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I visited the George R. Brown Convention Center a few days later and talked to Cornell Ridgley, Barron Bowie Sr. and Darren Clark, making the same offers to help them look for jobs and housing. Clark was sloshed on Mad Dog 20/20, pissed at the president for flooding his city and feeling pretty warm toward the local thugs. "We got enemies in here," he said, gesturing around, "but right now we are standing together. We don't got time for that [gang warfare stuff]. We lost too much."
"All of us folk don't have shit," he added. "And they took what we had."
Clark promised to call the next day. "I'll tell you the same thing sober," he said.
He never called.
I had begun wondering if, despite their assertions, anybody at all from New Orleans actually wanted or needed help, especially from me. Then the phone rang a few days later. It was Ridgley. He had no idea where Clark and Bowie were, but could I take him to sign a lease on an apartment and pick up some stuff at Wal-Mart?
I told him I'd meet him at the downtown Hilton.
I pulled up a few hours later and he wasn't there.
Why did so many people blow me off? Reluctant to think the worst -- that the poor of New Orleans are mostly deadbeats -- I sought advice.
Howard Karger is a professor of social policy at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work. Listening to my horror stories, he paused for a moment and chuckled. "Welcome to the world of poor people," he said.
Karger feels that society has idealized the evacuees. In reality, the middle-class expectation that charity will be met with gratitude and reciprocity from the poor often doesn't hold true. He mentioned Sequoia, the woman who hung up on me. "The whole life of poor people is very day-to-day," he said. "And that day," her clothes "weren't very important to her."
The ghetto operates under "a different set of values," Karger said. "And I think the important thing is that people accept them on their own terms."
Those terms are especially uncertain right now, when evacuees can be suffering from exhaustion, post-traumatic stress disorder, the confusion of being in a new environment (sometimes for the very first time) and what Karger describes as "volunteeritis" -- the state of being overloaded with too many offers to help.
Still, many academics agree that a lot of low-income people may never respond to opportunities to help themselves -- even when overtures seem generous. "I think that by the time someone is 30, there is nothing we know how to do," says Douglas Besharov, a poverty researcher with the American Enterprise Institute. "And therefore, I am one of those who says that we need to prevent this from happening by doing a better job in elementary and high school."
Ultimately, only one of the dozens of evacuees I'd met over a month of interviews followed through.
After I sat in my car for five minutes at the Hilton, Cornell Ridgley, the man who had asked me to help him run errands, miraculously appeared with his wife and his stepson's girlfriend. I drove them to an apartment building and Wal-Mart, where they used a FEMA card to buy clothes. By the end of the day, they were exhausted and appreciative. Ridgley's wife even offered to cook me a Creole meal once they moved into their new home.
Yet after calling me three weeks ago to thank me for sending him job postings, Ridgley has fallen out of touch. The Creole meal hasn't happened. And he hasn't delivered on a promise to introduce me to younger evacuees such as his stepson.
Still, I can't entirely give up on the notion that he'll call. "Don't worry, man," he'd said on his cell phone. "I'm gonna get back to you."