Surviving a Storm

“We ain’t got nothin’”

I don’t know how old he was. Young. Maybe 22. His fingernails were dirty. His hair was braided into cornrows that were wearing thin and coming loose. His dingy white T-shirt looked like he put it on after it was crumpled in his pocket for days. I swallowed, fighting the “welling up” that happens in your chest just before the tears come, smiled, and asked him if he needed some baby wipes.

“Yeah. We ain’t got nothing.”

He was a victim of the tornadoes that ravaged Alabama a few weeks ago, and I had taken the morning off to volunteer at the Pratt City Disaster Relief Center -  an old elementary school that had been loaded with volunteers and donations for victims of the storm.  I arrived early in the morning expecting to do something trivial, like handing out water or writing down names, but I was quickly told to go to Room 3, which was filled to the brim with children’s clothing, pampers, and anything else you can imagine a parent  with a young child would need after losing their home.

Tonya was the only one there when I arrived. She quietly pointed at a bag of clothes and asked me to sort them by size, which I did with no complaints. As volunteers started to file in so did the victims of the storm, and I began taking each one through the room and giving them whatever they needed. More than what they needed. We loaded hundreds of pampers, baby wipes, fomula, clothes, bottles and toys for every person into Hefty bags so heavy that some people couldn’t carry them all. Every item was donated and it was apparent that we weren’t going to run out of anything.

…In 1990, when I was a freshman in college, I was addicted to a game called “Sim City.” I would walk downstairs to the computer lab and build my make-believe city until the wee hours of the morning. The next day, if I let the simulation run overnight, I would awake to the game, and it would tell me the city suffered a blackout and needed a new power station, or that crime had overtaken the town and needed a police precinct that I had to build. Sometimes, while I was away, the entire city would be leveled by a hurricane or a storm, and I would have to start rebuilding. It was a frustration that I always imagined was exaggerated just to make the game interesting.

That is what happened to Pratt City.

Pratt City is now a place littered with crumbs of brick and mortar, random frying pans and mattress stuffing. Cars are upside down and homes are faint memories of comfortable couches and heaping piles of indistinguishable stuff. Pratt City is past tense. Pratt City is gone.

James didn’t really interact with anyone. He was short, bespectacled, and really sweaty. He busied himself maneuvering in and out of the room restocking the room with more diapers, more baby food – there was always more. He did it with a smile, and as if he would be paid at the end of the day. I know his muscles ached. I know his back would be sore, but he still bussed the boxes and pushed palates of pampers in and out with an unforced smile.

…They found Osama Bin Laden yesterday.  I watched as people shimmied light poles and danced in the street singing “U.S.A!, U.S.A.!!!”  all night, elated that America’s ten-year boogeyman had been killed. The TV news no longer led with stories of the devastation of Alabama. The homeless, the hungry and the hopeless people of this state were no longer fodder for what passes as informing the people of what was happening in the world. Just like Donald Trump’s blowhard tactics blew Japan’s earthquake from the front page, a moment of silence and a ten-dollar text message to the Red Cross soothed America’s conscience so they could return to concentrating on the “Real Housewives of Fill-In-The-Blank.” We always return to our regularly scheduled program.

And then he walked in.

He said he had a one-year-old that needed clothes. I handed him a bag, told him to look through the donations, and take whatever he needed.

“Will you need pampers?”

“Yeah. We ain’t got nothin’.”

“How about baby food?”

“Yes sir. We ain’t got nothing.”

I pasted on a smile and said “OK. I got you.”

I filled his bag, and helped him carry it to the next room, where he could get toothbrushes, underwear, food and even medical care. I can’t tell you if I was happy or sad. My heart ached for his pain, but I was glad that I live in a place where even when you are down, someone will extend  a hand to help you up. It wasn’t just people like me. It was the people who drove truckloads of donations from all across the country free of charge. It was little old ladies and teenagers who emptied their closest, cupboards and wallets. It was hundreds and thousands of Americans who say EVERY TIME something like this happens, “I got you.”

THAT is what America is. Jewish college students riding a bus from New York to Alabama in the 1950’s to help register blacks to vote.

Men in fatigues dropping out of helicopters in the dead of night to keep us safe.

James, shuttling in wet wipes and Enfamil until his muscles are in knots.

We should always try to build. We should always try to make this place better, but sometimes in the middle of the night, there will be storms.

We will weather them, because that is essentially what we are made of.

We will always have something.

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