Monday, October 23, 2017

Saturday Evening, On and Around Base

Saturday, 8pm

A. and C. are baking. Everyone else is off...doing something. (Bar? Karaoke?)

A. and C. are not baking for us--the All Hands volunteers and staff--but better. It's Saturday night so tomorrow is Sunday, and what they're baking is thank-you treats for the community at the church. A thank-you for putting us up--the All Hands volunteers and staff--in the church's dorm / gymnasium / I-still-do-not-know-what-that-room-normally-is.

Meaning this room--the annex, with the kitchen and tables, in which I have sat writing all of these things--is quiet and empty except for the bustling, cheerful patter of A. and C. baking.

It's wonderful.

The air conditioner hums, loud. White noise. (Actually: brown, I think. Really!)

C. has just asked A: "So what sorts of things do you like to bake?"
A. is responding with a laughing, self-effacing answer. She compliments C.'s superior technical skills.
A. and C. are terrific.

I'm tempted to pipe up, because they are terrific. I want to join in. I'm glad when I don't.

Today, earlier: we finished more "mucking and gutting" at the same public housing. We finished 'late', which actually means pretty much on-time, because Team Rubicon runs on a different schedule from All Hands. So I went for a run straight from the showers instead of showering and heading back to base before a run, because-- logistics, skip skip.

The run was hot, but it felt fantastic. It felt good to move and--this is weird--sweat, freely and out in the open. It's 'weird' cuz I'd been sweating profusely all day. But like: up a ladder! chipping at drywall! with a p100 on! That's an example from the end of the day, and of course part of a complete whole that was, as each day here has been, a gift.

Baking, right now: C. has just told A. that she has "such a love-hate relationship with some of my baking!"
They are having a detailed back-and-forth, with a rich and complex vocabulary, about their own baking foibles. Their baking hangups.
The gist is: the practice is pleasurable, but it incites their obsessive tendencies.
They're laughing about this, and about how they're both introverts, so that's why they gravitated to doing this baking fun-thing together. ("Let's hang out! Up to a point!")

They met today -- yesterday, maybe.

They are improvising a little. Not all of the ingredients they requested wound up coming back to base, with the last shopping trip. But most did. A. and C. are in motion.

Run! Back to earlier! So I'm on my hot, slow, great run. I'm not pushing myself hard on runs, this week. I'm running every day (so far. touch wood.), which I don't usually do. And though the work--mucking, gutting, debris--isn't a workout per se, it does tire you out. It could do worse than tire you out, if you let yourself get dehydrated or are unsafe, but everyone is careful about all that in my experience so far.

As I am running, a beat up old Cutlass cuts me off. Not abruptly, but clearly. Pulls in front of me as I'm moving to cross a street, stops, winds down its window.

I pop off my headphones.
The woman driving has a weathered face, red hair; maybe sunspots (maybe. memory).
At first I think she's just asked, "Do you want a lift home?"
I smile. I don't recognize her. But I have an All Hands shirt on, so maybe she recognizes that. Or is making a joke. "Sorry?"
"—ve seen a little white dog?"
I click into this, after a second. "...A little white dog?"
"Little white dog, not big. I'm up from Corpus Christi and somebody just dumped her."
"No I, I'm sorry. What's her name?" I definitely said 'her'; I thought about it and said 'her'.
I make the woman repeat the name. I'm pretty confident that I've gotten it right.
"Blacka. Little white dog, big titties like she just had babies I didn't even know she was pregnant. Big ears," she cups her hands to her head: ears, big. "Black patches."
She does nothing that I can convey with my limited language to you here, but: it is very clear that the black patches are on the dog's ears.
I have a clear mental image of Blacka. I tell her I'm sorry. I haven't seen Blacka. I'll look.
She looks sad.
I ask her her name. (Her name, not the dog's).
She tells me. Just her first name, at first. Then, in the pindrop moment in which the futility of all this hangs between us, she adds her last or perhaps middle name, stringing it with her first, which is what she is "on Facebook."
I repeat it, her name. And I tell her I'll look out for Blacka.
I still remember her name, now, sitting writing this.
I continue my run as she rolls down the window.

I look for Blacka, throughout the rest of my run. I see many barking, fenced dogs in the homes around here. Some houses destroyed, some damaged, some untouched. A pair of Chihuahuas really makes an impression, as always: they pace me, yapping like mad from (thankfully) the other side of a fence.

I wonder how many and which of these homes will wake up on Sunday, get into cars for a short drive to church, and arrive within meters of where I am now sitting to find A. and C's baked goodies waiting for them.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Debris; It'll All B O K; Some Shorts

So I almost wrote last night--rather, I did write last night, which is now two nights ago cuz now it's the morning after I started this. But, two nights ago, what I wrote was internal and navel-gazing and did not include much new information, perhaps because I had again mucked and gutted all day (two days ago).

Yesterday, however, we did "debris." And I am animated by novelty of experience and the prick of emotions; I don't even really understand these emotions, of course, because that's how emotions are. But I wanted to share some.

Also, I got some shorts.


We--the team I am on with All Hands; I have been on the same team every day, a team led by B. and D., both of whom are great and on both of whom more, later; I think I am ride-or-die with B. and D., even though you get to choose a team every day, and even though the Team Rubicon partnership entails slightly longer days.
The board on which I, daily and perhaps quixotically, have thus far done no more than affirm, reaffirm, and re-reaffirm allegiance to B. and to D.

This loyalty is not because other teams or people seem bad, but rather because I like my team and team-leads and with only one week here it seems nice to go deep. Also D. calls me "Shaggy", which, y'know-- how do you not just embrace a man who knows how to use all the tools with precision, is kind and relaxed, and calls you-- and don't get me started on how good B. is at her job, which I've touched on in the last post and will touch on again. Which--

Okay! I'm gonna go ahead and start that sentence again for ya.

We (⇐ where we went off the rails, 'graph above; the sentence did not get far) arrived at the Team Rubicon FOB ("forward-operating base") to learn that there was...a "change of plans." Instead of heading back out to the Section 8 Housing we'd been working our way through the two days before (that was the "gutting and mucking"), we took yesterday to do debris work on a large property.

What's "debris" work?

We arrive at the property. I'm sure you can imagine it, wherever you're from. A broad flat sprawl of green-ish but unkempt land off a small asphalt road. The property has a mobile home raised up on a wood-scaffolded foundation; it has another mobile home, too, off on what looks like a separate lot but is just the lot next to it. It has an RV at the back -- you can't see this, yet, but are not at all surprised when you do. It has a bunch of knotted and gnarled trees, as well as a few tall ones. It has five or six cars, or most-of cars; it would be surprising if any of them worked. A truck out front, which looks like it does run just fine.

Now savage this property with wind, rain, flood.

So what you have is these same things now covered with clotted grass--this awful hay that clings and clumps up and sticks to everything: I don't know which factor of the weather events tears this stuff up and distributes it around, but it's all over so much here, almost any uncleared structure features at least some, maybe as much as a foot deep of it. Those knotted, gnarled trees are now largely knocked over, splintered out of the ground. One of the mobile homes, the one to the left, and also the unsurprising-RV at the back are in catastrophic shambles: their contents saturated and slurried by water, knocked aside and in pieces by wind and water, covered in silt, walls and roofs stoved in, and in some cases their contents ripped from them and spread on the property like the guts of an animal cruelly and wastefully slaughtered.

'Debris' work is...clean all that up.

The work is outside, which is nice! It is also hot, sticky, and that kind of physically draining that no one really likes: not like a good workout, but like a trudge with punctuated moments of effort. It's also very satisfying. Anyone who likes "tidying up" will relate to this. What you are presented with is a big, awful mess. Your mandate and your service is to make that mess better, or at least get it closer to being more manageable.

So, while it's sticky and sweaty--working under the sun, hauling broken toilets and fragments of sheetrock and insulation (which sucks: fiberglass, be careful), the work is very satisfying in itself, before you even factor in the psychological income that comes from the sense that you're maybe helping someone. De-constructing things can be satisfying; making a pile of heavy big things disappear by moving them with a team of people you like is sweaty, but satisfying.

BUT WHO CARES ABOUT THAT ARE YOU CRAZY. I'm serious; and these thoughts kind of live simultaneously through it. Because: that's your story, all that stuff I just said. And your story does not matter at all in all this; or, no, no need to be mean to yourself about it. But, if you are emotionally sane, your story is immediately and completely eclipsed by the real story here: that of the homeowners, residents of this place.

The greatest difference between my day doing doing 'debris' work and the two days before, doing and 'mucking and gutting', was not the work itself -- though the work itself was, in itself, very different. The difference was the presence of the humans whose space and stories you've entered to do this. The situation at the Section 8. housing, where the tenants have mostly vacated, is apparently atypical; in most cases, the residents themselves have petitioned the org (sometimes through an intermediary, local collective) and as such they are present. Which was the case yesterday, as we did the debris work. So, if your story [narrowly viewed] goes like mess ⇒ work werk work ⇒ cleaner! pretty satisfying!, that is quickly submerged by the actual narrative of this place, which goes

home, life ⇒ STORM ⇒ ??? ("oh, my G*d...")

This is so starkly true there's not that much more to say, descriptively speaking. But I'm saying it because I know that I find it easy to lose sight of what we're really reading about when we read, in the news, "X,000 residents displaced" or "XY,000 homes damaged by flooding."

We spent much of the afternoon clearing the remains of one of those stilted-up motor homes. Once we were done, what remained was a ruined stage: the ceiling and walls had been damaged and cleared out before we got going; we had cleared the debris that was left, and now this thing that had been a home was a bare, shattered floor with some hazardous holes (water damage) and the ramp leading to it.

As the bulldozer (which Team Rubicon refers to as one of "the heavies"; they have all this big equipment and call it "the heavies") came in to tear this last remnant down, I happened to walk past K.: one of the home-owners. She and her husband, V.--I'm almost sure they were owners; certainly, they lived here in a structural way--had been present all morning. K., in particular, had been vocal and warm and grateful to us throughout. sidenote: Not that he, V., had not been. He just spoke less English, I think, and also was active with his own salvage activities. end sidenote So I happened to walk past K., just as the bulldozer began tearing into the wooden base of this structure, making the big ripping splintering sound that that makes. And I saw something come over her. A physical shift, a clear physicality like a shimmer through her muscles -- one of those things that when you see it it's not being nice or considerate to reach out, just your body does it for you before you think. So I said, "Are you okay?"

And she nodded, but clearly was feeling something. So I hitched up my step and paused by her and gave her a fist bump. And she raised her fist, bumped mine, said "It's going to be okay," and started to cry. She'd been sunnily and even cheerfully thanking us, all morning -- she was visibly tired, but her affect towards us had been totally giving and generous, despite the ruin of her life all around her. What she was doing right now--sitting in the shade, crying--seemed completely, completely appropriate.

She was sitting I was standing; I sort of moved to hug her and she leaned for it; we hugged for awhile and her tears got on my cheek, they were warm.

I repeated her, saying that it was going to be okay, a few times. She gradually retracted and I smiled at her and...went on working. Once I got out back, where we were clearing debris from the catastrophic remains of the not-surprising RV, I told A. what had happened and said maybe K. could use a little company and off A. went. [The initials are confusing, here, reader-Friend: I'm sorry. You have met this A. before, though. She is not the expert veteran A. who explained about drywall; rather the fellow-noob who started when I did, but is much better than I am at everything. And I'd noticed, earlier that day, that she'd--with ease and immediacy--fallen into chattily empathizing with K. earlier that morning).

A. went off for few minutes. Later, she told me she and K. had had a good talk, about K. and V.'s lives. And about how the work we were doing would hopefully help.

Here, I Have These Shorts

I didn't pack perfectly for this trip.

I didn't pack awfully! I was prepared, packed before, etc. In fact, the main way I packed poorly was in that I overpacked, and in my defense I was just bringing all the things that they said, even though I suspected--and indeed, was correct in suspecting--that they'd have many of these things, in surplus, at the base.

But I forgot a couple of useful things, the main one being a pair of comfortable shorts not for running (brought those), but for hanging out at base in the evenings.

Buuuuuuuut: there is a "free stuff" box! And, on my first day, you better believe that I rummaged right through it. And found--yes!--shorts. They are these; they are perfect. They are a woman's size 10 pair of Old Navy black shorts. The waist is very big on me, and the rest of them are...not so big, so I really need a belt to wear them or it gets little risqué.
The shorts, which I know you'll agree are like perfect.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

How To Handle Old Nails When You're Gutting and Mucking

I am sitting in the (I think) annex / community area of a church in Aransas Pass, Texas. I am conscious of the fact that I am being antisocial, maybe conspicuously so: I have headphones on, and I'm writing this, during evening hours that most people are using to socialize. One table over, eight of my fellow volunteers are playing laughing, merry poker.

I am volunteering with an organization called All Hands, which is active at a number of domestic and international sites of natural disaster; they do immediate response and--they emphasize this, so I mention it--more long-term community rebuilding as well.

I spent the day "gutting and mucking" houses in a low-income housing development; we (All Hands) were teamed up with another nonprofit (Team Rubicon) for this work.

It is weird, me at this moment: headphones on writing with everyone shootin' the sh*t. But y'know there's a whole thing here, which I think is in earnest, of 'look after yourself', 'you can't work well if you don't'. I'm a weird, solitary guy. This is how I look after myself. I hope they understand. I think I was an okay team member today, doing "gutting and mucking." I tried to be.

"Gutting and mucking"--I'm sure that my definition is incomplete--is when you go into a house that's been damaged (flood; rain) and basically rip out everything that's inside. You of course clear the house, first; of debris, for example, if there was a major storm that ransacked the residents' personal effects. And then you really just gut it. You rip out drywall and insulation--in case of water damage, like ours, the insulation and interior spaces may be riddled with fungus/moss: blackened with visible spores. If there's a lot of this stuff, you wear one of those full body suits like in movies, just less dramatic and more flimsy.

There's also more advanced work, for those who know better than I do: removing water coolers, gutting plumbing out (bathtubs), etc.

But if you're a grunt, as I'm lucky to be, the anchor of your work will be dealing with the drywall and then doing "QC". Dealing with drywall is very straightforward: you kind of lever behind it with crowbar and hammer, and pull it from the wall in the biggest chunks you can muster. Sometimes you bang through it with a hammer, first, to gain purchase; but the idea is not to just go around hammering out every square inch of drywall (inefficient). "QC", at least as All Hands uses the term, is what you do after the drywall's all gone. I think it stands for "Quality Control"; if I'm right, that doesn't quite make sense to me, as it's really a part of the process. Regardless, what "QC" is: pulling out all the nails. I'll explain! You're ripping out drywall and insulation, right? But not tearing down the house. Not knocking over the wooden frame structure. The idea being that the house has been riddled with (say) moisture and moss, and you need to gut it but not tear it down. The bones are fine; the skeleton of this house will remain, and get muscles and nerve and skin put back on. For example (end metaphor): drywall will be reinstalled. And in order to have--

Sorry, it occurs to me: this blog post is probably comically ill-informed, to many of you. Or that other thing, where someone has just discovered something so it's new to them, but it's not a new thing at all, so the fact that they are explaining it as if it is is either a little bit charming or a little bit embarrassing or sometimes a bit of both. To many of you, my whole explanation here is probably a bit of that second thing! And indeed, I'm writing explain it in the way that I'd need it explained. i.e., veeeery simply.

So, in order to have new drywall properly installed on the preexisting, reclaimed wooden structure--in order to rebuild this house that's been "gutted and mucked"--you have to be able to fit that drywall flush to the existing wood structural elements. Which means, obviously, there can't be a great bunch of gnarly bent-a$$ nails sticking out every which way. The problem being that that's exactly what you are left with, after pulling the drywall: as even I knew, drywall is silly and brittle; it crumbles and breaks much more easily than (say) a well anchored nail into wood, the result being that the drywall as you remove it mostly crumbles off around the nails that had fixed it in place, leaving them there.

So this is a thing that I learned today, then, because I wound up for much of the day doing "QC". What I learned was the trick of getting these nails out. A., who has a movie-star grin and hazelgreen eyes and one of those haircuts where the side is all buzzed beneath a longer top (on one side), and who has been a volunteer for twelve months and is absolutely capable of taking that water cooler out,explained it to us outside. We were all having this problem where the heads of the nails, like the part that you hammer, would PTANG! get torn off when you pulled with your hammer (that back part of the hammer that you use to grasp and yank nails out), so you'd be left with a naked ungraspable shaft of tiny metal stuck deep into wood.

We were outside, on break, wondering why these nails were so annoying: if they were crappy, or just old; if the fact that this is government housing meant that the lowest-bidding contractor did the work; if the fact that this is government housing meant that the lowest-bidding contractor did the work and then perhaps used even cheaper materials than they'd promised to in their bid; etc.

And A., who has been at this stuff for a year, said a thing:

Well, until the 1980s or so, drywall was always secured with nails -- not screws. So a lot these buildings built in the 1960s and 1970s, you see this with the nailed in drywall.

Which was a very tidy way of diagnosing, based on the development of building practices and materials, the age of these buildings and why these (old) nails kept on breaking.

I will note, further: later that afternoon, up on a ladder, ripping some drywall away from wood beams (I did a lot of the higher-placed drywall; I'm tall-ish), I found a note from 10/1/1975 in chalk; it seemed to be marking someone's work hours, C, I think: C had started sometime after 9am and knocked off around noon, and someone else had initialed and OKed this.

I am not claiming this proves A.'s factoid true; I am saying that I do not care to further investigate A.'s factoid.

Let's review:
-- anecdotal evidence of satisfying explanations for things I know nothing about can be, itself, satisfying and compelling to me (esp. up a ladder with a hammer and crowbar)
-- it is way better to get the nails out! if you do not get the nails out, you have to hammer them in so they are embedded in the wood: the point is that the surface must be flat and pretty smooth for the reapplication of drywall. (B., our able team-leader, talked me through this)
-- if you fail to get the nail out with a hammer, you still can remove it, but you have to do this thing with pliers that takes a long time. (winching the stupid nail back, back and forth, denting the wood, watching out for glass (as, once, stupidly, I failed to))
-- but: it's hard to get the nails out with the hammer! Cuz the stupid head of the nail snap right off when you pull it! stoopid old nailz!

In response to all of which, here is what I learned. (A lot of it's in the wrist; I felt that, during the day, my wrist getting smarter.) (I also felt, and feel, my fingers and hands, unaccustomed to some of this work, tightening up). But a lot of it is a consciously replicable and expressable thing:

I initially approached the challenge of pulling a nail from deep wood as being mainly about levering  pressure with that back part of your hammer, using that head of the nail to grip onto. You slip the head of the nail in that v-slit at the back of the hammer, the head catches when you pull, pull against it. voila. Except not 'voila', since as I've said that head of the nail breaks off.

So: you get good at eyeing the placement of the nail, and do a crisp quick motion where CHAKK you drive that backside of the hammer against it; i.e., you jam it in such that the nail itself gets wedged in that biting v at the back of the hammer: you're not using the head to pull up, you've jammed the nail in the bite of the v itself. And you use that torque, judiciously, and


pull it out.

It's fast and it's good! You can get many nails removed this way, even ones that are awkwardly placed.

I would not have been able to figure this out, because I would not have known what to do at all, or even how to be safely inside of that house, without the help of B. and A., aforementioned, as well as E., J., C., and (other) A. -- a fellow noob but a more skillful one.

Tomorrow, we're gutting and mucking again. I might learn something new. Might just do more of the same. We'll see.

I'm glad I'm here.