Landscapes with Lester: A Memoir

by Abe Louise Young

Winner of a 2013 Story Prize from Narrative Magazine

 

September

 

IT STARTS WHEN I SEE Lester again: at the bus stop. His hair is matted into a solid white cloud, and his beard is long. He has lost an eye. His remaining eye is blood-red. He is drunker than drunk, clothes standing stiff with dirt.

We embrace kind of hysterically, jumping up and down on the sidewalk. It was Hurricane Katrina time in Texas when we were last together. He was one of the 7,000 evacuees brought to Austin on the weekend of September 2, 2005—one of 220,000 that came to Texas. In the shelter he wore crisp white T-shirts, ironed jeans with a belt, a fresh haircut, and a watch. Now it is 2008. He has lost an eye and is so soaked with drink that his organs could give out. A dark, wet cavity slips on the right side of his high-cheekboned face—the socket not yet healed. “What happened, sweetheart?” I ask.

He shrinks and shakes. “Some boys sprayed a chemical in my face and kicked me when I was sleeping at the bus stop. They was in an army uniform, I think they was crazy from a war. They called me a nigger. The firemen came and took me to the hospital. A good doctor, I mean a real good doctor, took my eye. Then she got me better.” Shoots a devastating smile.

I am overjoyed to find Lester again and shocked at what the years since Katrina have done to him. He has joined the infinite ranks of homeless black New Orleanians scattered in cities they didn’t choose, a reunion in the halls of nowhere.

In 2006 Lester and I met regularly for tea in his tidy studio apartment, which was paid for by FEMA. We took long walks conversing widely on weather, how Austin is different from New Orleans, and what to do with a day. He wanted to tell his life history, and I wanted to hear it. I was running an all-volunteer disaster relief project with an oral history interviewing team, and Lester was a one-man legacy.

Because Lester’s literacy was oral, I was helping him with paperwork and forms. His first priority was to get identification. I ordered his Louisiana birth certificate, wrote checks for paperwork, called disaster relief automated numbers routed to the disconnected roundabouts, and sent self-addressed stamped envelopes into the void. By the time I got any paperwork for Lester’s ID back, he, like all the evacuees still living in FEMA-paid apartment complexes after eighteen months in Texas, had been shown the sidewalk as a place to sleep.

I followed Lester from camp to camp for several months, meeting with him every few weeks. The last time I’d seen him before this was a moment of frustration for both of us. We got together at the Lutheran Church on South Congress, where he tucked his shopping cart under an awning. We drove downtown to open a box so he could receive mail, a requirement for getting a disability check. But the post office wouldn’t give him a box because he had no federal ID. That’s where we got stuck—arguing with a clerk. The next time we planned a get-together, Lester was elsewhere.

Leaving him on the bus bench hurts. Going back home to my perfectly intact house feels wrong. My body thrums with injustice and excitement. I have a house; Lester needs one, worse now than before. It is no good to exist in a universe where both these things are true and not act on it. At the same time, I counsel myself: don’t be a white savior. Find the middle ground of mutual aid. Solidarity, not charity. Stay clear about everyone’s gifts.

Before the storm, Lester lived in a garage behind the house of a ninety-six-year-old woman named Eunice, on Rocheblave Street, in the Ninth Ward. She brought him a platter of food every day, and he cut her lawn, fixed her roof, sang for her, and kept her company. He paid thirty-six dollars rent a month and collected cans to recycle for cash. “I always asked everybody if I could open up their trash barrel and pull cans out. I didn’t disrespect them, I got permission, and I thanked them kindly.” Men like Lester are almost an archetype in New Orleans. Around-town men, itinerant, circulating, performative, praising the Lord and the women passing by, looking for a dollar. Buoyant in spirit, with positive sensibilities and an addiction. I was a lost child there myself, sitting on the sidewalk long past nightfall, but now I have a little house, a rental trailer in back, a cat, and a privacy fence. Lester could make his shelter there in my yard, be safe, get rest, have a base camp.

I tell myself that if I invite Lester to live at my house and be in my care I could not expect him to change. There could be no conditions for his getting sober or becoming different from what he is. If I offer shelter, it has to be motivated by my love of his nature, not by a desire to change it.

I ask my neighbor Frankie what she thinks.

“How would it be for you if I let a homeless man come live in my yard?”

“Well, I think that’s what God would want you to do,” she says, slowly.

I ask my neighbor Kris. Same thing. “Jesus comes as a stranger,” she says, “but you have to make sure he’s not a sex offender. You know, I have the girls.” I check the online sex offender registries in Texas and Louisiana—he’s not there.

I ask my renter, Mari. Being from New Orleans herself, she agrees readily. “I just want some privacy between his area and my trailer, but we can do that with a tarp,” she says.

Once I get the thumbs-up from the neighbors, I go driving to look for Lester. Austin is a big city. But like a sign, I turn onto Guadalupe and within five minutes my headlights hold an aura around him. He’s sitting on the sidewalk outside a Laundromat. He can barely hold himself upright. His clothes are soiled. But he grins and raises a hand and yells my name. I’m jubilant and start crying. He does too.

I ask him to get in the car and come home with me to take a shower. We dicker over it for a while. He says, “No, I don’t want to come back up. I gave up, I gave up. Don’t bring me back up. Let me die.” I say, “You have to take care of that eye. It’s just a shower, it will make you feel good. There’s more life for you left. Don’t be a quitter, sugar, come take a shower.” He resists. “I’m done, Abey, don’t make me try to be alive again, you are not the Pied Piper.” I say, “My white behind you’re done. You still have the gift of gab and the silver tongue.” We laugh.

October

 

I visit Lester again and tell him I’ll get him a new T-shirt and jeans and drawers if he’ll get washed. In fact, I have a box of men’s clothes that will fit him like a glove, left over from my last girlfriend, who was lean and long like he is. I don’t mention lodging, just bathing. He agrees on one condition: he’ll clean up, but he wants a haircut. “I can’t be getting handsome and have this mess on my head.”

“I have clippers. We’ll have a back-porch haircut.”

“Alrighty, then. You win.” He holds out his hand and we shake.

We drive home. He stays in the bathroom for three hours, sings, and disappears two entire bars of glycerin soap. Before he comes out, he scrubs the tub till it’s more polished than I’ve ever seen it and draws a smiley face on the mirror in the steam.

The transformation takes my breath away. He bows formally. “I present Mister Beau Lester Robertson,” he says. He’s coming back from near dead; just his bodily existence seems like a gift he’s giving. We step out to the back porch and he sits in a kitchen chair with a sheet around his neck. The clippers crawl through the matted Afro and reveal, in furrows and valleys, his strong skull dusted silver and his wise, handsome face.

Before we leave, Lester points out my side yard. “Now, that would be a perfect little spot for me,” he says.

Back at his base camp, he throws his used-up clothes in a Dumpster and puts his new folded clothes carefully in the bottom of his cart. Joy streams through me like water through a strainer.

I visit a week later with a thermos of Earl Grey tea and two cups. He hauls out a checkerboard. He’s collected dark stones and light stones from the creek bed to use as checkers. We play.

“How would you like to come live by me?”

“Oh, that would be just perfect.”

We’re making a deal, and neither of us is totally sure what it is. We set up a plywood platform, a blue tarp footprint, my tent, and a blue tarp overhang for a roof. It’s funny because half the houses in New Orleans still have blue tarps covering their roofs. He nails a hand mirror to the fence. Sets up a two-bucket bathroom system, both buckets half full of water, poured in the gutter and rinsed with the hose in the morning. Two more buckets turned over for seats.

Lester keeps clicking his heels like Dorothy.

We go to the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store on Congress Avenue for a futon. Clothes, boots, a quilt, and a cowboy hat—the store manager gets into the mood and gives it all for free.

When we get back, Lester makes his bed taut and pretty, folds his clothes, lines his shoes up, and bursts out singing “You Are My Sunshine.” He sweeps out the tent and sits down to smoke.

I have ground rules: no getting drunk in the yard, and no visitors. He doesn’t have ground rules for me, except, “Be my friend as best as you can.” We have a power imbalance, but it is a livable organization of roles.

We have joyful weeks. The backyard is overgrown with weeds and vines. Lester shows me how to let the hoe do the work. “In Angola Prison I had to have thirty horses ready by first light, shoed, saddled, and groomed, then work picking cotton or hoeing in the fields till it was dark. If you so much as touched a cotton plant with that hoe, you’d be good and whipped.” As I cut a grapefruit, he sharpens the hoe with a file.

I tell him about my brother Avery, in prison in Jackson, Louisiana, at Dixon Correctional Institute. “I did time at Jackson,” he says. “Nowadays they don’t have those guards on horses, they have those towers and those machine guns fixed on you. But Dixon makes all the meat for all the prisons around Louisiana. They got to slaughter the beef and butcher all them cows. I liked picking cotton better.”

“Avery’s lucky. He got the job in the law library. He took the paralegal class in the mail and got that job.”

“Well, that is the luckiest job. You got to be a white boy on the farm to get that job. You can’t get better than being inside.”

“Is it air-conditioned inside?”

“No how. They like to make you cook, roast you like a pig all them years in the heat. But it’s better than that sun because you have shade over your head and no mosquito.”

November

 

We go to fill out the SSI/disability forms on the computer at the George Washington Carver Library. I get a rough sketch of his last thirty years. Oil rigs. The Merchant Marine. Cooking. Ranching. Women loved and lost. In whispers he tells me his jobs, his prison stints, his illnesses and injuries, back surgeries at Charity Hospital after he fell from a high distance on an oil rig. He seems to grow translucent in the chair. He wavers. His eyes fill up and distill.

On my cell phone at the library I call up Angola to request his medical records so he can have his disabilities verified. I have to bitch and be aggressively white and privileged each time in order to get anywhere. I am told to write a letter to so-and-so, and maybe they will help.

When we walk out, Lester is unsteady. He asks to be dropped off on the corner, isn’t sure which direction downtown is. I have a sinking feeling that this little walk down memory lane has triggered him. He walks like a dissociated Casper the Ghost. The next day he’s totally drunk and for three days too depressed to talk.

When my friends come over, they bring little gifts for Lester, and the girls next door make him a wreath to hang on the fence gate. He comes back up. He says he feels happy again. When I come outside in the morning, he’s singing gospel. “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield / down by the riverside.” At night, when the sun falls, he sings again, his tone deeper. “When the wicked carried us away in captivity / Requiring of us a song / Now how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” I am so grateful.

The neighbors throw a Tejano music party in their dirt yard down the block, and he charms the grandmother, dances with her, doing the two-step under the moon, with Chihuahuas at their heels.

December

 

“What I got to complain or be sad about? I got a mattress to sleep on!” Nonetheless, Lester’s eyes look dark and burnt. Charred with pain. Four days with a hurt and swollen foot. He hobbles when he gets up. He needs crutches. I feel stressed. He’s smoking in the tent, which can’t be safe. I’m bringing him hot food. After a week I start snapping at him a little. Was I an idiot? Does my tolerance run out this quickly? Good going, Mother Teresa.

Then he gets better. Folds his clothes, shaves neat at the senior center showers. Pours his pee bucket out into the drain at dawn, rinses it with the hose. Listens to the grackles squawk. We take a walk around the neighborhood at dusk, share red beans and rice.

We go to Cesar Chavez Clinic, wait seven hours. He gets approved for Austin city health care. We go to the food bank next door and get him enrolled for food stamps. Rosewood Zaragosa Senior Center around the corner serves free breakfast and lunch. The village is coming together. He walks a few miles to Austin Baptist Church, a storefront filled with plastic cafeteria tables where homeless folks are fed barbecue from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. every day. He’s got a network and a support system developing, his roots are putting out tendrils.

I’m feeling hopeful, but my money will hold out only for another month or two. I’ve been applying for editing jobs, freelancing, and teaching poetry workshops, but I need an infusion. I polish my shoes and go on job interviews. Miraculously, I get a temp job—drudgery, online editing, corporate, but a paycheck, bringing money into the house. We go to the Garden Store together and buy three bags of soil, three bags of compost, and vegetable starts. There’s a corner where Lester can plant his garden to grow his own vegetables. “Having a garden is like growing your own money, baby,” Lester says.

For Christmas I get him a pair of thermal long underwear, a radio and batteries, and—his sole request—a shorty bottle of Southern Comfort. We start a fire on the hibachi grill. He gives me some satin flowers he plucked from a Dumpster and a snow globe with a key to wind for a tinkly music-box song. Plastic animals—dog, deer, penguin, duck, cat, mouse—surround Santa. “I should have gotten you more, I know,” he says, in a tone of contrition. “I wanted to wrap it but I didn’t have time.”

“It’s perfect, I love it,” I say, and play the song, and shake the snow. It falls softly down around the scene. I do love it.

When I get home, no matter the hour, I call out, “Hey, Lester, you alright?”

“Yeah, boo, I’m fine.”

When I come home late he says, “You mean to tell me you work all them long hours? You working too hard, baby. I’m worried about you.”

“Thank you, my dear. I’m going to bed now.”

We are in a light cadence of care. I start to think that I could buy a little shed, a storage building, and run electricity and water to it. But I’m hesitant. That’s a commitment far greater than the footprint of a tent. Lester has a vigorous spirit, but he is not a healthy man. I don’t think his elder years are going to be easy. I’m learning not to overcommit.

January

 

It’s a new year, and I start to understand his rhythm. The first week of the month is Drunken Happy Binge. That’s when his food stamp money comes in, $120, activated on the LoneStar card. He meets up with a migrant worker and loans him the card to spend on groceries for his family. In exchange, the man gives him sixty dollars cash. Lester’s joy commences. He gets drunk for a week, starting with whiskey and petering down to beer, then wine coolers. He chain-smokes menthol Kools and suddenly has friends at the corner gas station, people to sit with. He buys me treats—a Twix candy bar, a package of bubble gum—asks if I need any milk or bread—“I’m going to make groceries at the store, need me to pick you anything up?”—and shares his cache from the food bank. He feels generous and valuable.

The second week his money is gone and he commences with Mournful Hangover. He lays in bed or on the sidewalk and thinks and talks about what a failure he is. Sometimes cries. Starts begging for change from strangers to stretch the binge out. He’s haunted by memories of traumatic events. Whippings with leather cat-o’-nine-tails, the deaths of his parents, attacks by police dogs. The Louisiana farm for delinquent youths. This is the hard week when he crashes and hates himself and calls on God to spare him. Detoxes in a rush. Gets hungry—once he ate a jumbo can of Spam from the food bank that had been tainted, and he vomited for three days. During Mournful Hangover, I try to bring his spirits up and remind him that he will feel better in a few days.

The third week is his Athletic Rebound. After the alcohol detox is done, he’s full of plans. Happy, joking, energized, hopeful Lester surges back up. He goes into stores, bars, and gas stations and asks for a job. He wants to earn money and feels capable; his light shines, his charm is compelling. His deep Louisiana accent softens hearts, but his empty eye socket frightens people. He gets turned away, sometimes gently, sometimes harshly. He tells me about the people he met who he thinks might give him a job. “I want to work, Abey. I got lots of labor left in me. I don’t know what’s wrong with this town that a man can’t get a job.”

“Maybe we could go to Workforce, or Goodwill, and you could get an employment counselor? Or do day labor?” I suggest.

He shakes his head, grim. “That box—once you check that felony box, they don’t want to even know your name.”

The last week of the month is Grainy Reality. Lester philosophizes, prays, and smokes. He grapples with whether Jesus and Mother Mary really do love everybody and if he is a sinner from birth or not. “I believe the Lord put us on this earth to bring his kingdom of heaven down but when Eve ate that apple, boy, we took a wrong turn. Evil is always trying to get a leg up.” We converse about options and try to make realistic plans with action steps. He is lucid and loving and sad and talks about his time working on the dock in Lake Charles. I hear marvelous Brer Rabbit tales of people he’s known. We compare memories of places in New Orleans, and I tell him about my family. Then his food stamp money hits the card, and Drunken Binge starts again.

I wonder what my cycles are. How Lester sees me as I sing my didn’t and dance my did. As I move from greater compassion to lesser stinginess. From premenstrual anger to ovulation expansion. From Everything Is Possible to I F*cking Suck.

Lester entertains me with stories of the folks who live under the bridge, his friends the Outside People. We go driving, and he points out innumerable hidden places where people he knows are living: parks, bushes, alleys, Dumpsters, abandoned cars, bamboo groves, pagodas, Porta Potties, the backyards of houses for sale. “I had no idea there were so many people living outside just in this neighborhood,” I say.

He says, “There is so many peoples out here, but they’re invisible.”

“Do they have a trick? Are they like superheroes with invisibility power?” I ask.

“Yeah, like a cartoon, they’re superheroes. Regular folks can’t see them, but they’re here. There’s peoples living out everywhere you go. I’m lucky, I gets to be your yardman and live close by. But these invisible peoples ain’t never going away. They’re forever here.”

We talk about blackness and whiteness. He says New Orleans is a city of blackness, black like the night sky, and whiteness strikes out in it like lightning. But the lightning is brief. The blackness endures. We talk about how more white people are in the city now than ever before, how the rents have tripled and quadrupled. I haven’t been back to the city since my grandmother died, near the one-year anniversary of Katrina. It’s been two years for both Lester and me.

One day I find Lester on the yellow porch couch crying and shaking when I get home. He’s holding a copy of the Onion. The headline reads: “Hurricane Katrina Returns to New Orleans to Finish the Job.” There are photos of buildings smashed and cars upside down.

“Oh, no, it’s a joke,” I say. “That paper is a fake paper, it’s all made up, it’s not real.”

“How can these people make a joke like that?” he wails, tears streaming into his collar.

“I’m so sorry, sweetheart,” I say. “They didn’t think about the people it would hurt.”

February

 

The air is turning. Cardinals are visiting the bird feeder. Lester sweeps the front porch assiduously. Sits and smokes, takes walks wearing a stone-washed jean jacket over an Austin Chronicle T-shirt.

I finally get a real job. It’s deadly boring and repetitive work, but I’ll be able to pay the mortgage and the electric bill, and feed myself. But I’ll be gone from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., and I don’t like it.

“You doing okay without me around, boo?” I ask.

“Oh, Abey, you working! I’m proud of you! I’ll be all right.”

We lose track of each other’s hours. I come home, and sometimes Lester’s not there, or he waits for me for hours and I don’t come. I join the YMCA and sit in the hot tub reading a book, even though I know he’s anxious for me to get back.

A month into the job, Booger, who lives in the neighborhood, tells Mari that he thinks Lester is smoking crack. Why? He sees a match flare up in the night.

Mari is a good tenant, a kind woman who teaches nursery school and takes photographs. She is upset and packs up a suitcase to go stay at her sister’s. She’s scared. She calls to tell me it’s not safe to have Lester anymore and that she doesn’t want to come back until he’s gone. She know what crack does. I need to take care of her and I need her as a friend. And, her rent pays my property taxes and insurance. Probably Lester was just smoking cigarettes in the night. Or using the matches as a light so he could find something?

She says she can’t take the risk. She was assaulted when she was sixteen by a homeless man she befriended in New Orleans, and her PTSD alarm bells are ringing too loudly.

I go talk to Booger, a mayor of the corner, a solid citizen of this barrio. He is grave. It’s crack, he says, and tells me that Lester asked him where he could buy a gun. My rib cage tightens like a drawstring bag. Could Booger be telling the truth? There’s a lot of brown-on-black animosity in the neighborhood. Could Booger be lying because he wants Lester to go? Or could Lester actually be smoking crack and looking for a gun?

That night I freak out. I think about buying a gun of my own. I look for twenty-four-hour gun stores. I hit on Walmart. At Walmart one can buy a gun twenty-four hours a day. Then I decide not to act like an idiot. I could ask Lester to take a drug test to see if Booger is right. Are those available at Walmart? I call my friends for advice. Mostly they advise against this. It’s too big a risk all around. You don’t want to agitate him.

We’ve only just begun to find stability, the rope Lester could climb up to find his center. And he’s a strand in the rope I’m climbing. But everyone tells me he has to go. Now that Pandora’s box has opened, the possibilities fly. My friend runs a CBC on him. His rap sheet is twelve pages long. Inventive small crimes that I admire: secretly living in a model storage unit shed set up for display in the parking lot of Home Depot for six months—what prowess! Opening the coin box of a Coke machine with a butter knife. Stealing catfish. But still. There’s an assault. It was jealousy over a cheating lover when he was a young man, he’d told me. He hurt the other man, but no one died.

I decide to try to safeguard Lester’s dignity, and protect myself, while facilitating his departure. I’m ashamed to take responsibility for my choice. So I cut and paste and write a letter from the city accusing me of violating city zoning codes by housing a person in the yard, threatening a fine and an inspection. A ruse.

I am just opening this letter at the mailbox when Lester walks up. We discuss. “Oh, Abey, this is a disaster.” Holds his head in his hands. His face seems to shrink, grow skeletal. Can he see my lies?

“I’m so sorry, Lester. This is really, really terrible. But I want to make you a promise: I will find another place for you to live within two weeks. Will you trust me? Can we work together?”

“I don’t want to live with nobody but you, Abey. This here is perfect.”

“I know. I’m really so sorry—I love having you here. But there are other places for you that are even better, and we will find them. This one can’t keep working.”

“I don’t know,” he says. “I truly do not know.”

 

It’s a swift shock and I feel like an asshole. But once it’s time to go, he’s gone: in two hours, we undo his whole habitation. Pull down the tarp, take the poles out of the tent, move the futon onto the back porch, pack up his goods in plastic bags and stack them into the shopping carts. He scrawls BE RITE BACK on a piece of wood and barricades the shopping carts with it. I drive him over to the senior center with his backpack and two blankets. He sets up camp again under the back awning.

“I can’t let you get that big fine,” he says. “Tell old Boog I say hi, and I’ll be back over soon.” Heartbreaking, heroic lightness. Does he know Booger did him in? Already I miss him, but I’m deeply relieved not to be responsible for him anymore.

Two days later, he leaves a message in his baritone: “Please visit at my dwelling place at your earliest convenience.”

When I get there he’s gone. I leave a burgundy-and-pink-striped corduroy blanket on top of his pallet as a message. Lester leaves a phone message saying that a preacher took him out for a big McDonald’s breakfast and gave him fifty dollars. “He said, ‘God’s children come first,’ and he’d been living outside before too. He told me he knew how it is. I got everybody on my side of me, Abey, I thank the Lord I woke up today. Any day. That’s the biggest blessing.”

When I get back home, I sit down and cry in relief: Lester is being taken care of, people—deities—working on his behalf. Forget the foolish conclusion that he needs me exclusively in order to survive. But finding the next place for him to live is top priority. It should be a place where many people can help him take care of himself.

March

 

He starts off the night with three blankets, and when I find him he has none but is still in his sleeping bag. “You know what I done with them other ones?”

“You gave them to other homeless people, I believe.”

“That’s right. That’s what I did. They be cold out there. And some of them don’t have nothing. You see all them canned goods I got?” He half sits up in the sleeping bag and points at a cardboard box at his feet, full to the brim with canned foods—ravioli, creamed corn, soups. “I been all around feeding all them peoples tonight.”

I pat him on the sleeping bag and say, “You’re good like that. You’re a giver. Good night, sleep tight, and don’t let the bedbugs bite.”

“Okay, Abey, I see you tomorrow.”

The next week, my mom, Veronica, is visiting. We go looking for Lester and find him rolled under some bushes at the senior center. He crawls out and scolds me. “You brought your mother to see me? You are a crazy child!” But he thanks her, says she raised a wonderful daughter, and they hug. Veronica says, “You sure do have a neat little sleeping area here.” Lester says, “It does in a pinch, ma’am.”

When we say good-bye, Lester asks me to help him get into his bedroll—to zip up the outside of his sleeping bag and put the brim of his hat down so he can keep his arms inside. I pull the heavy zipper up to his neck, unroll his watch cap to his eyebrows and pull the wool down around his ears. He’s completely tucked in and closes his eyes with a sweet sigh. I feel a flood of tenderness at the trust he’s extended.

I worry that my mother is uncomfortable squatting in the alleys with me, shaking hands with people whose skin has the hard quality of a hoof. As we get into my car I say, “Did you raise me right, or did I turn out wrong?” I worry that she’s ill at ease.

“I did raise you right,” she says. Then amends, “Well, at least I didn’t ruin what you got by raising you wrong. All the right you got I didn’t mess up with the things I did wrong.”

“No, you did it,” I say. “You transmitted the love of the universal. And of the underdog.”

“Well, that’s right, I do have that,” she concedes.

We speed through the night.

“Persistence pays off,” she says.

 

For the first visit to seek his new lodgings, we get all dressed up: Lester showered and in a western shirt with pearl snaps, me in a polka-dot dress. Casa Marianella, a shelter for immigrant refugees on Gunter Street, is a rickety, purple wood-frame house staffed by AmeriCorps workers. There are three bedrooms packed with bunk beds and family-style dinners. Almost all the residents have just arrived from Central America.

I’ve brought other people here in the past—a man who was living in a ditch behind the Santa Julia church, had walked from Mexico, had bloody feet shod in duct tape. Another time, a woman who had been sex-trafficked knocked on my door looking for a bathroom. She was about to have a miscarriage. Casa Marianella took care of both of them.

Christopher, a sweet, soft-spoken, slight young man, does Lester’s intake. He asks Lester what he needs. “Oh, I just needs help. All kinds of it. Literally there’s not one kind of help you got I do not need.” Christopher smiles as he fills out forms. Veteran status, health issues, partial blindness, chronic homelessness, everything is looking good. On track to qualify with no rigmarole.

Christopher says, “Mr. Robertson, we do have a bed for you and we welcome you to it. You can stay here for up to three months, and we can help you get back on your feet. But I would have to ask you to come to meetings for the alcohol addiction.”

“Oh, no,” Lester says. “No, siree. I don’t feel inclined to do nothing like that. You are a fine young man and a gentleman, a dignified gentleman, and I thank you for your time, but that is not in my idea of living.”

I stare at him. “Lester, but it’s too cold outside, this is a good option, this is a roof over your head.”

He scowls fiercely and hisses, “Abey, I got this. Let me handle it.” We walk out. I’m defeated, Lester is elated. The power of refusal—it’s a tiny little ampoule of power, but it’s the only one he’s got.

There’s too much risk he’d get into a fight being packed in with so many people like sardines, he says. Plus, “Those Mexicans don’t like Negroes.” As we exit, Lester spots the backyard, the picnic tables, and the covered patio. “You wouldn’t just let me put up a little tent out here now, would you?” he asks Christopher, and winks.

“Sorry, man, I can’t do that,” Christopher says. “I wish I could!” He shakes our hands.

Lester asks to be dropped off near the library to “meet some associates.” That night we have a freeze. I drape sheets over the food garden, bushes, and trees to protect them. The doorbell rings at 5:00 a.m. It’s pitch-black and bitingly cold outside. “Abey, I got lost,” he says, shivering in his jean jacket. He’s drunk a pint of whiskey behind the HEB supermarket.

I lead him to the little guest room that doubles as my office. “Don’t unmake your guest bed, I sleep on the floor,” he says. He rolls up next to the bed in a white fleece blanket and an orange polyester comforter. The next morning, the white blanket is streaked with dirt, as if a wagon had been pulled over it. It smells smoky and homey like Lester.

April

 

I am dancing on tiptoe, twirling on my teepee. A social worker friend has opened the door to a brilliant option. Lester can bypass a waiting list of several thousand folks because of his Katrina-evacuee status and move into permanent supportive housing for the homeless! It’s a beautiful SRO building off the highway, with counselors, a food pantry, classes, a computer lab, and art on the walls. Because he’s a disabled vet who has been homeless for more than two years, it will only cost him $50 a month. He needs three interviews and to be accepted by his caseworker at the complex, and he could be in a furnished apartment for life starting next month.

The first interview is scheduled for a Friday at 2:00 p.m., and we prepare for it on Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday at noon I pick up Lester from the agreed-on bus stop, where he is leaning against a low wall, very drunk—more than usual. He keeps apologizing, buries his face in his jacket. He doesn’t want to go. He’s ashamed that he got drunk. But we have a big day ahead of us. I try to be cheerful, chipper, crack jokes, give him hugs. This terrified soul is a Lester I have never seen before.

Lester asks if he can meet me in an hour. I’m hesitant, but his time is his own. In that hour, he finds two more beers to drink.

At 1:20 I start driving away, thinking maybe he got confused and is back at his camp. A few blocks down, I see him hovering, wavering on the street corner in the direction of the library. I make a sharp U-turn and pull up. He gets in wordless.

I hand him some Dentyne gum.

“I’m mad at you, Lester,” I say.

“Well, you got a right to be, Abey. But I gotta be in charge of me.”

We get to Spring Terrace. He is quivering, wearing his dark glasses to cover up his open socket. I realize this is a terrible test for him. He’s asking to be given an apartment here. It could actually happen, and looks good—and then what?

The social worker is a warm woman, has one lazy eye, and speaks very gently. She asks him simple questions. He can’t answer. He stutters and lies and falls silent. He’s not the talkative man I told her about on the phone. We leave. It’s okay, I say, there are two more interviews to go through. We hug lightly at his camp, and a burst of static electricity gives us both a little shock.

The next day, Lester takes the bus to my house. Someone gave him five dollars. He’s in high spirits, wearing a big smile. I make him hot sugared black tea. Pour water over his ramen noodles in a bowl. He pours the ramen flavor packet into the tea by accident. He insists he’ll drink it. No, I say. Let me make new tea! He insists and drinks it down. We both laugh so hard I almost pee.

With a big flood of energy, he hoes the garden and decides to transplant a cypress tree. “What are you doing with a Christmas tree in your backyard, and Christmas is coming up? You got to show that in your front yard!” He moves several large shrubs and cacti and yucca to new positions, and it looks fantastic.

It’s almost as if he still lives here. Is he trying to be let back in with his winning behavior? Something shiny and hopeful has despair churning underneath. There’s so much I don’t understand. How can I keep from hurting him further? At dusk we say good-bye, and he goes off with cheese and apple sandwiches, a Sprite, and a Timex watch I found at the thrift store so he can make our appointments on time. I know he wants to stay. It hurts.

At two in the morning, Lester calls from the Brackenridge Hospital emergency room, drunk. He says they’ve got him trapped there, leaves several messages threatening to “do something stupid” if I don’t come get him. I don’t go get him. I can’t go get him. He was so angry he said I should put all his papers outside the house. I wasn’t doing him any good, and we should burn all the bridges between us, he said.

I can hear in his voice that he’s moving through layers of loss and rejection. I start shutting down and don’t answer. The next night I go to his camp, we talk, and I apologize. I tell him that I can’t go anywhere, or answer the phone, in the middle of the night. I have to work now and get up in the mornings. But I’ll get him for the next meeting with the social worker at Spring Terrace.

When he misses the next two interviews, we get taken off the list of potential residents. I’m angry, but there’s nothing to say. It was too fast, too far a leap. “I’m an alcoholic, Abey,” he says. “That is never gonna change.”

It’s hard to be loved when you feel unworthy. I know that feeling. To be the recipient of another person’s “goodness” requires that you feel deserving.

It’s a relief when Lester finds his old friend again, a homeless man named Chief Hawk. Chief has been out on the streets in Austin for almost twenty years. Lester and Chief Hawk do their laundry at the Laundromat, wheeling their shopping carts in and unloading things into the jumbo-sized agitators. They panhandle for change to do the wash. The food bank gives out a dry, clumpy, acrid chemical laundry detergent called TANK, in royal-blue cardboard Cracker Jack–sized boxes, and they stock up.

Chief drinks Orange Jubilee, a flavor put out by MD 20/20, and nothing else. He calls it wine, says he’s a wino. He speaks eloquently. Says in every place on earth there are people who cannot live inside, cannot say where they will be tomorrow, who move from spot to spot as they are yelled at or pushed on, and who seek each other’s company. Lester nods.

I understand now that Lester does not want to go inside when it is warm. When it is cold and raining, he wants to go inside. Warm days: outside. Cold days: inside. That’s the organization of days. “Do you want a place to be inside when it’s cold, a place that’s yours, for just you?” I ask.

“Yes, ma’am,” he says. “I’d rather be warmed up by a woman, but if I have to be under a heat lamp like a reptile, that will do.”

 

I hit on an idea and try calling his parole officer. The city has a drug and alcohol treatment center on a ranch outside town. Three meals a day, with intensive therapy and rehabilitation, a halfway house afterward for six months to a year. Lester is prequalified because of his numerous arrests for sleeping on the streets and in parks. Once I tell the intake clerk that he’s a Katrina evacuee, she swoons. “Oh, we have all this funding and we never once used it. Bring that man down here today!”

“Maybe I can get clean,” he says. “I like to be on a ranch with horses.” The only thing between Lester and a secure month of detox, with a halfway house at the other end, is a TB test. Where do we get one?

All we need to do is go to the city health clinic on Friday between 10:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m., pay fifteen dollars, wait three days, and a TB test result should be in hand.

I leave work in the morning to pick Lester up at a bus stop, and we drive to a public health clinic near Lady Bird Lake, in a Communist-style gray box of a building. It feels good to be perceived as family, the way being in a doctor’s waiting room together makes odd couples out of anyone. “I am a fine ranch hand,” Lester trills, and tells me all about it. I decide to get the TB test too. We both go in, get the poke. In three days we’ll come get it read, and then Lester will be on his way up. People with skills I don’t have will be helping him.

A few days later, Lester rolls up his sleeve to show me a fat, red, two-inch oozing welt where the TB stick went in. “I got it, Abey,” he wails. “I got it. The TB. I got it.” Tears stream down his face. I’m shocked—I hadn’t even imagined this outcome.

So Lester is an active TB carrier, spreading it whenever he coughs. “I’m so sorry, honey,” I say. I start crying too. I don’t know what TB protocol is. “I have to stand a few feet away from you until I get masks.” We cry, with six feet of concrete between us. He walks away. I go to the drugstore and buy paper masks and go looking for him.

With active TB disease, Lester can’t get into the rehab ranch or any other city residential program until after he takes drugs for six to twelve months. And he’d have to be on “directly observed therapy”—watched by a nurse or health department official as he swallows every prescribed dose.

May

 

Lester can’t handle social workers, social services, and welfare programs. He needs love, friendship, relationship. Not the paper charade. He needs a limbic connection, a steady attachment, and a person to be anchored to in this world. He needs the steady care of someone who won’t leave.

I don’t think I can be that person. I’m not done yet, but I’m running out of gas.

He’s staying in a covered parking vestibule by the medical centers off Thirty-Eighth Street. I put on the tuberculosis mask before we talk and hand him one too. He puts it on. We look ridiculous, like fake surgeons. He’s been industriously collecting empty cans and has two wire shopping carts full of flattened ones—eggs in his basket, maybe twenty dollars’ worth. He has a third shopping cart covered with a blanket; its contents are obscured. I imagine it’s hubcaps or copper, something that will get a little more money per pound. He’s guarding these so someone doesn’t steal them before he can push the carts to the scrap yard recycling center. I give him a banana and some dry rye bread, the food I have in my car. I cry when I go.

We’d shared the hope that after all the devastation of Katrina, one single thing could turn out right.

I’m feeling stingy, and the separation is widening, and it’s a relief.

 

Driving to work the next morning, I see Lester walking a few blocks from my house, near the car wash. He is pushing his shopping cart and carrying a chain saw. My orange chain saw? I pull over, happy to see him, and confused, and hop out of the car. How did he get back here? It’s miles away from Thirty-Eighth Street.

He sees me, recoils, then changes his expression from scared to angry and wild-eyed. “Don’t talk to me! Abey, you ain’t never brought me a hot meal!”

“Lester, are you mad at me? For what? How did you get all the way down here?”

“I walked,” he said accusingly. He puts the chain saw in the cart and pushes it into a bay at the car wash.

I’d made some made red beans and rice for lunch and give him the Tupperware container.

His eyes soften and he grins. Then he starts yelling furiously: “I’m dying out here, dying! I’m gonna kill, kill somebody! I gots to eat!” He starts singing gospel and lies down with his face on the ground, squirming.

A man in an SUV blaring Tejano music drives into the car wash, and Lester has to move his cart. He jumps up, and I walk toward it with him. He yells, “Don’t you go near my cart, Abey. I got a sawed-off shotgun in there.”

“What?” I say. “Why do you have that?”

“Don’t. Go. Near. My. Cart.”

I realize that he may or may not have a gun. But he has a cart packed full of tools from my garage.

I tell Lester I have to go to work. We hug, and I tell him I’ll come by and see him tonight.

“All right, now, I just love you. You gonna have a baby by me, Abey, someday,” he says, and winks and smiles and points at my belly.

I drive back home with the dawning sense of an ending. I open the garage door and see the empty places where the tools used to be. Portable drill, jigsaw, chain saw, hair clippers, handsaws, miter box, wrenches, and so on—just silhouettes drawn in pencil on pegboard.

I get back in the car and drive back to Seventh Street. I ask a few transient guys hanging out near the car wash to point me in Lester’s direction. I say, “He just stole a bunch of stuff from my house.”

“He did? Uh-oh.”

On Sixth Street he’s walking fast, wearing my welding safety goggles. He looks absurd and cute and in disguise. I say, “Lester, I think you may have gotten some of my stuff mixed up with your stuff.”

He says, “That’s right, I probably did.”

I say, “That makes me pretty sad.”

He takes things out of the cart and throws them down hard on the sidewalk. “Take your things. I don’t want to know you. Don’t never find me. Don’t never say my name again!”

This last sentence is high-pitched, as if Lester is about to cry.

“You made me love you,” he accuses. I stand in shock on the sidewalk, and he runs.

I did. I made him love me. To experience the explosion of attachment and abandonment—again.

I sit down on the sidewalk to think, and a police car pulls up. The officer walks over to me and says they apprehended the thief by the railroad tracks, and can I ID the items? The mechanics had called 911.

Does it matter that he stole my stuff? No. He had a right to do it. Did I want to ID the stuff? No. Could I tell the cops that? No.

 

Lester’s in jail for home burglary. I go to the police substation, talk to Detective Rice, give him a statement laced with ambivalence. Try to reiterate my responsibility. People keep saying, “Maybe it’s the best place for him.” Every day my phone rings about twenty times, a collect call from the jail. I don’t accept it, but I don’t press the button that prevents my number from being called either.

Two weeks pass with frequent calls. I finally press the number 5, which prevents my number from being dialed from the jail. I wish Lester were in a mental health care facility. I wish I’d been able to get him into an apartment, a program, or a transitional trailer through Mobile Loaves and Fishes. I wish, I wish. Did I do the wrong thing when I pressed him to take that first shower?

When I get home, I call Lester’s brother, Joseph, in Lake Charles. Lester often talked about his brother and kept his phone number written on a board of the fence in the yard. I plot out what I’m going to say to warm him, to establish trust, to get past the first minutes of the conversation. I tell the woman who answers that I’d like to speak with Joseph. What about? she says. I say, “About Lester.” She turns cold. “We got nothing to say. Don’t call here again.” She hangs up.

 

After two years pass, I start looking for him on the streets again, with a twinge of fear because he might hate me and a feeling of hope that we might find resolution. Lester gave me New Orleans again, a New Orleans neither of us can go back to. While New Orleans has revived herself, regenerated, reincarnated, what was there before—and who was there—is forever gone. Including the people we were before we met, before the storm surge.

I hear from friends who have caught a glimpse of him in alleys and church parking lots in South Austin. Walking on a city street, on a rainy day, past a trail of someone’s evaporating cigarette smoke, I will catch a phantom blast of Lester. It’s the smell of weather. Denim pressed all night against concrete. Ivory soap from the food pantry. Butts picked from the trash. Pigeon and seagull droppings. Burnt rubber. Musk like tanned leather.

Just last week—four years after he was jailed—the phone rang. “This is Brackenridge Hospital Assets Recovery. May I speak with Lester Robertson, please?”

“He’s deceased.” (I don’t know if this is true or not, but it’s my only answer.)

“Who am I speaking with?”

“I’m just a friend.”

“This is the phone number he listed as his residence.”

“Yes, he was staying with me for a while. But now he is deceased.”

“Well, good! I want to let you know that we have payment programs for deceased patients. We can set up a payment schedule for you to take care of this debt.”

“That’s wonderful, thank you,” I say, and hang up.

- See more at: http://www.narrativemagazine.com/issues/spring-2013/landscapes-lester#sthash.LJsGNoku.dpuf

Torn Screens: My mother is home with one breast…

Torn Screens

by Abe Louise Young

My mother is home with one breast, almost
sleep-walking. Three decades of mercury,
burning batteries, falling ash & all the plastic mysteries
compacted into garbage bags–

Trash incinerators
downriver are still stitching torn stockings of smoke
to the skyline, long legs of fire.
A boat’s a hat on house;
a slab’s covered with underwear,

a cardinal pecks at a nest; the bag of birdseed molds,
& shudders to the other side
of the laundry room by sheer gyrations
of maggots.
Sorry–
I know nothing; can’t laugh back.

We sit inside, eat General Tsao’s Chicken dripping
with syrup. Talk feral cats. Her sternum’s purple
& black. Her teeth are good, the crowns
are hanging on, though someone stole
her eyelashes.

Better have a baby
quick. Crazy laugh. And then she cries: her voice
is two tones deeper, dry, with the rattle of a hammer
dropped a long way down
the well.

Twenty years ago we caught rabbits
in the swamp that’s since turned iridescent green,
roped off with caution tape.
There’s an oil slick beautifying the lake.

The porch is falling down
& once was screened
against mosquitoes but the screens got torn & now
are curtains sliced open in a swag,
night theater.

I kiss her cheek, she holds my hand.
We radiate together.

 

(Winner of the Nell Altizer Prize in Poetry & published first in Hawai’i Review)

Queer Youth Advice for Educators: How to Respect and Protect Your Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Students

Queer Youth Advice for Educators: How to Respect and Protect Your Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Teenagers, by Abe Louise Young.

Buy a hard copy or read a free download of the full collection of youth voices.

This compilation of urgent youth voices is a critical reminder that sometimes the most important thing an adult ally can do is listen.  Eliza Byard, GLSEN

 

      

A rich, important, and powerful work, in which  students teach us about their experiences and their wishes for safe, respectful and civil schools. I hope every K–12educator reads and reflects on this wonderful book.

Jonathan Cohen, President, National School Climate Center

                         
In this essential book, LGBTQ youth tell us about peer and adult actions that hurt them—and, even more important, about peer and adult actions that have helped them live good lives.  Stan Davis, author of Schools Where Everyone Belongs

This eye-opening guide reveals a national crisis in school climate. The powerful voices of students describe more than bullying—they show a whole-school issue that must be addressed sensitively by every educator. Queer Youth Advice for Educators is a great resource for school counselors and all adults in a school building.
Kwok-Sze Wong, American School Counselor Association

A must read for every parent, educator, and youth worker who wants to create safe harbor for all young people—a place where kids can honor the uniqueness of themselves and others as well as celebrate our common humanity. The wisdom and deep caring of the youth in this book will humble and hopefully embolden us to stand up for our kids and speak out against any injustice.
Barbara Coloroso, author, The Bully, The Bullied, and the Bystander

All of us at Soulforce, home of the Equality Ride, want to commend the body of work and commitment represented by the young people involved in the development of this resource. They are helping record and, indeed, rewrite a chapter of history in the United States in which cruelty has been sanctioned in our schools and affirmed by many of our churches. The author and participants in the creation of this text have asked themselves the question that all of us should ask of ourselves, “So what do we do? Ignore or go along?” Both routes lead to damage of the hearts and minds of the young people who are hurt by bullying and those who are complicit in that harm. Queer Youth Advice for Educators offers a third option. It identifies the source of our cultural discomfort, describes methods of dealing with that discomfort and ways to transform ourselves in a way that supports young people in learning communities as well as those who dedicate themselves to the teaching profession.  Rev. Dr. Cindi Love, Executive Director, Soulforce, Inc.

This is an intelligent and useful resource for teachers. The book provides insight into the thoughts and feelings of students whose voices are too rarely heard.
Rosetta Marantz Cohen, professor of Education and Child Study, Smith College

Forget Making Your Bed

FORGET MAKING YOUR BED

(for Emily Joan)

Forget making your bed. Make your desk instead.
Let your bed sheets lie rumpled on the floor
with pillows underneath them
like elephants in the bellies of snakes,
with stuffed animals and a water glass
tipped over on top.

Forget the bed. Put the pages of your desk in order.
Line up the sheets from head to foot.
Smack the dust and grit off. Shelve the books.
Make your bet that what you’ve got to write might crack a boulder
like a light bulb, that a cone of butterflies will stream out,
that you could make a person you’ve never met
want to give birth through her eye sockets.

See those piles of old textbooks,
post-it notes, envelopes
with little plastic windows, job application folders,
nests of screws and nails and grommets,
empty condom packets, coupons for bulk soy milk?
Take it all and throw it out.
Would you sleep in that?
No.

Dream at your desk, then work your mind
through its torque. Mime the regular simplicity
of milking a goat. Every day, twice.
Morning and night.
A squirt of hot goat’s milk
puddles in a metal pail with each gentle tweak
of your mind’s nipples.
If you don’t, the goat will cry.
Have you seen mastitis?

So milk the stream down, thin as silky thread.
Stir the cream slowly so it turns to butter,
then heat it to cheese,
add those herbs you’ve spent years growing
in cracked pots on the windowsill.
Memory sits down gratefully
like an old farmer
and takes off its weathered, sweaty cap.
Out of the sun, off the fields,
in your company. Put out a loaf of bread.

Put your head where your feet should be.
Hug the pillows to your chest.
Pretend you hold a body, soft, trusting,
someone who’s not going to leave at morning light.
These are your readers,
the ones you need, the ones you are lonely,
brittle, adrift without, the other mammals
full of feathers, like you,
who miss their mothers, like you,
are ringed round with zippers, like you,
indented and passive, like you. But not tonight.

The night is big and empty on your desk.
Touch blank paper with your fingertips.
The paper used to be trees; seed,
soil, water and sun, which used to be
your ancestors’ voices and breath
buried in light without a box.
They will lead you to your readers.
You might never know them,
you might die before they’re born.
But tonight, hold them tight.
Make the desk sprout leaves and sing.
Make it feel like a sapling.

Our Lady

Our Lady, a poem by Abe Louise Young                                         

(Listen to this poem at Trivia.)

La Virgen de Guadalupe flares up huge on the concrete block wall of the El Milagro Tortilla factory  / across from Liquor Depot and King Pawn. /
The graffiti artist ripped the edges of his stencil / 
so silver, orange and magenta pour through her blue dress. / La Virgen de Guadalupe rises in east New Orleans… (more)


Feminesto: Dialogue

Are there any qualities standard to liberation?

Each book on the syllabus.

How do I make rape bear fruit, little bear?

         The brain that contains the problem also contains the solution.

We are in need of a worldwide Sabbath, a moment of absolute rest.

      Good night, little one. Dream me a forest path, a basket.

My body—his body—missile silos—the sidewalk, the crop, the compost—
Guantanamo Bay—the pesticide—faucet—wet mop—#10—the bees in the
orchard—child’s hand—nobody’s suffering is singular— can I be my own harbor,
yet hold refugees?

Create a moment without cacophony.

Lungs, the light. A breath?

        From any cliff, you can extend a blessing.

 

(Abe Louise Young)

Published in Terrain

 

Instructions on Softening

Instructions on Softening

Dream an envelope of earth, and fill it with blue morning glory seeds.
Seeds need tenderness and a message of truth before they wake up.
Weed a short section of childhood memory, plant bulbs that bloom in winter.

Practice burning faces into your brain like names on a leather purse.
Feed a population of feral children. Identify and interview yourself.
Terror informants want to know that rifleshot won’t follow their words.

Speech is a natural pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables.
Where is the nearest natural running water?
Relax the angry reflexes that protect you from pain.

Nurture beneficial insects.
Dream an x-ray of world peace.
Vow to return to live on Earth again, again, again.

 

–Abe Louise Young

Published in Terrain

Hip Deep


Opinion, Essays, and Vision from American Teenagers

Edited by Abe Louise Young

Hip Deep is a portrait of our time and our nation through the eyes of youth. They come from villages in Alaska to farms in Alabama, suburbs in Baltimore to high-rises in Los Angeles. In revealing, powerful personal essays, they take on the social, political, and personal issues that matter to them most — from the juvenile death penalty to gay marriage, skateboarding to poverty. It’s straight-up news about the diversity of our country, the fabric of our society, and the minds at work in our schools. Also included is a guide called “How to Publish Your Work,” designed specifically for teenagers, with a listing of the U.S. magazines and websites that seek writing from people aged 13 to 21.

available at amazon.com

BP Hires Prison Labor to Clean Up Spill While Coastal Residents Struggle

Published first in The Nation

In the first few days after BP’s Deepwater Horizon wellhead exploded, spewing crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, cleanup workers could be seen on Louisiana beaches wearing scarlet pants and white t-shirts with the words “Inmate Labor” printed in large red block letters. Coastal residents, many of whom had just seen their livelihoods disappear, expressed outrage at community meetings; why should BP be using cheap or free prison labor when so many people were desperate for work? The outfits disappeared overnight.

Work crews in Grand Isle, Louisiana, still stand out. In a region where nine out of ten residents are white, the cleanup workers are almost exclusively African-American men. The racialized nature of the cleanup is so conspicuous that Ben Jealous, the president of the NAACP, sent a public letter to BP CEO Tony Hayward on July 9, demanding to know why black people were over-represented in “the most physically difficult, lowest paying jobs, with the most significant exposure to toxins.”

Hiring prison labor is more than a way for BP to save money while cleaning up the biggest oil spill in history. By tapping into the inmate workforce, the company and its subcontractors get workers who are not only cheap but easily silenced—and they get lucrative tax write-offs in the process.

Known to some as “the inmate state,” Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration of any other state in the country. Seventy percent of its 39,000 inmates are African-American men. The Louisiana Department of Corrections (DOC) only has beds for half that many prisoners, so 20,000 inmates live in parish jails, privately run contract facilities and for-profit work release centers. Prisons and parish jails provide free daily labor to the state and private companies like BP, while also operating their own factories and farms, where inmates earn between zero and forty cents an hour. Obedient inmates, or “trustees,” become eligible for work release in the last three years of their sentences. This means they can be a part of a market-rate, daily labor force that works for private companies outside the prison gates. The advantage for trustees is that they get to keep a portion of their earnings, redeemable upon release. The advantage for private companies is that trustees are covered under Work Opportunity Tax Credit, a holdover from Bush’s Welfare to Work legislation that rewards private-sector employers for hiring risky “target groups.” Businesses earn a tax credit of $2,400 for every work release inmate they hire. On top of that, they can earn back up to 40 percent of the wages they pay annually to “target group workers.”

If BP’s use of prison labor remains an open secret on the Gulf Coast, no one in an official capacity is saying so. At the Grand Isle base camp in early June, I called BP’s Public Information line, and visited representatives for the Coast Guard Public Relations team, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Louisiana Fisheries and Wildlife Department. They were all stumped. Were inmates doing shore protection or oil cleanup work? They had no idea. In fact, they said, they’d like to know—would I call them if I found out?

I got an answer one evening earlier this month, when I drove up the gravel driveway of the Lafourche Parish Work Release Center jail, just off Highway 90, halfway between New Orleans and Houma. Men were returning from a long day of shoveling oil-soaked sand into black trash bags in the sweltering heat. Wearing BP shirts, jeans and rubber boots (nothing identifying them as inmates), they arrived back at the jail in unmarked white vans, looking dog tired.

Beach cleanup is a Sisyphean task. Shorelines cleaned during the day become newly soaked with oil and dispersant overnight, so crews shovel up the same beaches again and again. Workers wear protective chin-to-boot coveralls (made out of high-density polyethylene and manufactured by Dupont), taped to steel-toed boots covered in yellow plastic. They work twenty minutes on, forty minutes off, as per Occupational Safety and Health Administration safety rules. The limited physical schedule allows workers to recover from the blazing sun and the oppressive heat that builds up inside their impermeable suits.

During their breaks, workers unzip the coveralls for ventilation, drink ice water from gallon thermoses and sit under white fabric tents. They start at 6 AM, take a half-hour lunch and end the day at 6PM, adding up three to four hours of hard physical labor in twenty-minute increments. They are forbidden to speak to the public or the media by BP’s now-notorious gag rule. At the end of the day, coveralls are stripped off and thrown in dumpsters, alongside oil-soaked booms and trash bags full of contaminated sand. The dumpsters are emptied into local HazMat landfills, free employees go home and the inmates are returned to work release centers.

Work release inmates are required to work for up to twelve hours a day, six days a week, sometimes averaging seventy-two hours per week. These are long hours for performing what may arguably be the most toxic job in America. Although the dangers of mixed oil and dispersant exposure are largely unknown, the chemicals in crude oil can damage every system in the body, as well as cell structures and DNA.

Inmates can’t pick and choose their work assignments and they face considerable repercussions for rejecting any job, including loss of earned “good time.” The warden of the Terrebonne Parish Work Release Center in Houma explains: “If they say no to a job, they get that time that was taken off their sentence put right back on, and get sent right back to the lockup they came out of.” This means that work release inmates who would rather protect their health than participate in the non-stop toxic cleanup run the risk of staying in prison longer.

Prisoners are already subject to well-documented health care deprivations while incarcerated, and are unlikely to have health insurance after release. Work release positions are covered by Worker’s Compensation insurance, but pursuing claims long after exposure could be a Kafkaesque task. Besides, there is currently no system for tracking the medical impact of oil and dispersant exposure in cleanup workers or affected communities.

“They’re not getting paid, it’s part of their sentence”

To learn how many of the 20,000 prisoners housed outside of state prisons are involved in spill-related labor, I called the DOC Public Relations officer, Pam LaBorde, who ultimately discouraged me from seeking such information. (“Frankly, I do not know where your story is going, but it does not sound positive,” she said on our third phone call.)

Going to prison officials directly didn’t help. The warden of a South Louisiana jail refused to discuss the matter, exclaiming, “You want me to lose my job?” A different warden, of a privately-owned center admitted, on condition of anonymity, that inmates from his facility had been employed in oil cleanup, but declined to answer further questions. Jefferson Parish President Steve Theriot and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, and Grand Isle Police Chief Euris DuBois declined interview requests.

Transparency problems are longstanding with the Louisiana DOC. There is also scant oversight of private prison facilities. Following Hurricane Katrina, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued a 140-page report that documented abuses and botched prison evacuations, as well as the numerous times its requests for official information were rejected. “It appears that you are standing in the shoes of prisoners, and therefore DOC is exempted from providing any information which it might otherwise have to under public records law,” DOC lawyers told the ACLU National Prisons Project.

Some officials have been more forthcoming. A lieutenant in the Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office told me that three crews of inmates were sandbagging in Buras, Louisiana in case oil hit there. “They’re not getting paid, it’s part of their sentence,” she said. “They’ll work as long as they’re needed. It’s a hard job because of the heat, but they’re not refusing to work.” In early May, Governor Bobby Jindal’s office sent out a press release heralding the training of eighty inmates from Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in “cleaning of oil-impacted wildlife recovered from coastal areas.” DOC Spokesperson Pam LaBorde subsequently denied that any inmates participated in wildlife cleaning efforts.

Offering an exception to this policy of secrecy is Lafourche Parish Work Release Center, the only one in the state that is accredited by the American Correctional Association. It is audited regularly and abides by national standards of safety and accountability, which is perhaps why I was able to simply walk in on a Thursday afternoon and chat with the warden.

Captain Milfred Zeringue is a retired Louisiana state police officer with a jaunty smile, powerful torso, and silver hair. His small, gray office is adorned with photos of many generations of his Louisiana family and a Norman Rockwell print picturing a policeman and a small runaway boy sharing a meaningful look at a soda fountain counter. A brass plaque confers the “Blood and Guts Award” upon Zeringue. Of 184 men living under the Captain’s charge, 18 are currently assigned to oil spill work. The numbers change daily and are charted on white boards that stretch down the hallway.

Captain Zeringue says that inmates are glad for any opportunity they can get, and see work release jobs as a step up, a headstart on re-entry. “Our work release inmates are shipped to centers around the state according to employer demand,” he explains, describing the different types of skilled and unskilled labor. “I have carpenters, guys riding on the back of the trash trucks, guys working offshore on the oil rigs, doing welding, cooking. Employers like them because they are guaranteed a worker who’s on time, drug-free, and sober.”

“And,” he adds, “because they do get a tax break.”

Inside the center, men sit around long plastic tables watching TV, or nap on thin mattresses under grey wool covers. The windowless dormitories hold twenty to thirty men each in blue metal bunk beds. Hard hats hang off of lockers, ceiling fans circle slowly, and each bunk has a white mesh bag of laundry strung from one rung. An air of dejection and fatigue permeates the atmosphere, but the facility looks safe and clean. It’s surrounded by chain link fence and staffed by former police officers. One long shelf stacked with donated romance and adventure novels serves as a library. GED classes and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings gather weekly. Individuals are free to walk around the halls, use pay phones, shoot pool, or sit and watch cars pass on the highway from a small outdoor yard. A doctor visits once a week. Inmates greet the captain as we walk and jump to hold doors open for us.

Zeringue exudes a certain affection for the workers in his center. “To me, I’m kind of like Dad here. The inmates come to me and talk about their problems. They get antsy and nervous when they’re close to getting out—how am I going to survive, how’s my family gonna be with me?”

Like all Gulf Coast residents, inmates have good reason to feel anxious about the future. BP has received almost 80,000 claims for lost revenue in the wake of the spill. Scores of people are out of work, the offshore drilling industry is in limbo and the age-old fishing and shrimping professions are looking death in the face. In the towns and bayous of the gulf, anxiety and post-traumatic stress are taking hold.

In some places, the desperation is palpable. I met Randy Adams, a construction contractor from Grand Isle, on the sidewalk outside of a local bar. “This BP spill is turning me into an alcoholic, because I don’t have anything to do,” he says. “That, that, thing—that thing they did—” He points to the beach. He’s unable to say “spill” or label it in any way. He points to the water again and again. “That thing has taken everything away from me. I have a gun under the front seat of my truck, and every day I decide, do I want to put a bullet in my skull? Live or die, that’s my choice here, every day. My life is gone, do you understand?”

Scott Rojas of the Jefferson Parish Economic Development Commission suggests that for all the work to be done, finding local labor to do oil-spill cleanup jobs is trickier than it would seem. “These are really hard, and really low-paid jobs—I know agencies have put effort into finding locals to do the work. But they may not always have an easy time of it. As for reports of inmates being hired, I can’t confirm or deny. The people down in Grand Isle swear to it, but you’re going to have to talk to them.”

The Louisiana Workforce Commission, the state unemployment agency, is advertising hazardous waste removal oil spill cleanup positions as “green jobs.” They pay $10 per hour, so these jobs might seem like an attractive opportunity. But Paul Perkins, a retired Angola Prison deputy warden who owns and operates five for-profit inmate work release centers, says that even as the agency is “overflowing with applications for oil spill jobs,” the work force is inconsistent. “They might hire 400 people on Monday, and after one day of work, only 200 will come back on Tuesday.”

Hiring prison labor might prove more reliable, but it evokes understandable rage among Gulf Coast residents. According to Perkins, the Louisiana Secretary of Corrections, James LeBlanc, met with disaster contractors in early June and asked them to stop using inmate labor until all unemployed residents found work. But as the spill has so dramatically demonstrated, in this new environment, the government seems only able to make polite requests. BP calls the shots, and its private contractors, like ES&H, are the sole clean-up operators. From there, subcontractors, such as Able Body Labor, decide whom to employ.

Working for BP: “This isn’t what I would like to be doing.”

Anna Keller relocated to Grand Isle in May to work with Gulf Recovery LLC, to help develop community-based responses to the oil disaster. Also a member of Critical Resistance New Orleans, Keller says, it is “common knowledge” that prisoners are doing cleanup. “If you talk to anyone working on the beach they’ll tell you, yes, prisoners are working here.” She describes a shipping container that sits at the turn-off for the Venice Boat Harbor, advertising “Jails to Go.” Such containers work as contract labor housing for work release prisoners, with bunks inside, bars on the windows, and deadbolts on the doors.

According to Keller, the use of inmate labor takes recovery one step further away from those people who are most intimate with the ecology, culture and landscapes of the area. In her view, they should be hired first, and not just for the grunt jobs. “Community members should be hired in the planning stages, and paid for their expertise. The local people are the true experts here.”

Up the road at A-Bear’s Restaurant in Houma, an elderly man in overalls describes his son’s financial dilemmas to the room of locals over dinner. The son is 40, married with children, and was laid off from an oyster shucking factory shortly after the BP leak began. He’s now walking door-to-door with a lawnmower, looking for grass to cut. The man holds his head in both arthritic hands. The waitress hands him a paper napkin to blot his eyes. I ask him if his son would work for BP in the cleanup and he grimaces. “Maybe, no, I don’t think so,” he says. “That would be hard for his pride, you know? For that little money? No.”

Beach cleanup workers do make the lowest wages in the recovery effort. Others on the BP payroll have it slightly better, but the jobs they are doing are a daily reminder of what they have lost. Chris Griffin is a French-speaking Cajun shrimper whose father and grandfather also captained shrimp boats. After oil contamination closed the gulf waters, Griffin was hired to captain airboat tours of oil-impacted marshlands for BP. Three times a day he steers a slim four-seat boat with a deafening engine into the waters he’s known all his life, while Coast Guard officials give media tours and answer the same grim questions again and again.

“This isn’t what I would like to be doing,” Griffin says, “but I’m glad I have a job so I can take care of my family. I’m not worrying about the money. Not everybody has that. Me, I’m worrying about the years in the future here. Will we keep cleaning it up? Will they take care of everybody?”

Abe Louise Young
July 21, 2010

Ammonite: Poems


Poems by Abe Louise Young

Ammonite is a 36-page collection of poems hand-bound in a letterpress cover. The poems explore Louisiana landscapes post-Katrina, the divinity of nature and the female body, and contemporary struggles for intimacy. Playful, musically charged, and highly crafted language meets radical political awareness.

 

“Abe Louise Young’s poems thrum with a raucous synaesthesia
and an eerie jazz.”

–Nell Altizer

 

 

AVAILABLE AT MAGNOLIA PRESS COLLECTIVE