Two men sit on a narrow strip of concrete, their backs against the wall.
Behind the wall is the Greyhound bus station. It is in a bad part of town, as bus stations in America usually are. Weed-strewn empty lot before them, dilapidated wood houses down the block.
When each man reached that station Wednesday night, at separate times, from different parts of New Orleans, his heart lifted. On this they both agree.
Then they saw the sign: Bus Station Closed Until Further Notice. Now it is Thursday.
Ernest Montgomery, 35, and Toris Hudson, 40, did not know each other before they reached this place. But now, after sitting here for nearly 24 hours, they have had plenty of time to reflect, and they have come to understand that their separate woeful journeys both began with that stupid stubbornness a man can have when his wife begs him to leave a place and he won't go.
"The old lady wanted me to go," says Hudson, a city paratransit driver for the disabled in New Orleans. " 'It's gonna be a catastrophe this time,' she said." Instead, he drove her and the three kids to a hotel in the French Quarter where her mother runs the laundry.
The Maison Dupuy always let his mother-in-law put her daughter up when a hurricane came to kiss the Big Easy. The kids always thought it was a holiday. And a man can look forward to a few days alone with the family gone. A mountain of a man with braids in a blue do-rag, his brown shoes unlaced, he lies on his back, suitcases of clothes around him.
You begin to see the answer to the question that vexes all the people who live life in a different way, the question that the authorities bring up, peevishly, when the public and the media press them, hard, on why this humanitarian crisis deepens every day. They could have left, you hear. Why didn't they leave?
"Listen," says Montgomery, "some people have money and ways to get out. A lot of people are poor. They wait until the devastation hits." That was not his problem; he had a Chevy Suburban -- "So do I! Or, I did" -- interjects Hudson. No, Montgomery's wife wanted to go to Houston, so she put the kids in her Jeep and went. "We men so stupid," he says, and Hudson nods mournfully.
Montgomery went over to hang out with his younger brother.
"We were psyched up!" he says. Even after Katrina came slamming through, "we didn't believe it. We thought it was a little bit funny, went out and walked through the water, watched the people helping themselves." The way he sees it, if you get hungry after a hurricane, you can go "fishing in the water for a can of tuna fish floating by, a carton of milk, and rub it off, or you can help yourself, you see what I'm saying? That is what they are calling looting," Montgomery says. He is a man who believes it is important to look together no matter the circumstances. His head is bald, his white T-shirt is clean, and the Cavaliers jersey over it has not a rumple.
The water rose.
Monday, Hudson ran out to move the Suburban, and in those five minutes, he got wet to the waist. He climbed to the second story of his house and listened to the radio. He drank some water he had saved, and spread canned stew on a piece of bread and chewed things over.
As for Montgomery, Tuesday he got into a fight with his brother, "and I was asked to leave." He waded out into waist-deep water, losing his belongings every few blocks. When a Hummer with some official-looking guys picked him up and took him to the Superdome, he stood outside as if he were going in, until they went away. "I had heard what was going on in there," he said.
Life was particularly harrowing on Wednesday -- blocks of wading, zigging and zagging depending on which piece of bad information some other refugee passed on. Both men caught rides out of town, with strangers, and here they sit. There are many other restive people wandering around. When a Greyhound bus pulls in, these other refugees get newly agitated, because it isn't taking any passengers. It is just refueling.
A young, haggard-looking guy keeps coming up to threaten a reporter as the men tell their stories. He says she is stirring up trouble and accuses her of "overreporting." He has a knife.
"You go on now and sit yourself down," Montgomery says sternly. "Be cool, man."
Hudson cradles his cell phone on his chest like it's a baby. His wife is out there somewhere. He is going to stay right here until she comes.
Montgomery spent his last money on a new cell phone. He dials it every few minutes and leaves a message with great authority: "6:26. Ernest." He got through to his family in Houston once, and they said they were coming to get him, but they aren't here yet.
"Trapped," says Montgomery. "That is the title of this story. Trapped."
After taking his wife and children to the safety of a hotel, Toris Hudson decided to ride out the storm at home but eventually was forced to flee.
Ernest Montgomery could have gone to Houston with his wife and children but stayed to hang out with his brother -- until he was "asked to leave."