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
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
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
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?
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
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
“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
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.
© STEALTH TECHNOLOGIES INC.