It’s easy to spot Joe Brown. He’s the one smiling widely in the back row of the picture.
The picture, taken the night the Douglass basketball team captured the consolation title of the Keytesville Tournament in January, rests in a glass trophy case that sits near the entrance to the Douglass High School gymnasium. Other players are smiling, too. But Joe is beaming, and the soft features of his 16-year-old baby face are augmenting his splashy smile. Basketball has given Joe a reason to smile, a reason he hasn’t always had.
No one was smiling in the pictures he took over Christmas break. Pictures of the thin, grainy waterline left 5-feet high on every wall of his house; the green and brown mildew that encrusted walls and furniture; and the refrigerator turned over on its side. The pictures he took dressed like a biological weapons handler — hospital mask, transparent gloves, shower cap — to minimize contact with the dangerous mold.
Pictures capturing his gutted home in the aftermath of the hurricane. The same hurricane that decimated his hometown, separated him from his family and forced him to start a new life.
The Monday morning Hurricane Katrina rumbled across his hometown of New Orleans, Joe was in a hotel room in Houston, huddled around the television with his three older sisters and some extended family, when his grandma’s cell phone rang.
It was his parents. They were still in New Orleans, caught in the heart of the storm. And water was starting to creep into their house.
Two days earlier, Lynn and Joe Brown Sr. had ordered their children to evacuate while they and some friends elected to ride out the storm in the family’s four-bedroom, one-story house in the upper 9th Ward.
But that Monday morning, as their house collected water by the foot, they told Joe’s grandma they didn’t know how much longer they could stay. Then the phone went out. And the waiting began.
Joe never let himself think his parents could be dead. He prayed. He worried, sometimes so much that it spoiled his appetite and deprived him of sleep. But he didn’t cry. “Nobody cried,” Joe recalls. “We just had to wait.”
Joe and his sisters — Penny, Peaches and Precious — waited in their hotel, not knowing that soon after their parents’ phone cut out, Lynn and Joe Sr. strapped on life preservers and descended the four steps outside their front door into cold, chest-deep water and rain that pelted them like hail.
To keep from being swept away by the strong current, they edged down the street clinging to a protruding chain-link fence, until they reached an upstairs house.
When their hotel money ran dry after a few days, Joe and his sisters waited in the house of a Houston woman who took them in. Meanwhile, after a couple days spent in the upstairs house, Lynn and Joe Sr. left for the Convention Center with the aid of a small, flat-bottomed boat. When the water level became too low, they ditched the boat in favor of a metal shopping cart.
As night fell, Lynn climbed into the shopping cart, her arthritic leg affected by the cold water, and her husband started pushing. Trudging through miles of flooded streets and near-perfect darkness, Joe Sr. pushed his wife all the way to the Convention Center.
After a few nights spent sleeping on concrete outside the Convention Center and the Superdome, Joe Sr. and Lynn were finally bussed out of the ravaged city.
On the way to get treatment at the Red Cross in Fort Worth, Texas, Joe Sr. phoned Joe’s grandma to tell them they were alive. Joe’s parents spent a few days at the Red Cross and visited their oldest daughter, Precious, in Houston before a Columbia councilwoman flew them up to Columbia, where Joe, Penny and Peaches were waiting.
Nearly three weeks after they had exchanged casual goodbyes over what they assumed would be a three- or four-day separation, the waiting was over; Joe and his sisters were reunited with their parents at their aunt’s house in Columbia.
Ask Joe to describe the hardest part of the last seven months, and he says it’s what he confronted next: a new life.
Two weeks after being reunited, the Browns had their own duplex, but no furniture. Joe had a new city and a new school, but no friends. Columbia was a colder city, a quieter city — a city that bored him into joining the basketball team.
At first he was just a silent spectator, wandering into a preseason shootaround with his headphones and taking a seat off to the side. When he finally got on the court, he kept just as quiet — so quiet his coach made an example of him. “Everyone needs to be quiet like Joe Joe,” Lynn Allen would tell his team when it got too chatty.
But Joe wasn’t as compliant with assistant coach Scott Williams, who, despite his best efforts, couldn’t get the kid he was driving home from practice every day to open his mouth.
Quietly, the first-year player went about his business on the court, quickly establishing himself as one of the team’s best defenders and grittiest players. The 5-foot-10, 150-pound sophomore forward earned both distinctions by grappling for rebounds with post players who were invariably taller, wider and stronger.
After a few games, Joe began showing more emotion, even a subtle swagger. He started wearing his practice jersey backwards, blocking shots and letting loose a yell, leading the team in pregame chants and telling teammates to calm down.
He began filling the silence of those drives home with music — CDs he started shoving into Williams’ player — and talk of everything from basketball to girls.
Allen’s pillar of quietness was crumbling fast. “He ain’t quiet around us no more,” says freshman teammate Brandon Gleason. “We’re all loud together.”
Through basketball he met Brandon Gleason and Cameron Smith, friends he showed the pictures he took of his old house over Christmas break, when he and his family were back in Louisiana to bury his mom’s brother, who had drowned in the storm.
Friends he hangs out with at the mall and movies and plays basketball with at the Activity and Recreation Center. Friends who played along when he got giddy at the sight of snow and wanted to have a snowball fight. Friends who teased him about the hat, gloves and bulky coat he bundled up in all winter.
Friends who make him feel like he belongs.
“You can tell he’s become one of the fellas,” Williams says.
The identity he has forged in the classroom is just as visible. Three times his name appears in the glass academic-achievement case mounted on the wall outside the gymnasium: Once each for his perfect attendance records for the first and second quarters, and once for making the second quarter honor roll.
But it’s that picture in the trophy case a few brown lockers down the hall that captures his smile. Basketball has given him more than a reason to smile, something he verbalized the day he and Brandon sat on the stairs outside the gymnasium waiting to leave for the team’s first road game.
“You plan on going back home?” Brandon asked.
“No,” Joe replied.
It’s Mardi Gras Saturday, and the bottom story of the Brown’s three-bedroom duplex is besieged by a pepper scent that is thick and lung-pinching.
Penny is cooking up a New Orleans staple: smoked sausage, potatoes and corn. And she’s adding plenty of pepper and shrimp seasoning. In New Orleans, she would also add shrimp.
But in Columbia, they don’t sell shrimp with the heads still on, and the head gives the dish its flavor. On their trip back to New Orleans, Lynn picked up a bag of full-body shrimp, but she’s treasuring that away in the freezer for herself.
Joe Sr. is sitting in a lounge chair — one of the many pieces of furniture and dishware donated by the Douglass school counselor — flipping through college basketball on TV.
Joe is alternating between doing laundry, cleaning an uncharacteristically messy room and playing a PlayStation2 college football game with his favorite team, LSU. He’s waiting for Brandon to get off work so they can go to the ARC.
In New Orleans the family might be attending a parade instead of lounging around their apartment in matching black slippers. “There ain’t no Mardi Gras here like in New Orleans,” Lynn says.
She doesn’t just miss the food and the festivities, she misses her city, her home. Penny misses it, too. So does Joe, who says if it weren’t for basketball and his new friends, he would probably want to go back.
He misses the warm weather and big-city atmosphere. He misses his middle school best friend, Eugene, who used to play football with him on the playground. He hasn’t heard from Eugene since the storm.
Joe Sr. misses his job of 15 years as a heavy machinery operator. In Columbia, he has yet to find work. He’s still receiving unemployment money in addition to some compensation from his old job. But if he can’t find work, he could be forced to move back to New Orleans to take his old position.
The rest of the family wouldn’t move with him. Not just because Joe doesn’t want to, but because the oval-shaped mirror and family pictures they salvaged from their old house represent all that’s left of their former life. The neighborhood street Joe used to play basketball in is deserted, caked in dry mud and debris. The rows of houses in the old neighborhood are carbon copies of the Browns’: gutted by flood waters and abandoned.
“It made me look at life in a whole different way,” Joe says of the storm. “I don’t take nothing for granted.”
Which is why, on this subdued Mardi Gras Saturday, Joe can be grateful he again has laundry to do and a room to clean. Grateful he again has a friend to wait up for.
Grateful he again has reason to smile.