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I Hear the Birds Singing

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Deb Murphy says that one of Galveston’s tourist attractions is storm stories. Here’s hers.

By Deb Murphy • Photo by Yvonne Feece

GscruptureWhen I sat down to write my Hurricane Ike story,   I discovered I can’t tell it with a coherent beginning, middle, and end. Some things, both good and bad, stuck in my mind and others have simply vanished.

I’m a “professional.” I thought I knew just about everything about working my way through something as traumatic as Ike, about how to avoid post traumatic stress disorder (popularly called PTSD). One thing I know now that I didn’t know before is that you can do everything “right” and still suffer.

One of the first signals I ignored was this dream I kept having, where every time I pulled up another of the thousands of wet carpets to carry to the curb, I was finding dead friends underneath. There were a lot of other things, too. For instance, my avoidance of weather reports was approaching the phobic. And then I broke up with my girlfriend—and not very nicely. I once even found myself under my desk after a very loud thunderclap.

I wouldn’t talk to anyone about how I was feeling. I thought I simply had to put my head down and put one foot in front of the other until I worked my way through the mess. I didn’t believe I needed to accept the reality that Ike took all of my possessions, all of the tools I needed to rebuild my home, and that some messes are beyond repair. And knowing it was “only stuff” made me hesitate to talk about the loss. After all, my house was still standing. “No whining!” was my mantra.

I ‘m lucky. I work for a mental health-care facility, and my colleagues just put up with me while I worked it out. I finally told myself what I would tell a client: you are not weak, you are not suffering from a character defect, you are not whining. You have been injured as surely as if the house had fallen on you. You’d get the broken bone set; do something for the broken heart.

For the first time in my life, I have to “take my pills” before I go to bed. The good news is that one of those bedtime pills is all it took to feel better.

Ad Hoc Community Center

When I first visited The Pink Dolphin on Seawall Boulevard in Galveston several years ago, Eldrege, one of the owners, told me, “Treat this bar like my living room—no drugs, no hustlers, no sex in the bathrooms!” And he wasn’t kidding. The bar is always clean and well-ventilated, the patrons well behaved.

Oscar and Eldrege reopened the bar immediately after Ike. They had a generator! Regular patrons were sleeping on the floor, everyone was kicking in food from their freezers for the cookouts, clean water was available. People could charge their cell phones. “The jeep” was shared so that everyone had rides (many cars were destroyed by flooding). Ken Griffin, a regular, told me, “Gay, straight, it didn’t matter. The doors here were open to everyone, including the National Guard. We all worked together to survive.”

For me, going to the bar two weeks after the storm was like being welcomed by an extended family. I was truly filthy, but no one cared. I was hugged like the prodigal daughter, was told to sit down. One of the boys got me a plate, another a bottle of water. Everyone wanted to know how things were on my street, how I was doing, and to share their stories with me.

I was finally home.

Top 20 Ike Memories

1. One of my best friends calling me right after Ike: “Where are you?! What are you doing?! Are you okay?!”

“Well, I’m standing in front of the Guggenheim, eating a hot dog. I am a little warm today.”

Count it—one, two, three—“YOU BITCH!”

I don’t know why I find my friend’s concern hilarious . . . I just do. Seems she didn’t believe I would go ahead and go to New York with a hurricane headed straight at Galveston.

“Do you know what’s going on down here?!”

Sure do. Another friend has been e-mailing me media summaries every couple of hours. This way I am not tempted to sit in front of a television when I can be doing fun things.

2. My best friend paying way too much money for center-orchestra, last-minute tickets to see The Lion King on Broadway. Yup, this distracted me. It was a magical theater experience, and I again realized that this woman will do anything she can imagine to help me. I quietly cry myself to sleep over this one.

3. Sitting with my best friend and her husband, in their living room, waiting to be allowed back to Galveston.

She: “We’ve talked, and we want you to know you can stay here as long as you need to.”

Me: “Uh, I don’t think that’s a good idea; let’s put a time limit on this.”

She: “Okay, 50 years.”

He: Jumps up and says, “Better start the timer.”

I couldn’t ask for a better, kinder, more supportive family. They’ll never know how much this entire experience with them has meant to me. We talk about families of choice all of the time. These two take it seriously.

4. Returning to work, being very nervous about requesting some pretty unusual exemptions from SOP [standard operating procedure]. “No problem. Let us know what else you need.” My desperately busy boss took time to check on me every day. Coworkers made a point of stopping to talk to me, giving me a chance to vent. Someone left Target gift cards on my desk, realizing all of my clothes (except for a couple days of vacation clothes) were gone. Another coworker set about replacing my favorite shirts. Yet another coworker gave me work clothes. The generosity of my colleagues didn’t surprise me, but it certainly moved me.

5. Everyone in my personal community calling me, offering help, places to stay, and loans. I am grateful for the calls, for their expressions of love and support, and, frankly, for the distraction.

6. My friends in Louisiana calling me, asking not “What damage did you sustain?” but “What’s left?” They’ve been there recently. Checks, gift cards, cash, and support come in the mail from them. One of them replaces my all-time favorite cookbook, River Road Recipes , one she gave me 20 years ago. She was buying the replacement at the Louisiana Book Fair. The people in the booth were gently teasing her, wondering how she didn’t have a copy of this standard Baton Rouge cookbook. She explained it was to replace one lost in Ike. Everyone in the booth jumped up and went through the stacks of books until they found the “right” one. All of them had to touch it. They put it in a special bag. They acted like it was a big deal that someone had lost her favorite cookbook in a hurricane that did so much damage to so many people. I cried for a long time after my friend told me this story. I cried again when I saw the bookmarks my friends, new and old, had put in the box with the book. Who knew dancing penguins could make you cry?

7. Finally returning to the island. My friend, the manly ex-military, ex-merchant marine guy is coming with me. We load the van with tools, put on our rattiest work clothes, put everything we think we might possibly need into the van and head for home. As we approach the island, I am speechless at the destruction. Once we arrive, the very first thing I notice is the absence of birdsong.

8. Crawling over the pile of water-moved stuff in the garage, in the dark, listening to the rats run about, trying to free up the door so we can start dragging everything I own to the curb. Thinking it would be way easier to just toss a match on this house I’ve been so carefully restoring.

9. A van load of my friends coming down to the island one Saturday to help me finish emptying my home. Seems like everyone has a special skill and is eager to use it to help me. One of them, with expertise in environmental mold remediation, spares me the task of determining what is and is not salvageable. Another cleans out my refrigerator. Some are washing things that can be salvaged. Everyone is working their asses off in the heat. I keep walking back to the journals I’ve kept so carefully for 22 years, knowing they can’t be saved, but hoping for a miracle. My friends leave them alone until I give in.

10. Standing with a group of people, listening to them bitch about not having air conditioning. I walk away before I start screaming. I can’t believe they think being a little warm is a problem. My belief that there is no such thing as relative pain is sorely tested.

11. Wondering where the hell is the support? After Katrina, the LGBT community moved heaven and earth to help people displaced by the storm. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is being done in a systematic way for those of us from Galveston. I am furious about this. I begin to feel that people in Houston think this storm happened to them and believe that not having air conditioning and ice for the beer constitutes suffering. I wonder why I am so enraged; my personal community has stepped up for me beyond anything I could have ever hoped for. I begin to think perhaps I am becoming “not quite right.”

12. Discovering problems I never expected. How do I rebuild when all of my tools have drowned? How do I get my mail? What happens when your local Galveston bank is closed and you run out of cash? How will I ever thank all of the people who are offering me help?

13. Trying, and failing, to get some kind of mental health care. Knowing better, I decide to “tough it out.”

14. Standing with my neighbors in the middle of the street, talking about how we are going to make our street beautiful again. Sitting together with my neighbors under the one place that still has shade, eating our Red Cross lunches, comparing notes about the damage to our homes. As we leave for the mainland every night, we go to those still working and leave any cold water we have left with them.

15. Sitting on my front porch, making a plan for getting home and realizing I’m still not hearing or seeing any birds. Realizing that I’ve cried more in the past three weeks than I have in the last 10 years. Being worried about this.

16. Finally getting up the courage to drive through the Strand District. Again, I can’t believe what I’m seeing. I remember that one of the ways we “sell” the island to tourists is to tell storm stories. I wonder what people will be saying about Ike 100 years from now.

17. Friends in Houston suffering survivor guilt, apologizing to me because they didn’t even lose electricity during or after the storm.

18. An old community comrade giving me a bar vest so I can go to the Ripcord and not feel naked. More importantly, he gives me the story of the vest’s original owner. I am reminded that life goes on. I am again reminded that my community is there for me and will help me if I will just stick out my hand.

19. Finally managing to get some much-needed mental health care. I send my boss an e-mail announcing that I feel better. I laugh when I realize I work at a place where admitting you are crazy is a good thing.

20. Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m glad I’m still standing. I’m grateful for the loving and generous people in my life. I do believe that nothing is so bad that something good doesn’t come from it. I’m not quite sure what this will be for me, but I am trusting in my community, my friends, my family, and, finally, the future. I hear the birds singing.

Not Just Storms, But Everyday Tragedies

People rising to the occasion after a natural disaster is something we all celebrate. How a community reacts to the everyday tragedies is a truer testament to its character.

On March 3, Marcus Bosaw was visiting with friends at Robert Lafitte’s, a long-established Galveston gay bar. Three young men threw heavy bricks into the bar, one striking Bosaw in the head. Other patrons chased the three, getting a good description for the police. Police caught the suspects so quickly they were able to return them to the bar before Bosaw left. Patrons identified the young men, who were immediately arrested. Bosaw, suffering from a head injury, was refusing medical treatment. Other police officers took the time to convince him he needed care. He was transported to Clear Lake where 12 staples were needed to close the wound.

Now, when Bosaw talks about the attack, he remains positive about his island neighbors and the community at large. “We all know there is just no reason to discriminate. One woman, 70, 80 years old, came by the bar and told us, ‘I’ve never been in here before, but I want y’all to know I’m so sorry this happened. ‘ ”

Bosaw still goes to Lafitte’s; he just doesn’t sit by the door. “It’s a designated hard-hat area now,” he says with a big grin.

When asked how he was treated by the police, Bosaw told me, “I wrote them a thank-you note. I couldn’t have asked to be treated any better. They quickly caught the guys, made sure I got medical care. There was no homophobia in their treatment of me or anyone else in the bar.”

The three young men remain in jail, charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and a hate-crime enhancement. Bosaw recently spoke with the assistant district attorney handling the case. “She’s going to take it to trial. That’s great; that’s what I want. I want everyone to know this just isn’t okay.”

And this is Galveston in a nutshell. A fine community where an older lady makes sure people in a gay bar know hate isn’t okay with her. A fine community where police handle a hate crime so well the victim writes them a thank-you note. A fine community where we never, ever lose our sense of humor. A fine community I’m proud to call home.

Deb Murphy lives in Galveston and is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.

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