Lines, forms, food – and more lines
September 11, 2005
HOUSTON – Kiesha Keller’s day began with a shove.Her eyes felt fat and itchy as she opened them. The hand shoving her shoulder belonged to her younger brother, Darren.”Wake up,” he said.At first she saw nothing but fluorescent white light. Then she perceived that she was in a concrete tunnel, slumped in a metal chair. The scent of sweat and sweet talcum stung her nostrils. A metallic voice – an intercom announcement – echoed in the dim recesses of her mind.Was it morning? Or just more of a bad dream? In New Orleans, she had never been a morning person. She squinted at her watch.6:42 a.m.Day No. 9 of post-Hurricane Katrina life had begun where it had the last six days, in the Astrodome – the vast holding pen for thousands of American refugees, including this brother and sister, starting over in their 30s. It was the latest stop of their long journey, a journey whose conclusion was uncertain.Kiesha sat up in the auditorium chair. Her lower back throbbed.She stood up.Her foot ached, still sore where the doctor at the Reliant Center had made a one-inch incision two days earlier and pulled out a blade of glass she had stepped on while wading through the stew that was submerging her house.She picked up her last worldly possession, a shiny, gold handbag, and limped to the showers. There was a line. Twenty people. Not bad. A police officer with thick arms in a shirt two sizes too small stood by, arms crossed, to keep the peepers out.At least the water was lukewarm. She pulled her hair back in a bun, dug a toothbrush and paste out of her bag, brushed, spit, roughly in unison with 10 other women, and glanced in the sink. Blood.She had fine, strong teeth. Her front teeth were gold capped, German crosses indented in the gold. When Kiesha was happy, the world knew it. She checked the back of her mouth. There was puffiness around a molar. An infection, maybe?One more thing to do today.Next stop: the chow line. Grits, orange juice and scrambled eggs. Darren didn’t care for the grits.”Too watery,” he said. “Tastes like lint.”Kiesha sipped her juice through a straw, on one side of her mouth.On line, they overheard talk about the Toyota Center, the home of the NBA’s Houston Rockets. It was somewhere downtown, and the lady was saying folks were going there to get jobs.The grapevine – that was how Dome dwellers got their information, not from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross or the police.So, armed with their latest tip, they walked outside the Dome and into the heat of Houston, a city they did not know.How to get to the Toyota Center? It was 10 miles away, they had not one shiny dime in their pockets, and the city transportation authority – which had allowed refugees to ride the trams and buses free for a few days – was back to charging a dollar.They started walking.But when they were just halfway across the vast parking lot, a dusty, gray Corolla rolled up. The window went down. The face was familiar: The wife of a local pastor they’d met sat at the wheel.”Good morning!” she chirped. “What are you doing today?”Darren replied: “We’re going to look for jobs at the Toyota Center.””And a husband,” Kiesha added. “I could use one.”
The pastor’s wife laughed.”Get in,” she said.The time was 8:53.– n n At the entrance to the Toyota Center, a heavyset guard in a starched white shirt with gold, embroidered patches on the shoulders zipped open Kiesha’s purse and turned it upside down.Out spilled a tube of Crest toothpaste, hairbands, brush, lipstick, eyeliner, business cards, hoop earrings, cell phone, charger, mascara, and clumps of precious paper. The scribbled, crayoned scraps had names, numbers and addresses of people who’d offered to help.”Step over here, please.”Once another guard had passed a metal-detecting wand over them, they were allowed inside.There were many booths: the Veterans Administration, the local Bar Association and Urban League, a bank, all offering help.At the Urban League booth, Kiesha got a pink, “Apply for Shelter” form.Available properties were limited, the form noted, but displaced people should “know that our thoughts and prayers are with you.”They stopped at another booth where young people wearing T-shirts and name tags were helping Katrina refugees draft resumes. A smiling woman handed Kiesha a white form. “Please fill out what you can.”Kiesha left blanks after lines like “Street Address,” “City,” “State” and “Zip Code.” In the blank besides the words, “Industry Experience,” she wrote:”I was the CEO and founder of Ester’s Haven House, a homeless shelter in New Orleans. Our mission was to impact, empower, and provide a safe environment for victims of domestic violence.”Age? “33.” Marital status? “Single.” Was she willing to relocate? “I just did.” Was she willing to return to Louisiana/Mississippi/Alabama to work in a cleanup crew? “No.”Inside the Club-Level lounge, a woman in her 50s with touches of gray hair approached them with a wide smile and offered to type their resumes.As the volunteer pecked away, Kiesha shivered; the back of her mouth was starting to throb.”So,” the woman turned to her, “what did you do in New Orleans?””I ran a house for battered women, homeless children.” She forced a chuckle. “I never dreamed I’d be in the same situation.”Resumes in hand, they were led to an underground garage, where other volunteers were handing out red “Get the Feeling” goodie bags: donated towels, blankets, toiletries, bottled water, potato chips, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, diapers and underwear.As they waited on line, Darren, 32, nudged his sister.”I just heard someone say they’re giving out $1,000 vouchers.””Who?””The Red Cross.”In Houston, they’d heard, relief agencies were helping evacuees get into rental apartments by covering their security deposits. That helped – but Kiesha and Darren still needed money for the first month’s rent. A voucher would solve that problem.”Where?”
“The Convention Center.”That was another of Houston’s communal shelters, two blocks away. It was now 11:29 a.m. At that hour, for a thousand bucks, there would be a wait.”Let’s go,” Kiesha said.—It almost looked like Mardi Gras, the way the line stretched and stretched – the length of the George R. Brown Convention Center, and beyond.It included all types: teenage mothers; veterans in wheelchairs; kids in braces and spun-around baseball caps; retirees with aluminum walkers; dads with cigarette coughs; and unblinking, unwavering folks who looked like nothing in particular, and knew it.Darren asked, “What time’s it?””One-fifteen.””How many people you figure are ahead of us?””Plenty.”A woman wearing square glasses and an “Operation Compassion” T-shirt handed them beading bottles of water. Others had more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, more potato chips.Industrial fans, spaced 10 feet apart, pushed 92-degree air this way and that.Over the hum of the fans, they listened to the chorus of voices they had heard on lines like this all week:”What’s this line for, anyway?””We are NOT refugees – we from the U-NI-TED States.””This is funny. I never thought I’d be homeless.””Hey, somebody turn down the heat!”Kiesha winced.”I got to see a dentist.”Just then, they heard a voice barking through a megaphone – a police officer.”If you are a resident of the convention center,” he said, “you can enter through another doorway. If you are in line for a voucher … there are no more vouchers today!”The line hushed.”There are no more vouchers! No debit cards! If you are on line for vouchers or debit cards, come back tomorrow! If you are on line for FEMA, no more FEMA today! If you want to register with FEMA, go to a library, and go online! You can register at http://www.fema.gov … “An elderly woman behind them whispered, “What’s a ‘W-W-W’?”The officer lowered the megaphone, turned, marched off. No one moved. Kiesha and Darren traded blank stares.It was going on 1:30.
“C’mon,” Kiesha said.They stepped out of the line, and were crossing the street, when a silver Mustang pulled over beside them. A man in a white shirt and tie smiled at them.”Oh, my God!” Kiesha yelped. “It’s him! My guardian angel!”—Four nights earlier, Michael K. Slider, 37, criminal lawyer, husband, father of a 4- and 3-year-old, was stuck in traffic by the Astrodome. At one point, he noticed a woman with a slight limp, alone, walking against the traffic.As she passed, the driver of a large, black pickup truck rolled down his window and tossed a $5 bill at her. “It was demeaning,” the lawyer recalled, “the way she had to pick money out of the gutter like that. So I called out to her, asked if there was anything I could do to help.”The woman shook her head, ashamedly, kept walking. Michael pulled up beside her and asked, “What do you need?””Clothes.””What size are you?””An 8.”He took her cell number, and that night, he told his wife, Tomiko, that this was how he was going to make a dent in the misery Katrina had wrought; he was going to be a Samaritan.And now, picking up Kiesha and Darren, he was keeping his pledge.He drove them to his law office, where one of his partners, Anthony Muharib, pressed $150 in Kiesha’s hand. “Godspeed,” he said.He then took Kiesha and Darren across town to the Texas Medical Center, where his wife, a dentist, examined Kiesha’s gums. An infection, concluded Tomiko, who took X-rays, prescribed and donated pain killers, and set Kiesha up for a surgical appointment later.Michael bought Darren lunch, a steak and onion melt on a toasted roll, at Blimpie’s. He offered him baggy jeans, two polo shirts, a jacket and other clothes – “a start for your new wardrobe.”They then called Nora Chavez, a real estate agent. She promised a two-bedroom apartment at a vast apartment complex that largely houses Hispanic immigrants for just $310.40 a month – no security deposit required.They would, however, have to fill out some paperwork with FEMA to qualify.So the lawyer drove them back to the convention center. Along the way, he chatted about gas prices, the politics of oil, the war in Iraq. Darren dozed, and Kiesha, chin in hand, looked out at the gleaming, glass towers of Houston, and said nothing.As he dropped them off, he put his business card, including a cell phone number, in Kiesha’s hand. “Call me, day or night, if you’re in trouble. And don’t forget: you’ve got until 7 o’clock to make it to the Realtor’s office.”Kiesha watched the Mustang’s taillights get smaller, then round a corner.Inside the convention center, the line wasn’t as bad as before. Still, it would take at least an hour, probably two, before she had a relief worker’s undivided attention – before she would answer the same questions, fill out the same white-and-pink forms, and receive the same noncommittal answers as she had for 10 days.The time was 5:47.Kiesha and Darren traded empty gazes.The Realtor would have to wait until tomorrow.Vail, Colorado