It seems like it always takes a disaster.
Twenty-five years ago this month, that disaster was Andrew, a hurricane that devastated a large swath of South Florida, including the house in whose master bedroom closet I sheltered through the night with my wife and five kids. The storm took our roof and our possessions. It left us effectively homeless.
With nowhere else to go — we’d been in town only a year — we found our way to the office of my employer, the Miami Herald, where we shared our tale of woe. And Pete Weitzel, then the Herald’s managing editor, told us he had an empty house we were welcome to shelter in. It had no electricity, but it had a roof, which was more than we had at home.
Here’s the thing. Pete was not one of my favorite people.
During my job interview, he had asked a question that set my teeth on edge. Pointing out that most of the Herald’s readership was white — as if this would be news to me — he asked if I, as an African American, was capable of writing for them.
"Can I write for white people?! Do white people read English? If so, we’re good."
That’s what I very much wanted to say. But I also very much wanted the job, so I answered politely in the affirmative.
Now, here was this same guy whose question had so insulted me, offering me his house. I lost no time saying Yes, of course.
I said it again a few days later when my colleague Christine Dolen invited me and my brood to stay with her, her husband, John, their young son and their dog in their undamaged home some miles north of the destruction zone. Chris and I didn’t know each other that well. John and I had never met.
The selflessness of all those people back then leaves me unsurprised at what I am seeing now as Hurricane Harvey swamps southeast Texas. Meaning the people taking in flooded-out strangers, the stranded motorists rescuing other stranded motorists, the neighbors with boats pulling families off rooftops and through second-story windows, people helping other people for no other reason than that there is ability on one side and need on the other, and doing it with no expectation of gain or reward.
This is not who we are on an average day. No, on an average day, especially in a city the size of Houston, one tends to live in isolation from the folks next door. We live separated by fences, more intimately involved with our screens — smart phone, iPad, or 60-inch HD — than with our neighbors. Nor is it just fences and screens that divide. It is also those jagged fault lines of identity: faith, sexuality, politics, and race.
But whatever else those things are, they are not the sum of any one of us. That is obvious and yet also, easily forgotten.
Then a woman who worships Allah plucks you from a rooftop.
Or a man who has a husband pulls you from a fire.
Or the guy who asked that vexing question puts a roof over your head.
You don’t care who saves you. You only care that you are saved. There’s a lesson in that, I think.
Miami came back. Houston will, too. And the people suffering this ordeal will someday remember it not simply for what they lost, but also for what they found. In the danger and fear, they will remember that they discovered generosity and sacrifice. They will also remember that the ordeal was endurable because they shared it with strangers who were, it turned out, not so strange after all.
And they will remember how people instinctively reached for one another when the screens had gone dark, and all the fences were down.