This piece is dedicated to the patrons whose monthly contributions made this whole journey possible. Thank you.
My mom always told me if you’re feeling poor, you need to give more money away. We used to do this as a family when I was a child. She’d withdraw a couple hundred dollars, and we’d walk around and slip money into people pockets who looked like they could use a random act of kindness. When we were done and back in the car, she’d take a huge yoga-like breath and say something like “Wow, back in the saddle.”
Yesterday I woke up in one of those anxiety panic sweats that happen when you realize that the alarm you set the night before never went off, and you have no idea what time it is.
I Iooked at my phone—Shit, no time to shower.
I sent a text message before I got dressed. “Slept through the damn alarm, heading out now.”
My first stop was an hour away. I tried putting some music on, but nothing felt right knowing I was headed to spend a day with people who’d lost everything. So I drove in silence, with only the sounds of wind passing through holes in my truck’s weatherproofing.
This trip had begun at 5 pm the day before. I was waiting for my flight to board from Denver back into San Francisco. I didn’t notice any announcements, but the departure time turned back an hour. And then another hour. And then another.
I called my girlfriend to see if she’d made it safely to her stop in DC, and let her know my plane hadn’t taken off yet. She’s a frequent flyer, and knows how to play the game and she told me to go to the counter for any freebies I could.
A woman was screaming at the two twenty-something women behind the counter. I worked a front desk job once, thinking it would be a nice break from the stresses of a design job. Boy, was I wrong. Something about front desks brings horribleness out of seemingly normal people.
So please, be nice to your fellow humans in the service industry.
I gave the women at the desk a big smile and we laughed about the joys of front desk work, and they gave me a $40 voucher to have a nice dinner.
We ended up being delayed 5 hours.
You may have heard the north bay is up in flames. The smoke had traveled 50 miles south and was causing visibility issues with the runways in SFO.
It’s pretty hard to feel sorry for yourself for being inconvenienced when the runway is being blocked by the remains of thousands of people’s homes.
Lately, I’ve been having a lot of financial insecurity around Hello Humans. As months go by and my savings gets smaller and smaller, it’s tough to ignore the idea that the site might not be able to survive in the long run and support myself and other artists. I felt broke, and was in the cabin of the plane that my mom’s seemingly nonsense advice seemed to make sense. The company might not survive in the long run, but there are 156 people who contribute a monthly amount to support the idea of Humans being there, supporting other humans.
Using the last bit of cellphone service before we took off, I signed up for a volunteer service Facebook had set up. I listed my services as “a truck, a little muscle, and some credit on the credit card. Tell me where you need me.”
Two make-shift crisis centers had left me messages for what they needed when my cell service returned. The first one needed as much bottled water I could get, and a second one had a much stranger, smaller request; cream cheese.
I called the cream cheese place to make sure I had it correct and a woman named Robyn answered the call. Someone had donated hundreds of bagels, and cream cheese would turn it into a full meal for the 100 person group they were housing. I very nicely asked for anything else they might need, she gave me to full list.
It’s a well-known fact Christians are masters at asking for what they need. Maybe it’s their belief in their cause. My mom notoriously can shake you down for a thousand dollars, as casually as you’d ask for a dollar when she’s rallying for a good cause she believes in.
If you ever want to contribute physical goods to a disaster, call ahead and ask about their needs. The first things that come to mind are the same things that came to mind for everyone else, and are most likely already taken care off.
Those old clothes you were planning donating to goodwill? Donating those are most likely more convenient to your needs than the victims. Most of the centers the cities had set up had to stop accepting physical donations so they could take inventory and be more specific with what their actual needs were.
Back in the truck that morning, the freeway got hazier the closer I got. The sun had become a burnt red color.
I called ahead to the Walmart on the way to make sure they had enough of what I needed, and also make sure the store wasn’t ash.
The parking lot was full of ominous RV’s and trailers when I got there. The pavement must have been a long way away from the beautiful scenery they came from, but it wasn’t flammable, and meant you might be able to get a little rest.
I bought 27 cases of water, the first Hello Humans “business” expense of the day. The employee seemed a little frustrated to have to load up the pallet jack, but I resisted the initial urge to get self-righteous and proclaim these waters were for relief, and he should be ashamed of himself, and probably give it to me for free. It turned out he was already working on double overtime, and running on fumes, so I’m glad I didn’t end up abusing him.
The sock and underwear section was pretty barren. But I did my best to find nice, black, low-cut socks. Having no socks are better though than those white gym socks your dad wore. It might be hard to explain the 48 pairs of socks to the accountant.
I’ve never bought a bra before, but I sifted through the stretchy sports bras and tried to find the most flattering colors I could. It’s DEFINITELY going to be hard to explain this one.
The water was going to a large Hispanic church. I was greeted there by a man with a clipboard and several people to help unload the water. The auditorium had been turned into warehouse space to hold supplies. He called over to the pastor, casually dressed in sweat clothes and a 5 o’clock shadow that would have put Richard Nixon to shame. He came over, shook my hand and thanked me. There were vans in the parking lot being stuffed with mattresses and water by men and women.
I left to make another stop at a restaurant supply store, to pick up the cream cheese and other items on the list for the next run. The list was made up of sauces, the less obvious small ingredients, the things that turn donated main course ingredients into real comfort foods.
As I pulled into the second church’s parking lot, there were a few people sitting on curbs in the corners of the lot. One had her head buried in her hands.
The auditorium had been cleared and filled with cots, separated by gender, stacks of clothing on folding tables with a few people looking for items they could wear in the moving days, and round dinner tables. There was a spread of food and snacks.
Robyn greeted me and called over a man who under normal circumstances was the church soundboard operator to help me unload the truck. I knew right away he was one of my people, one of the ones who managed to crawl out of the darkness of addiction, and somehow survive. It’s a subtle giveaway, but there’s a distinct look in one’s eyes when they’ve been to hell and back.
We told our stories of times in the underworld, and our journeys crawling back into the living world, on our ride to make another Costco trip. He told me many of the people they had taken in had just seen their signs along the highway that they were welcome there. 20 families in their own congregation had lost their homes, including their pastor. Their sister church had also burned down. People had been evacuated from their neighborhoods and didn’t know if they would return to a home or not. I can’t imagine living in that kind of unknown.
Unloading the second truckload, Robyn insisted I sit down for some lunch. The people who ended up here had really lucked out in one small way. The chef had made gourmet quality meals, which is a small consolation to the fire victims, but his way of providing a brief moment of feeling like a regular human eating a regular meal.
I felt a little guilty loading up a small plate of food. A four-year-old walking in found more of his own playing on the carpet and asked the group, “did your house burn down too?” a few of them nodded, a five-year-old boisterously responded, “I’m here to help you!” And gave the boy a big hug.
I starting crying, and cried again writing this piece thinking about it. Nothing can prepare you for hearing those words coming out of such a beautiful young being who should be playing legos instead of trying to understand what this all means for him.
I asked if I could join a crowded dining table and they pulled up a chair for me. Everyone’s head hung a little lower than in normal life, but they found things to smile about in huddle.
There’s a beauty in the wake of disaster. It breaks the spells of our roots of tribalism. There was no talk of politics; nobody was sizing the others up, or searching for reasons to demonize the stranger next to you based on who they voted for. There was no “them” today, there was only “us.” There was only one tribe today, the tribe I call “still alive.”
Robyn came back over and asked, “So how deep down the hole are you willing to go today?”
“Whatever you need, I’m all yours.”
She patted the bassist of the church band sitting next to me. He looked over with a smile, clearly knowing what was next for us.
Like I mentioned, there’s a lot of logistics of disaster that you would never think about. It turns out the garbage service had been disrupted here, and there were two overflowing dumpsters that needed their contents taken to the dump in the neighboring town.
The bassist and I pulled our trucks up within throwing distance of the dumpsters, and hopped in and started launching bags into the truck beds. Of all the kind of trash, I imagine church food is among the worst of it. That beautiful church food had transformed into something else entirely under the warm burnt sun. We laughed about making a new bag-tying policy in the church, as we tried to get as little baked beans and rice slop on us as possible.
It was perfect that the two people I got paired with yesterday were also recovering alcoholics or addicts. I think it helped relieve my normal vetting process of determining if these Christians were the bad ones or not.
We laughed in the mess, and finished off the bottom of the dumpsters with shovels, and then headed to the dump in our trucks. The dump line seemed to go forever, and was equivalent to bumper to bumper. With each stop, we’d hop out and meet in the middle of our cars and talk. We talked about what the hell had brought me all the way from San Francisco, and what Hello Humans was about.
He told me Bible versus that Hello Human’s purpose reminded him of. We laughed about how impossible it was to care about the wait, when it was so small compared to everything else happening around us. He shoved $40 in my hand and made it clear I had to accept it. “Keep doing what your doing, the next gas tank is on me!”, He said. And I hopped in the truck, and headed back home, to a world without fire.
(If you’d like to help the fire relief, there are several ways you can help. Here is an article that will point you in the right direction.)