Last week we said goodbye to principal Jallon Brown, who finally got her public charter middle school up and running. This week, we begin following Jason Ziegler and Brandin Bednar, who were blown into the District by Hurricane Katrina.
Jason Ziegler unfolds a sheet of paper, memorizes his four-digit PIN and punches the number into a Farecard machine at the Stadium-Armory Metrorail station. His brand-new debit card, a gift from the Red Cross, supposedly entitles him to $360. Two days earlier, the burly 26-year-old had been standing waist deep in New Orleans ooze, nourished on potato chips he'd purloined from a sandwich shop. Now he wields the plastic rectangle, his slice of disaster relief, and declares himself rich enough to explore the city that has suddenly adopted him. Jason chortles, "They said I can spend the money on anything but booze, tobacco and firearms."
They should add train passes to that list. The machine declines his debit card.
Jason turns to 19-year-old Brandin Bednar, whose floppy blond curls spill out from under a mesh cap. "Give me the bag," says Jason and digs through the black knapsack that's weighed down with rolls of quarters, money they took last week from a store in New Orleans. They aren't proud of that, but they aren't ashamed, either. "It was about survival," says Brandin.
Quickly the two men purchase Farecards and hop aboard a train, headed for Adams Morgan. They're evacuees and close to destitute, but they're still eager to party. Jason says he wants a beer and prays that he doesn't get carded. His wallet and ID got stolen following the storm. "This all sucks," he says. "But, hey, it's an adventure."
Jason and Brandin are both from Seattle, originally, but met in New Orleans through a mutual friend a few weeks before Hurricane Katrina struck. Jason had just moved to Louisiana, hitching a ride to New Orleans with a friend who had landed work as a diver working on offshore oil rigs. The pay was great, the friend said. Jason, who'd been skipping among a series of low-paying jobs in Seattle, decided to enroll in a New Orleans diving school. First, he had to earn enough cash for tuition, so he took a job in the Crescent City laying carpet. Along the way he fell in with a crowd of divers, including Brandin.
As Katrina barreled toward New Orleans, Brandin and Jason intended to flee to Kentucky with a mutual friend. Some friend. He left without them, they say. Didn't say a word.
"Hell, yeah, we're bitter," says Jason. They wound up taking refuge in the Superdome, beginning a nightmarish odyssey that forged their friendship into a pact of mutual self-preservation. It culminated with their evacuation to Washington, a city neither had ever visited.
Now Jason says that he plans to visit every inch of the Smithsonian. "I hear it's free," he says. "I've been wanting to see that since I was, like, four." He's also learned about the local construction boom and says, "I'm used to manual labor . . . I can do anything." This afternoon a government official at the D.C. Armory gave Jason the number of a construction company looking for workers.
Brandin says he's going to stay, too. Like Jason, he's called his family on the West Coast and assured everyone he's fine. "I think I can kick it here," he says. "If I can find a job paying $15 an hour, I'll stay, at least for a few months."
Soon the men are walking through Adams Morgan. "The houses are so close together," Jason says, looking at the row houses.
"How much is the rent here?" Brandin asks. Told a two-bedroom apartment rents for around $1,800 a month, he gasps, "Holy [expletive]."
-- Tyler Currie