A splash of wintergreen after-shave and a cool dusting of talc can make a man feel whole again. The guys from the Dailey Brothers barbershop in San Antonio seemed to know this. They had watched the hurricane coverage on TV, their anger rising, their hearts breaking. When they learned San Antonio would receive 7,000 refugees, they went to work.
On Labor Day, clippers and combs in hand, they showed up at an abandoned Montgomery Ward store that had been turned into one of the city's four evacuation shelters. In addition to shape-ups and shadow fades, they gave their threadbare customers just what was needed: some dignity.
Anthony Robinson held a mirror to his face. "A lot of lamb chops tonight!" he said, admiring the haircut that had dramatically improved his chances for a kiss from his wife. For one split second, it was possible to forget that Robinson was newly homeless and his wife was sleeping on a cot next to him in an evacuation shelter in a state that could become his permanent home.
Monday was the first or second day in San Antonio for most of the evacuees, and the question of the future was too much to ponder. This was a day to take in all that had happened and to feel the softness of a cot in a safe place.
The contrast between the degradation of New Orleans and the new shelters, from Albuquerque to Dallas to Chattanooga, was breathtaking. In a day, they went from haggard, wet, foul-smelling, zombie-like figures who had huddled under interstates for days, or survived the terror of the city convention center, to human beings on the rebound, complete with colorful flip-flops from Target.
For those 1,085 lucky enough to land at the old Montgomery Ward store, they had arrived at a smooth-running oasis operated by the San Antonio Red Cross, staffed by hundreds of volunteers who read books to children, helped set up a makeshift post office or sat with them on cots, just talking.
Residents of San Antonio showed up by the hundreds to offer their services. Almost every item in the makeshift city had been donated.
Many survivors of the floods wore T-shirts donated by the San Antonio Water System that said "Water is Life."
Among the evacuees were a restaurant owner, a community college faculty member, a Department of Veterans Affairs employee, dozens of military veterans and a New Orleans gentleman named Antoine Oats, who had kept a lovely garden in the back of his home in the Garden District where streetcars rolled by.
"Have you ever thought of relocating?" a volunteer asked Oats, when he arrived in San Antonio.
For many New Orleans residents, it was an improbable question. "Oh, I loved my morning walks," Oats said, his voice full of passion and gentility.
Another young woman said she had never even been to Baton Rouge, let alone another state.
"I hope we can go back," said Wanda Picquet, 64, wearing the same silver earrings she had managed to keep on her during four days of living under an overpass of I-10, waiting to be rescued. "Lord, New Orleans is all we know." Reality would come soon enough, and hints of it were in the air. This place was more conjunto than rap, more country than jazz.
In the lunch line, several shelter residents gave pause over the steaming tortillas wrapped in foil.
"What are these?" an older woman asked.
"This is a Mexican-style burrito," a cafeteria worker explained with a smile. "You are in Texas now."
This old Montgomery Ward store on the north side of San Antonio was converted into a shelter with five hours' notice. Volunteers tore down partitions to create an open space that would hold 2,500. Dressing rooms and other compartments were dismantled for security, after sexual assaults and other violence was reported to have occurred in the darkened bathrooms of the Convention Center and Superdome in New Orleans.
"We literally created a mini-city," said Dominick Pizzuto, one of the shelter managers.
Downstairs there were more than 1,000 cots. Upstairs held a basketball court and a play area full of toys. Near the old Montgomery Ward portrait studio was a teeming medical clinic. There were sign-up sheets for ophthalmology, podiatry, pharmaceuticals and dental care.
A phone bank contained 25 red phones that were available for unlimited use. "Sometimes I talk for them when they start crying and can't talk," said Joyce Earnest, a volunteer from SBC, the phone company providing the free calls. Over one phone, someone made a sign that said "God Bless New Orleans 7th Ward." Hundreds of evacuees had still not been able to locate their loved ones, and fear was evident in their faces as they lay in cots Monday reading the San Antonio Express headline that screamed, "So Many Didn't Make It."
Across the sea of cots, children arranged their stuffed animals on their pillows. Some played checkers and others watched "Finding Nemo" on a large TV set -- one of several -- that had been wheeled in.
A dozen school officials had set up a registration desk for the daunting task of placing children in schools.
"I want an art teacher and a French teacher," said Eugene Grant, a 13-year-old who bugged any adult who would stop and talk to him about when exactly school would be starting.
Back in the barbershop, female customers were also lining up. "Whatcha want, baby girl?" beautician Loretta Meade asked an 11-year-old girl who had survived three days and nights inside the hellish convention center in New Orleans.
"A doughnut," the girl said, shyly.
Mead called out to the other fellas, "Hey, any y'all heard of a doughnut?" "A who?" said barber Zachary Greenwood. "That must be a New Orleans thing." Coming to the rescue were two young volunteers from Second Baptist Church in San Antonio. Forty minutes later, they snapped the last pink barrette in place, and the girl cracked a wide smile.
Barber Ron White whipped a cape over his customer's shoulders. "You want me to box you off in the back or taper?" A shadow fade, said Ishmel Wallace, and he got it, complete with goatee-trimming and a bracing tonic on his square face. "I was on a roof for the last four days, waiting in the sun," he said, shaking White's hand. "You have straight-up touched my heart."