The shelter is the Port Allen Community Center, a structure that looks more like an oversized high school gymnasium. There is green grass and trees on either side of the building, some tall shady trees, with various gatherings of peoples outside. Two army MPs at the entrance are relaxing with several shelter residents sitting in chairs near by. A little cigarette magic with a woman who is about to light up brings up a gentle humor that is shared by all. Inside the structure everything seems a little crowded. The beds, and cots take up almost the entire space of the center, there is no children’s area, and the shelter manager, Judy, sits at a table right inside the entrance.
No problem my doing a show although she is not sure where. I talk with another of the shelter volunteers who is trying to organize a football clinic outside for the youth. We discuss possibilities for doing a show. I mention the lack of space, Judy, who obviously has had about all she can handle – at several moments during our conversation she says that the tensions are reaching the breaking point. I can tell from her expression that this breaking point has been reached in the past days. Judy explains that all the space is very territorial, and that basically I can do a show wherever I can figure out a place to do it.
I mention the lack of space to which Judy gives an exhausted affirming nod. She mentions that she is hopeful that a certain belligerent and demanding extended family of 40 will be leaving soon and that should ease things considerably. She points with a nod of her head to the area immediately to her left as the folks she is talking about. There are several kids in the mix amongst the extended family sitting on their cots, so I walk over and start blowing bubbles for them aiming to ease the tensions a bit. Some smiles emerge, then a thirty something man who appears to be a focal point calls me to come over to him in not too friendly a manner. A younger man nearby pipes up that ‘he just wants to rob you’. I notice that the whole scene is being watched by one of the friendly MPs I was joking with at the entrance. We exchange smiles, and knowing looks that tell me that there has been trouble and that they will respect his presence. I don’t go to the man calling me over and focus back in on the kids, his presence vanishes from my existence. I would have loved to bring him into the game, but it is instantly clear that he is beyond my reach.
At this moment, a young girl, Alexis, who has been participating in the bubble activity becomes my instant friend and tells me ‘ you’re Jiminy Cricket’ and wants to know where my magic wand is.
I tell her that I am looking for a place to do the show, and she takes my hand over to where a few kids are watching cartoons on a TV that is placed on a snack bar counter over on the front side corner of the room. Earlier while I was talking to Judy about show possibilities, a woman with a yellow t-shirt on stating in big black lettered ‘Scientology volunteer minister’ had been handing out snacks to a line of people there (sugar sugar sugar in it’s many advertised forms). Now the space had cleared up a little. Alexis reaches up to turn off the TV and sits down. The other kids watching don’t seem to mind, and more who have been alerted to my presence come over and squeeze into the dozen or so brown folding chairs. There is some jockeying for sitting space as I begin to play. It is clear by the way the kids decide who sits where that tensions and territoriality exist between them as well as the adults. Several small kids share chairs, but some won’t go near other kids.
There is absolutely no extra space, we are squeezed in-between the snack bar counter and cots. One ten year old boy decides to sit on the cot right behind the second row of chairs, and almost immediately a man appears behind me telling the boy in angry words to get his butt off his cot. I try to smooth over the incident, and the kids adjust their seating arrangements to make room for the boy on the chairs. The man recedes but keeps an eye on us from his sitting spot against the wall.
I have about 10 square feet of ‘stage’ space, for me and my suitcase of props, I have this little intimate show with the kids that ends as I let all the kids try to juggle my cigar boxes. They watch each other and cheer the few who manage a little success. I leave wishing that I was prepared to offer them a circus workshop.
There are quite a few yellow shirted Scientlogy volunteers at this shelter, and one of the Red Cross volunteers is deeply suspicious about their motivations and activities. He tells me they have set up a large open tent outside and that he keeps seeing them counseling refugees out there one on one. He tells me that he is just a volunteer and does not feel in position to question their activities. An elder catholic nun comes in to the shelter as I am packing up, and it is announced that she is there to give communion to any Catholics wishing. I am headed over to the table to thank Judy when I realize that Judy is taking communion, a very deep moment between her and the nun. I wait until it is over. Both the nun, who has a surprisingly strong handshake, and Judy thank me, and tell me that my presence really made a difference.
I head back to Baton Rouge and Red Cross headquarters to see if I can do any more shows that day. By the time I am talking to Judy it is dinnertime, too late for more today, and time for me to start driving back towards Houston. In the midst of discussing what might be possible in the future, a conversation that gets cut off after a minute or two by several urgent matters and a meeting that she has to get to, she fields a call from ABC who wants to go distribute teddy bears to shelters, no doubt they have cameras in tow she says to me afterwards. I don’t doubt it either. I offer her a clown nose in case she feels the need to break through some tensions. She tells me that she will probably be using it before the end of the day.
It is the strangest of situations to say the least, sitting and eating in an upscale Mexican-American restaurant amongst the clatter of dishes and glasses and conversations. What creates the incongruities is that here in Baton Rouge, Louisiana there are also over three hundred shelters operating amongst an army of Red Cross staff and volunteers. Life appears close to normal, stores are open, people are shopping, however the streets are jam packed with traffic as this city of 200 000 has swelled by some estimates to close to 500 000. Taking a side street to avoid a huge traffic jam headed north on airline highway, I travel in my rented car past neat lawns and peaceful houses, no sign of distress there. The Red Cross center is another story-first encounter with any sense of the tragedy, as there is a small grouping of people outside the low brick edifice with army soldiers at the door. A soldier accompanies me from a small processing spot set up on the lawn to the front door where another soldier stands duty. I wait with him while my escort goes inside to ascertain that indeed there is someone inside who might want to talk with a representative of Clowns Without Borders. Everyone is courteous yet there is an edgy sense that pervades, no doubt brought on by the past ten days of crisis management.
I am coming in virtually blind to the situation with only a phone call with a government liaison telling me to come to Baton Rouge. The man said that he is familiar with our organization and that we are certainly needed down here, and so I jump a plane to Houston and rent a car to drive the 250 plus miles to Baton Rouge. I think that I am pretty smart having googled the Baton Rouge Red Cross center at home, and printed a mapquest map to the center. Indeed I find it no problem, however it turns out that this is the local chapter, and that the crisis center is now housed, as of today, at an old Wal Mart in the Coronado shopping center up the highway. I talk to the local director and one of his staff in his office, it is clear in his eyes and his body posture that he hasn’t been sleeping much these past 10 days. He calls the operations center and gives me the names of whom might be able to help me at the center, Dianne who is in charge of shelters is his best suggestion, Nancy who is running the place is probably beyond reach. So is Dianne as it turns out, although she does thank me for coming down before turning me over to her assistant.
My stories seem rather pointless as I read through stories of tragedy in the New York Times, on the internet at CC’s coffeehouse in some nicer neighborhood of Baton Rouge. The stories are about being caught in the flooding of New Orleans. I read sitting besides a large-scale photograph of the French quarter in the rain. The caption of the photo says ‘Eye of the Storm’, the irony of the moment strikes me hard, although the university students and workers in matching hats, shirts and headphone sets seem to be going on about life as usual. I performed in a shelter this afternoon in a Baptist church. I played for about 50 to 75 of the folks staying there. The assembly hall was darkened and wall-to-wall cots and beds. The people had done their best to make it as homey as possible, quilts on the beds and everything looking pretty neat. I set up in the children’s room, which when I entered had groups of young kids huddled around two television sets playing video games. There were toys strewn around everywhere, and a tired volunteer keeping an eye on things. A woman, a local piano teacher, played the grand piano, offering soft jazzy music that helped to create a calm atmosphere in what used to be the choir practice room. The church had given the space over to the Red Cross for the next three months.
The show was well received, the kids getting into it, and the adults that came enjoying yet sitting back, a more than slight defensive attitude that was hard to break through. The Red Cross staff were far more responsive, and very thankful that I had showed up. It was the first time since the shelter had been set up that there had been any type of group activity that brought the children together. The cultural divide is huge. Almost all the displaced folks at the shelters are black, and almost all the relief workers are white. One of the main Red Cross workers at the shelter told me that there is definitely an initial lack of trust, that you can’t just walk up to someone friendly and expect them to respond.
At the operations center I talk with a woman who just finished a stint as part of the mental health crew at the airport. The 50 something woman, from Missouri, told me that the experience helping /talking to the refugees had been the most rewarding experience in her life, bar none. She also told me that the Red Cross had been evacuating people from Baton Rouge to other areas but the operation had ceased yesterday signaling that they had evacuated all those that they are planning to evacuate. There are hundreds of shelters, a few very large housing thousands, others much smaller. While I was talking with Micki, Dianne’s assistant in the shelter area of the operations center, a woman came up to ask how do they notify the red cross of new shelters being set up independently of the red cross. It would seems that there are many small centers being set up independently by churches and other community groups, thus without direct access to the Red Crosses services, which are extensive on all levels. There is no lack of goodwill to be seen.
The Red Cross volunteers are sleeping in shelters as well, often without any access to showers, in some cases running water or electricity I am told. There are no hotel rooms in the city or in the state, and that is just Louisiana. Mississippi and Alabama I am told are in the same situation even though they are not getting the same media attention as New Orleans, the devastation along the coast is huge. I will probably sleep in my rented car tonight although I am going to check out the shelter where I performed today, they said that they would set up a cot for me. Tomorrow more shows, just how many I am not sure. Micki who is my contact is more than busy, and had time to jot down the address of where I should go tomorrow morning. After that I will contact her to see if she had a chance to look down her list. Another worker told me that it is only today that things have calmed down a little for the red cross staff, that they are beginning to have a handle on the situation. When I asked how long the shelters would be operational I get different answers mostly in the 12 to 18 month span. It is hard to imagine families living side by side in big open spaces for that long, but one person pointed out to me that a lot of those who would remain in the shelters have no choice, they are the poorest, and they have no money, and no place to go to.
There are more stories for sure but I have run out of steam, and so I will see what tomorrow brings.