It snowed this morning, which is crazy. I'd just gotten out of bed because it was freezing in the carriage house, and I was staring impatiently at the coffeemaker when I saw the snowflakes start to fall from the sky. I figured it was just a little flurry, but it kept falling heavier and heavier in the intense but silent way that snow has about it when it’s really coming down. It started to pile up on the bushes and over the junk in the yard. I stood at the table, holding my coffee, my toes numb on the concrete, and watched the cluttered mess that remained of my parents house turn into something other than a graveyard. It became, for the first time in over three years, a beautiful place.
By the time I got myself moving, the snow was slowing down, and dark holes were already forming in the white blanket covering the yard. The whole brief wonderland ended up melting into a cold, wet, grey day long before I left the house. I walked through the drizzle splashing on the sidewalk to my neighborhood bar for breakfast, and though it looked again like any other winter Thursday outside when I walked inside, everyone was still talking about the snow. There was a time when people would’ve been excited and full of the Christmas spirit or whatnot, but nowadays, they were pretty freaked out: the last time it snowed was the winter before the storm. Like all damaged people, we've learned to find omens everywhere.
The bar, unlike the carriage house, was warm, and it felt close, the way a room ought to feel on a winter day. If you ignored the jukebox, the video poker, and the three televisions, the scene inside was Dickensian: wood tones, soft light and rosy cheeked drinkers abounding. I've been coming here since before I was, technically, old enough to come inside, but neighborhood bars around the world have a long tradition of allowing children inside to retrieve their fathers for dinner. I'm not trying to liken my father to a tenement dwelling alcoholic - he liked a beer with his friends after work and time just got away from him, and back then we didn't have mobile phones. No, if anyone in our family was a tenement–dwelling alcoholic, it was me.
It's complicated, the way you end up being who you are. For example: until August 2005, I worked in port operations management. I got the job straight out of college through a fraternity connection. I didn't actually manage anything: I was young and new, and I just coordinated client needs. I spent my days inside on the phone, forwarding emails. I sat in a chair, behind a desk. I had some killer spreadsheets. All in all, it was terribly boring. When the storm dramatically reduced client needs and I was let go, it was almost a relief. The only problem was I didn't have anything else to do, so once they’d finally drained the city and I could come back, I got a job in construction, which was understandably booming. It was a decision of necessity and had the added benefit of being the opposite of a desk job.
I needed a place to live, too, and those were in short supply, but when I stopped by my parents’ house, I found that though the main house was very nearly destroyed, the carriage house out back, being basically a garage, could be made habitable pretty easily. So that's where I lived: in a single room, fluorescently lit and gutted to studs. One side had a sink, a workbench, and a camp stove (my kitchen), and the other side had a brand new futon I never have managed to put up into couch mode. I installed a shower and a toilet on a platform in the corner, and bingo: home sweet home. It's not like my parents were moving back any time soon either. The homeowners insurance company was blaming the damage on flooding, and the flood insurance company was blaming the damage on wind and rain. Neither seemed eager to pay. Insurance companies, after all, are in the business of collecting premiums, not paying claims.
Construction was hard work in difficult conditions. I was always getting sick from the mold and toxic dust I was breathing in, and I was always scratched up and sore. As for the Hispanic guys that came into town to work, it never seemed to mess them up. Those guys are rock solid, hard as nails, etc, but I wasn't. I came from a desk job. All I did in the first two years after the storm was work and sleep. When my father lawyered up last year, he managed to wring his money out of his insurers at last, and he handed me the check. "Fix up the house," he said. "No hurry, though. Your mom and I probably aren't going to ever come back anyway."
And that’s how I became a thirty something man living on his parents’ dime, in a garage behind the empty foundations of their destroyed dream house, amidst a field of salvaged lumber. I never got beyond tearing the mess down. It was the only step that was legally required. Nobody seemed to expect much else out of me, so since then, I've spent most of my time here, in this bar, where my father found community and now I find commiseration. It's group therapy to the tune of alcohol, 12+ hours a day. If nothing else, in a city still scarred by large swaths of abandoned buildings, it's not lonely.
It's not as quiet as you'd think either, a bar on a weekday, especially not today, because everyone is buzzing about the snow. They're talking about the last time it snowed, and what came less than a year after but also about how snow changes things. It's fascinating to see a familiar city in a different shade, to see it blanketed in matte white rather than the wet gloss of rain or concealed behind the haze of heat and humidity. You notice different details in different conditions, and these (not the doomsaying) are the conversations I seek out while I drink my beer and wait for my po-boy. I've had enough doom for a lifetime already; I'm exhausted from it. Everybody is.
Maybe that exhaustion is why, when the young guy in the balaclava with the assault rifle kicks in the front door, nobody reacts much. Actually, he seems to be the person most shocked about the whole thing. I take a sip of my beer, the guy next to me shakes his bottle, indicating he'd like a new one, and at the end of the bar, a guy I know named Pete shifts over to make room for the armed man, as if he's here to get a drink. Even the bartender keeps working his way down the bar. The man gathers himself and makes demands, finally, mainly that nobody move, but we're way ahead of him. We rarely move these days when we don't need to.
The balaclava guy is jumpy, in the way that ain't safe when you're holding an assault rifle, intent to rob or not, so the bartender offers him a drink, "On the house," he says. The guy appears confused, then, for a brief second, an angry sneer flashes across the mouth-hole and he fidgets with the gun. But he seems non-committal in his fidgeting and abandons it almost immediately. He pulls off the balaclava and his expression completely melts into a look of fatigue and tired appreciation. He slings the rifle over his shoulder and steps up to the bar and asks for a Budweiser. When it comes, he takes a long sip while everyone stares at him.
"So what's your story?" asks Pete.
"What?" The guy seems confused to be spoken to instead of gawked at or feared.
"Your story," says Pete. "Nobody runs around town armed to the teeth knocking over bars without a story."
"Oh, that, yeah, well, thing is, this is the first bar I ever tried to rob. This is the first time I really tried to rob anybody. I mean, I've stolen shit, but quietly. Not being noticed was my strategy."
"Yeah, that's usually a safer option than pointing 100 rounds a minute at a room full of people. What the hell were you thinking? Were you really gonna pull that trigger if we didn't give you money?”
"Well, actually, you haven't given me any money."
"Good point. But there's easier, less threatening ways to get a beer on the house. Sean here is a softy. A bunch of people here are softies. Shit: want another beer? I bet someone here will buy you one."
I motion to Sean who dredges another Budweiser out from the ice and sets it in front of the kid.
"See?" says Pete. "No assholes here. A buncha assholes woulda tackled you and taken your gun or shot you with their own by now. Of course some of these people are packing. Crazy guys try and rob bars all the time."
Pete winks at the guy and laughs, slapping him on the back, setting the rifle swinging. The guy doesn't know where to look, so he's got his eyes cast down on the circles of beer bottle condensation on the bar.
"Anyway," I say. "Like Pete says: no assholes here. So what's your name?"
"Isaiah," he mumbles.
"Well, it's good to meet you Isaiah. I'm David. You've met Pete and Sean, everyone else is..."
And we go down the bar like it’s a church service, shaking hands, introducing ourselves. I haven't met many of the people in here before either. It’s kind of nice to put names to the familiar faces of drinking buddies.
"So, Isaiah, you still haven't told us your story," says Pete.
"I don't know what to tell, man," says Isaiah, "I'm a poor black man who steals shit and now, tries to rob bars, but doesn't."
"Well, yeah, we can see that, Isaiah, But why are you stealing shit and robbing?"
"Did I stutter, bro? I said I was poor!"
"Lots of folks are poor. They don't all steal. I ain't telling you what you ought to do. I'm asking why you do it. Someone get this man another beer. Go ahead, just explain it. Look around the bar: you’re the only black man in here right now, which is a shame, but it means nobody here knows what it's like to be you, and they ain't gonna know unless you explain it. So explain it."
"Alright, so the jobs here are all shit. When I go to apply for one, everybody treats me like I'm gonna steal from them. Sometimes I feel like I don't have a choice, like I'm expected to be a criminal, and to be honest, the only people who don’t ask me to explain why I'm living like I do are criminals. I had a plan a few years ago. I was pissing clear. I was gonna get some training and work at the port. It was just plain labor, but it was pretty good money. Then the storm came, and they weren't hiring no more. I started up smoking weed again and started up drinking with all that stress, and when I got back to the city from Houston, everything here was shit. I couldn't figure out what the hell was the point in following a plan when everything could just be destroyed at any time. So I live in my momma’s house; she's still in Houston, and I pick up odd jobs here and there to make some money, and yeah, I guess after a while I thought it would be easier to just steal than walk around the city all day looking for work that all the Mexicans will do for less. It's like being born here was being set on a path, and when I tried to leave the path, I got knocked down. So what's the point of tryna get anywhere? What the fuck are you looking at?"
He's looking at me, probably because my mouth is hanging open. It's strange: listening to his story is like listening to my story told from the point of view of someone with far fewer advantages. This man was a less privileged mirror image of me. Which begged the question: what the hell was my problem? My family paid for my education, which got me a job immediately after college (without a drug test, thank god), and when the storm came, I had a place to go, and when the water went down, I had a place to stay, I had work to do, and I had enough money to live on for the foreseeable future, and nobody said a thing because it fit their expectations of a guy like me, who’s behavior had more than once been rationalized by a need to “find myself.”
Isaiah, though, didn't get but the minimum education, he had to struggle to find good work, and when the storm came it destroyed it all. He couldn't find any meaningful work, and his only available course of action was to fulfill our broken-ass society’s expectation of him. So here we are, both being stereotypes: I'm the white guy living off of his parent’s money, and he's the dangerous black criminal. And on top of it all, we're now both drinking our wretched Thursday away in a bar rather than addressing our problems.
I go about explaining all this to Isaiah clumsily, dancing around the point because I'm afraid to insult him with the comparison. But he's patient with me, and people along the bar keep making sure he always has a fresh beer. By the time I've finished my story, and finally made the comparison between us, I've come to another realization: I was ready to judge Isaiah for trying to rob me, but I ought to judge myself just as harshly for the choices I’ve made in reaction to my own struggles. That judgement hits hard, but I know how to make it right on my end. I decide that even though tomorrow is Friday, I'm going to start working on my parents house again. I'm going to fix it up, and we'll sell it if they decide not to move back. This way I'll be proactive, I'll be in charge, and I won't be just some sad sack white guy too dumb to know how lucky he is. And then I make another decision.
I turn to Isaiah, and I tell him that I'm going to start work on my parents’ house again. I tell him that I don't have the money to hire a bunch of itinerant laborers to do all the work; I'll have to do most of it myself. I tell him I can't do it alone though, that I need someone to work with me, not for me. I ask Isaiah if he'd be willing to help me, as a partner in the whole thing. I ask him to name a price, and to show up tomorrow so we can get to work, no piss test, no mistrust. I need help, and so does he. Why should we fulfill everyone's expectations of us, when we're the ones in charge?