Among the farthest-flung of Hurricane Katrina’s victims were the 40 or so who waited on two idling buses in Echo Park on Saturday afternoon. They’d lost everything: homes, jobs, pets, loved ones. But excitement, not sorrow, was the prevailing mood. They were going to see a NASCAR race.
The departure point was the Dream Center, the Christian charity where the evacuees had arrived only days earlier. Through a strange mimicry, their new refuge itself resembled a disaster zone. Nearby, volunteers sifted through the rising tides of clothes, furniture and canned goods that an endless stream of well-wishers had unloaded from trunk to curb throughout the week. A portable medical trailer screened newcomers for infectious diseases. The pair of specially chartered Foothill Transit buses idled interminably in the afternoon heat, children screaming at each other.
Fortunately for me, I sat beside Thomas “T-Bone” Quinn, who had tales to tell. When the storm arrived, the 47-year-old pipe welder remained at home in New Orleans, expecting engineers to dynamite the far side of the levee and divert the rising waters away from the municipality. When it became clear that wasn’t happening, T-Bone hopped in his car and tried to drive out of the city, only to be turned back by a police roadblock.
“I waited till they took a break,” he recalls. “Then I rammed the barricade.”
Then came the terrifying part. Along the way he picked up Mike and Leticia, a couple who wanted a ride to the Superdome. T-Bone convinced them that returning would be suicide. But as the three drove up the 55, gas dwindling, unable to take any of the sealed-off exits, storm following, T-Bone wondered if he’d made a mistake.
“The window of the car got busted through,” he recalled, shaking his sun-bitten face. “I thought to myself, ‘I just killed this man and girl because I picked them up.’ ”
Somehow, though, the fuel lasted long enough for T-Bone to evade the storm. He refueled and drove on to a church in Jackson, Mississippi, where he received an unexpected offer from the church pastor.
“He said, ‘You want to go out to L.A.?’ I thought, yeah, right. I called my friend to the side, and I said, ‘They trying to get rid of us.’ My attitude changed when I got to the airport and saw that $50 million airplane. That was the first plane out here, and I was the first passenger. Now I’m loving this place like a tick on a coon dog.”
It was a good week for T-Bone: He met Maria Shriver, watched the Dodgers get whooped, was promised a ride out on PCH on the Dream Center pastor’s motorcycle. A Dream Center parishioner was going to give him a Mercedes and fix his albino alligator boots. Now, as the buses rumbled away from the Dream Center, he and his fellow passengers were going to get to meet racing celebrity Jesse James, host of Discovery Channel’s Monster Garageand Sandra Bullock’s new husband. He wasn’t ever leaving L.A. He was going to catch that alligator he’d been hearing about that was on the loose.
“Just drop me off and come back in the morning, I’ll be sitting on that gator,” T-Bone vowed.
But T-Bone’s candor and enthusiasm weren’t felt everywhere on the bus. One family refused to divulge their story. I asked the father if it was too painful to talk about, if that was why he didn’t want to talk. “No, because it’s worth something,” he said shyly.
Across the aisle, a 37-year-oldelectrician named Benny Baxter argued with the woman sitting in front of him about the fate of the group.
“I made a bad decision not to evacuate,” he grumbled, as the woman attempted to cheer him up. He’d gone to sleep up in his attic during the flooding, and had to break his way out through the roof to avoid drowning; he showed me his scarred knuckles. Like the woman sitting in front of him, he’d had only a few hours to decide whether to stay behind or take the flight out to Los Angeles, but neither option seemed very happy.
“People don’t understand, this shit is going to go away,” he said. “Americans are going to stop giving. Nine months from now, they gonna kick us out.” (The pastor at the Dream Center, John Williams, had insisted otherwise, that the evacuees could stay as long as they needed.)
“At least we got rescued out of that hellhole,” said the woman, growing emotional.
“If you don’t become a Dream Center disciple, in nine months you’re out of here,” Baxter insisted. “You know how we got our rooms? There was homeless people sleeping there, and they made them leave to make room for us.”
“Well, I’m going to take college classes and get a full-time job and donate money and help the rest of us out,” the woman said.
“How they gonna live on eight, nine dollars an hour in L.A.?” pleaded Baxter, taking out a wad of cash and fanning it. “I’ve got skills, I can make money. I’m going to be all right, you going to be all right. But some people are not going to be all right.”
The argument continued until the buses pulled up outside the Irwindale Speedway, where all the evacuees were welcomed by the track manager and given a meal coupon for a hot dog or hamburger. T-Bone and Baxter walked briskly past the bleachers to the NASCAR cars parked on the track, fixed on their mission. The track MC, Wendy Westbrook, stopped Baxter and attempted to interview him.
“It must have been terrible,” she said.
“Yes, ma’am,” smiled Baxter, his mind clearly elsewhere. “Where’s Jesse James?”
Finally, the hero roared up in his truck, number 666. (A strange night was in the works for James. After a minor collision with fellow racer Harry Kuenniger during the Figure 8 competition, Kuenniger attempted to ram him, then hopped out and jumped up and down on his hood, only to be hauled off in a squad car.)
Instantly, the racing paparazzi piled around, but somehow T-Bone made it to the front of the crowd for a chat with him. Around the same time, Sandra Bullock popped up in the crowd for a rare trackside appearance. T-Bone handed me his disposable camera and asked me to snap a picture with her. He planted a passionate kiss on her cheek, and Bullock pulled back uneasily.
“Hey, my husband is here,” she grinned, eliciting laughs from the crowd.
A KCAL reporter thrust a microphone into T-Bone’s face as he re-emerged from the fray. “Hey, you just got a kiss from Sandra Bullock?” the reporter said. “How did that feel?”
“What do you think?” cried T-Bone. “How would you feel if you just kissed Sandra Bullock?”
He looked at me, exuberant, pulling a Jesse James business card out of his wallet. “Jesse James is going to ride with me out to Malibu! Man, this is awesome, man!” he said, paused and laughed. “Listen to me! See, I stopped saying ‘ain’t.’ Now I’m saying ‘awesome.’ How about that?”