Get Your Red Cross Transit Strike Hot Chocolate Right Here

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Image hosted by Photobucket.comMy friends at the Red Cross asked for my help when the MTA went on strike. So I showed up at the frigid base of the Brooklyn Bridge for yesterday’s “commute” home, as Brooklynites streamed back into the borough after their first full day of no trains or buses. (There were also quite a few folks going the other way, heading into Manhattan at that late hour. Tourists, I guess.) We set up three tables at the end of the pedestrian walkway, each one loaded with drink Cambros, and from about 3:30-8:30 P.M. (with about seven other volunteers), I handed out hot chocolate, coffee, and cookies to the throngs.

The Red Cross sent over an ERV to deliver and prepare the hot drinks, and stepping inside almost gave me flashbacks. Clearly, a transit strike isn’t a disaster (at least not one on the scale of a Hurricane Katrina), but it was great to be able to do folks a mitzvah, to ease their trip home. It was also a kick to don the vest and ID again, to be part of something.

After all my experiences in Mississippi, it was almost surreal to be doing similar stuff right here in my hometown. It was also nice to work with local volunteers, to be reminded that there are other New Yorkers in the Red Cross — and that they’re just as eccentric and irascible as the rest of us. Mainly, it brought back that incredible sense of wellbeing that only comes from giving something away. When you’re out there, distributing free food, you get visions of another (less complicated) world, a society where people just get what they need, no money exchanged, no questions asked. Paradise.

It being the first day of the strike, a sense of adventure was in the air, and even though people were tired and freezing, they were almost uniformly upbeat. I got more smiles and looks in the eye, more genuine expressions of thanks, more actual personal exchanges, than I normally collect in a year. Plus I spotted four friends, including deuxchiens and her man Doug.

The (Near) Immortal Soles

Travel, Tribute

Image hosted by Photobucket.comIt was September 1992 and my dad was helping outfit me for the big trip: Hong Kong and parts unknown. So we hit Paragon Sports looking for a sturdy pair of boots. The Mephistos fit great, were tough and lightweight. But $300 for a pair of shoes?! Dad insisted — it was his money, after all — so I acquiesced. From then on, my soles belonged to Mephisto. The boots finally gave out in Biloxi, but until I put them down that final time, we shared a memorable 13-year-relationship.

If all it takes to know a man is to walk a mile in his shoes, then we knew each profoundly. Together, we waded through Suppong’s underground rivers and clambered through caves; played basketball in Pai, Izmir, and Prague; explored the ruins of Sukhothai, Borobodur, Ephesus and Caunos; climbed to Mr. Ong’s Organic Farm; hiked the Cameroon Highlands; ascended Mt. Bromo; ran from the macaques of Ubud’s Monkey Forest; skirted the rice fields of Bali; echoed through the Hagia Sophia; tiptoed around the Blue Mosque; zigzagged through Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar; and tromped the streets of Hong Kong, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Singapore, Melaka, Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Bunyawungi, Kuta, Ubud, Rome, Prague, Telc, Cesky Krumlov, Vienna, Budapest, Istanbul, and Paris.

Back in the States, over the ensuing years, we made our way through the Black Hills, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon, not to mention local hikes in Sonoma, Cape Cod, and the Berkshires.

For 13 long years, they withstood pounding, scuffing, being soaked through and dried out again, replacement shoelaces, and worst of all, my stinky feet. Brave, brave boots! But every great partnership must end, and my old companions just couldn’t handle ERV duty. They were replaced — by a $15 pair of Wal*Mart construction boots — but will never be forgotten.

Last Day/Out-Processing

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Performance Narrative
Image hosted by Photobucket.com“Josh Neufeld has been an excellent E.R.V support crew member. His work is characterized by promptness, efficiency, and attention to detail. We have had a lot of positive feedback from both the more experienced drivers who have worked with him and the ‘newbies’ who have come with no previous E.R.V. experience. Our ‘newbies’ are encouraged by his patience and helpfulness during their ‘training’ on the E.R.V.’s, and we have seen evidence of this, here at the kitchen, in his interaction with other volunteers as well. It has been a pleasure working with Josh.”
— Esther Jung-Yoon Park, E.R.V. Coordinator

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[what i found when i came home wednesday afternoon. i’m a lucky guy!]

Die-Hards

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I wrote a little bit about Red Cross volunteers I ran across in Mississippi who didn’t seem emotionally, intellectually, or physically prepared to give what it takes. This time I want to write about their polar opposites, the die-hards. I started to run across them in the last week to ten days, folks who were extending their stays to four, five, or even more weeks. I even talked to a couple of guys who refused to put an end date to their work. They say they’re willing to stay for the “duration,” whatever that means.

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Aaron (l.) with Bill on Halloween

One die-hard is Aaron, who became a good buddy during my stay. He’s from Overland, KS, is about 6’2” and 225 lbs., sports a bandanna and a huge shaggy beard, grew up as a devout Christian, and used to be in the Air Force. His stint in the military changed a lot of the ideas he had growing up, and he’s in the process of “rediscovering” himself. We were all priviliged to be part of this. Aaron is given to rambling late-night conversations, administering hugs, wearing women’s clothes (our own resident Klinger!), and just generally being unpredictable. He’s an ERV driver who had already been deployed for some time before I got there. He’s got a regular route in DeLisle and he intends to stay until at least Thanksgiving!

The official R.C. policy on stays longer than three weeks is that you have to get approval from your local chapter and discuss the issue with a mental health worker. You’re also supposed to take mandated days off, something like one per week. People I knew like Aaron, had already stayed 4–5 weeks and hadn’t done any of those things. They simply just hung around, and the bureaucracy never caught up with them. With a couple of exceptions, these hard-core types were male, in their twenties, and unattached romantically. (In fact, some of them seemed to think if they stuck around long enough, they’d make a romantic connection. Stranger things have happened, I guess.)

As much as I admire the die-hards’ dedication, my feeling is that sticking around too long isn’t healthy. To indulge in a little pop psycho-analysis, my take on guys like Aaron was that they were searching — for meaning, for purpose, for love — and they thought they’d find the answers with the Red Cross. The problem with that goal is the environment in the hurricane zone is not “normal;” it’s surreal, and it’s not a template for the rest of one’s life. There’s a reason the organization tries to limit people to three-week assignments. They want fresh, idealistic volunteers, not manic burn-outs. You start to see the signs: the people who show up every day but become cynical, lose their positive energy, do their jobs by rote rather than with joy. Aaron wasn’t like that; but I could see it happening, even to him. And I saw in plenty of others. That is the danger of staying too long.

I struggled with the idea myself. I took only one day off in 21 days. In the last week, before the kitchens merged, we were short-staffed and it just didn’t seem right to miss a day. Then, when we had enough people again, I was given the day off the day before I was supposed to out-process. I begged the ERV coordinator to put me back on the active list (which she begrudgingly did). And as much as I was homesick and missed Sari, I found myself considering the idea of staying on. I wasn’t ready to leave my “people” on Long Beach C behind. I actually thought they needed me. But when I really thought about the situation, I saw that it was an unhealthy urge, that the trap was thinking of yourself as vital to the cause. No individual is irreplaceable; what’s vital is the organization as a whole, providing the services it does to the larger community.

All the same, I applaud Aaron and the die-hards, and hope they are able to recognize when they need to return to the “real world.”

Kitchen 35

Tribute

While it’s all still fresh in my mind, I wanted to present the milieu of Kitchen 35, my workplace staging area for the last three weeks. When I started there, we had 19 ERVs and served about 8,500 meals per day. The typical ERV did about 180 meals for lunch and 210 for supper. My ERV, 1166, did almost exactly those numbers. The biggest server tended to Tony’s ERV, also on the Long Beach route, which did a record of 520 lunches one day!

In the last week, when we absorbed Kitchens 7 and 34, we had a whopping total of 41 ERVS and distributed 16,500 meals per day. It is my understanding that this was the largest collection of ERVs ever in one place.

Now sit back and enjoy a little photo tour of Kitchen 35 and its inhabitants:

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[a parade of ERVs as Kitchen 7 joins our ranks]

Convenience vs. Need

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Image hosted by Photobucket.comThe last week or so we’ve been assessing our route to see how dire the need is. As the weeks have gone by since Katrina hit, people (at least in our area of Long Beach) have been starting to get their lives back in order. Electrical, gas, water, and phone lines are being re-established, and folks are getting their appliances working again. As that starts to happen, they need us less and less.

We still serve just as many meals — if not more — but it’s turning into convenience feeding rather than the life-or-death kind. Convenience feeding is something the Red Cross is willing to do for awhile, but we don’t want folks to get accustomed to it, as they need to regain their autonomy and ability to take care of themselves.

Spaceman

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Image hosted by Photobucket.comBill Lee, my driver on ERV 1166, is a great team leader. He’s about 55 and is from Seattle. He’s sort of a Red Cross veteran, having worked with his wife on Hurricane Dennis in Florida. He loves being an ERV driver, and is also very conscious of the safety and comfort of the support people in back. He yells out every turn and bump before they happen, and always jumps in the back to help prep meals when we get slammed with people. (As I wrote about earlier, he also knows where all the blue-water Port-a-Potties are scattered throughout the route. Bless him.) He’s relentlessly positive and just has a great attitude.

At this point, after two weeks together, we’ve developed a real rapport. We have almost perfect division of labor, with him handling the driving and condition of the ERV and me running the back area. He lets me train new support people and basically follows my lead in that arena. The larger decisions about the route and ending the day’s run are left to Bill. We work well together.

I like his style on the loudspeaker too. As we drive through the neighborhood, he calls out the menu, adding little flourishes to make it entertaining. The other night we had ham and sweet potatoes, so his riff went something like this: “American Red Cross with your free Dr. Seuss hot lunch today. We’ve got ham and yams served in a clam by hand by two guys named Sam in the back of a van. So come as quick as you can!” Corny, yes, but any bit of humor helps keep the day moving.

Bill flirts shamelessly with all our female clients over 40 — he’s the opposite of a dirty old man — and keeps up a constant patter with the neighborhood folks. One of his favorites is when someone asks him how he’s doing. “I’m feeling so darn perfect, if I was feeling any better I’d have to be twins!” (One of our clients than replied, “Well, it’s a good thing you ain’t twins, then!” Good for her!)

Another favorite of his, when asked how he’s feeling, is “Finer than frog’s hairs on a Sunday morning,” Recently, Tony gave him a new variation: “Finer than frog’s hairs split four ways, sanded and greased. That’s mighty fine.”

He’s also got one about using the Port-a-Potty. Something about how the “soap” in the “sink” in there “just doesn’t lather up.” You have to be as intimately familiar with the Port-a-Potties as we are to get it. And then there’s the one he’s told about his day off and how he got thrown off a public beach for wearing his thong bathing suit the wrong way. And of course he never passes up the chance to remark — whenever we have a woman as our third team member — that she has us out-numbered, “one to two.” What a riot!

After the tenth time you hear Bill make the same joke, it starts to drive you crazy. After the 50th time, it becomes as soothing and familiar as a bedtime lullabye.

Bill and I are different in background, age, musical tastes, religion (he seems to be a pretty devout Christian, and I’m… nothing), and many other things, but we get along great. He’s been a terrific partner on this disaster, and we have a good time on our runs. Most importantly, he seems as motivated towards our customers as I am, making sure everyone gets fed and not getting caught up in making it home exactly on time. (Surprisingly, there are many people here whose main motivation seems to be getting back to SeaBee base promptly every day. They seem to forget the whole reason we’re here is to help the victims of the worst hurricane the U.S. has ever experienced.)

Anyway, I can truthfully say Bill has made every day here easier to get through, and I’m thankful we ended up together on the same ERV.

Blue Water

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Image hosted by Photobucket.comI’m a regular guy. You know, regular. Every morning, before breakfast, I like to spend about 15 minutes on the toilet reading a magazine or catching up on yesterday’s sports section. No one rushes me, I do my business, and it relieves me to start the day that way. I take moments like that for granted, just like I do the miracle of the flush toilet.

Here in beautiful Gulfport/Biloxi, I’ve learned all about the miracle of the Port-a-Potty. I know all the manufacturers: Sebach, Eastern Alabama Portables, United Site Services — I hate ‘em all. In the 16 days I’ve been here, I’ve gotten to use a flush toilet exactly twice. That means minimal privacy, a mélange of indescribably foul odors, and the weird guilt trip of finishing your business and not flushing behind you. Instead, it’s hand sanitizer, and if you’re lucky, a foot-pump cold water hand wash. No more lingering with a magazine; it’s all about finishing your business and getting the hell out of there. I may have mastered the art of the 60-second poop.

I’ve been woken up many mornings with a full bladder with visions of just whizzing in a quiet corner of the barracks—simply because I can’t stand having to get out of bed, put on my shower shoes, walk all the way out of the warehouse and then over to the smelly Port-a-Potty to relieve myself. I’ve made myself stay in bed, desperately trying to will myself back to sleep, just to put it off a little longer. Misery.

The Port-a-Potties at SeaBee base tend to be overworked and extra pungent — or worse — so for a while I waited to perform my morning ritual until after we’d been shuttled over to Kitchen 35. Sometimes I was even able to find a freshly cleaned unit, home of the fabled blue water. (That’s the color of the detergent solution in the bottom of the potty.) But recently I’ve had to go earlier, and been forced to use the base facilities. I try to find the most out-of-the-way potties, hoping they’re the least-used, but still… Yuch.

There’s nothing better than baptizing a blue water potty, and there’s nothing more prized than knowing where they are. One of my favorite things about Bill, my driver on ERV 1166, is his ability to find us blue water units during our run. He knows all the areas and seems to always find the units that were just cleaned that morning.

Bill, this one’s for you. Ahhhh…

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[ blue water! ]

Long Beach C

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Image hosted by Photobucket.comAfter four different routes, I’ve settled into ERV 1166 on Long Beach C. We’re part of the five-ERV contingent which serves Long Beach, a working-class community adjacent to Gulfport. It’s on the other side of the tracks (literally) from the devastation on the beachfront, but still suffered a lot of destruction. There wasn’t much flooding, but many homes are badly damaged, with fallen trees, crushed porches, holes in roofs, etc. Some homes are abandoned, some have been condemned by the authorities, and many people are living in FEMA trailers or tents — often in their own front yards.

My driver Bill and I have been together on this route going on ten days or so. For some reason we have not been able to hold on to a second support person. It’s been kind of amazing how many different folks have passed through our ERV: Ron, Jen, Marty, David, Etta, Mark, Patty, and now Steven, whose last work day is Friday, so I’ll have at least one more person to train before my deployment is done. We’ve had people get sick, we’ve had folks on their last day, we’ve had people from HQ who wanted to ride on an ERV (she got car-sick riding around in the back)—we even had an a-hole who I requested get transferred off.