HOUSTON — To tell a story like this is to put a face on it, the one that stands for them all.
Reid Ryan, president of the Houston Astros, held out his arms, shook his head. Where would one start?
“There’s 300,000 faces,” he said.
Life inside the downtown Houston convention center pattered at a controlled chaos Friday afternoon, a city within a city, the faces bewildered and hopeful and plain tired. Outside, the floodwaters receded in places, advanced in others. Folks turned over the first shovelfuls of what was once their lives, revealing whatever would be next. They’d keep digging. Maybe they’ll just know when to stop.
A city and its neighboring cities began to get their bearings Friday. A couple hours away, other cities looked forward to that day. The mayor arrived at the convention center, as did the Congresswoman and the man from FEMA. The crowds inside parted to let them through, then continued on. Speeches and promises would not feed their children in that moment, would not put them back in their bedrooms in their neighborhoods, would not enhance a wardrobe that had been pared to what was on their backs.
A man who said he’d lost his house paused and considered the ruckus.
“Eh, I was fixin’ to move anyway,” he said and continued on.
The Astros flew home Thursday. Those who lived downtown drove through streets as dry as they’d left them. The only visual evidence something had happened here was the mud caked against the curbs. Otherwise, beyond National Guardsmen and Department of Justice and various officers walking the streets, dressed for work, headed to their hotels, beyond police cruisers idling near intersections, downtown Houston was quiet. Most of downtown Houston.
A block from Minute Maid Park, stooped men and women dragged trash bags along the sidewalk. The contents of those bags might have been all they owned. They’d know better when they got where they were going.
Church groups sang. Six people showed up with a folding table, 10 boxes of tacos and several cases of soda. Twenty minutes later, they packed up the table and left. Nearby, a woman sat on a bench surrounded by four little girls. They’d spent recent nights inside the convention center, on cots. The girls’ faces were painted like tigers, like angels, like unicorns. Mom had gotten hers’ done, too. The girls swung on handrails and laughed. Their mother looked into the distance.
Dollies loaded with sleeping bags and water and diapers rolled past, towed by young men and women wearing Red Cross vests, followed by fathers, mothers and children. Strollers teetered beneath mounds of canned food and blankets. There were so many wheelchairs. People bummed Newport menthols off each other, offered lights, then sat and felt the sun on their shoulders and the cold air rushing from the open doors across the sidewalk on their shins. One man held a five-pound bag of cat food to his chest.
“Men on the left, women on the right,” the policeman said, guiding them into the building.
“Males to the left, females to the right,” they said. “Empty your pockets.”
“This is a no-K2 zone,” one officer spat, side-eyeing his fellow officers, pleased with himself. A man in a wheelchair, pulling himself along the block with his heels, pretended not to hear.
The people shuffled through the appropriate doors without looking up.
A guy named Mike Mineo from Nashville via Hollywood, Florida, handed out fliers. “Free concert tonight,” they read, followed by four exclamation points. He’d be in the parking lot behind the convention center, playing his music, handing out, “free of charge,” food, formula, diapers, feminine products, snacks and hugs. “Come by and leave your troubles behind for an hour or so,” they read.
Several blocks away, an employee at the nice big hotel said he’d been living in the hotel since the previous Friday. There’d been no way out. Had he risked it, there might’ve been no way back in. Jobs are precious. So his boss put him up, he along with plenty of others. During lunch Thursday his boss told him he was probably safe to go home, and the young man nodded and told him he’d clean out the room, see him tomorrow. He nodded back and went to find the next man on the list.
These are the faces.
The little girl in a baby blue princess dress in the corridors of the convention center coming upon a volunteer dressed just like she was. Other boys and girls wearing hats fashioned from skinny balloons and playing board games, playing a miniature game of soccer, hugging the big red Elmo, gazing upon Snow White. The people of Houston have made the convention center as livable as it could be, so that when the Astros players and staff members arrived mid-afternoon Friday they walked past a makeshift barber shop, along with card tables set up and handwritten signs advertising help with legal issues, immigration, housing, transportation, translation, missing persons and, beneath the sign, “Need to talk?”, behavioral care.
Jose Altuve had walked the couple blocks from Minute Maid Park to the George R. Brown Convention Center and within minutes was dancing with a woman in a blue dress who squealed in delight. He offered her enough tickets to Saturday’s game to bring her whole family.
She accepted and asked, “Will you be there?”
He assured her he would be, which made her very happy.
Manager A.J. Hinch held the hands of two of his daughters. Many of his players, some of whom had wondered themselves what they were coming home to, walked nearby. Joe Musgrove, the pitcher, held a pair of white high-top spikes and two markers, one red and the other blue. Musgrove introduced himself to the children and asked them to sign his shoes, which he’d wear this weekend. Beneath the desperate stares and gnawing uncertainties, playing against the realities here, there was laughter, mostly children’s laughter.
“It’s sad,” Astros catcher Brian McCann said. “You see a lot of the kids running around. People have lost their houses. Lost everything. This is devastating.”
There are, by one count, 9,000 people inside the convention center, most dressed as though they’d left where they had been in a panic. Many of the children wore pajama bottoms and T-shirts. But they’d be dry and fed and tomorrow would be left to tomorrow. By local estimates: nearly 50 dead, 6,000 homes destroyed and 80,000 damaged, more than 200,000 without power, more than 5 million meals served to evacuees, 30,000 or so in shelters in the Houston area. This 9,000 is but a trickle of what is out there, what is still coming, and the job ahead. That’s a lot of faces.
“I’m thankful the city has a place like this where people can go,” Hinch said. “I’m sad they have to be here. … They’re going to need our help a month from now, six months from now, a year from now. It’s our humane obligation.
“It doesn’t go away by one day of volunteering. It’s going to take a long time. And we’re going to be here a long time.”
The baseball will come. Maybe it won’t count for much.
“But it’s all we can offer during those [three] hours,” Hinch said. “We’ll do the best we can.”