Friday, September 02, 2005

A People Apart

New Orleans is a city with one toe firmly in 21st century America. The rest is resting warmly in the Gulf of Mexico, one arm languidly draped toward the Caribbean

That is why you come to New Orleans at Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest and the 50 weeks in between. We are another fun stop on the Grand Tour of Fun Loving Poor People in Warm Places.

Part of the charm of New Orleans was our profound otherness, a little bit of the third world only hours from your favorite airport. The natives speak English. The dollar is accepted and you don't have to worry about exchange rate surprises on the credit card. No civil unrest, at least not in the areas you'll be visiting.

At every stop--diving in Belize, gaming in Aruba, Mardi Gras in New Orleans--the colorful local folk have welcomed and entertained you, then gone home to their desperate lives at the back of town.

And that is the dirty little secret that has erupted onto your television screens. The majority of people in New Orleans live lives little changed from those of their great grandparents at the end of Reconstruction.

The profound poverty has never been far away. If your concierge didn't warn you away from the brown buildings across Rampart St., a friendly local or an officer from the First District would oblige, and saved you from your self.

Those buildings are the edge of a very large public housing project, where people live in profound poverty. And they are just the most visible edge of the real city of New Orleans.

I won't do the statistics. New Orleans is likely the poorest place in North America, in terms of percentage of the population of a major city.

I know there are reservations just a few hours drive from my current home in Fargo, ND where everyone is dirt poor. They are desperate, hopeless, obese and dying of diabetes, plagued by alcohol and drugs. You've heard the Reservation litany before, if you bother to read such stories in the papers.

Those brown buildings you were warned about--known colloquially as "the bricks"--are no different from the reservation. When I first arrived in this part of the Midwest and heard people speak disparagingly of "the rez", I knew immediately what they meant. The rez. The bricks. Removed in geography but not in in poverty of possessions or richness of spirit.

This week, that well kept secret erupted like a boil onto the television screens of America. People who don't have a car, people who don't have a week's worth of food and drink in their house at Thanksgiving or Xmas, people who couldn't have fled the storm except on foot, became the focus for all of America.

These are the people who bus your table, who pour your drinks, who make your beds, who offer to shine your shoes as your stumble back from the casino and Pat O'Brien's. They had no means to leave, took their few most precious belongings with them when told to go to the Superdome and NOCC, and were quickly reduced to our most basic instincts for survival when they found they had been abandoned there.

. . .

In spite of the crushing poverty, New Orleans is not some Disney production. The joy of life is real. It is how everyone copes: the poor with their poverty, the middle class with the heat and humidity and mosquitoes, the rich with the rest of us. We love life, whatever it deals us.

You can hear it in the music, taste it in the food, imbibe it as we do with a European gusto in your daily drinks.

The spirit of this place is as strong as the coffee, as thick as the humidity, as hot as the spiciest food.

That richness arises out of an quirk of fate perhaps only of interest to sociologists. America was to be the great melting pot. In reality, America was the furnace that rendered all else into an Anglo-Saxon pig iron that fueled the great machine.

In New Orleans, the melting pot works. Everyone who came was Africanized, Creolized. The African and Mediterranean/Creole absorbed all that came. Everyone, including my poor German-Catholic forbearers who settled the Cote des Allemands and became Francophone Acadians in all but last name--became a people apart.

A few other great port cities in American approach this level of cosmopolitan cultural anarchy. San Francisco comes to mind. But New Orleans had a geographical advantage, close contact with our African and Latin roots, through the rest of the Americas, the Caribbean and beyond. That was the spice that made us unique.

A people apart.

. . .

This week, that otherness became our downfall. The poverty left tens of thousands unprepared for the storm's aftermath. It also made us seem, at first, unimportant to those who could save us. At the end, it left the Northern bureaucrats who arrived on scene so confused and frightened that they recoiled from helping us, as if we were were the last leper colony on the planet

They closed the city off, and left the people there to their fate, awaiting troops who could suppress this alien populace, and make it safe for real Americans. They didn't care why the people of New Orleans were in their situation, any more than they care about the ultimate fate of any other benighted third world country.

We were a people apart, to be treated as they would the angry, hungry people of Port au Prince or Tikrit, should they might threaten the supply of oil or the price of coffee--pacified by force if need be, until they could bring us the bottled water of civilization.

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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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