Her Own Perspective
Sometimes freelance writers have opportunity simply fall into our laps. As freelancers, we need to act on our intuition when that happens and write the darn thing! If you write it, they will buy! This event happened to me but it also happened to thousands of other people. My perspective is what sold the story. The editor bought it, not because it was unique, but because it humanized the greater story, The Flood of 1997. An editor would have to be tone-deaf to miss the opportunity to use a piece like this. So if in doubt, write it. Then sell it.
A True Story - 1997 Flood
My husband and I were vacationing in Florida in March of 1997, but mostly stood in our bathing suits anxiously watching the Weather Channel for news about the flooding on the Ohio River back home. Our rental properties at the confluence of the Ohio and the Licking Rivers in Covington were in jeopardy. Concern put us on the road for home, too late to stop the damage, but anxious to begin the clean up.
My first stop on the first morning home was to get a tetanus shot, having been fore-warned that the sediment left by the floodwaters contained sewage and its associated icky bacteria. My second stop was to purchase rubber gloves, mops, bleach and Lysol. I was confident that the Ohio River’s overflow was not a worthy opponent to my determination and the protection provided by Procter and Gamble.
I entered the condo. There was a smuggy odor of dampness and dark. The water had receded from the basement in some magic of reverse osmosis but what remained was a nightmare worthy of Stephen King. All items that had been neatly placed on shelves now weren’t. It appeared that some adolescent giant had had a tantrum then had drawn a muddy line at his eyeball level all around the perimeter of the room. What remained below reminded me of a dirty toilet in a haunted Texaco Gas Station on Rt. 66.
Though I am not a person who cries, “Uncle” easily, I cried, “Uncle, Aunt and Great-Grandpa.” I surrendered to the situation. I remembered that there was an unemployment office two blocks away and it occurred to me that there might be day laborers seeking work there.
I noticed that the Unemployment Office now bore a more politically correct sign stating it was the Office of Employment, giving those who entered it a more optimistic spin on their situations. The kind woman manning the window labeled Job Opportunities was unable to provide names of willing workers because she kept no records of who did and did not have tetanus shots and “the office can’t be held responsible for the diseases that are flood-borne.”
As I reached my car wondering where to turn next, a grim little man approached to just outside arm’s reach, looked up at me and said. “Scuse me Ma’am, I heard you talking to the lady inside. If you need help, I’ll do anything. I could use the work.” His desperation and mine were of the same degree but for entirely different reasons.
I made an instant decision. I asked him if he had a driver’s license. I took it and called my husband, who had a real job. The management of our rental properties is my pervue and I take it seriously. In a rush of words I told him that I was going into the basement of our condo with a man whose name was Billy, whose driver’s license ID was such and such, and I’d keep my cell phone turned on in case he wanted to check on things later.
He disapproved but was between that rock and hard place that exists, where a job needs to be done and you can’t do it personally and don’t have any other ideas about how better to get it done.
Billy and I worked side by side for four long days shoveling river waste from our tenant’s basement. We filled heavy-duty garbage bags with ruined corrugated boxes containing God knows what; stuff that had had melted under the onslaught of the nasty water. At lunchtime, we sat, exhausted and filthy, in the front seat of my Jeep wagon in a McDonald’s parking lot eating Quarter-pounders, so tired we could hardly chew but needing a reason to take a break from the backbreaking labor.
We spoke of many things those days as we worked and ate and rested together. He told me that he had trouble keeping a job that, “the drink keeps getting holt of me.” He said that his mother was dying from lung cancer from “too many of these things,” holding up his own cigarette that he had politely asked my permission to light.
One time after several minutes of quiet in the basement, each of us leaning on our brooms, breathing hard from the difficult job of pushing the smelly wet goo toward the only drain, he said to me, “Ma’am, no disrespect, but I never knew ladies like yourself could work so hard.” I turned to him and said, “Billy, I never knew that men like yourself could work so hard.” We locked eyes and nodded in recognition of unspoken prejudices, now repudiated.
I paid Billy in cash every evening, leaving my purse on the landing in full view as we worked. A friend said to me later, “Are you nuts? He could have conked you on the head and taken your purse and left you lying in the basement for dead.” That had never occurred to me. Not once. And I don’t give it another thought even now. In fact, I thanked heaven for Billy every night, believing from the first day that his appearance was a minor form of divine intervention.
After the mess from the flood was cleaned up, the walls and floors bleached clean, Billy and I shook hands though I felt more like hugging him. I sensed he’d think that inappropriate. I told him that I always had the need for a hard worker to help me around our rental property and at home and that I’d call him if that was OK. He said he’d be happy to have the work.
He gave me a number where he could be reached but by late spring that phone was disconnected. I scouted the Employment Office for a while but I couldn’t find him until one day I saw him walking down the block. I tooted at him and rolled down my window, calling “Hi Billy. It’s Kathy. How’ve you been?” He looked at me, waved his arm in disgruntled dismissal, then turned and started walking in a crooked line in the opposite direction. I never saw him again. Like the floodwaters, it was as if he’d never been there.