange for that, we give them our empties, garbage, and flattened boxes, which the box truck returns to the kitchen. It’s nice to not have to clean our lunch Cambros, but it simply means we get working sooner, preparing snack bags for dinner, and setting out for the three-and-a-half hour dinner run at about 4-o’clock.
Once that’s over and we’re back at the kitchen, it’s about an hour of cleaning the ERV and preparing it for the next day’s run (as well as helping other ERVs get squared away). Invariably, I catch the last shuttle back to SeaBee base, and often don’t get here until 9:30 p.m.
I usually serve meals for the lunch run and do the window for dinner (or “supper,” as they call it here). I put out a lot of energy when I sit at the window, chatting with folks, asking after older family members, bantering with the kids, and generally being friendly, and I’ve found that I just can’t handle expending that much adrenaline all day. The upside is that I’ve become a regular on this route, and everybody knows me, even asking about me on my day off, but the downside is that I sometimes feel afraid of letting people down, of not being as emotionally present and friendly as they’ve become accustomed to.
I’ve really grown to love this neighborhood and the people who live here. We’ve got 85-year-old Alma Felton, who I bring the meal to personally because she can’t walk too well. We’ve got Alma’s daughter (also named Alma), and her husband. We’ve got Miss Lucy Mae, an elderly blind lady whose retarded son often gets the meals and always asks to borrow a pen. There’s the “three old ladies,” as they call themselves. One of them, Ann, left for Texas the other day and she gave me a hug and a kiss goodbye. Another one of the old ladies (also named Ann) just today gave us a delicious loaf of corn bread, fresh from the oven, which we gobbled down right there in the ERV. Then there’s Ted, an old skinny guy with cartoon-sleepy eyes and a Gilligan hat. And his niece Rhonda, who’s a real sweetie and always give us our snack bags back so we can use them again for other folks. And of course ten-year-old Nick, who comes to the window every day with the greeting, “What’s up, Josh? Whatch’all serving tonight?”
The meals our kitchen serves are all-American delights: hot dogs, meatloaf, turkey, beef stew, pork chops, BBQ sandwiches, chicken cutlets, ravioli, salisbury steak: all the stuff I love to eat. I admit to having eaten the meals myself when I get too hungry or I know we won’t have time for a proper lunch before the resupply truck arrives. The trick is to eat the food when the smell still entices you, and not after two hours when the closeness of it is enough to make you toss cookies.
I’d never worked food service before, but now I’m an expert. I know which order to load the Cambros so it’s most efficient to serve. I know which utensils speed or slow down the process. I know to balance the snack bags with salt and sweet items. I know how to tell, by what percentage of the route we’ve covered, whether or not to double up on portions or hold some back to make sure we have just enough to finish our route.
There’s no way I can overstate how incredible this experience has been for me. Despite the pressure and the seemingly endless days, it’s been one the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done. I’ll always be able to look back on this period as a time that I really did make a difference, that I helped real people with real issues, with matters of life and sustenance. That’s not hyperbole — I have people telling me that they don’t have anything to eat that day until we show up, that they still don’t have gas for cooking or running water, that their appliances were ruined and had to be thrown out, that the government only gives them $10 a day for food stamps.
These neighborhoods have no infrastructure left, few convenience stores, no restaurants. Not to mention that many people are now out of work, or at spending all their money trying to rebuild their property, or waiting for their Section 8 homes to be repaired. The last thing many of them have time to do is worry about where their next meal is coming from. And that’s what the Red Cross is there for. I don’t want to hear any more criticism of how the organization spends its donated dollars; right here, where the rubber meets the road, vital work is being done.
[ a house in the ‘hood]
[Marty, me, and Bill]
[Bill, me, and Jen]
[at the re-supply area on Route 90 (with Bill and Ron)]