Baton Rouge, October 6, 2005
Except that when I got to Dallas and lined up for my flight, I was called aside by a flight attendant who mangled my name over the PA system. The equivalent would be something like, "Miss Pays-Bing?" And it wasn't a Southern accent thing, just an "I can't read" thing. I warily approached the desk with my luggage.
"Due to weight restrictions, Miss Pays-Bing, we're going to have to deny your boarding pass."
I'm not lying.
"Well," I said. "I've been working out three times a week and really trying to cut down on portion sizes but I don't think I can do anything else right now."
She didn't get it, or didn't think it was funny. As it turns out, Expedia.com had generated the little demonic message all on its own and completely not in concert with American Airlines, which had expected me on the earlier flight. And because I had "changed my flight," I was being penalized by being bumped off this later one. They were loaded up with supplies for Katrina relief and the plane was just too heavy.
I pitched a quiet, polite fit, explaining the I had NOT changed my flight, and producing the e-mail from Expedia [spit].com. They eventually allowed me to board, and I got on and settled in. After the flight had achieved that silent expectation of departure, with all passengers in their seats and all the carry-on luggage squished in the overhead bins, the same flight attendant came on board. She called out, in a piercing version of Fat Person's Nightmare, "Miss PAYSBING?? I'm sorry, we've exceeded our weight restriction. Please come with me."
As I toiled down the aisle with my bag, I called out, "Is anyone in advertising on this flight? Don't you think this would make a great Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers commercial?" People chuckled in sympathetic solidarity.
But here's the thing: there is an obesity epidemic in America and that's not funny, even to me. I'm glad the media is starting to report on the race and class dimensions of the epidemic, because it's an unmistakable factor, Hello.
I did finally get to Baton Rouge (with a $200 American Airline voucher tucked into my wallet for future travel) and what I am finding in the relief work is that much of what's needed is super plus size clothing for folks. Yesterday we got a call from a shelter in need of size 48 pants for a man. The church just did a successful drive for plus-size bras for evacuee women. Also yesterday, three palletts of boxes containing 1200 or so cotton leggings from Junonia, a manufacturer of plus-size sports clothes for women, arrived for the church. They were distributed to shelters last night. I am going to call Junonia today to pimp for some shirts.
I've been out to several restaurants so far and they serve Hush Puppies at every meal (I like to call them Heart Attack Puppies). It is Fried Food Land here. A Whole Foods went in recently and a Louisianan joked that they'll like the sushi fine as long as they can bread and fry it.
So Baton Rouge is just lovely, mostly. Aside from the fact that everywhere you go there is a sense of dread and loss, and the words on everybody's lips are "emergency services" and "Ninth Ward" and "don't know next" and "oh my God," you would never know a hurricane had come through. People are charming. The guys at Enterprise upgraded my car to a swell P.T. Cruiser, and the girl at McDonald's called me "lady ma'am." Everyone asks where you're from and warmly thanks you for coming. The other volunteers at the church are funny and hard-working and welcomed me right in. I am staying with a really smart, lovely evolutionary biologist in her nice apartment.
But last night, when I went into the outrageous third world country known as the River Center and passed through the armed military security detail and first saw the thousands and thousands of cots, I was finally confronted with the physical evidence of what's really happening here, and what I had been hearing about all day. This crisis is going to change the history of America. The scope of the thing is unbelievable. Once you start hearing the stories, you realize what it means to havre a whole vibrant city displaced, in the Diaspora.
What did I do at this Red Cross shelter? I sat on cots and played with four little children who climbed all over me the moment I went over to intervene in a fight and ask how they were. The little girl, with extravagant dreds up in curlers (!) was three and asked me right away if I had any candy. The boys were five and ten years old and like any children will do, fought over the gum I gave them. Another boy slept soundly throughout the 2 hours we hung out together and I scratched Harry (they call him "Sweet Presley") and Pete's backs (I know the "WILL YOU SCRATCH MY BACK?" thing -- we do it all the time in my family, complete with the yanking the shirt up routine). The sleeping baby inched his way over throughout my hours there until his head was in my lap. His eyes were crusted shut, and he was too warm.
There was one tiny guy-- must have been a little more than two -- in a kind of leopard print suit who came over to give me a wide, sunshiny grin and show me his tummy. We played "WHOSE belly button is that?" until he got tired of giggling and wandered off to find more entertainment among the rows and rows and rows of cots. He looked like a Vegas entertainer in that suit. I wanted to eat him up.
A little Latino boy rolled by on a beensy mini-Big Wheel. Couldn't have been cuter.
I looked up at one point to see a child smack a really young, white female Red Cross volunteer square across the face, hard. Her expression of compassion and care changed not one iota as she told him he musn't hit. My little sassy card-playing lady ma'am over on the cot needed to hear the same thing. A lot. This isn't to say that the children don't seem fine. They do. They miraculously do. I'm sure they're NOT fine -- for one thing, they all need a good bath and tooth brushing -- but they seem amazingly resilient. They've been there for weeks, some of them.
A few rows over, a man slept soundly with headphones on, his prosthetic limb leaned against a pile of belongings. He lost his "nice" leg in the flood, I learned, and this one is just a long tube of metal.
And in the row next to that, Cowboy, a gorgeous black musician from New Orleans, strummed the guitar and sang the blues.