I think of this story every time I cook spaghetti squash:
For about a year or two after Hurricane Katrina, Sam drove with a debris-removal team, digging through the mess that the storm, levee breach, and flooding had left behind. Disasters draw transient workers of all kinds — from insurance adjusters, government and private security, and day laborers. Sam would come home and tell me stories of what he ran into in the course of a day.
Many times it would be heartbreaking — someone’s empty urn that had been flooded out and shattered, clumps of wedding photos that had been molded in a home that had been given up on six months after the storm. Sometimes it would be baffling — like the lady in a home that he thought had been on the work list that day, coming out nekkid from the shower and not blinking that there was a man in her living room, way more scared than she was.
He would also always tell me of the colorful guys he worked alongside, picking up debris by day, drinking beer and messing with other stuff at the temporary motel they payed little to nothing for. Most of the guys spent most of their time talking about women, money, or playing the dozens with each other.
But Sam told me of this one, older guy named John, who loved to talk to Sam about things in the news, some of the things he had seen in his travels — they connected on places they had each been, Sam as a long-haul truck driver, John as an Alaskan fisherman, a farm hand, a sometimes carpenter — the many places he’d been since he realized that stay-in-one-place living was not for him — possibly related to some mistakes he had made with his family, possibly just one of those guys that do better when they know they can up and go.
I loved hearing the stories of John, especially when he got riled up. Sam would punctuate the story, in his high-pitched white guy imitation voice, with John’s catch phrase, “What the FUUUU#K?” and we would both crack up.
One evening, I was puttering around the house, doing laundry, prepping a bit for the next day’s Sunday dinner, when I heard Sam come in from work, talking with someone. When I entered the living room, there was Sam, holding a case of Budweiser longnecks,in one hand, balancing 3 empties in the other, laughing with a grizzled old man. The guy’s long hair and scruffy beard was not white, not gray, not yellow but something between those things, and he was in clothes dirtier than a day’s work would explain, cussing and laughing, his face red and his blue eyes twinkling.
If I’m being honest, the very first thought that popped into my mind unbidden was “Lord, Sam done brought home a hobo.”
Grinning about whatever they had been laughing about before I came in, Sam said, “Baby, this is John, who I always talk about!” John killed the last swig of his beer, put down the bottle, wiped his hand on his pants before extending it to meet me. I shook his hand, said nice to meet you, and looked at Sam for some kind of understanding of what was happening in my living room at that second. We excused ourselves, leaving John to make himself comfortable on the couch. In the kitchen, Sam assured me that I’d get a kick out of John, and that there was enough beer for all of us to have a good time. That they had just been on a roll, and he knew I would love to hear some of John’s crazy stories first-hand, so he brought him home. So, before I knew it, I had switched over the laundry, wrapped up the veggies I had been chopping, and joined Sam and John in the living room for a couple of cold ones.
I don’t really remember any specifics of John’s stories, but that he was originally from Seattle, loved the South Pacific most of all, hated Reagan, believes in a host of JFK conspiracy theories, and that he finds it easy to become a fan of whichever NFL team is the favorite wherever he ends up, but the Seahawks are always his favorites, even if he doesn’t say so out loud.
After we made it through most of the beer, and I had heard John’s signature “What the FUUUUU*K?!?” enough times to truly admire how spot-on Sam’s impression was, John started talking about wrapping it up and hitching out to New Orleans East, where the motel was. In a move I think would have horrified my mother (or anyone’s really), I told him not to be silly, and that I’d get him some pillows and blankets and he could sleep on the couch. He resisted for a little while, but when we both insisted, he relented.
Sam and I went to bed, chuckling to each other about John and our impromptu sleepover.
The next day, nobody was in a hurry, and since the Saints were playing a day game, Sam went out for more beer, and I made a sausage and pepper spaghetti squash casserole for our Sunday. I had never cooked spaghetti squash before, and was a little nervous about trying out something brand new on a guest. John took one bite, closed his red-rimmed eyes, and let out a long, slow “mmmmmmm.” He wanted to know my recipe, my secret. When I told him, as if it had been an old family recipe and not the very first time I had cooked it, he said “Spaghetti squash! I should have known!!!” and scarfed down two bowls of it, three before the game was over.
When the game was over, and John was getting ready to go, Sam invited him to grab a shower, since John had told him that the water was iffy at the 9th ward motel that had been up and running under questionable disaster area re-entry policies. We had just gone to Walmart a couple days beforehand, so Sam handed John some new drawers, tee shirts, and socks, still in their packaging, and an extra pair of his sweatpants. Sam is a broad-shouldered, burly guy, and John is a squirrelly little thing, so I expected John to come out looking like a kid in his dad’s business suit, kind of silly and out of place. But the chance to take a good shower, and maybe the camaraderie, and maybe Sam’s generosity with his things transformed John in a way that he looked bigger than when he went in. He came out looking clear-eyed, rested. His beard was, indeed, white, his hair looked soft and kind of pretty. It was amazing what a difference his weekend of comfort did for him.
They gathered up his things in a grocery bag, and got ready to go. Before he left, John took a moment to stop cracking jokes, looked at me and Sam directly and said, “I want to thank you for this weekend. I had a really great time.” We automatically started interrupting with the things you say “oh, we did too…..thanks so much for coming….it was fun…..” but he stopped us, because he wanted to say something and he wanted us to listen. He said, “No, I really want to thank you. It was so nice to be around happy people — it makes a person happy. I haven’t been this happy in……” and he paused for a long moment, did some calculations you could see him working out in his mind, “Nineteen years!” And then he gathered his things, took my hand in both of his, pulled it into a hug and a peck on the cheek, and Sam drove him back to the motel, as work waited for both of them the next day.
Whenever Sam and I get on the phone and catch up these days, and we talk about the old New Orleans we were together for, we will sometimes talk about our weekend with John, laughing about how Sam sprung it on me, the funny things we all said and did, and crack ourselves up. But we’ll always get back to that part of the story where John took that moment to thank us, and wanted us to know how much that happy time meant to him. And that he knew that it had been nineteen years since he had been that happy. We often wonder what that defining thing was for John that he knew exactly the last time he was happy. We both get a bit sad for John when we think of it, and yet, grateful that we had that happy between us to share. Kind of proud of ourselves for being a good moment in what seems like it must have been a long string of rough ones.
Before Sam’s gig ended, John had already moved on the next one. For a while after that, Sam would call him from time to time to shoot the shit, but a couple years after he left New Orleans, Sam called and the phone was disconnected.
We decided that John in the South Pacific, in an ex-patriot sports bar, hollering “what the FUUUUU*K?!?” and rooting for the Seahawks on the sly.