Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Cities of the Dead (Slight Return)

"They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at Elysian Fields..."
-- Tennessee William's Blanche DuBois from a "A Streetcar Named Desire"

[Ed.'s note: Originally posted with additional news matter Sept. 21, 2005; slightly revised 10-30-06]

New Orleans has always been a city of the dead. One can't travel far in the city without passing the crumbling walls or rusting iron enclosing entire subdivisions of the dead. Mardi Gras is followed by Ash Wednesday, and our most famous citizens long ago departed our crazing of cracked streets for the ordered rows of Greenwood.

Many neighbhorhood restaurants make at least a part of their daily bread for those from the funeral home across the street. [My family] are buried out of Schoens, and the grieving men stand at the bar in Mandina's, sipping cans of Budweiser and discussing the meals we once ate there with our dearly departed.

If New Orleans is famous for jazz [it] is perhaps most famous for being played in the parade back from the burial. Every parade and party has it's second line, but the second line must scrape the clinging soil of the burial mound off it's feet before it can be found anywhere near Bourbon Street.

I cannot escape the dead. Every day I try to find the stories of incredible survival, of unexpected heroism, of sudden and unexpected reunion. Instead, the dead bob up like so many coffins set afloat by the flood waters. I want this blog to be the beginning of a story that ends in joy, a Dickensian despair relieved by the triumph of a city that survived the yellow fever, the fires, the other hurricanes, where humble people find joy in the simplest circumstances amid squalor and despair.

But we are a haunted city, haunted by the ghosts of slavery and Haiti and Jim Crow, and by the living testemants to that past that permate the city's daily life. We are haunted by our own inclination to mild debauchery, and the secret indiscretions every New Orleanian carries quietly with them like a scapula. We are haunted by famous ghosts who softly suggest to us in the rustling of fallen crepe mertle leaves along the careening sidewalks in the wakeful hours of the night that we have only our past to cling to, and a dharmic whorl of parades and parties to live over and over and over again in diminishing splendor . . .

We are haunted by the past that surrounds us in orderly white rows. We are haunted today [9-20-2005] by the mounting toll that will fill another section of our city, and haunt us for untold time to come. I cannot escape those ghosts. They followed me when I fled a collapsing economy in 1987 and became an emigree in a country to the north called the United States. I feel them crowd around to read over my shoulder as I write.

These spirits are the faces from small paintings in peeling gilt frames of men named Honore' and Omer, the Tete's who fled the slave uprising in Haiti; [the] former overseer of Stella Plantation and . . . his wife we children ignorantly called "Aunt Tante"; my two great aunts who lived in a first floor apartment on Royal Street where I spent Hurricane Betsy and at whose house I learned to love the Quarter; my father who never got the chance to live his dream to hang his paintings on the fence at Jackson Square; my brother the most haunting of all . . .

As far away as I am in years and miles from New Orleans, these ghosts crowd around me and compel me to tell you the story of the dead . . .

Original post of Cities of the Dead with additional news matter from Sept. 2005, when the death toll first passed 1,000.

Extortion: The New Business Model

Update 11/1 -- Jihndal joins the party of Tony Soprano. From the John Maginnis' column in the 11/1 times-Picayune: "If the Republicans lose, it will eliminate any chances of getting [offshore revenue sharing] done in the next Congress."
Do things our way, or we will make you suffer. Give us the money and no one gets hurt. That's the message New Orleans has gotten from corporate America, and yesterday's Times-Picayune brings us the same message from Washington.

Buried in the page A5 election story "GOP's maestro conducting 11th-hour drive to win races" we learn that the White House will channel millions of dollars in disaster aid following a winter storm in New York to the district of a struggling four-term GOP congressman, just weeks before the November election.

Why would someone as crafty as Karl Rove (the maestro of the headline) let this crass use of our taxpayer dollars to buy votes leak out into the press? Well, it ran in the T-P, didn't it? Message received: if you want your disaster assistance, you better vote for us.

You might be shocked, but I'm not. This is in perfect keeping with other developments here in Louisiana of late. Waste Management Inc.'s nasty comments this suummer that closing the Chef Menteur landfill could add years to demolition and clean up in Lakeview, Gentilly and the Ninth Ward, and the announcement that Entergy would seek higher rates with or without a federal rescue, puts me in mind of the behavior of other corporate behemoths, particularly the insurance industry in the aftermath of the Federal Flood.

Waste Management's problem: the nearest legal demolition dump is across the river, and others are across the lake. I know crossing any of the bridges in the increased commuter traffic is a bit of a hassle, but to suggest that the work of months will become the work of years because of adding a few miles to each truck trip is ridiculous. It sounds like nothing more than a chapter in the as yet unwritten Tony Soprano's Guide To Business Profits Galore!, which I expect to see the next time I have reason to open an in-flight magazine.

Entergy's position is worse. They not only want to recoup the costs of damage caused by the storm and flood, but are demanding that the lost income (and profits) of late 2005 be made up as if nothing had happened, even through there were no customers here to purchase electricity, and no network to deliver it. Still, they must be paid for this by the feds or there will be dire consequences of us.

Extortion, it seems, is the newest business model. Corporate America has just about exhausted ways to increase productivity while reducing costs short of repealing the Thirteenth Amendment and reinstituting slavery and indentured servitude. These companies are struggling to find news ways to wring more money out of consumers while delivering less, to ensure not just a steady stream of profits to their shareholders, but a steady increase in their loot-to-suit ratio year to year.

Waste Management doesn't want to have to haul demolition waste out of Orleans Parish, as this would add to their costs, so it's open our landfill or we will end the rebith of New Orleans. Entergy, after years of sucking out profits from Orleans Parish to their holding company's corporate headquarters, refuses to send back one penny to rebuild New Orleans's infrastructure. The cash vacumn is a one way pipe they tell us, by law.

The insurance comapnies? What more can I say about their efforts to shift all risk out of their business onto consumers and the government while demanding huge increases in premiums? Others have made the case better than I. It sure beats having to make an honest living in business by balancing risk and profit. And all of these companies have managed (with the help of their friends in government, nice folks like Dick Chenney who still collects a check from Halliburton for past services while steering them billions in Katrina and Iraq booty), to rig up the system so that their own version of extortion and racketeering is perfectly legal.

I want to propose a straightforware solution, a way to rein in this sort of corporate shakedown. We should adopt the good old fashioned notion of running government more like a business, adopting their best business models. I would start by requiring each named officer--CEO, President, all those silly, pointless vice-presidents--of any company seeking to do business in Louisiana (or to receive recovery funds anywhere) to post a special bond, a surety against reasonable performance.

They should be required to give us one of their children to hold hostage.

Now, I'm not saying anything bad would happen to their kids if their parent (companies) should decide, say, to stop writing insurance in Louisiana. But if you think about it, there seems to be a shortage of suitably cute and healthy children of the sort childless couples all over American would love to adopt. People spend all sorts of money flying to Asia and Europe to get the child of their dreams.

So, if one of these companies gets out of line and starts trying to cheat us, we auction the kids off to the higest bidder.

Before you get all up in arms about this, I would suggest that the bidders be carefully screened to make sure they are good people of the highest moral character. We would need to do this to keep someone from, say, Allstate or State-Farm from trying to game the system by cheating us and then just building the cost of buying back the kid into their costs. Because, frankly, I don't think the officers of these corporations would meet our high moral standards.

That's the real problem with this idea. These business leaders are the sort of people who rushed in to harvest the vastly overpriced recovery contracts offered by their political cronies, the people cheating the devestated out of their insurance settlements, the ones who aren't afraid to threaten us with dire consequences if we don't do as they say. These are not just people who would kick you while you're down, they'd hire some illegal alien (and forget to pay them) to kick you until you stopped moving to minimize the effort required to take your wallet. It's entirely possible that they wouldn't give a rat's ass about their children if there were money to be made, all of the efforts to repeal the inheritance tax nonwithstanding.

Still, I wonder what we could get on eBay for a clean, well-behaved child with good teeth? Probably not enough to compenstate all of the people who are being denied their insurance payouts, but it would be a start.

Friday, October 27, 2006

The Entergy Shell Game

The cheerful tone and misleading headline of today's Times-Picayune story on the Entergy rate increase masks some serious deficiencies in the compromise. Most striking is that Entergy will be allowed to continue double billing Entergy New Orleans customers for power from Grand Gulf.

Currently, Entergy New Orleans customers pay for the cost of Grand Gulf nuclear power in their rate base. As part of the council's immediate post-flood response to Entergy's bankruptcy, the council agreed to allow Entergy to sell off the inexpensive Grand Gulf power on the open market, and buy more expensive open market power for New Orleans as customers were gradually brought back on line. However, as part of that arrangement, we are required to pay for the power sold off because its still in the rate base. On top of that, we are paying for high cost, open market replacement power.

As part of that post-Katrina emergency rate adjustment reconnected customers are required to pay again for Grand Gulf's power in their fuel adjustment charge. And it's not even clear if Entergy New Orleans customers are actually using Grand Gulf power, since it was sold off on contract, but we are billed for it just the same. Twice. Hopefully somebody either at the T-P, or another knowledgeable person with access to the documentation, can clarify when the we are even using the power for which we are being double-billed.

I attended with a number several weeks ago of former city attorneys from the original municipalization effort from the 1980s and other interested parties, where a number of additional issues which Entergy's rate requests were raise.

One point we discussed was whether the rate-base value of the infrastructure--the investment on which Entergy Inc. claims a right to a guaranteed return under current utility regulation law--should be shrunk. The current operating agreement dates back to the early 1970s, and assumes a population base in the service area closer to 600,00 than the pre-storm 480,000 or the current amorphous 200,000 or so. Why are we even negotiating rates based on assumptions that are decades out of date?

We also discussed whether the rate base should be adjusted downward by the amount of the public's investment through the Louisiana Recovery Authority Community Development Block Grant funds. In brief, it was broke. We (the taxpayers) paid to fix it. It is now our investment and should no longer be used to calculate the Entergy Inc. investment upon which they claim they are guaranteed a return.

The last sticky issue is one that is one again put off to the future by this agreement. All of us who attended utility issue meeting were contacted by a Picayune reporter to comment on Entergy plans to shrink the gas service area. The entire gas system needs to be rebuilt due to brackish water contamination which will rot the pipes over time, at an estimated cost of $384 million. Entergy New Orleans applied to the LRA for federal funds to repair the gas system, but so far have been denied.

Based on the queries by the Times-Picayune Entergy has considered the option of not restoring gas service in some areas. The story ultimately published on on Oct. 17 gave the impression that Entergy was moving forward to repair the entire system while Council President Oliver Thomas was questioning that decision. He should. Replacing the entire storm-damaged gas distribution system at ratepayer expense will result in catastrophic gas rate hikes for ratepayers.

And at the District 4 sector planning meeting last night (which combines the Tulane-Gravier and Mid-City areas into a subplanning district) neighborhood residents of Tulane-Gravier reported they were told that Entergy had no plans to restore gas service to their area. Someone at Entergy or City Hall is not being honest about the real plan, because it appears Entergy is in fact making decisions about which areas to restore and which they will not.

What's being avoided is the same question everyone has been running from since the Bring New Orleans Back Commission released its report last year: can (and should) all areas be fully rebuilt? If the suggestion is that rate payers in populated areas be forced to bear the full cost of restoring gas service to every lot in areas that are substantially unpopulated at this time, I know my answer: No, we cannot afford to rebuild everywhere, at least not with natural gas service.

That is not, however, a fair question. The gas system was destroyed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the federal government should be paying the full cost of replacing the gas system, and moving to do so so that all users can have gas service.

We keep putting off this politically dangerous question, but we can't afford it forever. if we're not prepared to go to the mat with the feds for full compensation for the damage they caused us, and continue blithely preparing to rebuild everything, all of our gas bills will triple. Other recovery costs will be borne by the returned for land that my take decades to repopulate, as the current sanitation contracts propose. The ultimate outcome will be a cost of living for the returned that is so high that the city's population will begin to shrink instead of grow. The recovery will fail.

We need to be honest and open with everyone (returned and not) about these issues: Entergy, what areas will have full restoration of services and how it will be paid for, the new garbage contracts, etc. Too much is being hidden from the citizens, even those deeply involved in the recovery planning process.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Struggling with the Assessor Amendment

Are we pushing too far, too fast in the name of an abstract reform? On one level, I understand that this is the greatest opportunity New Orleans and the state have had at a turn around in my lifetime, and possibly the last. At the same time, we need to be careful that reform doesn't turn into ruin, and the proposal to reform the property assessment system is fraught with that danger.

I'll be frank: my house is probably underassessed, and for the moment that is a blessing. Entergy bills have skyrocketed and my insurance costs excluding flood are triple those I paid elsewhere. I have no idea how I will swing auto insurance when my 14-year old starts clamoring for her learner's permit, given the ruinous Louisiana rates. I have the high cost of a dry home purchased after the Flood, while most of my neighbors struggle with unreimbursed repair costs.

The hidden danger in voting for consolidation of New Orleans' seven assessors into one is that a city-wide reassessment is liable to send our tax bills up--way up--at a time when none of us can really afford it. Property values are at an all time high in the dry portions of town, and with all of the other costs of living here, a significant spike in tax bills might be just the thing to kill the recovery.

There's a simple solution: property tax rates in dollars should be capped as part of a city-wide reassessment, and millages adjusted down after that assessment so there is no net increase in revenue. That might get tricky across a half-dozen taxing agencies, but the end ought to be a net wash overall.

After the assessments and millages are equalized, then it would be time for the city's leadership--and perhaps even the mayor,--o step forward and say: this is what we need to put the city's finances in order and to have a successful recovery. A year from now, given a clear picture of what I am voting for, I would be ready to pull the lever in favor of the millage increases.

Our rush into a city-wide reassessment may have the exact opposite effect from that intended by the whole alphabet soup of well-meaning good government groups. Given the current make up of our city government, the resultant hike in taxes would push a lot of money into a city government that is still tainted by corruption. (Yeah, get over it Cynthia. The both of ya.)

Mayor No-C-'Em Ray Nagin promised transparency in government. A lot of commentators on-line and on paper have struggled with reconciling that promise with the near invisibility of the mayor and his cabal of former opponents. They vanish into the Secret Recovery Bunker and pop up every now and then with winning ideas like taking out payday loans to run city ggovernment doubling sanitation costs for a city half the size, or the plan to make New Orleans over into a Big Box Boulevard at the expense of local businesses. Great ideas both, if you've got a cut of the action, but pretty bone headed from just about any other perspective.

I wonder what precisely No-C-'Em had in mind when he promised transparency? What we've gotten is the I think it is the gossamer of a ghost. We see him about as frequently as a wandering spirit lately, and to about the same effect: when he does appear, he tends to say or do things that scare the hell out of us. Its an appropriate analogy, as the recent dealings at City Hall reek of the corruption of the recently deceased.

The idea of turning Nagin loose with a large pile of freshly collected cash scares the hell out of me. And I'm afraid that's exactly what a city wide reassessment without caps on new taxes, and more new blood in city hall, is going to mean.

Feel free to try and convince me otherwise, but as long as the amendment's backers are already talking Plan B (never a good idea this close to your election, unless you think you might lose), I am strongly leaning toward pulling the No lever (ok, pushing the No button) in November.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

W T I X, New Orleans

If this title punches up the station promo cart in your head, you will understand the dissonance I experienced driving the route that took me from the lakefront to De la Salle decades ago, on the way to pick up my own son to Lusher as Neil Young croones Old Man on the CD player.

I am now the old man, that generic term for the father figure we used in my youth, the old man my own children will look at with increasing suspicion for the next decade. I am now the father, not the child who received an AM transistor radio for his sixth birthday in 1963 just in time for the British invasion, who stood at the corner of Egret and Robert E. Lee and could hear the screaming (but not the Beatles) at Tad Gormley Stadium across the length of City Park.

I am not the newly minted teenager with the Mother Radio bumper sticker, the one who found I could just get WTUL when I twisted the radio just right, and called in requests as the Lone Lakefront Listener, the one who later found a favorite request from those halcyon days--Micheal Perlitch's Keyboard Tales--tossed into the bin behind Lenny's Records.

This is not the city in which we tore down the reckless streets, Bleeker Street blaring across the hundreds of miles over a clear AM channel, emulating the Captain when Jamie Brockett's Legend of the USS Titanic was played. WRNO plays the same music 30 years later but best I can find Captain Humble is selling po-boys on the Northshore, looking at lot like the gentleman who watches me from the rearview mirror as I lean down to turn up the volume.

My son piles into the car and quickly switches the station. I find myself listening too often to the same mostly worthless hip-hop and pop that blasts out of 97.1 FM in New Orleans in much the same programming that bombarded me out of 94.6 FM in Fargo. While I like to refer to them as my two practically perfect children, one area of their education in which I have been remiss is in music. Its pleases me endlessly that my son and I can sing the words together to just about every song on The Kinks-The Singles together, or that my daughter goes digging through my car's CD box looking for Radiohead when the radio bores her. But that's not what's important, is not enough.

Staring at the online picture of blogger Traveling Mermaid's old box of 8-tracks, many of which I once owned on vinyl or that now reviled tape format, I am reminded that somewhere along the line my tastes improved, that I left behind Deep Purple and Blue Oyster Cult and discovered the treasures that had been around my all along: jazz, R&B and funk, the brass bands: the music of New Orleans.

I want my own children to make this transition, to discover that the city they live in offers an alternative to mainstream FM radio, to the fast food restaurants of their childhood, to the sterile stores my daughter favors at the mall. I have brought them here so that they have the opportunity to grow up New Orleans, and hopefully be changed by it, to become part of the centuries old tradition that is New Orleans. I also recognize that they, like their old man, will mostly be consumers of that culture, not creators of it.

I read last week in the Boston Globe online a story that has been repeated endlessly in the media for almost a year now: will the real culture of New Orleans survive? The music is born in the street of Indians and brass bands, that is nurtured in little corner clubs and house parties and in the pews of the churches, and only after a hard march through sometimes mean streets finds it ways onto stages where correspondents for the Boston Globe can comfortably listen and sip an Abita. If the brass bands and Indians are scattered, if there are no corner clubs or house parties, what will happen to the music?

Until we solve the problems of bringing people home, it remains a critical question: if the overwhelmingly African-American working class of New Orleans cannot come home, will the culture be transmitted? Or will it merely be preserved by well-meaning fans as a thing under glass, taken out and paraded once a year around the fairgrounds at Jazz Fest like the relics of a saint. What will happen to the children of New Orleans in Houston and Atlanta when there is no role model up the street to make them want to learn trombone, or the intricate rhythms of New Orleans funk? Will all the future Nevilles and Trombone Shorties be left to aspire to be, instead, 50 Cent?

When I listen to WTIX or WRNO I realize I am immersing myself in a hall of mirrors, where the trick is to show me a teenager wearing my face, or a young man of twenty something with a full head of shoulder length hair. Entertaining, but not the reality of the fellow I shave every morning in the mirror. Even as my finger twitches toward WWOZ to redeem myself, I realize that station is itself a museum piece. The child of the white, middle-class promoters of Jazz Fest, an event most working class Orleanians can't afford to attend, even 'OZ itself can't transmit culture. It can't create the next generation of horn players or funk bassists any more than the acetate tapes of Alan Lomax can create a Delta bluesman or an Appalachian picker. 'OZ is a closer than any of us listening will easily admit to the dioramas of the Museum of American History than to a living thing .

We are the archetype of the 'OZ listener: white, middle class, captured by the glamour that is New Orleans. My children could spend their lives here and not know the difference between living in the diorama and living in something like the city I grew up in, unless I teach them the difference. I know its not too late because like many a kid growing up on the Lakefront decades ago, I came to realize what the city had to offer only when I was well on my way toward adulthood. But it will take more than just introducing them to the magic of New Orleans. The trick of the thing is what can people like myself do to make that magic a living thing and not a trick of Disney animatronics? I did not come into this place so that I and my children might be docents in the museum of what once was New Orleans.

That middle-aged white guy in the rearview mirror can't start a brass band any more than I could turn back the waters. But I can work to make sure that we bring home as many people as we can, that everyone who wants to come home to work and rebuild has the chance to do so. It won't be enough to teach my children to love New Orleans as I do, unless I can help make sure they some day hear people of their own generation playing in a brass band, or see them in the full regalia of Mardi Gras Indians, so that they can be a part of a living city in its next century. It is only worth being here if that happens, and the outcome is far from certain.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Judge Eloise misses bail

Judge Charles "The Gangta's Friend" Eloise has been temporarily removed from the bench by the Louisiana State Supreme Court. It's about time.

I still don't understand how, in the middle of a crime wave, anyone commiting a crime of any consequence can walk out of lockup on the same day.

This is an important first step in stopping the recent madness.

As I said before: This. Must. Stop. It's not as if it's rocket science. Lock up the bad guys as soon as we catch them. We don't have to harrass every person standing on the street corner a la Guiliani in New York. Just lock up people who merit arrest. Keep them locked up until trial. Put anyone using (or even carrying) a gun faway or a long, long time.

If we can't get rid of people like Eloise and and Jourdan and Riley and their enablers like Nagin and Jefferson via the ballot, I'm increasingly in favor of torches and a rope.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

We're rednecks, we're rednecks...

I think most of you know the rest of the words to the chorus of the Randy Newman song. They are ringing in my head as I read the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate denunciation of the "dysfunctional civic culture" of tNew Orleans. For all our problems, this is a tremendous insult to the 200,000 people who have come home by their own efforts and at their own expense to try to rebuild a city.

Of all of the successes and failures of the last year, to select the challenge of finding enough poll commissions is petty and malicious. It recklessly disregards contradictory facts about "our civic culture", motivated I believe by enthusiasm for our failure.

It is the most insulting thing I've read in a year, because it comes not from some distant and empty-headed political pundit or chronic complainer to radio and the editorial page, but from the editorial board of the newspaper of of the state capitol. My view is that once-sleepy Baton Rouge sees its future as a boom town tied to our failure.

Here is the letter I sent in response.
Your editorial “Old Habits Hamper City" is an insult to the 200,000 people who have returned to New Orleans. In the areas with a large returnee population, we turned out our old city council members. We tried to elect a new mayor, but were outvoted by absentee voters who have not invested their lives in New Orleans future. Next time. We campaigned for and won reform of the levee board system. We are tearing down the old and broken regime as fast as we can, in the same fashion we are putting our homes back together.

Thousands of Orleanians with two jobs--a day job and a damaged home to work on--- with children in distant schools with no bus service, without basic civic amenities such as garbage collection and mail service, are finding time to turn out to participate in the redevelopment of our city through volunteer service and the planning process. We have come home without a dime of government assistance and little or nothing from the insurance for which we all paid, because of our commitment to a successful New Orleans. This is a "dysfunctional civic culture"? Why not make our lot the conditions of service as a poll commissioner statewide, and see how other parishes fare?

We demand an apology and a retraction, but don't expect one. Once-sleepy Baton Rouge's economic future as a boom town is too closely tied to a failed New Orleans for us to expect any sympathy. Perhaps you should look at your own failures, such as your traffic congestion. You have had a year to build new roads and expand transit to accommodate the influx and what have you done? Oh, that takes money? Federal money? And time? Aren't those sad excuses that reflect your own failure as a city to deal with the situation?

Thousands of Americans, from Louisiana and elsewhere, have come down and volunteered and walked a mile in our shoes. To these people, we are eternally grateful. Only someone who has not done this could possibly have penned such an editorial. Until we see the story on your page one trumpeting the work of your editorial board to gut a house, clear a neutral ground or paint a charter school, I suggest you forfeit the right to criticize us.

It is an insult we will not soon forget. And we’re not going away.

Damn. Now I feel better. Here, now you tell them what you think.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Ghosts of the Flood

'' . . . so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many . . . "
The Wasteland, T.S. Eliot
Sometimes I feel them, my wife told me, their spirits, as I'm driving down the street. All that suffering, she explains, all those people. As if 300 years of yellow fever and the lash, the lynchings and gansta gun battles weren't enough to populate a parallel city of spirits in this place where tombs are mansions and burials a celebration, the Flood came.

Now there is a brooding presence even in the bright of day, looming over us all like a storm-bent house on the verge of collapse. These empty shells of former lives that line so many streets are a daily reminder of the vast catastrophe; the windows staring lifelessly at broken sidewalks, the facades washed pale and colorless. Each still bears the esoteric marks of the searchers that mimic the scratching on tombs in the old cemeteries, some the dreaded mark at the bottom that totals up the lost.

The tally marked beneath the cross now rises to 1577, a crowed like that described by Eliot. I imagine not a host but solitary figures, the ghosts we know from childhood stories. In their newness to death, I picture them wandering as curious as children in the house of an aged aunt, getting underfoot and touching what they should not, interrupting and making unwelcome mischief. The brush of their passing is still strong enough to reach out and touch a good Catholic girl from North Dakota, one as innocent of the spiritualist shadows cast by every flickering candle flame before a New Orleans saint's statue as a Midwestern Yankee could possibly be.

Even the most rationale and disinclined among us imagine ghosts in a city this old, where the steamy air is a tangible presence on the skin and lights flash erratically in the night through the stirrings of the thick, tangled foliage, where the old houses creak and groan as they settle into the soft earth like old men lowering themselves into a chair. Once I wished to experience that touch of the other, a product of reading too much fantastic fiction. One of the signature scenes in film for me is John Cassavettes as a modern Prospero in The Tempest, standing in his urban tower and saying, "Show me the magic.” For him, the sky erupts in lightening. I would sometime catch myself whispering those words, but they were simply blown away by the night wind.

Then one bright August afternoon I was sitting in my idling car in my driveway in Fargo, North Dakota. At just before five o'clock that 29th of August a string of Carnival beads which hung from my rearview mirror--black and gold beads interspersed with black voodoo figures­--suddenly burst. It seemed strange at the time that they would break as the car sat still, would break at the bottom and not at the top where they routinely rubbed against the mirror post, where the string was tied off, the knot weakening the line. It was not the way that I, as a sailor with some idea of how a line will wear, would expect them to break.

Perhaps the beads slid about at the end of the string as I drove around, causing the string to wear through at the bottom, so that it was inevitable that is where they would break first, given enough corners turned, sufficient applications of the accelerator and brake. The timing of just before five o'clock on that Monday in August of 2005 was just a coincidence, the inevitable laws of physics unfolding without regard for the observer and his sense of time.

Be careful what you wish for is the lesson we learned in a dozen fairy tales. The longed for touch of the other, and the tide that washed me up on the shores of my personal Ithaca, into this house on Toulouse Street in the only place I have ever thought of as home, came with a terrible price: both are tainted with graveyard dust. I would undo it all in instant, if I only knew how.

I've written this post before--or ones very like it, that tell this story of the broken beads--and then deleted them. It seems just too strange and personal a tale to share with just any aimless visitor wandering the Internet. What will people think? I ask myself in a voice that sounds vaguely like my mother’s. What if some future employer Googles up this article? worries the husband with a mortgage and two children to raise. I don't expect them to understand.

Unless you learned from the maid that cleaned your family home that crossing two matchsticks in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary and sprinkling them with salt would bring rain, unless you believed that a piece of candy found on the ground could be made safe to eat by making the sign of the cross over it, if people did not come in the night and scratch odd marks on certain tombs on the grounds where your family is buried; if these were not part of your earliest experience, then my tale of the broken beads sounds like the product of an overworked imagination, or something like Scrooge's undigested bit of beef, a spot of mustard.

There is a spectre over New Orleans. As the August anniversary slipped away, I thought the grim, invisible cloud that hung over the city would begin to drift away. Instead, as the weeks passed, I was increasingly convinced: everyone in New Orleans was haunted. You could see it in people's eyes, in the way they walked, hear it in the words they spoke, or the ones they wrote online as they spoke about their lingering pain. It was a spirit as much inside as out, the ghost in the machine that haunted our every step.

Then came the Monday Night Football game. I thought about the curse of the Superdome, the one that suggests the tearing down of the Girod Street Cemetery has cursed the ground and all who play there. Was the spirit of the people in the Dome that night just the charm needed to lay that particular haunting to rest, to break that curse? The morning after the strut in people's step, the lilt of their voices told me that perhaps, just perhaps a healing had begun. We were not a city in need of an exorcism: we were the exorcism.

The ghost of the Flood is now a part of who we are. Ultimately it doesn’t matter if it is ectoplasm or the synchronized firing of a million neurons in ways science does not yet understand. In the end we have to come to term with it. This is something that we as Orleanians, the people who live next to our dead in their exclusive farbourgs of marble and white-washed stone, should be able to do.

We need to honor these dead and respect them, not with the weight of Confucian ancestor worship but in the simple spirit of the pre-Confucian Japanese who venerated odd stones, in the ways inherent in our own Latin roots mingled with the traditions of Africa, where the community of saints and the loa of Africa intersect. We don’t need an exorcism. We need a conjuration, a ritual that calls up the ghosts and honors them, that welcomes them in the way the way the devotees of Vodoun welcome the possession of the loa.

Perhaps next August 29, we should all tie a brown cord on some pillar or post of the house at just the point where we have carefully painted over the water stain. Just above that, we should mark in dust of ground gypsum the rescue symbol that is now as much a part of our selves and our city as the sign of the cross. We will do this to tell whoever is listening—Our Father, Oshun, Mother of God, ghosts of the Flood—we remember. We have suffered, and we will never forget the Flood and those who did not come through. We are the people who came through and came back. We remember the lost. We remember you. Je me souviens.

When we accept and embrace this spirit, perhaps the haunting will end once and for all, will not be a permanent pall over the city, a fearful sound in the night like a howling in the wires, or an unpleasant knotting in the stomach as we pass an abandoned house. It will cease when it becomes instead like the glinting of the sun on white-washed stone above the neat green grass of the cemeteries, just another comfortable part of who we are.

Katrina NOLA New Orleans Hurricane KatrinaThink New Orleans Louisiana FEMA levees flooding Corps of Engineers We Are Not OK wetlands news rebirth Debrisville Federal Flood 8-29 Rising Tide Remember ghosts je me souviens

Note-Reposting to try to force Technorati to report this article. This note is the only change from Wednesday, Oct. 5

"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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