Sunday, July 29, 2007

Soft Asylum

The Subdudes' "One Word (Peace)" struggles to overcome the waspish whir of a gas-powered weed whacker and random hammering in the distance. If I close my eyes and relish the scent of cut grass I can transport myself into a universal summer morning almost anywhere in America: whining, tiny gas engines duel with rumbling clothes dryers for first chair in the orchestra of Saturday morning the way cicadas and frogs do at the end of twilight. Even here on the last thin line at the edge of America, where its already after the end of the world, the grass must fall and the laundry tumble until done.

My backyard is a narrow patio of a dozen by twenty paces, and from my chair with my back against the shed I can easily see through the reed privacy screen the backs of the neighbors shotgun houses. In a place where dry land is dear and few are rich, the houses sit cheek-by-jowl in the fashion established by the first straggly settlements along the batture. Even as the sounds of this morning mingle today's sounds and memories of summer Saturdays in other places, swapping places like the stereo channels on a Sixties' psychedelic song, the view tells me I am in New Orleans.

The highlight of this morning was watching the dumpster removal man navigate our narrow and heavily parked street to haul away a dumpster of debris, the remains of the neighbor's backyard shed. Mid-City is a neighborhood of low-dangling black cables strung in the random profusion of vines in a jungle. The street is narrow and full of cars; the homes dating from before all America had a car mostly lack driveways. But after two years of the constant gutting of homes the operator is an expert. My neighbor watches anxiously as the giant metal bin, as big as a railroad hopper car, slides just feet from his own small truck and onto the hauler's.

This ends a project not prompted by the storm, like so many I have watched progress from the first debris to the last scrapings of the gutter. It was a decision to tear down the old, termite-infested shed and redo the yard and sheds. As I stand on the porch watching, the downtown-side bathroom of my own converted double is gutted to the studs, plaster lath piled outside the window. This is not the gutting that continues today over scores upon scores of square miles all around me. This is basic, three-trips-a-week-to-Lowes home improvement. Here in the town some called Debrisville in the year after the Federal Flood, my neighbor and I are burrowing into normalcy by fixing up our houses not out of the necessity of flood water but from desire.

I quoted from an old Sun Ra piece lyric that's on the side of this page--Its after the end of the world/Don't you know that yet?--because it best describes the city I live in, one that is just starting down the road of recovery from the largest man-made disaster in history. Just across town to the south police stand around yellow tape where another young man has died. Walking distance to my north the levees along the draining canals begin, the levees that failed. To the east for miles and miles houses stand in rows, boarded with plywood or open to the weather, drying out now not from a flood almost two years past but from the summer rains and neglect.

Standing on a street where homes did not flood, where all of the rescue marks are painted over, its easy to forget and to slip into a reverie of normalcy as I listed to the sounds of chores all around me, to think that all across North America people are in their yards listening to or making these same sounds. At some point today, I will have to venture out. As likely as not, I will pass through neighborhoods were it still clearly after the end of the world. There are few places in this city where the reminders are just a stroll away.

And still we come home. The postal service tells us the population has reached 300,00 again, and when I visit Lowes to shop for fixtures it is as busy as it was a year ago when a few tens of thousands of people consumed ten percent of the constructions materials in North America. All across town, people are working on their homes with the same routine intensity as fishermen mending nets in the evening, as paleolithic hunters chipping new stones around a fire. We are making our way through life in the place fate put us.

Have you thought of what you will do if al-Qaida detonates a dirty bomb up the block, or if that big inevitable earthquake comes? Do you know where you would go, what you would bring? Have you thought of where you might live if tomorrow were after the end of your world, if your home and all its contents and the town it where in were irretrievably lost, if everyone you know were scattered to the winds? We all have. Its after the end of the world. Don't you know that yet?

And still we come back, and every day brings more. The levees stand, mute piles of dirt in the oppressive heat of July. The clouds that role in from the Gulf are not those of a hurricane, just another storm in the endless cycle of storms that fill corners of the city with water, water we pump out again. Someday the levees will be tested again, and they will or will not stand. Tomorrow you may board an airplane, and it may or may not fall screaming out of the sky. And still you file into your seats and open a book or fiddle with your I-Pod, just another day gambling with catastrophe at long odds.

You may think this is a crazy place to live, but we think it is the only place to live. We treasure our food and music and culture, but on any given Saturday we only want what you want: to sit in our backyards on a Saturday morning and listen to the dryer's basso while the neighbor cuts the grass, to be comfortably at home.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Oh, it's just my medication

"Is it hot in here, or is it just my imagination?" I asked my daughter, launching into the chorus of Temptation's "Just My Imagination". "You medication?" my daughter asked in a puzzled voice. I told here what I said, then launched into "oh, it's just my medication, running away with me" and broke into laughter.

Why does this remind me of Mayor C. Ray Nagin? In a speech to a group of school children he refereed to New Orleans as "the miracle city," apparently having worn out his supply of confectionery metaphors. According to the Times-Picayune, Nagin told told the campers that they are "somebody very, very special because you're in the miracle city. This city, most people thought, would not get to this point."

What point exactly is that, Ray, this "miracle" point?

Is it the point at which public anger over the failure of the criminal justice system devolves into racial game playing, while you and the rest of the so-called black leadership sit on your hands and let it happen? Black leadership? There is no black leadership in this town. There is no white leadership in this town. There is no CO.

Is it the point at which a dedicated and selfless (which is to say, entirely volunteer and unpaid) civic servant like Brian Denzer of, who has labored thanklessly to build a citizen-controlled crime tracking system sends an email in which he sends his hands up in despair? The new score: Mau-Maus 1, White Devils 1. It sure is a miracle, Ray, that we haven't all killed each other already.

Is it the point at which the city's recovery czar takes the labors of thousands of citizens who really had better things to do, like say gutting their houses, but chose to attend endless meetings to write a recovery plan, which recovery czar takes there plans and makes them his own like the boy who stuck him thumb in a pie and pulled out a plumb?

Is it the point at which we have to read once again about those who have decided it's just no longer worth it, that it time to give up? Is this the miracle, people so disheartened that they are ready to give up not just on New Orleans, but on the US altogether? Frankly, I agree with Jack Ware on one point: if New Orleans it not my last stop in life, my next stop will not be in the failed state of the United States of America. We are like the Lincoln Brigade fighting fascism in 1930s Spain. If the so-called good guys leave us here to fail, how them will I tell the good guys from the bad? A country that can't save one of its major cities is no longer worth any effort on my part, is not worth saving elsewhere.

I'll tell you the point we've reached, Ray. It's a tipping point; just the latest in the crazed, zigzag path toward recovery we've blazed without any real help from Perdido Street. When the chatter about people giving up and leaving becomes a featured topic on talk radio, the editorial page, and on the Internet, it's not a miracle. It's a disaster, and this one is entirely of your making, yours and all of our so-called leaders like you. How many have already set up their families in Texas and are just hanging on to skim the promised recovery money that never seems to come?
The miracle, Ray, is that so many of us stay and so many more continue to come home, in spite of you and the rest of the so-called leaders who have failed us. We're going to do it in spite of you, and we're going to try and make damned sure that you and yours don't profit from it like The Jeffersons.

Perhaps I am too harsh. I know this is a miracle city. But I also know the portentous events do not unfold on the endless news loop of WWL on Channel 15. I won't hear it on talk radio or read it in the local press. It does not come in an announcement from some shell-shocked pol. The miracle is that in spite of it all, I'm sitting here in my house in New Orleans watching a storm role in from the north, silencing the cicadas and frogs, and I do not fear the storm. Instead I relish its electric magic. It is the same storm that has passed this way for three hundred years, been watched from porches and windows by a dozen generations of Orleanians, of my family.

The true miracle is that I am here to witness this, even if I am the last of my line who will do so. Politicians like you pretend to understand why we are home, just as politicians in Washington pretend to understand while the young go willingly to their deaths in Iraq, but you cannot understand. Only those who have not moved their families to Texas but have instead put all of their chips back on this bit of green, those who have the faith to stare in the face of the storm, are admitted to the precinct of the miraculous.

Posted to wrong time stamp: xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Signs and portents

Note: I don't know how many people saw this over the weekend. In light of yesterday's meeting on Eddie Jourdan at the City Council, and the way the crowd broke along racial lines, I feel compelled to re-push it in hopes a few more people see it.

It is possible to live in a New Orleans unmarked by disaster, to limit yourself to the circumscribed island of high ground along the river and avoid the streets that stretch block after block into mile after mile of persistent ruin. Confine yourself to downtown, to the French Quarter and CBD, or stay Uptown below Prytania Street and it is pretty much the city a half-million fled in August 2005.

Even the so-called Isle of Denial along the river is hardly a perfect place. It's littered by neglect: neglected streets littered by garbage, neglected houses and buildings, neglected people. People live so close together in the older parts of the city that even a sophisticated Orleanian will find themselves in one of these blocks. Except in the richest blocks around Audubon Park, the pattern of settlement was never so segregated as the New South. Drive down a street of large bourgeois homes, not mansions but clearly the residences of the prosperous, then turn a block and you will find the closely spaced shotguns and cottages of the servants just around the corner.

In spite of our tremendous architectural heritage, perhaps because of the richness of old homes amidst so much poverty, many of these buildings--manse and cottage alike--have fallen into decay. Most neighborhoods in the narrow slice of city that was unflooded have their share of empty-eyed buildings sagging behind a patch of weeds like tired old men. One thing these wrecks lack, that the unflooded part of town in general is missing are the spray-painted rescue marks that tag most of the buildings to the south toward the lake.

During New Orleans' transformation in 2005 into Venice-On-Hell, a search of the city was conducted by boat and aircraft. There was no other way to travel except to swim or wade. As each house was visited to check for survivors needing assistance, the searchers blazed in paint what has come to be called a rescue mark. In the most deeply flooded areas full of one-story ranch homes, the marks were made on roofs.

The typical mark is a large X with a circle at the center, although sometimes there is just a long stroke and a circle. In the four quadrants inside the strokes of the X are a date, some indication of who searched a flooded homes in the weeks after, and on more than a few homes a number at the bottom indicating the number of dead. These marks are as much a part of New Orleans after the flood as the ubiquitous fluer-de-lis.

Everyday as I walk to work I pass a reminder of the chaos that was the downtown hospital complex in 2005, a marking on the wall at Loyola Avenue and Gravier Street reading "EMS Out" with an arrow pointing up Gravier toward the river. It is paired with a similar spray-painted mark further up Loyola at Julia Street reading "EMS In" with an arrow pointing up Loyola. These hermetic traffic guides only make sense when you visualize the scene just north of Tulane and Loyola, the hectic evacuation of two large downtown hospital just over a block away in the frantic days after the Federal levees failed

Given the scale of what happened and the poverty of areas of the city, markings like these will likely persist for years, for decades, for generations. These painted postcards from a time just passed remind me of the handful of painted Jim Crow signs that still linger in corners of the city, fainter and more distant reminders of a more distant past. Colored Only. Colored Entrance. If you know where to look, you can find the faint remains of these marks that were once as common as shop signs

Like the rescue marks of Katrina, they are an emblem of a point in history that defines much of who we are today. The Jim Crow signs evoke not just the segregated past. They quietly speak of the tremendous bravery of the civil rights movement, of desegregation and white flight, of the self-imposed divides that separate us to this very day. I was born in 1957 and don't clearly remember the ugly television scenes of desegregation, the angry mobs in the Ninth Ward. Still, like everyone else here I am imprinted with the history of that time, my mind's inner voice forever marked by the telltale shibboleths of who I am: white, from the lakefront, a catholic school graduate. I can still, if I concentrate, call up the sound of an elder female relative saying"nigrah".

Our legacy remains, represented by those faded Colored signs, no matter how hard we try. The socialization of our childhoods is burned into us like the scars of some terrible accident. To this day I can recall snippets of racist rhymes I learned as a small child. We are all here the children of masters and slaves, and the sins of our forefathers haunt us even unto the seventh generation. The man that childhood training sought to create lives somewhere inside me, even if it is not the person I chose to be today. I think of it as akin to alcoholism, something inherited that can't ever be eradicated, simply overcome day-by-day.

I still think my great gift to this city is not this blog or any little thing I've done here or there in town to help others or my neighborhood. My real gift is my family. My wife and children were raised in the Mid-West, in an environment without the dark shadow of southern history hanging over them. My son and daughter attended an elementary school with the children of a dozen nations, courtesy of Lutheran Social Services efforts to bring refugees from central Europe and Africa to a new life in Fargo, North Dakota.

The place they group up was not idyllic. When I first arrived to a town near a Native American reservation, I heard people say "the Rez" and immediately recognized the tone used to say "the Projects". I watched other parents yank their children away from the young Roma who sometimes came to our playground, listened to the ranting on local talk radio about the influx of foreigners. We shielded our children from that, and as a result they carry none of the baggage my generation of southerners were saddled with.

When I came home to New Orleans I hoped that the Federal Flood would overturn some of what we were before, that an event that massive and shared by all would give everyone a sense of commonality stronger even than the Saints. The city's first election proved me wrong, as the voters quickly divided along racial, class and ward lines as they have for generations. We are like breeds of dogs trained over generations to some task, ltrained over generations to the task iable to neurosis if deprived of sheep to herd.

An acquaintance who is not a native recently had an ugly encounter with a woman from Lakeview over race. She was angry at the increasing return of black people. Black people was not, however, the term she used. She suggested to Bart that he wasn't from here and just didn't understand, in particular he didn't under "them". I drive my daughter to the west bank and see the men on the General De Gaulle approaches to the bridge in bow ties and Malcom X glasses selling the Nation of Islam's Final Call newspaper who will not make eye contact with me, a white devil. These are the extreme examples. Not everyone in the city thinks this way. But there is a divide as profound as the distance that separates De Gaulle from Lakeview.

I haven't given up hope, in part because of the children. As my own spawn's circle of friends and acquaintances grows, I find that those too young to vote in that last election do not carry the same baggage as the survivors of desegregation. The parents of my children's black friends do not treat me like the drones of the Nation of Islam, and I do not treat them as the woman in Lakeview would. In the middle is a body of people who treat each other with respect, and in the case of the children a color-blindness that is startling to me after 20 years outside the south.

I ask those who are not in that happy middle, or not lost to the extremes, to contemplate those rescue marks they see as they drive through town, to note that as they traverse the checkerboard proximity of neighborhoods that the water did not respect race or income. The rescue marks of the City Park end of Mid-City are the same as those of the Seventh or Ninth ward. As I wrote almost a year-and-a-half ago now:
The Bitch didn't care. Her waters came up the MRGO and took the paint-bare, black-eyed-pea shotguns of the Lower Nine the same as it took the Bunny Bread, virgin-in-a-tub brick ranch houses of Chalmette. Claiborne Avenue or Judge Perez Drive, they cried and struggled and drowned just the same. The waters that swept up Canal Boulevard and Paris Avenue didn't stop in at the Hibernia to check antibody's balance. They took everyone in their path, no checks accepted.
As the monumental task of reconstructing a city bit-by-bit unfolds, those rescue marks will slowly disappear from the city's streets as they have in the block I live on. I think some should be saved in every neighborhood, walls torn if necessary from homes to be demolished and and the paint stroked bit of wood staked to the ground. We need a constant reminder of what we all now share that those who came before us did not: a common experience, a common enemy, a common task to accomplish. I want these marks to linger just as those colored entrance signs do, but instead to remind us we are all Orleanians and all the survivors of the Federal Flood. We are all in this together.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Get Down With The Funk

I am doing nothing for New Orleans except the most basic things such as paying taxes and owning property and not leaving. I don't want to write, but I feel as if there is absolutely nothing I do want to dedicate my life to.

-- New Orleans novelist Poppy Z. Brite on her blog Dispatches from Tanganyika

It's been ten days between posts, and I'm not the only laggard. I think that once again everyone here in America's Most Medicated City shares her feelings. I know that the track of my own life here follows her's in part. I am doing nothing for New Orleans except living here.

I fear that with the fests of winter and spring behind us, hurricane season arrives like an ugly midsummer heat wave: a palpable change in the weather that oppresses everyone and stifiles all activity. If the reality of the humidity-laden and still air of a 105-heat index day were not enough, all of us have shouldered an 80 pound bag of worry to tote around. Unless relieved by the terror of evacuation, we will lift and carry those sacks of sullen every day for the next several months like the stevedores of old loading a ship on the river.

I have to remind myself that, faced with such a task in this climate, we should do what those dock workers would have done.

We should sing.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Same as it never was, same as it never was

"And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful Wife
And you may ask did I get here?"
-- "Once In A Lifetime" by the Talking Heads

Somewhere tonight in the vast sameness of North America people are driving perfectly flat and smooth roads past neat and sturdy homes that show no signs of disaster. The landscape they traverse shares the irregular uniformity of the vast expanses of the prairie where I once lived. On those streets the variations of architecture and landscaping repeat like something crystallized, the occasional irregularity of taste only highlighting the sameness, the emptiness all around around the way isolated stands of cottonwoods or the odd farmstead punctuate the emptiness of the Dakotas.

On those smooth sheets of concrete they have no real need for that large SUV or pickup. They are not hauling away the debris that was once their worldly goods or hauling in sheet rock to rebuild these homes with their own hands. Still, these vehicle give them feelings of power and safety those of us who live this far south envy. We have not shared either of those feelings in a long time. It doesn't matter to them that the large V-8 engine is fueled with gasoline that flowed as oil through a pipeline just south of where I sit, a pipeline that once bisected a vast marshland that is now open water.

It might never occur to them that the very icon of their safety is the cause of my own proximate danger, has contributed to the destruction of the marshlands that once protected me from hurricanes in much the same way the enormous expanse of sheet metal they have wrapped around themselves protects them. They are clueless that the totem of their power requires that I feel powerless, unable to see a path to undo the damage caused by the vast infrastructure of wells and pipes and refineries that marks the landscape here, that caused the stealthy industrial murder of a vast ecosystem.

Maybe their SUV is travelling to a convenient grocery or drug store located not in the next county or far across town but in their very own neighborhood. It must be pleasant to select the makings of a cookout without worry. There wives will not survey the leftovers and remind them Wednesday night that it is unwise to buy so much food this time of year, in case they have to suddenly flee their city and leave it all behind to spoil. No ghostly carbons of four figure checks to their insurance companies haunt them in the checkout line.

I lived among these people once, driving a Detroit-built station wagon down those practically perfect streets through rows of boxy homes to my own four-square castle. Their life was my life. I grilled brats on the lawn in summer's clouds of mosquitoes; shoveled snow and scrapped ice off the driveway in winter. I made an effort at keeping the lawn mowed and free of noxious weeds. If a neighbor was away, I mushed the snow blower down their sidewalk and plowed a path up to their door.

It's not such a terrible life but there was something disappointing to it, like picking up Sunday's paper looking for diversion only to find that we're still fighting in Iraq and Paris Hilton is still famous, checking the date on the newspaper just to confirm that it's this week's and not an accidental reprint of last week's, or perhaps next week's. In the Dakotan heart of starkness I felt a secret kinship with the African and Central European refugees which church social services brought to Fargo. It was a false analogy. My own dislocation from Carnival, street bands and familiar restaurants was trivial compared to what they experienced. There was nothing in my world that approached the vast catastrophes of war and famine they had experienced. Nothing, at least, until 8-29 of the year of the flood.

Today I live in an area of New Orleans called Mid-City that is now the edge of the settled part, a neighborhood a century ago considered the back of town that has reverted to its old geography. To the north and south for several miles are large areas largely unpopulated, filled with homes that don't look much different than they did almost two years ago. If I turn my mind's eye east, that devastation reaches out much further, more than ten miles of streets that once looked a lot like those of Fargo or the stretches of Northern Virginia where I lived before that, but which are now vacant and dilapidated.

This destruction was not the product of the massive cyclone immortalized by satellite photography. That storm passed us by and instead leveled much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast for the second time in a generation. The tragedy in New Orleans was more akin to Chernobyl or the loss of the space shuttles, an entirely predictable failure of government engineering. As an isolated incident, that might be bearable. After almost two years that stretch from the botched attempts at rescue through an endless series of maneuvers by Washington to present a false front of concern while failing to own up to the vast destruction they created, I find myself in the days leading up to the Fourth of July writing posts about "the central government."

A disaster this large shatters a lot of illusions. A curtain was torn away briefly on national television in the weeks after the flood, those pictures of people begging U.S. troops in the street for a bottle of water. That glimpse into a darker America quickly disappeared into the noise of political blame-mongering and attacks on the survivors, was digested and excreted from the news cycle to be replaced by something more palatable, like the adventures of Hollywood couples. To live here, as I have chosen, is to be reminded daily how much of what passes for America these days is a marketing illusion, as transparently false as those conversations in television ads in which bubbly actresses recount the side effects of their birth control over pink drinks.

It's hard to get excited about the Fourth of July when you think in terms of the "central government", an increasingly alien other that seems indifferent on the best days and overtly hostile on the worst to one's very survival. A few days ago I found myself plopped in front of the cable television channel TV Land, drifting through Mayberry and Lucille Ball and Dezi Arnez' New York and Bonanza's Virginia City, thinking when a change of shows interrupted my electronic reverie of how I came to believe in and live the myth of America, that place millions will celebrate on the Fourth. I thought perhaps I would spend Wednesday, Day 310 of Year 2 of the Event, watching TV Land: immersing myself in endless re-runs of shows portraying an America that never was, but is still the one I was raised to believe in.

Instead, I will go out and celebrate my life here in New Orleans, among the hundreds of thousands who have come home in spite of the indifference or hostility of the government, in the face of the dangers of flimsy levees and drug crime run amock, the hundreds of thousands who have faced those challenges and tried to rebuild with their life savings and their own sweat what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers let wash away.

The America of TV Land perhaps never was. The America of our childhood history books may have passed on and live only in those books. The spirit that built that increasingly mythical America is alive and well in New Orleans, in the people who have mostly on their own, with a bit of charitable help from volunteers around the country, undertaken to rebuild an entire city. They do it in the face of dangers as vast as those that faced the pioneers of the winter-blasted prairies and the settlers of the real Wild West.

Here in New Orleans it is not just the unique soul of a Creole and Carribean city clinging to the edge of America, the birthplace of much of American culture, that is being saved. It is one of the last stands to save the soul of America. That it has even a slight chance in hell of succeeding is something worth celebrating.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Only Flag That Matters

Until the central government not only admits its culpability for the destruction of New Orleans, but steps forward to make everyone here whole again, builds the levees we were always promised and restores the coastal zone brutally raped by the American oil industry over the last half century, this is the only flag that will fly from my house: this Fouth and every and any other day. I have and owe no other loyalty: New Orleans above all.
Long Live New Orleans. Je me souviens. Sinn Fein.

"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

Any copyrighted material presented here is done so for the purposes of news reporting and comment consistent with USC 17 Chapter 1 Title 107.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?