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Archive for Wednesday, September 7, 2005

A bright spot - with a broom

September 7, 2005

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— Tina Turner makes her way out the back of the store, and shakes my hand. She is an Asian woman, approximately the size and stature of a 10-year-old boy.

"She don't have no legs and she ain't got no money," says her husband, Barry, dispelling any lingering notion that this tiny woman is a certain hellcat rock 'n' roller. He roars with laughter.

Barry is genial bear of a man, takes your hand like he is not going to give it back and starts chatting like a back-fence neighbor while you are still trying to get an introduction out of your mouth. He and his wife are the proprietors of Anything and Everything, which, as the name implies, is a sandwich-hardware-jewelry-knickknack-clothing-toy store serving this tiny community tucked in the big toe of the Louisiana boot.

The toys are Barry's personal favorite. "I play with 'em constantly," he says. "I think that's very normal for an old doughboy 62 years old to play with toys."

At which I confess that I am 47 years old and still reading Marvel comics. Barry laughs at that and waves me over to a counter where old issues of Spider-Man and X-Factors are on prominent display. He says he has a thousand more at home, all encased in plastic bags with cardboard backing.

Apparently, I have found a brother geek here in the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina. He was sweeping in front of his store when I walked up. But that turns out to be a deceptive picture. Barry Turner isn't just sweeping up his shop. He is sweeping up the "town." He's cleared about four blocks of the main street and is working on the side streets. Barry says he's gone through four brooms this week. Townspeople have been donating new ones. In fact, there is one waiting for him inside the store now bearing the inscription "From the Law Offices of Bob K."

Barry explains that he started the sweeping with his place the day after the storm. Saw broken glass on the sidewalk in front of the business across the street and went over to sweep that up. And just kept going.

"Somebody stopped me yesterday and asked me why I was doing it. I said, 'Well, I'm 62 and I CAN do it.' So why not do it? I couldn't open my store. I'm not going to stand there. I've worked my whole life. The city was dirty and needed cleaning, so why not do it?"

His reasoning escapes some people. "Somebody started a rumor that the city had hired me as a sweeper for $60 an hour," says Barry through another of those big laughs. "Our radio station guy, who cracked up when he heard that story, he says, 'Hell, I'll shut the station down and go help him sweep for that!"'

Ultimately though, it seems to me that Barry acts from a motivation more fundamental than profit. Meaning that human instinct, after the fire has burned, after the river has flooded, after the ground has shook, after the bombs have fallen, after the storm has scourged the earth, to climb out from shelter, survey the damage and start putting life back together. It is an act of faith.

So Barry sees nothing especially heroic about one man sweeping up a town. "It needed to be done," he says, "so we did what had to be done. Everybody does things. Nobody's looking for any credit. Who cares? It's our town. And it's everybody's job to put our town back together and that's what we're doing."

I've got water and non-perishables in the back of my rented truck, so I ask Barry if he needs some supplies. He shakes his head. The people of his town have been taking care of him, he says.

"They been cookin' and bringing me food so I didn't starve and other people are bringing me stuff. And I just keep sweeping."

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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