Monday, July 4, 2016

Standpipe: Delivering Water In Flint

Morning briefing, a windowless room.  I paw through a pile of extra-large reflective Red Cross Disaster Response vests looking for one that won’t ride down my shoulder, snag doors, entangle the seat belt.  AmeriCorp volunteers clutch smart phones, a weak gust of laughter from their table dying before infecting the room.  Apple-cheeked, features soft, rubbing puffy eyes, they come from Springfield, MA, Sacramento, CA, Dover, DE, the Mid-Atlantic, the Pacific Northwest.  None of them would know Sergeant Phil Esterhaus from the eighties cop show Hill Street Blues.  Hey, let’s be safe out there!  These kids drive box trucks, lug endless cases of water, install water filters, enter dozens of homes some in very bad neighborhoods, five days a week, week after week.  Let’s be safe out there.  The woman saying this, a Flint native, is in charge of the whole operation.  She means it.  Stay sharp; if it doesn’t feel right, drive away.  Last week, two of them narrowly avoided becoming bystanders to a shooting.  Your safety is our first concern.  My partner today, a young woman from New Jersey, says she was in the truck.  The driver takes a wrong turn, a two or three minute delay long enough to miss catching a stray bullet.  So we hear it, pop, pop, pop, she says.  The driver recovers his bearings, turns onto the street in question.  Right street, wrong time.  It was messed up, she says.  Looking for the address the driver funnels them into a knot of people surrounding a man face down in the street.  Blood on clothing, on concrete.  It was messed up, she says again, messed with my head.  Are you okay, I ask?  The organization paired her with a qualified someone to listen, ask open ended questions, validate feelings.  I’m okay I guess, gazing out, affect flat, smoking cigarettes outside the vehicle when conditions allow.  For the next seven hours I scan the road ahead; take in entire blocks at a glance before committing to turns; listen intently; note every loitering pedestrian; register every passing car; every porch a vantage point; conversations with homeowners, their every gesture parsed for signs of heightened awareness, alarm.  This place, this moment, is it safe, are we safe here, right now?  Tomorrow I’ll be elsewhere, miles away, heedless of the scrolling backdrop of the day. 

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