The story of how Anya Maddox got out of New Orleans two days after Hurricane Katrina hit and then talked her way into a job at the Waffle House in this small town 45 miles northwest of New Orleans is a tale of grit, ingenuity and raw endurance.
She escaped New Orleans by walking, running, swimming and finally climbing into the cabin of a big truck.
"I came in and said, 'Y'all hiring? I need a job,' " she recalled. "I just started busing tables. They four or five tables that needed cleaning. I asked the people in the back to give me a towel."
She is 23 years old, and there's a reddish tint to her dreadlocks. She is sitting out back of the Waffle House located on State Highway 30, in a slip of shade next to the garbage bin. Maddox allows as how she usually doesn't smoke, but the hurricane hit, and now there's ash forming on the cigarette in her left hand.
"I been getting $10 tips," she says brightly. "And I ain't even waiting on tables. I'm just nice to people. Southern hospitality."
Now and then she turns her head slightly to the left. A cacophony of voices comes from women and children looking over the outdoor railing of the Budget Inn motel. Most of them, like Maddox, have arrived from New Orleans after a desperate breakaway from the city. Her lot, however, at the moment at least, seems a touch more stable than theirs. There are tips to add up after her shift and her own safety to be grateful for.
She was sitting in a dishwashing uniform, black pants and white top with a bibbed cap atop her dreadlocks, and tiny name tag, which says Queen -- the nickname she likes to go by.
Once, she was a student at Dillard University, studying criminal justice. There were hopes to land a job in the Louisiana prison system, but she never got hired.
"There's so much racism and classism in New Orleans," Maddox says. "It's not what you know, but who you know. I had a job at the Whole Foods on Veterans in April, but got laid off in July."
The Friday before the hurricane -- even with the ominous weather reports -- she managed to put in five job applications. By the next day, however, she began figuring she better bolt.
"My car wouldn't start, though," she continues. "It was the car my grandmother left me before she passed away. A '98 Olds Regency. It was just broken and torn and down."
She thought she might, someway, get to higher ground. "Then I had, like, a revelation: 'New Orleans is going to go.' "
Jarred P. Savwoir, her ex-boyfriend, quickly popped into her mind while trying to figure a strategy. He put her in touch with two other mutual friends of theirs -- Angela and Aaron. "We got all the way across the West Bank, but it was gridlock traffic. We turned around. I said, 'Drop me off back in the city.' "
She waded past huge tree trunks and constantly worried about rumors of alligators on the prowl.
Back in the city, Maddox thought of her valued connections, those who she knew had means. She thought of DruAnn Davis, a businesswoman. "I use to braid her daughter's hair for her," she says. "And once she had happened to say to me, 'If you ever need anything, call me.' I did. And she said, 'Come on over to my house.' "
Davis lived on Magazine Street. "We barricaded ourselves in that Monday night. Trees fell everywhere around the house. We woke up Tuesday morning, and the water was coming out of the faucets very low. We said, 'We have to get out of here.' "
That day, says Maddox, her friend Davis called a friend of hers who had means -- Henry Williams, a businessman who had a large truck. By the time Williams finished loading up his truck with Maddox and others, he was driving out of New Orleans with 15 people. Behind them lay nightmare scenes of almost biblical proportions.
"We picked up these two white guys on the Mississippi bridge overpass," she adds. "They had swam down Franklin to get out of the city. They gave us $20 to help with gas. They were really cool."
When Anya Maddox arrived in Gonzales, she had $37 to her name, "And that was money I had gotten a couple of days earlier from braiding hair."
Williams parked his truck in the back of a makeshift shelter here in Gonzales. It was so crowded inside the shelter, that Maddox chose to sleep nights in the truck, where she continues to sleep. "I just go into the shelter to take a shower," she says.
Her goal is to save enough money from her Waffle House job to get to Atlanta, where she has some relatives.
"My mother neglected me a long time ago," she explains. "Then I lost my grandmother. It's just me, by myself."
On her second day at the Waffle House, a man came up to the counter and ordered, right near her station where she was washing dishes. "Some white man with long gray hair," she says.
He talked and talked, and she listened and listened. "People now just want somebody to talk to," she says , sounding like one of the many health professionals who are sure to be called upon in the weeks and months ahead.
The man with the long gray hair rose, went to pay his bill, then walked back to Anya Maddox and laid a $20 bill in her hand. "Ain't that something," she marvels.
Brenda Williams, 44, who also works at the Waffle House, says the entire staff has been amazed at Maddox's resilience. "She's awesome," says Williams. "We're lucky to have her. She wasn't even hired yet and she started busing tables. She grabbed a mop and started mopping. First thing she said when she came in that door was 'I'll do anything for you.' "
Her shift ended mid-afternoon, and Anya Maddox said she needed to make a phone call to Atlanta, to relatives. Red-eyed, she reached for another cigarette.
"I'm a survivor," she said triumphantly, rising from the shade of the garbage bin.
A few hours later, she was on her way to Atlanta.