As reporters in this thrashed landscape, we function essentially as the senses of our readers. Not every story is a press-con, a collection of data, an interview with a bureaucrat or a politician (whom very few people see as humans like those who live down the street.)
Instead, we are also absorbing sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes. On a less primal but still visceral level, we are aware of irony all around us, like the fake tree I saw on the first morning after the storm, snapped in half just like the real ones it imitated. And finally, we can't help but glimpse moments that maybe nobody was intended to see, simple sweetnesses in a maelstrom.
Over the past few days, all around us here, life has proven itself extraordinarily resilient in a thousand moments and scenes. Some were little stories played on a grand stage; others were little more than snapshots through a moving car's window:
A young woman stopped outside our building Monday evening, where some rescuer-friends were tending a barbecue grill for some hotdogs. She handed them a large brisket and told its story: Her wedding had been scheduled in Beaumont on the very day Rita struck. Grand plans were abandoned as she and her fiance evacuated to Arkansas -- where they got married anyway. But food for the big party was thawing in a freezer back home, so they returned as quickly as they could, emptied the fridge and freezer, with the intention of taking it to Houston for a family gathering. Alas, at the last minute, she was called into work and since the meat would otherwise go to waste, she gave it to our shocked chefs. She left before any of them got her name. The brisket fed us all the next night and, personally, I'd love to thank her for her kindness.
Raymond Clark is an elderly man who lives down in Beaumont's "Avenues," a working-class neighborhood. On Monday, he drove himself through still-treacherous streets to our office and came through our front door into the disarray and mayhem of a newspaper-turned-bomb shelter. "I came to get my paper," he said. There hadn't been a paper in three days, but he expected us to have one. God bless him. He's why we stayed ... because somebody would expect us to tell the story. I wished we had a paper to give him (it had moved entirely online at that point) but I was just glad to know he expected something from us, and a little sorry we couldn't give it to him right then. I guess he was, too ... he came back the next morning.
I just realized: I haven't heard music in 6 days. But I heard a bird this morning, and that's even better.
When the power goes out for a while here, you'll see a lot of pickup trucks with deep-freezers in the back. Why take the thawing stuff out when you can just tie the old Frigidaire itself into the back like a big ol' cooler?
As Rita's hurricane force winds ramped up, we watched from the bunker-like safety of our concrete parking garage, riveted by the awesome power of Nature. Suddenly, we saw two lanky figures wing-walking from parking meter to parking meter against the wind. Battered, soaked and beaming, two teenage boys stumbled into the garage. They stood there dripping, not bothering to shake off the storm. They had a question: "How far is it to New Orleans?"
A huge tree in one backyard falls across the back fence into the yard next door. The newly horizontal fence lets two neighbors meet for the first time.
The deprivations of a holed-up life require experience. Thriving in high heat, eating food more for survival than pleasure, moments of inward journey, an otherworldly landscape, uncomfortable itches because you haven't thought enough about spots on your body you'd rather not think about, seeing things you never expected to see, the realization that you, in fact, reek ... sounds like Burning Man! I covered the vast, illusive counterculture festival where anything goes in the Nevada desert in 2001, literally days before Sept. 11, which changed my ideas about the nature of survival. I found myself thinking about Burning Man's deprivations (and depravations) this week.
"This is just like Burning Man," I told a young, shell-shocked reporter. "Except for the sex, drugs and nakedness."