|Photo by Rebecca Wenstrom
|Nina Budabin McQuown'05 aided victims of Hurricane Katrina who evacuated to New York City.
The woman had a wide, pink, permanent frown, and deep-set eyes like antennae built to transmit anxious signals from her brain. She sat down at the plastic picnic table while I arranged the white clipboards in front of me. They bore sheets with long, messy lines of names and Gulf-town ZIP codes, numbers of subway fare-cards, a box called "emergency need," and a section called "needs met," looking suspicious with its many scrawled "yeses" under a Xerox-blurred red cross.
On behalf of the American Red Cross, I promised her a hotel room, help with her job search, steady meals, access to Internet and phone, and a subway card. I told her about my favorite book stores, places to find free entertainment, and other leftists to talk to. We talked for maybe half an hour, and I asked her what she had done for a living in New Orleans.
"I'm a clown" she said, leaning forward and looking serious, like she didn't expect me to believe it.
"Well," I said, "this is a great city for entertainers. Good luck."
After Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of refugees came to New York City—some because they had a friend here, some because they had always wanted to. Most needed food and shelter, school registration, maps of the city, and people to look them in the eye.
The Red Cross tried to supply it all. They opened the New York City Welcome Center, where paid social workers and volunteers directed hurricane refugees through the maze of city social agencies.
I was a volunteer case worker. On the job for only a week, I was in an odd position. I had come specifically because I was moved by how much people needed, and I wanted to help them myself. At the same time, resources were limited and the need was huge, and I was never able to give anyone everything they wanted.
The social workers I worked with had been dealing with this delicate balance of need, resources, and worthiness their entire careers. They purposefully gave out certain valuable resources, like seven-day subway passes and phone cards, only to those they judged most needy and responsible.
I didn't have the same sense of whom to trust that they did. I ran out of subway cards. I spent an hour trying to find shelter for a woman's pet bearded dragon only to learn, in the end, that the animal was not yet in New York City. While other clients waited, I listened to a barrage of abuse from a man who was looking for funding we couldn't give him to transport the body of his dead friend from the South.
I did all this not just because of my inexperience, but also because I found people's needs to be so overwhelming, unpredictable, and human in their sometimes-pettiness, that I found myself also human, petty, and occasionally incompetent in the face of needs I couldn't answer.
"I'm sorry," I remember mouthing lamely to the man who wanted to move the body of his friend, "the Red Cross doesn't sponsor transportation."
Like the rest of the country, I was curious to see how people dealt with so much loss, and in truth I had come partly out of empathy and partly out of voyeurism. But this voyeurism could not be the passive spectatorship of watching the news. As much as I was watching others, they were watching me, judging what I was willing to do for them from behind the desk.
Whether willingly or not, I was trusted by my clients with incredible intimacy. I was trusted to know their immediate needs in a terrifying city at a vulnerable time. Months later, with some refugees still negotiating perpetual uncertainty, I am hoping my few clients are well and happy, that the clown found work, that the Wiccan has been reunited with her lost bearded dragon, and that the man has brought the body of his friend.
And I hope that even if we did little else that was permanent, we were able to summon an organized, compassionate, very un-New York welcome to this bone-crushing city that I love, before wishing these strangers help and strength and watching them move on.
Nina Budabin McQuown'05 is a native New Yorker who majored in literary studies at Beloit.