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 yourself-well...how 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.

One of my favorite Talking Heads songs. I knew another great post would follow. Celebrate your city, man!
Once again you bring Reality to light.

Though we went different ways last night, you writing this fantastic post and me shooting a tourney with the craziest group of folks one can imagine, we are celebrating the same thing: New Orleans and Her people.

We ARE ourselves, and we ARE free individuals... we live our lives as we wish, harming none and just reveling in the Dance. This is the genius of America, and it only happens in one tiny part of the country or the world. (I've gone halfway around the world twice and this is the only place that fits the bill.)

All I can say is "Thank you".
There's a surreal aspect to the plan to sit in Woldenberg Park and watch fireworks this evening. Your post highlights the oddness of it all. I try not to dwell on "the gov'ment dun us wrong," but indeed to remember daily that the strong of spirit, the able bodied are out fighting; fighting more than lines for Road Home checks. We fight to show that echos of the old American dream are enough for us to keep building. Shotgun shacks, and Katrina cottages.... all better than FEMA trailers. But keeping body and soul together for another hurricane season, we're all joined in that fight.
It's so strange. Every time I travel it's like an out-of-body experience. I go to cities that are not destroyed, that do not struggle for basic needs, that are not filled with empty homes and vacated dreams. Your post captures that feeling and much more. But you can't explain it to somebody outside, they won't--they can't--understand.

But I'm not so down on America. They get distracted, they move on. I only briefly thought we would get any real help from the rest of America. Who disappoints me is us. Our stupid politicians, our useless local leaders, our angry, selfish, violent citizens who would shoot you down as quickly and thoughtlessly as they would swat a mosquito. We laid the cornerstone for this city many generations ago. It was crumbling a long time before the floodwalls fell. Who will fix it? Us, or nobody.

Thanks for your thoughts,


"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..."

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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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