Standpipe: Delivering Water in Flint

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Nonfiction by David Hardin.

Have a blessed day they tell me. Many times over. I’ve never been so blessed. The people who say this seem too bereft of excess blessing themselves to justify such generosity. I’m grateful but my gratitude is always leavened with a liberal dash of guilt.

April 13, 2016.

A middle age man with rheumy eyes says water to his house is cut off. Wants all the water we can spare. He’s keen to find his cell phone, bellows to a guy across the street, maybe did he leave it over there? He ducks into his house, reappears, waves a dog eared folder stuffed with clippings, legal documents, and medical reports. Says the water made him sick, hikes his pants, exposes a discolored leg, mottled flesh on his belly below the belt line. Brandishing the found phone triumphant he taps. Here’s an interview from last winter with a reporter from the Detroit Free Press, a photo. He swipes through pictures taken at rallies, protests and public meetings. We leave him eight cases of water, wish him the very best of luck, all of us breathing diesel standing at the rear of the truck. He recedes in my side view holding forth in the street until I lose sight of him around the next corner.

By the end of February 2016, I complete training and meet requirements to become a Red Cross Disaster Relief Volunteer (DRV) behind the wheel of an Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV) deployed to Flint, a city long on the wane and lately devastated by a municipal water supply poisoned with lead. The DRVs I meet seem very nice, some couples, most retired, all veterans of Katrina or Sandy or floods across the Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, and the Ozarks. They sport Red Cross wear, vests and billed caps festooned with service pins. Go-bags stashed in front closets, they live on stand-by, listen for the late night call, board pets, stop mail, deploy for weeks or months at a time. I start on a snowy Friday, followed by a rainy Tuesday, then a damp Saturday, another chilly Friday, before settling on a day certain that suited my relaxed retiree’s schedule. I volunteer in Flint on Wednesdays, March through July, a total of five months. Most DRVs in Flint deploy five days a week, as do a rotating group of AmeriCorp volunteers. They live dormitory style on stipend meals, drink bottled water, take two minute showers. Five days a week, week after week. My Disaster Relief vest helps dispel the nagging guilt of the dilettante, but only a little.

May 11, 2016.

The rough weave of Flint’s north side. I’ve been here enough to recognize subtle variations in the fabric, some streets returning to wilderness, others vibrant and coursing with life. Almost every house on this block of small brick ranches and vinyl-sided bungalows is spic and span in aspect, standing ready for inspection. Lawns are manicured, landscaping intentional, accentuating facades with shape and color. Every exterior is maintained to a fare-thee-well. We approach an older gentlemen, a GM retiree who says he’s lived here nearly fifty years. He’s taking a break from mowing. I make my standard joke comparing his immaculate lawn favorably to my own cow pasture. He foregoes the pretense of humoring me, gestures broadly, sweeping hand encompassing the totality of lawns, shrubbery, and well maintained front doors and awnings. Folks keep their yard up he says. His unspoken message is Behold, sir, a spectacle of collective pride; our backs to the sea it is here we make our final stand. A taciturn man, he’s seated legs crossed on a patio chair smoking a cigarette. He reminds me of my late father, another man for whom I sometimes make up words, invent whole soliloquies for him to deliver center stage to an audience of one.

By late January 2014, Flint — an hour’s drive north of where I live — was in the news, another financially-strapped municipality under state-imposed control. I sat stranded half-listening to Morning Edition, recovering from surgery to repair chronic Achilles tendonitis. The same condition — left untreated — hobbled my father in his final years. By late February, foot immobilized in a boot, I traveled with my brother to our parents’ Tennessee home, the place our mother had chosen to live after our father’s death seventeen years earlier. She kept a small condo across the Little Pigeon River from the old Sevier County courthouse — happier, perhaps, than she’d been since first leaving town in 1952. Mother had fallen several times in the last few months, every tumble requiring costly EMS rescue. Somehow, she had avoided serious injury. Turning frail overnight it seemed, she was helpless to care for herself and no longer able to drive. She suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and a dog’s breakfast of lesser ailments. A friend had been staying with her off and on. The woman hinted she could provide around-the-clock care in her own home, several miles away. Two days should do it, we thought. Time enough to assess mother’s condition, persuade her to leave her condominium, negotiate a financial agreement and make necessary arrangements, and get back home before our dinner got cold.

I was eager to play the role of dutiful eldest son, but something roiled below the surface. I had other, less virtuous reasons for being there. Chief among them: unresolved grievance and years of mutual denial. I yearned for reconciliation, burned to bear witness to the tragic opening scene of my mother’s agonizing decline and approaching death. Everything else was busy work. We spanned the dreary length of the Buckeye State with arch humor; trading glib self-deprecation, cynical takes on world events. We cracked wise about family the breadth of the Blue Grass, irreverent and profane. Crossing the Volunteer State line triggered in us a bout of sober pragmatism, rehearsing euphemisms for loss that rolled off our tongues with greater ease the more we said them. Dusk blanketed the Appalachian foothills. We exited I-40 to whistle past the graveyard of the inevitable. Our mother and all her possessions, a condominium and its contents, a twenty-five year old car that embodied the essence of her late husband, awaited our arrival, poised for final disposition over the coming months.

I can recall being in Flint on only three occasions before volunteering with Red Cross Disaster Relief. About twenty years ago we attended a Jeff Daniels concert at the Whiting Auditorium. It was a pretty good show. I remember his sweet, wistful version of Michigan, My Michigan. A few years later I watched my wife finish the Crim Festival of Races half-marathon run through rolling hills and leafy streets of some of the city’s better neighborhoods. My first visit was almost forty years ago to attend a backyard barbecue at the home of a coworker. I recall driving past mammoth Buick City wearing pastel clam diggers cinched with a jaunty nautical rope belt. I got drunk as a lord in my jackass pants then drove the two hours home looking like a Picasso harlequin imagined by Jules Feiffer. Flint, when I thought about the city at all, was “Roger and Me,” a municipal abstraction a few freeway exits south of the faux-gemütlich hokum of Frankenmuth, the place where heavy southbound traffic on I-75 was relieved by the US-23 split that siphoned cars to Ann Arbor, easing my drive home from many an idyllic northern vacation.

May 24, 2016.

I like a sucker. A simple declaration I try and fail to understand in the silent moment that follows. I certainly don’t interpret it as a request, which it certainly is. Part of the problem is that the speaker, a boy of seven or eight, is almost inaudible to me, an older man with moderate hearing loss. The other element contributing to our impasse is the distraction of a State Police cruiser three doors down, lights ablaze, the first moments of a traffic stop in progress. Three boys sit on a low wall in front of a house next door to the home of the family we’ve come to service. Neighbors on porches escaping the heat observe the drama unfolding between the trooper and the occupant of the suspect vehicle. My partner, a retired nurse, signals to me from the front porch the amount of water needed by the people living there. We dispatch our duty quickly and efficiently. The boys, faces alive with equal measure of sweetness and mischief, watch us return to the ERV, slam down the door.

Here it is again: I like a sucker, only this time it’s directed to my female counterpart. Oh my goodness, she says. I’m so sorry sweetheart. I haven’t got a sucker for you today. Even I hear him clearly this time. Carefully, I pull away from the curb, ease the ERV around the cruiser and dusty sedan. The sweating trooper, hands encased in green surgical gloves, rifles through the contents of the sedan’s front compartment. The driver, a slight woman in her early twenties, stands handcuffed in front of the car. She levels a glare as we pass.

Mornings I drank coffee, listened to Morning Edition, crutches within easy reach. A durable medical device, my knee wheelie, parked nearby. Dog sprawled at my feet, she eyed the hardware, willing a walk on leash. It was January 2016, and once again I was recovering from Achilles tendon surgery, left foot this time. Every day, Michigan Radio reported the poisoning of the Flint citizens with lead-contaminated water. The news was dire, fluid. Interviews with a furious pediatrician, self-serving statements by a befuddled former mayor and a stammering governor, damning evidence from University of Virginia scientists. Days accrued into weeks. The pediatrician was measured, forceful in her indictment. The governor and legislature soft soaped and condescended, dissembled and deflected. Some accused the victims of political gamesmanship, a crises manufactured by troublemakers opposed to a controversial emergency manager law.

I felt helpless against slowly mending sutures, the duplicity of the governor, a technocratic ideologue slumming as a compassionate conservative who would likely escape justice in the end. I was furious, and getting angrier by the day. It had been four months since my mother’s death. How I had relished the heft of the shovel standing at the lip of the grave, first measures of red clay drumming hollow on her casket. What I wouldn’t give to relive that late summer morning. Step in, finish the job myself. Sleeves rolled up, shirt soaked, drive the spade home again and again, tamp the fresh lozenge of soil, fall sprawling on the grass, hands raw, heart hammering. Cursing the governor from the sidelines was supremely unsatisfying. I’m going to Flint as soon as I can walk goddammit! Had I said this out loud? The dog gathered herself, ears perked, head cocked.

April 27, 2016.

Traffic is brisk in front of a church where volunteers hand out free cases of water. Eight or ten people are standing on the sidewalk spilling into the street as I ease past in the lumbering ERV. Coming even with the gleaming blue and white cube an old man yells, asking do we need us some water? He arches his eyebrows, peering over a pair of wraparound shades. He waits a beat or two, then explodes into laughter, toothless. I shake my head, give him a lazy wave laughing all the way to the corner. In the side mirror he has resumed business, our moment together drained of color, forgotten.

She’s been dead nearly a year. Time enough to align rage and grief unleashed by her slow decline and death with anger over the agonizing descent of Flint, a once vibrant river city reeling from a steady progression of insults and death blows. The tragedy of Flint provided needed combustion to fire the tangled undergrowth of unfinished business between us. She lived in Michigan over forty years without once setting foot in Flint. It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely confluence of individual and sympathetic loss. As profound a personal tragedy as I suffered, it’s a trifle compared with the daily suffering of the people of Flint. I was at my mother’s side the moment she died, grateful for one last touch, a whispered farewell. She faded quietly when the record ended, a final note reverberating in my heart. What would she make of my meager contributions to those affected by a disaster that would be easily averted in a different political climate? To be judged a good man in the eyes of a few is a fine thing, but a mother’s blessing is pure as water sprung from the cleft in a rock. I like to think she would have approved.

May 18, 2016.

My latest partner in the ERV speaks with a Dixie drawl. Val is not her real name. Born in Missouri, reared in Flint, she has lived here over forty years. A former nurse in her late fifties or early sixties, she reminds me of my Aunt Doris; the cigarettes, dry barking laugh, dip of the chin inviting flirtation, conspiracy, or both. She is among the first residents hired by the state to keep the city supplied with potable water. Standpipes, I call them, people who bypass compromised plumbing, conveying the most basic of needs into Flint homes. Previously, she’d been passing out water at a drive-up distribution center. I’m training her to deliver water to those unable to get it themselves. Soon she and others like her will replace Red Cross volunteers, putting me out of the water delivery business for good.

I welcome them with open arms. Someone should benefit, however inconsequentially, from this sublime debacle. The job pays eleven dollars an hour, forty hours a week guaranteed for at least a year. A real talker, accent flaring and fading, by lunchtime Val has confided in me several intimate, harrowing details of her life. A nine-year-old son lost to cancer, another debilitated by a head injury sustained in an assault, a probable hate crime, black stretches of despair. Other sorrowful things. Val calls me sweetie, calls everyone we meet sweetie or child. Hugs for all the women, a hand on the arm or back for the men, a ready smile for all. Well aren’t you just the sweetest thing! You take care now, this heat’s just plain awful, innit’? What do you need, darlin’? I have nothing to teach her about this job — not one goddamn thing. She arrives fully prepared to do the real work.

David Hardin is a Michigan poet, writer, and artist. His work has appeared in 3 Quarks Daily, Prague Review, Drunken Boat, Hermes Poetry Journal, Dunes Review, Epigraph Magazine, Loose Change, Burningwood Literary Journal, ARDOR, Carolina Quarterly, Madison Review, the 2014 Bear River Review, and others.

“Standpipe: Delivering Water in Flint” is an excerpt of a longer work of nonfiction. Hardin may be reached at

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