The A**hole in San Antonio
Monday, August 29, 2006 came quicker than I thought it would.
Our brief stay at the Drury Inn, in Sugarland, Texas, was coming to abrupt halt, despite my efforts over the past two days, to try to extend our stay.
“No dice,” they told me in not so many words.
There was a convention in town the following day, Tuesday. Who the hell schedules a convention on a Tuesday? They were lying. That had to be it.
The front desk girl also told me that a lot of people fleeing from New Orleans had booked rooms.
“But I have fled from New Orleans,” I told them, pleadingly. “I don’t know when we can go back.”
I could have gone on, told them that I should be rewarded with a room because I, unlike the schmucks who were on their way, had the damned good sense to get out of dodge early. But it was pointless.
They put my name on a waiting list and told me the chances were good that I might get a room. Again, it was all a pack of lies.
I remember at some point, maybe after we’d arrived in San Antonio, trying to send Mike Ross, a reporter for the CBS network, WWL, from New Orleans.
I don’t remember the entire e-mail just the main points, which I hammered away in frantic prose –hotel people lie, Mike, worse than politicians and used card dealers put together. It’s lies Mike, all lies. Don’t trust them. If you can help it don’t stay in a hotel, rent a camper, and RV, something anything, but don’t go to a hotel.
Sunday had seen this bitch named Katrina doing nothing but getting bigger and badder as she steamed towards New Orleans. Late Sunday night, around ten or so, maybe later, I’d been downstairs walking one of the dogs. When I returned, Andrea told me I just missed an interview on, I think CNN, with Candace Watkins, mayor of Covington. As I sat down and collected myself, Eddie Price was being interviewed by someone with either Fox or CNN
Christ! These were my contacts, they were my public officials, the people I covered weekly and dealt with on a daily basis. I was a little annoyed that the fickle, feckless, fair-weathered friends-slash-journalists from the network news channels were getting time with my people. My contacts. True, I had chosen to evacuate. But by the same token…it just didn’t feel right. No, it felt horribly wrong.
I had Eddie’s cell number and had tried it a couple times but was unable to get through. It was the same thing with Candace. Frustrated, and still under the delusion that I could still collect information to write stories and file them from Houston, I hung up and tried Parish President Kevin Davis.
Bingo. He answered on about the third or fourth ring. I was elated. I wanted news. By this point it was probably closer to midnight or one.
“Hey Kevin,” I said. “How are things going?”
“So far so good,” he said. “But don’t know for how much longer.”
“Any rain yet?” I asked.
“A few outer bands,” he said. “I’m driving the parish as we speak. I just got back from out near the Rigolets. I’m headed back to the EOC.”
“How was the lake?” I asked.
“Water is already starting to really come in fast out there,” he said. “Nothing is flooded yet but it will be. This thing doesn’t look like it’s losing any steam at all. Usually they drop a category or two just before landfall but this one seems to just be picking up steam as it comes. I don’t mind telling you, I’m worried. I think we’re all in for a very long 24 hours.”
“Damn,” I mutter.
“Where are you?” he asked. “You got out Saturday after you talked to me didn’t you?”
“Yeah, I’m in Houston, but I don’t know for how much longer,” I said. “They’re turning a bunch of us out in the morning. We only booked the room for two nights. We had no idea it was going to intensify this much.”
He told me that depending on how bad the damage was, he would probably end up having to close off the parish.
“If you didn’t pack extra clothes, you might want to go invest in some,” he said. “I don’t know how long it will be until it will be safe for residents return, especially if this thing packs the punch that we think it will.”
This was getting more and more f***ed up by the second.
“Are you going to see Eddie or Candace when you get back to the EOC?” I asked him. “I’m trying to get through to them but haven’t been able to.”
“I don’t know if they’ll be there or not,” he replied. “Everyone is basically getting ready to hunker down to wait this thing out.”
“What time is landfall?” I asked.
“They’re saying anywhere from 6 to 8 at the southern tip of the state, closer to around nine or ten by the time it hits here,” he replied.
“You have winds yet?” I asked.
“Yeah, we’ve had a few good hearty gusts with those outer rain bands, but nothing too severe yet,” he replied. “Again, that’s likely to change too.”
“You hang in there man,” I told him.
“Yeah, you too bud,” he replied.
As the line disconnected, I felt a very sudden and very real sense of solitude. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt more alone in my life, then when I did those first few seconds after we hung up…
I was disoriented when I woke on Monday. I know there was one morning when Andrea crept into bed next to me and whispered, “Honey its Category 5 now”, but upon reflection, I’m certain that was on Sunday morning.
No. Monday morning was all about trying to figure out what was happening back home and, also, trying to figure out a way to extend our stay at the Sugarland Drury Inn.
CNN, Fox and the Weather Channel were all broadcasting that morning, but I don’t seem to recall actually getting any worthwhile information. Between trying to pack and get out for checkout time and trying to figure out where we were going next, there really wasn’t time for it.
And, with the hurricane in full swing (I would later learn from local officials that Katrina more or less made landfall here on the north shore somewhere between 9 and 10 a.m.). News and weather folks weren’t sticking around for the ride. That’s it. Andrea woke me Monday to tell me the Associated Press had pulled out of its New Orleans offices. That, I think, scared me more than anything had up to that point.
Well, that and the three or four women from Chalmette, who were all outside, downstairs, smoking and bitching because they too had nit extended their stay either. There were a lot of us at that hotel that morning who were unable to turn back home because the hurricane was there, but also unable to remain any longer at the Drury Inn. By Monday morning, there wasn’t a single hotel in the greater Houston area with vacancies. Apparently, a lot of people got on the road at the last minute on Sunday and by the time Monday had rolled around, they had fanned out across Houston like wild fire.
“Those m***erf***ers, they can’t make me leave,” said one of the Chalmation chicks. “They gonna have to call the National Guard and drag my a** out of here because I’m not leaving.”
Jesus Christ, this could get ugly, I remember thinking to myself as I walked McKenzie, our Doberman. And it was true. If nothing else, the spirit of the Chalmations was contagious. I was ready to take up arms, dig myself in and not relinquish our room no matter what.
But I knew that wasn’t an option.
Confusion. North, south, east or west? Which way do we go? We should get something to eat. Where’s the cell phone? Tobacco Road….
We were all in the 4-Runner. The cats were meowing, at least our eldest, Gina, was. The dogs were shuffling around in the back. Alex was asking a thousand questions, Andrea drove and I tried to navigate, as I pulled out maps, and tried to locate phone numbers for a hotel anywhere, just a single hotel room with a vacancy.
I honestly don’t remember who was driving. But drive we did. We circled Houston at least twice, eventually pulling into a drive-through at some Tex-Mex fast food joint.
At some point we decided to say the hell with it.
We jumped on I-10 West, and headed towards San Antonio.
The drive to San Antonio was a long and weird one. We spent most of it, as I can recall trying to find a hotel room. However, I-10 wasn’t the best place to try to find an Internet connection. At least that’s what it seemed like.
Eventually, we stopped at a rest area that was, of all things, wired. There were Internet computers inside the rest area itself. And the whole area was a HI-FI wireless zone, which was good for Andrea because she was seriously jonesing for some Internet usage. We were still looking for a hotel and barring that, possibly some kind of news from home saying, “All is well, everyone can come home now.”
Believe me, I would have killed to hear those words. At this point in the game, I was driving, and would have turned around in a heartbeat to go home, Alamo be damned.
Yes. Admittedly, I wanted to go see the Alamo. I’d been once, as a child, but didn’t remember it all too well. What I did seem to remember was that it was located out in the desert, in the middle of nowhere. Not so. The Alamo is smack dab in the middle of downtown San Antonio’s central business district. And even after spending days there, I still didn’t end up going to see the Alamo. Go figure.
So, we sit at this rest area for almost an hour, until we firm up on a hotel room in San Antonio. As luck would have it, it was at another Drury Inn.
The ride from that rest area to San Antonio went by quickly. After only getting a little discombobulated, I pulled us into the parking lot of our new home away from home.
We made it to our hotel just in time for snack time. I’m sure I’ve written about this before, but the abridged version is – very afternoon at the Drury Inn is snack time. Along with nachos, pizzas, nuts and chips, each hotel guest is allocated two free drinks. This was a good thing.
Night came quickly that day. Before we ventured out for dinner, I brought Alex down to the pool. It was a nice indoor pool and we had fun. As we were swimming and playing a couple and their two kids showed up, also for a swim.
The guy was some sort of retro metal guy, with a bald shaved head and one of those weird goatees that made him look more butch than ominous. He wasn’t that tall, and was built kind of short and squat. His wife was no looker either. She had stringy, blonde curly hair and was fairly rotund. I noticed at that point that she was pregnant too; very pregnant. But she was also fat too. In other words the two, pregnant and fat, were mutually exclusive.
I couldn’t he their voices, so I couldn’t make out their accents, but they didn’t strike me as Texans. There was something more northern, maybe Chicago-ish, about the. The one thing I remember as the big pregnant wife sat down near the edge of the pool and stuck her feet in, was how her husband, the heavy metal nazi skin looking guy walked up and gently began to rub her feet and ankles.
And although her ankles were about as gig as my thigh muscle, I still remember thinking, “Awe, isn’t that nice of him to rub his pregnant wife’s feet. That looks like something I would do if Andrea and I were having another baby.”
Suddenly it was nighttime, late too. It felt like midnight. It might have been for all I know.
Although the Drury Inn was pet friendly, we were kind of pushing the limits with two dogs and two cats. Not to mention the fact that our damned dogs would bark every time anyone in the hallway knocked on another door or even opened their door for that fact.
The bottom line was that we didn’t like leaving the dogs alone in the hotel for any long periods of time, for fear that they might…I don’t know, do dog things.
They might pick up the phone and order up an eight ball, hookers and Kibbles and Bits. One can never tell with our dogs.
But that night we did leave them alone in the room. We ended up at a Bennigans and it was simply delightful. It was the closest thing we’d had to a home-cooked meal (barring the Drury Inn breakfast buffet) since before we left for the hurricane.
It almost made me cry. Somehow, we ended up telling our waitress where we were from. It became a usual question as the days progressed.
“Where are you from?”
“New Orleans,” we’d answer.
And then, a day or two later, after looters were carting off liquid plasma television sets (of course with no working electric sockets to plug them into) and allegedly taking pot-shots at rescue helicopters), we adjusted our answer, “Well we actually live north of New Orleans actually, on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain, the good side. It’s suburban, we don’t riot there, or wear white shrimper boots to church. Honest, we’re good people.”
A memory – At some point, either in our hotel in an Antonio or in Houston as we were making our trek back home, I met a young black guy in the elevator. I don’t know what it was, it was some sort of unseen, unheard vibe or something to where out of a room of 30 to 40 mixed people, I could look around and instantly pick out those who were evacuees and those who were just at the hotel for some other reason.
Me and his young black guy just sort of checked each other out.
“Let me guess, Metairie, Kenner,” he said to me.
“Where you from man?’
“Slidell,” I said. “You?”
Even though I live in Mandeville, I was born and raised in Slidell. Normally when asked this question, out of habit I guess, I answer Slidell.
“Ninth Ward,” he said.
“Guess both our homes were under water,” I said.
He nodded and then cleared his throat and then he did the strangest damned thing I’d ever seen. He apologized. I was taken aback, and didn’t really understand.
“You know, all that shit on TV back home man,” he said. “All that lootin’ and stuff. I ain’t about all that. Not me and not my family. Not most of the people on my block. We work hard. We ain’t like that where I came up.”
“You don’t have to apologize to me man,” I told him. “I’m from there. You don’t have to apologize to anyone man.”
He just looked at me with a far-away look in his eyes and nodded slightly.
“I don’t know man, it just feels like I should be,” he replied glumly. “Seems like we all ought to be. We probably all will be, explaining or apologizing that is, to somebody before it’s all said and done.”
Now, some ten months later, I realize that was probably one of the most accurate, profound and prophetic things I’ve ever heard in regards to Hurricane Katrina.
But on that first night in San Antonio, I was just happy to be alive, with my family and enjoying a good meal.
All hell didn’t break loose the next morning. At least not at first. News reports were scattered. On Tuesday morning, CNN was reporting that the French Quarter made out all right. In fact, a guy from some bakery was delivering day-old pastries and snacks to other business owners in the area.
Meanwhile, the news from the Mississippi was grim. Words like catastrophic damage were being tossed around and Hardy Jackson was wandering around dazed looking for his wife, who had literally been yanked out of his grasp by storm waters and sucked away.
None of it made sense. But as time ticked down and more reports came in – the uglier it got.
We were sitting in the hotel lobby, eating breakfast trying to figure out who had been destroyed and who had been spared. There was not a single news report on anything, no status, no progress, no nothing on anything in St. Tammany Parish.
Aerial shots were being flashed across the television when I noticed the couple from the pool, from the night before, also eating breakfast. As the aerial shots continued to show miles and miles of flattened and smashed…
What were they? Were they homes? You couldn’t really tell. As the aerial shots were shown, someone was being interviewed. They were discussing damages.
“This will take billions to clean up. This will cost three times more than Andrew, which is the costliest hurricane in history,” said a voice from the TV.
Just then I accidentally saw something.
I happened to glance again, over at the couple. As he digested this bit of news from CNN he rolled his eyes at the television disgustedly,
He then looked at his wife and muttered, “It’ll be our tax dollars they spend. Our hard-earned tax dollars are going to go towards helping a bunch of lazy rednecks and niggers. God that just pisses me off.”
His wife nodded in agreement but tried to also hush him so the kids or…hmm, maybe the lazy, redneck Louisiana man sitting right next to him, didn’t hear him.
It was like a punch in the gut or a slap in the face or whatever other analogies you could use to describe something so brutal and so savage that it just ripped your psyche out by its nerve endings.
Lives were destroyed. Whole communities were flattened. Jesus fucking Christ, a man was just on CNN walking the streets of Mississippi crying, dazed exposed for all the world to see, looking for his wife who was just ripped out of his grasp.
“She’s gone. She’s gone. I’m so lost”
Can you fathom that? Can you really?
Can you imagine your wife, your husband, your child, someone, anyone you love and cherish dearly, being ripped out of your grasp and sucked into churning and swirling torrential flood waters?
Can you see that? Can you imagine that?
Unfortunately, being a writer and all, I have a pretty good imagination and can see the scene replay in front of my eyes in startling clarity. In fact, at night, when all is quiet and the demons come, that is the nightmare that wakes me most.
I’ve never just grabbed a complete stranger by the throat and started to strangle him or punch him relentlessly with my fists until he spit out blood and teeth and begged for mercy.
Of course not. We live in a civilized world. We conduct ourselves in an orderly fashion and we don’t just walk up to total strangers and attack them.
But I came very close that morning, dangerously close. I’ve never felt such a severe urge to hurt or maim another person, not even an enemy, much less a total stranger. I know that if I would have started to beat him, I wouldn’t have been able to stop. That’s not a comfortable notion to live with.
I eventually got up, I think, and excused myself from breakfast. I was shaking, I know, and I needed to not have this man and his wife, with two or three kids in tow and another on the way; their shabby dress and his unkempt little skinhead goatee; which definitely didn’t look to be fashionable or welcome on Wall Street; I just knew they probably drained the welfare system themselves. That’s right. Those ugly, stupid, white-trash mother fuckers…
These were the thoughts that ran frantically, and righteously through my mind as I staggered into the bathroom. By now I was seeing red. My eyes actually were red and almost swollen shut and were tearing.
I locked myself in a stall and finally just let it loose.
The days we’d spent- the frantic exodus out of town, the first hotel in Houston, the anxiety as the storm intensified and loomed closer and closer; being kicked out of one hotel; not knowing if our house was safe or flooded or smashed by 20 large pine trees; and now this; this c***s***er is going to sit there and judge me, judge an entire region that is already down, already dying…
My own psyche had reached critical mass and nothing could stop the meltdown.
I don’t ever remember crying so hard, so hurt, so angered in my life.
I was so angry, but at that moment (And as those who know me can attest, I’m not a very spiritual man, or at least not before Katrina) all I could do was just keep thanking God for keeping me with my family, all alive all in one piece.
I knew, despite the burden on the asshole taxpayer over in the lobby next door, that homes could be rebuilt. You lose a house, you can rebuild. But if you lose your wife, or lose your husband or child, you don’t get them back.
It was this knowledge, this reconciliation with myself that made it possible for me to go back out and join my family for breakfast without doing grievous bodily harm to the a**hole at the table next to us.