By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 11, 2005
SEGUIN, Tex. -- It was after the local bank hosted a noontime barbecue dinner for hurricane evacuees that Oscar Jackson made his bold proclamation. "The Jackson family is here to stay," he announced, flashing his broad smile. "These are my new neighbors."
All told, there were 24 members in the large and extended Jackson contingent: husbands, wives, grandparents, children, babies, in-laws, aunties, uncles, cousins and fiancees. They were crammed into six rooms at the Best Western on Interstate 10 as the news from New Orleans turned grimmer by the day. Last week, they traded in hotel life for something more permanent in their adopted state of Texas.
The blessings were many, but the culture shock was real. Where were the city buses that they had relied on to get around in New Orleans? Where were all the black people? Where were folks sitting on porches, in a festive tangle of music and gossip?
Seguin -- 35 miles east of San Antonio -- has a population of 23,000, about 60 percent Hispanic and 9 percent black. Pecan and oak trees shade the banks of the winding Guadalupe River, and barbed-wire fences are strung around cattle or corn fields. The Dairy Queen downtown is a sit-down restaurant where locals refill their coffee for a quarter and Frito Chili Cheese Crunch is currently on special. About 100 evacuees have fled to Seguin (pronounced si-GEEN). About half have decided to stay, including the Jackson contingent.
The town reminded Oscar of a movie set. "I feel like I'm living in an after-school special," said the 32-year-old father of two.
Oscar Jackson was a car salesman in New Orleans, a family man, with an occasional trip to the casino and a penchant for cooking. Now he was in Texas with nothing but his family and the clothes on his back. Summoning all his wit and charm, he began the task of resettling his people.
"I've always chased opportunity," he said, as he looked out across a vast field. "From nothin' to somethin'."
The re-jiggering of the American map is still taking place as the diaspora of hurricane victims keeps spreading. So, too, is a mass reordering of lives on society's rungs.
For the Jackson family, some members are seeing a new beginning kick-started by a portfolio of aid: up to $2,000 from the federal government, local contributions of up to $500, gas vouchers and food stamps, a month's free rent, donated furniture and other help. "This might leave me better than I was," said Oscar's cousin, Keith Conrad, whose employer in New Orleans, Cisco Food Service, quickly placed him in a job in San Antonio and gave him a loaner car to commute from Seguin.
But the move is a downward slide for Oscar's parents, who had scrimped their whole lives to buy their own house only to lose it in the flood.
"I never was a person who wanted a handout," said Shirley Jackson, 54, on the day last week that she signed the lease to move into Seguin's public housing project. "I was a cafeteria worker. I'm not too proud to ask the Best Western manager to give me a job. I have cleaned homes."
Oscar listened as his mother spoke, shifting uncomfortably. Her voice was flattened by exhaustion.
"My husband hasn't had his moment yet," she said. "And I am not finished with mine."Bound by Necessity
Oscar was essentially relocating a complex habitat of humans. Technically, they weren't all Jacksons -- there were the Lees, the Strongs, the Goodwins -- but they were all somehow related to Oscar, and survival had bound them together. In New Orleans, some of them were renters, some lived in Section 8 housing and a precious few held mortgages. Most were working class: a window washer, a cook at Pat O'Brien's, a food service delivery driver, a courier, a cashier at a gourmet grocery store, a security guard, a bank teller, and a construction worker. As a car salesman, Oscar earned about $6,000 a month, making him the top breadwinner. His sister, Paula, a licensed nurse practitioner, held two full-time jobs in New Orleans. All lived paycheck to paycheck.
Luckily, the Jackson contingent had what many in New Orleans lacked: vehicles to heed the mayor's evacuation order, including a commandeered church van. Oscar's father would later say that God led them to Seguin, but Oscar's sister said it was actually the toll-free Best Western reservations line. The motel, a 20-hour drive from New Orleans, was the first with available rooms.
Oscar, short and beefy with blinding smile, bought a cowboy hat as a souvenir of what he thought would be a two-day visit to Seguin. Downtown, a sign in front of the courthouse bragged that Seguin was "Home of the World's Largest Pecan." Ten days later, homeless, Oscar started wearing his cowboy hat for real.
Locals began delivering food and clothes to the Best Western hotel. When someone dropped off a box of used Wranglers, the city kids knew that their FUBU days were over. "It's a small town," Oscar told his 15-year-old nephew, who has enrolled in the local high school. "You don't have to be fashionably correct."
People in Seguin know something about floods. In 1998, the swollen Guadalupe River swallowed homes and killed several people, and there have been two other severe floods since, which perhaps explains the outpouring of generosity toward the Jacksons. Dozens of people -- white, black and Hispanic -- showed up to help. "We got pillows and blankets, whoever needs it," local resident Derra McClain announced, arriving in her truck with a girlfriend. "We're just plain folks. But we do what we can for our little folks here. We both been down on our luck before."
One day last week, the church ladies from Second Baptist wheeled up, including one iron-haired maven in a burgundy Ford F-150, loaded with furniture and mattresses. "Well," she said, before driving off into the Texas sunset, "I got to get home to feed my cows."
Offers of places to stay were slower to come in. One local couple proposed that the Jacksons use their ranch house. Oscar drove out to take a look. Heifers grazed nearby. His sister's mouth hung open. "They had a dog so big I thought it was a pony," Oscar said. The house had only two bedrooms; unfortunately they had 24 people. It wouldn't work.
St. Andrew's Episcopal Church volunteers worked 24-7 refurbishing an arts-and-crafts house to make available for an evacuee family. "It's a risky thing in these days and times," said Lynn Campaigne, one of the volunteers who was spurred to action after watching images from New Orleans. "As our lawyer said, 'You have to remember these people have nothing. They're not necessarily people who are going to say, Oh, thank you.' " But compassion trumped all concerns and church volunteers steamed ahead, trying to get the house ready.
The Jacksons were going on Day 10 living in motel rooms, six or seven to a room. Tensions were starting to mount and Oscar knew he needed to get each of the families into their own spaces. Children were getting up for school every morning at 7 but their schedules were haywire. They were doing their homework in the lobby of the Best Western. Other housing offers were coming in, with security deposits waived, but Oscar and the others worried they would be too strapped to make rent when the time came; each family had racked up $500 in hotel bills, and credit cards were maxing out. With only five vehicles between them they wanted to live near one another to share rides to work. So they opted for public housing, grabbing nine available units offered up by the local housing authority.
"We'll recapture," Oscar said.
Recapturing meant wearing other people's clothes. But it had to be done.
One morning last week, the Texas sun beat down as Oscar and several of his family members drove out to an unofficial drop-off donation site at Seguin Canvas and Awning, a business owned by the same couple who'd offered the Jacksons their ranch house. Rania Lange waved Oscar and his relatives toward a cluttered landscape of clothes, household items and food, donated by Seguin's residents.
Lange pointed to a box of dusty cowboy boots. Oscar smiled. "No, girl, I ain't all the way there yet."
Oscar's family waded through the clutter, assembling their future. There were five boxes of Tuna Magic. One box labeled "Books, Baby Sitters Club Series." Cans of beef stew. Old coffeepots. Curtains. Sodas. Lamps. Bags and bags of clothing. Someone had carefully written on one box, "All the clothes is washed."
Oscar's sister-in-law spied a tall industrial ladder propped against the wall of the shed. In New Orleans, she used such a ladder on her job washing windows and cleaning hotel chandeliers. She asked Lange if the ladder was for the taking. It wasn't.
Oscar's cousin picked up a gold picture frame, looking at the collage of strangers, and in his pile it went. Photographs of strangers were better than no photographs at all. "At least I'll have some pictures to look at," he said.
In the car on the way back, Oscar's sister-in-law, the one who'd asked about the ladder, was worried about breaking into a new town. She said her son had told her that morning, "Mama, you gotta sell yourself like you are on a job interview."
Oscar drove the ruler-straight two-lane highway. The windows were rolled down. The vouchers for gas would not come for another day. A trailer passed, carrying three cows.
"Give me a tractor, I'll plow," said Oscar's cousin, who refinished floors in New Orleans. "A man said he was looking for people to dig, laying telephone wire."
Oscar took his cowboy hat from the dashboard and put it on. "We could open up a restaurant and call it Strictly New Orleans."Slice of New Orleans
By their sheer numbers, Oscar and his family were re-creating New Orleans in a corner of Seguin. Their jobs were gone, their schools, their churches, even their family pictures were gone, washed away. They often lapsed into talk about food, which doubled as conversations about home, and what was left behind. Oscar's mother was known for her raging pots of red beans and rice, and Oscar had once worked as a chef. Oscar's sister said she craved shrimp. Someone else said rice and gravy.
"You know what'll be good, Mama, to cook with shrimp?" Oscar said. "Okra. I put a little fillet in mine, and sausage, onion, celery and bell pepper."
Most nights, Oscar and his relatives were fed dinner by His Way Community Church. In addition to nightly meals, pastor William Butler helped provide resolution when tensions over money arose. The situation was ripe for exploitation. Another evacuee in town -- unrelated to the Jacksons -- stood in front of the Wal-Mart with his sad story, pocketing $800 but giving the four women in his group only $25 each.
The Jackson families agreed that all donations would be split evenly. The $3,000 Wal-Mart card someone gave them was carved up 24 ways.
Privately, the pastor worried they were taking too many trips to Wal-Mart. "They want to open that junk drawer that we all have in our homes, and have a drawer full of junk."
But most of the Jacksons still lacked drawers to open.
Oscar, his fiancee and two kids were the first to move into an apartment. The complex had several Section 8 units. It was neat and tidy. In the afternoon the breeze smelled like burned chicken from the nearby Tyson's poultry plant. When Oscar visited his new apartment and walked upstairs to look at his children's bedrooms, he was greeted by two freshly painted beds -- white for his daughter and red for his son -- with matching sheets and blankets. Oscar stared at the beds. The covers had carefully been turned back. The work of more local kindness, this time by Judy Peschel, who works for the local school system.
"We have been so blessed," Oscar said.
His parents kept saying they were blessed, too, but Oscar's mother, Shirley Jackson, was struggling. She and her husband of 39 years were moving into Rosalyn Heights, compliments of the Seguin Housing Authority, near the taquerias on Austin Street. Their two adult daughters would be living with them. Clean and quiet compared with New Orleans projects, but public housing just the same.
When Shirley visited the unit to clean it up, a neighbor knocked and presented a housewarming present: a broom and dustpan. Another appeared with four cans of tuna.
It wasn't Shirley's idea of home, but job applications were easier to fill out when "Best Western" wasn't listed as the home address. Oscar's sister, Paula, the LPN, interviewed with two mental health clinics in town. She drove from her own interview to pick up her younger sister, who was finishing up an interview at a credit union in the nearby city of New Braunfels.
"How did it go?" Paula asked her sister, Lakara.
"The lady says she knows about a teller position at a bank in Seguin," Lakara said. "She knows our situation. She knows I need a permanent situation."
Transportation is a must in Seguin. "Whether it's a hoopty or not, everybody here has a car," Oscar said, realizing the necessity of vehicles.Landing Jobs
Other Jackson family members still scattered across the South began calling Oscar for help. They, too, had lost everything. By the end of last week, more had arrived, and more were on their way.
A group called Seguin Area Recovery, formed after the 1998 floods, had raised $20,000 for the New Orleans evacuees and was prepared to help.
A fragile existence was taking hold. Oscar learned that his car dealership would pay him two months' salary. On Friday, both of his sisters landed jobs, one in a mental health clinic and the other as a telemarketer. Oscar's cousin, Keith, was waking at 3:30 in the morning to drive to his job with Cisco in San Antonio.
New Orleans was never far from their minds. Several relatives were still unaccounted for. "I'm gonna go back the minute we can go back," said Oscar's sister, Paula. "I need closure. I need to see that place."
How long they would stay in Seguin was anyone's guess. "I wonder what life will be like a year from now for the Jackson family," Butler, the pastor, wondered. "My grandmother used to refer to people by where they came from. Ten years from now, are they still gonna be the Jackson family from New Orleans? They'll have children, and 30 will be 60 will be 90. When you think of migrations, this is what you think of."
In Oscar's new apartment, his 3-year-old son squealed in glee as he ran around the new space. Cap'n Crunch and Golden Grahams were already lined up on top of the refrigerator. In two weeks, the utter transformation of a life.
"We are gonna put a new star on the map," he said, with a weary smile.