Story Time: Michel

Southern Garden by Paul Klee

This post first appeared on my eponymous solo blog on 9/19/2006. It made its First Draft debut on 9/25/2009.

It’s a Katrina story but in the interest of not triggering our more sensitive New Orleans readers, I’m posting it in June. It’s also too good to sit on until August.

This post is about someone dear to Dr. A and myself who died of cancer after the storm. It also tells the story of how much harder things were for the working poor in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Flood.

I’ve omitted the original First Draft introduction in the interest of brevity. I’ve used Paul Klee’s Southern Garden as the featured image for reasons that will soon reveal themselves.

Here we go:

Michel was our handyman for 5 years. Actually, he was Dr. A’s factotum, and I was her sidekick as far as Michel was concerned. That was fine by me. Dr. A met Michel the week we moved into our house on Constance Street. A shite tree at the house next door had fallen down and nearly hit our house. The drunk who then owned the building had dragged the dead tree to the curb but failed to have the limbs cut down, so they sat on the sidewalk for days. My trashophobic wife swung into action. A man on a bicycle stopped and said: “I’m a handyman, lady. I can help you with that mess.” It was Michel.

Michel was the handyman’s handyman. He could garden, fix nearly anything and do it for a fair price. Michel was also likable, likable, likable. There was just something about him that drew people to him. He’d often show up with a crew of helpers: Sweet, Andre, and his girlfriend Georgeanne. Andre, his cousin, liked to introduce himself by saying, “My name is Andre, like the champagne.” Sweet was his primary sub-contractor. His nickname is not an ironic one; like Michel, he’s as sweet as pie. He prefers to be called Edwin, but we can’t help calling him by the affectionate nickname Michel gave him.

Michel wasn’t always as reliable as we would have liked but he’d show up smiling and apologetic and tell us about his latest misadventure. We always forgave him because his explanations were so entertaining. Besides, when he worked for us, he gave it everything he had. I got exhausted watching him.

Dr. A thought that Michel should have gone on Survivor. Every time, they’d have a citified African American guy who couldn’t swim or was afraid of birds, she’d say: “They should get Michel. He can operate a boat, fish, build things and take care of himself.” I don’t think he would have been good at the backstabbing part of the game though: it wasn’t in his nature.

Alas, Michel was a heavy smoker. Dr. A gave him her standard spiel about smoking. He’d nod and keep puffing away. In May 2005, Michel was diagnosed with lung cancer after about 6 months of vague symptoms. It was a bad case too.

Michel turned to Dr. A to advise him. He went through the standard therapy torture of chemo, radiation but his decline continued unabated. Dr. A even tried to help get him into a clinical trial. Michel still came over to do our yard, but his boys did most of the work. Michel was always skinny, but he started to look like a toothpick with legs. It was a bad sign.

Then, Hurricane Katrina struck. Dr. A was worried about Michel. He was one of the people we kept calling and calling and calling. It was futile: the area code 504 cell phone servers were down when we needed them the most. This lack of contact added to everyone’s sense of frustration and isolation: if you didn’t have a landline contact number or an email address you were SOL.

After a week in Shreveport, we moved to my cousin’s house near Dallas. Dr. A kept trying to get Michel; one day she got an answer. It was the first time she’d gotten through to anyone from home on their cell phone. It turned out to be a bittersweet moment. The phone was answered by Michel’s girlfriend, Georgeanne. She, too, was in Dallas at a relative’s house. Michel’s mother Miss Evelyn, who is in her mid-Seventies but looks twenty years younger, was with her. We learned that Michel was still alive but fading fast. He’d landed in a hospice in North Dallas.

We fought the crosstown Dallas traffic and found the hospice. Dr. A was relieved to see that it was a clean and well-maintained facility. We had to do some fast talking to find Michel’s room. It was made trickier by the fact that his real first name was Michael. We told them that he had been evacuated from New Orleans and had lung cancer. One of the staff said: “Oh, you must mean that incredibly nice black fellow who came in a few days ago.”

When we got to his room, we found Michel dead. He was still warm. We had just missed him.

When Georgeanne and Miss Evelyn arrived, they told us their Katrina story. On Sunday, 8/28, Miss Evelyn was able to get Michel from her house on Perrier Street to Touro Infirmary. The docs and nurses let Georgeanne, Miss Evelyn, and two of her grandchildren stay in the room with Michel and ride out the storm there.

They remained at Touro for several days until “help” arrived. It was a mixed blessing for Michel’s family: he was evacuated but they were on their own. They wouldn’t let his mama or girlfriend come with him. Michel was at Armstrong Airport for 2 days before being moved to Dallas.

Georgeanne and Miss Evelyn walked downtown in the general direction of the Superdome; trying to get to the Hyatt Hotel where they’d heard that there were busses to take them to safety. They waded through waist deep water and saw dead bodies floating on Tulane Avenue. Miss Evelyn did her damnedest to prevent her grandkids from seeing the corpses. Dr. A and I cringed when we heard the story, but Miss Evelyn told it matter of factly without any histrionics.

When Georgeanne and Miss Evelyn finally got to the Hyatt, they were told that there was no place for them on the busses, but a policeman saw Miss Evelyn looking bedraggled but dignified. The cop broke through the line and got Miss Evelyn and Georgeanne on the next bus.  

They wound up in Reunion Arena in Dallas before moving in with family in North Dallas. Miss Evelyn informed us that the food had been good at the arena, but she didn’t have a pair of shoes that fit: she’d lost hers in the walk downtown. She told us how lucky she felt to be alive and safe. Their luck had just run out with Michel’s death.

We had a tearful reunion but mostly talked about Michel’s sweet and calm nature. He took after his mama in that way: Miss Evelyn was almost ethereal in her calm but was passionate about returning home. It was still unclear at that point how bad things would be in New Orleans, so we pondered the fate of our flooded city. Georgeanne was sure of one thing: “New Orleans isn’t buildings. New Orleans is the people.”

Yeah, you right, dawlin’