Post hurricane Matthew reminders

Savannah Morning News

Oct. 23, 2016



Note to self: before the next disaster, buy new batteries (but where do you recycle old batteries?) and assemble them all in one place, preferably near or in the flashlights.  A sub-note: regularly change batteries on carbon monoxide detectors to avoid the screaming whine and the panic when the screech begins to sound, an embarrassing but harrowing moment (or hours).

Second note to self: do some research and find out how to disable generators (or people who run them 24/7; just kidding but c’mon, people: do the rest of us – your neighbors who will help you pick up branches, help you with anything – really need to listen to that piercing racket when all we’re trying to do is rake and regroup, stop to take a breath, look for important insurance papers and maybe catch a few negative ions too? There oughta be a law…).

Third note: remember to appreciate the fresh smell and beautiful rose hue of cedar without standing next to a giant tree snapped off angrily a few feet above the base as if it were a mere matchstick.

A few more things about the hurricane known as Matthew (other than survivor’s guilt, which some of us with near misses are left with):  Raise your hand if you loved seeing kids in the streets because what else would they be doing with their time when the power goes bye-bye and all they can do is play catch, poke a stick, stand with their eyes closed against a tree, count to 10 and say, “Ready or not, here I come”? What else but ride their bikes, chase a bug or play piano (oh, the joy of being at someone’s house and hearing their son sit down and play a non-electrical instrument). They can get along without their screens! I saw it with my own eyes. They do know how to play with other kids. They can reach into their own brains and imagination instead of relying on something like “Minecraft.” This is encouraging.

What about the rest of us? Can we do the same when it’s so very dark without electricity or the moon? It took me a while to figure out what the people across the street were doing sitting in their cars, by themselves, with the windows rolled up, the engine idling. Ah ha! They were powering their phones; they were watching the vice presidential (yawn) debate. Me? My ancient car from way back in 1992 doesn’t have one of those “modern” plugs that power cell phones. I had to cruise around in a friend’s car – carbon footprint, be damned – all the time pretending to look at the damage, but in the process remembering the times my father and I would drive around to look at Christmas decorations in the neighborhood. Then I gathered a sock full of quarters and took my own vehicle to a carwash on Skidaway for a deep cleaning, inside and out. It was amazingly satisfying. So productive. A fresh new start.

The larger question is what do you do during this unsettling, unnerving, discomfiting time – and I use present tense because I’m not just talking about following, fretting, or deciding how to face a hurricane when I would rather stand on my roof to wave down the helicopters than join the masses on the highway, when everything in the country and the world seems to be in flux, when things fall apart, when the center cannot hold and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world (thank you William Butler Yates for that prescient poem evocating the apocalypse, written in 1919 after World War II), when burials cannot be completed because water has to be pumped out of the ground? What do you do? I don’t think that’s what Bob Dylan had in mind when he wrote and sang, “Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?”

But it fits. Something is happening. Only it’s not about Mister Jones. It’s not about Hurricane Matthew. And it’s not about getting new batteries for all those hollow flashlights. We need a reboot, a restart, not another hurricane, not another Matthew – maybe a good stiff wind – not so I can clean out my fridge again (after two storms it’s looking pretty spare) but something to cleanse the air of the country. Is that possible? My friend Bill, who threads the needle pretty thin when he calls himself a cynical idealist, would probably say yes. Me? This week, in our stratified country, coming apart at the seams, getting uglier by the minute, I’m not so sure.



Homeless but at home on Savannah streets

Savannah Morning News

Oct. 30, 2016

If it weren’t for the bags (and the teeth: he doesn’t have any) Don could be any one of us. His sun-bleached hair is parted and nicely combed, his glasses, though sometimes crooked, hide warm blue eyes. His black shoes and socks match, his pants and shirt look worn but clean. They’re nice bags, one a nicely designed black backpack with padded shoulder straps, the other a sturdy new blue satchel with two exterior zip pockets, but they’re bags. And that, says Don, is what sets him apart.

“People see the bags and they don’t talk to me,” he said the other day with no particular rancor as we sipped iced tea in front of The Foxy Loxy.  His face was calm. “They look away.”

The bags sat at his feet. They contain everything he owns, a couple shirts, some pants, a sweater, his phone charger, his books, his deodorant and shampoo, a baseball hat, his pillow, a blanket.  He does not have a storage locker for memorabilia. He does not stash winter clothes in a friend’s attic. He does not cram photo albums in his car. He doesn’t have a car. He doesn’t have a home.

Don sleeps on a bench downtown, a bench he was forced to leave during Hurricane Matthew’s mandatory evacuation.

“Sometime around midnight a cop came by and said, “It’s either Carl Griffin Drive or Augusta,” Don told me. “I was at Carl Griffin once – that’s the Chatham County sheriff’s office –  and it’s no fun. I was sleeping in a vacant house and they didn’t let me take my shoes when they handcuffed me. I had to walk back to town in some flimsy shoes they gave me and that didn’t feel good.”

Most of the time the police don’t bother him, he said, “unless it’s a new one, a rookie, then they’ll wake me up in the middle of the night and ask for my id. I figure that’s my civic responsibility, to be there for their training.”

Don chose the bus for Augusta. He and about 20 others ended up at some middle school near the Augusta Technical College. “I’m a pretty good meteorologist and I didn’t think we had to leave. I guessed the last one right. I was living on Wilmington Island and went to my office in Thunderbolt. I had a small printing company. Sure enough, it passed over.”

Don has not always slept on a public bench. When the printing company went bust he want to Jacksonville and worked for AOL talking to customers, trying to convince them not to cancel their service. Then he worked for a pawn shop for a few years, operated a forklift, drove a cab, sold cell phones.  He tried day labor, which might pay $50 a day or $150 a week if he could get hired three days. The last job he had was lifting concrete blocks. He didn’t last long. “In one hour my arms were rubber,” he said. He’d live in cheap hotels. When things got bad he’d go to Union Mission or places that took in homeless people.

“But I didn’t like how I was treated,” he said. “One night I remember I just started crying at how they talked to us and that was it for me.”

Now his day is pretty regulated. His phone alarm wakes him up, he gathers his things and heads for Emmaus House, a program under the Episcopal Church that feeds a hot meal to nearly 200 people four days a week and a bag lunch on Friday. He can take a shower there too. Then he might catch the city shuttle or he’ll walk to the public library on Bull Street. Don’s a reader. He figures he reads four books in five days. He’ll check the free library in front of Brighter Day twice a day for books. He’s fond of Tom Clancy, John Grisham, David Ellis (“You ever heard of him? He helped prosecute Rod Blagojevich in Chicago. He’s gotten better”).

Don knows something about Chicago politics. He was a delegate to the state Democratic convention. And he coordinated the Democratic party in Illinois’ Coles County, home to Eastern Illinois University, where he finished three years of college.

“I’d go crazy if I couldn’t read. I learned it from being a parent when I had to tune out everything, the tv, the internet.  Now it’s the bluster that’s around me, all the jabbering. I’ve become a real loner.”

At the library he reads his books, communicates with friends and his daughter via email and he works on an internet game he hopes to market.

He reads two newspapers a day, the Savannah Morning News and USA Today, either at the library or in a hotel lobby. He knows to stash his bags and straighten up before he goes into the hotel. That way he can sit and read and use the bathroom. But that’s the only time he leaves his bags out of his sight. When the library closes he might go to City Market where he leans against a building and reads into the night, “across from the statue of Johnny Mercer who’s reading a paper.” He’s friends with some restaurant employees who sometimes bring him food.

He rarely has more than a few bucks in his pockets. But he never begs. “I would never do that, never,” he said. Every month he gets $194 in food stamps. Sometimes he sells (illegally) his stamps. Then he can buy cigarettes and sell those for some cash.

In two years he’ll get Social Security, around $1,000 a month. But even then he’s not inclined to go into a rooming house.

“It’s a crappy way to retire but you deal with the cards you’ve been dealt. It’s not a normal life but somehow or another you find a niche.”