What kicked me back into gear today was a small thing, despite the pre-existing weight of some very rich experiences bearing down on me and just crying out to be dissected and processed. In fact, it was a very ordinary, everyday object that most of us probably don't even consciously notice. My zeal for blogging was reignited by a mailbox.
For the past few weeks, our agency has been supplying volunteers to the local coordination center, which orchestrates the relief efforts of the dozen+ organizations doing rebuilding work in our immediate community. The coordination center has been utilizing our volunteers (amongst others) to conduct site-by-site surveys of the area's neighborhoods in order to determine the condition of the buildings on each lot, who owns them, and where the owners are in the recovery process. This information helps to direct the center's outreach efforts and rehab initiatives, and generally allows everyone to gauge the community's progress on the monumental path to recovery. It's hot, long work, but it can be very rewarding because it gives volunteers the opportunity to interact with local residents in a meaningful way--in responding to the survey questions, residents will often spend 15 or 20 minutes, or longer, reliving the hurricane and its aftermath and simply sharing their incredible, emotional stories with the volunteers. Those administering the survey encounter gratefulness, anger, hope, despair, friendliness, slamming doors, the peculiar love/hate relationship with FEMA, and the inevitable Chatty Cathy (or Carl).
On our post-lunch surveying run, however, we encountered none of the above. We were driving north of the tracks, attempting to find a bit of a street that had suddenly stopped on the south side of the tracks and was supposed to pick up several blocks down on the other side. We finally found the street, but all it took was a once-over to realize that it was nothing but a string of empty lots, each one so overgrown that they ran together into one long, unruly field. Apparently they hadn't been touched in years, or maybe decades; there was little hope of finding any of the addresses we'd been given to check off our list, 342-360 Saratoga. As I was executing a 3-point turn to head over to the next grid square on our survey maps, a volunteer in the back seat said, "Yep, there's 342--we're in the right place. No houses, though." I turned to ask how he knew which lot we were on, and saw a black metal mailbox almost buried in vegetation, stubbornly bent at a gravity-defying angle. The metallic stickers on its side announced that it was, in fact, #342. The fact that this used to be a house, a home--an entire life--suddenly hit me in the gut, going deeper than the constant, wearying deluge of statistics and stories, zeroing in on the place where you finally get it. Oof. This entire street used to be populated, lively; there was a lone, defiant mailbox with a clearly printed address to prove it right in front of us. Across the street, I could suddenly make out an empty dog kennel with the door hanging open. Traces of whole lives. Where are these people now? Down the block awaiting the funds to rebuild? Moved away to a fresh start? Dead?
Destroyer of records and pillager of essential papers, Katrina hit hard in this data-obsessed country, where you don't really exist unless you have an address. Those powerful little numbers give you someplace to receive mail and bills; they enable you to get a library card or a driver's license, file for taxes or apply for a new social security card; they mean you can vote as a citizen of the United States and indicate where you can do so; they tell the power company which transformer to repair when the lights go out and the customer service lady at the waste management company where your garbage gets picked up; they even allow the pizza delivery people to find you. My housemate and I just recently got an official address for our longterm volunteer house and spent a quarter of an hour screwing plastic numbers onto our gable end, thus declaring our newfound legitimacy to the world; I suddenly felt safer because an ambulance or a fire truck would now know how to get to us in an emergency.
An address puts you on the map, literally and figuratively--if there had been no mailbox, no address on that lot today, we would not have been able to officially mark off Lot #432 as "vacant/abandoned" on our survey grid. That was what was so depressing about it, I suppose--today, instead of being the emblem that facilitates so many daily tasks and validates an entire existence, those numerals were a death knell, proof positive that what once existed so definitively, no longer does. Today, those numbers were the embodiment of all that has been lost here on the Coast.