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May 2006
Taking Out the Trash
By Deenah Vollmer

 

Deenah Vollmer in front of a trash heap. Photo courtesy of Deenah Vollmer
Photographs found in trash. Photo courtesy of Deenah Vollmer

Spring Break, March 12, 2006—At first we see the broken houses, the uprooted trees, and the cars on fences. It’s cinematic—like an apocalyptic thriller about zombies or earthquakes or God destroying the earth in a flurry of special effects and now it’s the moment after the war when the officials walk out of the white van in uniforms to assess the damage.

Driving around through miles of devastated neighborhoods in New Orleans is like riding the tram at Universal Studios. “Wow, look at that!” We point. We click our digital cameras at the damaged landscape until we enter a neighborhood that seems to be intact. It is suburban, with grassy front lawns and backyards. Cars sit in driveways and houses stand tall, undamaged by wind. A closer look reveals the cars in the driveways are dead and corroded, but they still have car seats buckled in and cassette tapes on the dash. The grass grows, but through rusty bicycles and over the toys and tools that ended up there.

The neighborhood is quiet. No one is around. A thick yellow line crudely runs the length of each house, slightly below the roof. This is where the water settled and stayed for three weeks. A large X is spray-painted near the door of each house. In the top region of the X is the date the house was searched and on the bottom is the number of bodies that were found. The doors to the houses are all unlocked. Some of the houses have been gutted by now, but many of them look just how they were left six months ago.

The van stops, we each put on a white jumpsuit, green rubber gloves, a medical mask, and chemistry goggles. We grab crowbars and hammers. We’re part of this movie; we’re superheroes. Some of us run into a stripped house, swinging and tearing sheetrock from the walls, grunting along the way. Others tiptoe in quietly as if something alive is lurking in an abandoned bedroom, or worse, something dead.

Aftermath
I didn’t consider the jumpsuit to be anything more than something hilarious—a frumpy spacesuit that made our butts look big. The mask and gloves were just part of the costume. Nobody told us of the danger of the black mold or the hazardous refrigerator liquid of decomposed shrimp and meat that had been sloshing around for over six months. We weren’t told much of anything—just to empty the trash.

These homes were private. Now they are unlocked and unprotected. I could help myself to the buffet of moldy memories, take a peek at a slice of history. The doors creaked open like any door would. An entryway yielded a table with an open bible, though none of the words were recognizable. There were dishes in the sink, cookies in the cookie jar, and clothes hanging in the closet. In a bedroom I found a bookshelf that had fallen over, the bedraggled remains strewn upon the floor, melted into papier-mâché. Only one book remained intact, its title clearly typed in white letters on a black background: The Deconstruction of Black Civilization. I took a picture of this mess. It looked like an art installation in a museum.

According to the New Orleans Emergency Operations Center, storm debris removal was almost 56 percent complete. Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency said that, as of March 6, 2006, more than 11.5 million pounds of waste had been collected and disposed. Mayor Ray Nagin’s spokeswoman Sally Foreman said New Orleans was faced with dealing with as much trash as it would normally collect in 34 years.

The houses needed to be reduced to wood frames and then bulldozed entirely. The contents were to be removed and sorted into piles on the curb: construction and demolition material, household appliances, hazardous materials, vegetative waste, and garbage. The garbage pile was where you put stuffed teddy bears, high-heeled shoes, baseball caps, unpaid bills, chemistry textbooks, toys, collections of porcelain angels, and other keepsakes. In New Orleans, garbage is the stuff of life.

Curiosity and perversion led me to carefully examine garbage piles. I found a Times-Picayune, the daily New Orleans newspaper, from August 28, the day before Katrina hit. I found a child’s pink piece of luggage, a small bag on wheels that said ‘Going to Grandma’s.’ These relics were emotionally charged, but still just props in this movie.

Not until I found a box in the trash did the gravity of the horror settle in me like the water that had settled into the New Orleanian fishbowl. The box contained a dozen Kodak picture envelopes along with loose photographs. I held hundreds of photographs—graduations, weddings, birthdays, portraits—in my hands. At that moment the superhero feeling wore off and, still wearing my jumpsuit, I started to cry.

This was not a movie, this was no buffet, these are lives. This fourth grade girl with braided hair, a family barbeque. People. Laughing. Dancing. Who could throw away these photographs? They were fine! They are perfect! They are holy! Why were they in the trash?

Spring Break
This is what I signed up for? You call this charity? This was our spring break. “Spring Break 2006!” we would sometimes yell as our van drove around New Orleans. We were a group of 25 students in two white unmarked vans from New York City. We weren’t trained. We weren’t strong. But we wanted to help.

We were sent to throw away the lives of people who are not dead, but stranded. They want to come back, they want to salvage their stuff, but who has the money to travel back and forth from Houston or Baton Rouge, and where would they stay anyway? The waitlist for a trailer is months-long, FEMA has taken over every hotel, and rent for remaining housing has gone way up. What do you do about your house when you’re so far away?

I guess that leaves volunteers to deal with the mess. The memories must be too painful anyway. Someone’s brand new washing machine, their grandmother’s china, the family photographs, a child’s new Playstation game console—they’re all gone. These evacuees must have worked so hard for everything they owned, all in that house, and everything was being emptied out by upper-class white kids on spring break. Kids going through drawers, looking at underwear, taking pictures of waterlogged beds, and studying moldy memorabilia like the house was some kind of museum. It’s not a museum. It’s not a mausoleum either.

But how do you rebuild when the people who were forced to leave aren’t able to return? And how do you rebuild when the government does not even know if they will rebuild at all? When I returned to New York I read on CNN that student volunteers had found two dead bodies. I could have found a body. We came down hoping to help rebuild. But six months later, in the sweltering humidity and seawater sediment, they are still finding bodies. It’s still a mess. Everything is trash.

The Stuff of Life
Oftentimes our group waited around for more work to do. We became frustrated and upset. What’s the point?

One day, an eight year-old girl came up to me, walking down the deserted street of her old neighborhood. “Can you help us?” she asked. I looked behind me and saw the rest of my group sitting in a driveway in their white jumpsuits with goggles resting on their foreheads eating peanut butter sandwiches.

“Yes, we can,” I said, and we followed her around the corner. She was returning to her old room in her old house for the first time. Her family, however, had been back eight times before, each time struggling to find a place to stay. When my group arrived, the girl’s parents were so happy to see us that before any work began we all held hands in prayer.

Thank God, I thought, literally, that these people have faith because it is all they have. The eight year-old and her older sister were crying as they brought their things onto the curb. Their mother, Lucille—a woman I first saw wearing a poncho and yellow gloves holding salvaged recorded videotapes of Oprah—is an artist and we watched as she pulled her soggy rotten canvases into the street. One of her paintings was salvageable. It was a painting of Jesus. “What do you think about the way the President has been handling this situation?” I asked her.

“President Bush is a Christian so I pray for him,” she said. “But he lied to us so I cannot support him.”

In her house I saw wrapped and waiting Christmas presents. Gifts that never saw Christmas. Heartbreaking. And they are just one family in thousands.

“It’s just stuff,” she said. “Even though we had just repainted and the carpets were new, Jesus saved me and my family.”

I was glad to have her permission to enter the house. With all of us, her house was gutted in a matter of hours. Without us, it may have taken days. Her house was so lived in, so settled. We worked until it turned into a skeleton and the stuff of her life waited on the curb as garbage.

Deenah Vollmer recently moved to New York from Santa Cruz, California, and is currently a writing student at New York University, a production assistant at New York’s Pacifica Radio station, WBAI, and a proud worker at the 4th Street Coop. She enjoys drawing things and playing the mandolin. Deenah volunteered in New Orleans through NYU’s Bronfman Center. To learn how you can volunteer to help victims of Hurricane Katrina, visit www.commongroundrelief.org.


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