Day 5 -- On Wheels

Alton and Minnie's three houses sit next to each other.
Alton and Minnie's three houses sit next to each other.
We removed drywall, cabinets, and sinks.
We removed drywall, cabinets, and sinks.
Minnie showed us through her cramped, tiny FEMA trailer.
Minnie showed us through her cramped, tiny FEMA trailer.

Editor's Note: Alan Baker, Executive Producer of WTOL.COM, spent the week in New Orleans as part of a mission group from Epworth United Methodist Church in Toledo.  These are his first-person accounts from the week.

Alton and Minnie have two houses.  Actually three.

The first two are the two units of the duplex where they used to live.  I'm counting that as two because they could have had their choice of either one if Katrina hadn't rolled in.

Nice neighborhood.  Neat, well-kept yard.  Their neighbor has a burbling fountain like you'd see in any small town's public square, complete with the winged figure at the top that looked to me like an old Packard hood ornament.  Not one from 1940 or later, but the optional one sold between '36 and '38.

Alton is a quintessential southern gentleman and Minnie is just what you'd expect for a 5-foot-nothing great-grandmother.  They've lived a long, full, rich life together.  They had luck on their side when Katrina came calling.  The water came in, but only to a couple of feet.  Not over the roof, like some people had.

When we went in to gut the two units of their duplex, some one had already done some of the heavy lifting for us.  They ripped out the drywall from the floor to about waist-high, sort of like wainscoting done by an axe murderer.  The only places that had complete walls were the rooms we were there to gut.

Better than the last house we gutted, I thought, with its drywall ripped from its nails, leaving the brown, speckled ribs of the framing out in what little light of day would filter through the boarded-up windows.  At least Alton and Minnie have something worth saving, I thought.

Our assignment was to finish the drywall tearout, attack the dishwashers, and pitch the countertops, sinks, cabinets and virtually everything else that wasn't nailed down.  Once on the curb, it would meet the same fate as all the storm debris - a truck ride to a landfill somewhere to live in infamy.

Alton and Minnie have big plans to move back.  They've already bought a big stack of fresh, new drywall sheets and all the screws, tape, and mud you need to put it up.

When that glorious day comes and the heavens smile on them and they move back in to their duplex, they'll leave their third house.  It's in the same neighborhood.  It's freshly painted white with brand-new windows and a full-size fridge.  It sleeps the two of them quite nicely.

But it's a good thing Alton and Minnie like each other.  I measured their third house.  It's only 18 steps from end-to-end and only 3 steps wide, about 20 steps from their former front door.

There, plunked on the corner yard with an umbilical of power and water connections, sits their trailer, complements of Federal Emergency Management Agency.  Our US tax dollars in action.

Take a drive around New Orleans and you'll notice trailers just like theirs everywhere.  And I mean everywhere.  Katrina was no Robin Hood.  She robbed the rich and the poor equally.  We have seen trailers outside 4,000 square-foot mansions and 800 square-foot hovels.

We saw them as soon as we drove the one mile from the airport to our host church.  We saw them in the flood-soaked Ninth Ward.  We saw them in neat rows at FEMA camps where thousands of people who have nothing left can at least commiserate with the people in the next trailer.

After Katrina, Alton and Minnie spent the first 9 months or so in Florida watching their great-grandson grow up.  Some things in life are universal, and I haven't met a grandparent yet who doesn't just beam when you ask about their grandchildren.

Then they had the opportunity to move back to a FEMA trailer in their yard last October.  They jumped at the chance.

In 1994, I drove a school bus to make a few extra bucks, and I'm pretty sure that the bus I used to practice parallel parking had more room than this trailer did.  Six of us on the work team packed inside to say hello and experience the overwhelming cuteness of their great-grandbaby's photo.

I've never felt so closed in.  The tiny single window on each side didn't help.  Good thing I was next to the door.

But instead of looking at it as some sort of camping trip from hell, Alton told me it was tight, but at least it was something.  And for now, it was home.  "We gotta keep on, keepin' on," he told me.

I only had a few fleeting minutes to talk to Alton.  I wish I could have a few weeks to hear every story he had to tell, then a few months to write them down and tell them all to you.

Alton was a bright spot amongst the blocks and blocks of despair you find in New Orleans.  He bubbled with an optimism you don't always see.  He told us stories of his life with Minnie at his side.  Alton and Minnie are doing very well, thank you, just like teen-agers in love.

The pain and misery of New Orleans hasn't stopped even though the storm went through 18 months ago.  But Alton's got a handle on it.

Pain turned outward is aggression.  Pain turned inward is depression.

Pain turned sideways -- is Alton.

The group from Epworth United Methodist Church worked under the auspices of the United Methodist Committee on Relief and the Eastbank Storm Station in New Orleans, part of the Louisiana United Methodist Disaster Response Ministry.