Wednesday, August 29, 2007

We Are Not OK

Ghosts of the Flood (repost)

Yes, Peter, I'm recyling. I just think this is a fine thing to (re)post today (originally posted 10/5/2006):

'' . . . 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 crowd 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 it 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 ghosts of the Flood are 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 Floo--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.

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.


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

All 'Aints Day.

So, I'm running my errands and listening to to the 99.5 drive-time knuckle heads Gary Foster and Anthony Patton, a show I usually enjoy. Tonight's topic for callers was complaining about what they perceived as "parties" tomorrow celebrating 8-29. Um, I think we covered that one last year, guys. Now, maybe I've missed something, but most of what I see going on tomorrow falls into the solemn remembrance category. I'm sure that at some point next evening (or perhaps even afternoon) drink may be taken, but I don't know anybody who's going out to party.

I hope at least one of these guys lives in Lakeview or Metarie, so they will think about that as they drive past the 1,400 small white flags of the Lakelawn-Metarie Cemetary commemorating those who died here when the Federal Levees failed. That's where my head will be today (when it's not steering project Titanic through the corporate and vendor icebergs blindfolded at full throttle--"you gotta let it out, Captain!"). I'll be thinking of them, of all the dead , the counted and the uncounted, of all the ghosts of the flood. So before I hang out the black Remember logo on the blog tomorrow, I'll leave you with something I borrowed when they first thought 10,000 were dead , and words failed me. Read this somewhere tomorrow, aloud. Don't be afraid you'll scare people. Or just hand somebody a copy, and say, "Remember".

And death shall have no dominion

By Dylan Thomas

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan't ;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And sdeath hall have no dominion.

Shanti. Shanti. Shanti.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Born Again in the Grace of the City

Lakeview was the neighborhood most of us think we grew up in, even if only vicariously via television. It is the sort of place the cast of Happy Days spun out their lives, bright concrete streets shaded by leafy trees and lined with an endless procession of smallish brick and clapboard homes as regular as the pieces in a board , where women sunned sheets in the back while children road bikes safely down the middle of level streets.

The neighborhood had it's oddball homes, like the one on West End Boulevard with the bright cobalt blue roofing tiles. This is, after all, New Orleans. Many of the homes on the south end were swathed in stucco or raised on piers, the typical sort of house one would see in the older neighborhoods. To me stucco was as routine as red brick, and the place I was brought home to from the hospital was a perfect stereopticon match for the world inside the glassy eyed television.

After the flood, Lakeview was transformed. All of the carefully tended lawns and trees were brown, and the homes water-marked ruins. It became a Mister-Serling-asks-us-to-imagine-the-unimaginable scene, like a street in some B-movie disaster in which the anxious crowds have abandoned cars and belongings in their flight. The panicked exodus is complete, the thing to fear has passed, and everything is left upended and empty, still except for odd things moving in the wind, all color washed out into sepia tones.

Two years after the Federal Flood, Lakeview is on the mend. Driving down West End Boulevard on Saturday I was stuck at the sense of normality. The broad neutral ground, a good city block wide, was green and empty again. The tower from which men had last year directed the collection of the debris of half a city into piles that towered over the grandest of the neighboring houses is gone. The irredeemable tear downs are now empty lots, and I passed only a few trailers. Most of the houses look habitable.

What struck me about the scene was not the absence of the marks of disaster, but a subtle change in the demeanor of the street. There was a certain gentile shabbiness to the homes that lined the boulevard, a feeling that I was not driving past the late twentieth century Lakeview of memory but was instead down some unfamiliar street a few blocks over perhaps from Napoleon somewhere in Broadmoor. Everything had aged, it seemed, half a century in the two years since.

It was as if Lakeview had woken up one morning and found itself suddenly elderly, like a person just past midlife who has battled some sudden and severe illness or a terrible grief and emerges clearly and prematurely aged by the event. Everyone remarks at how wonderful the survivor looks, hardy a mark and such energy! Mrs. Lakeview is grateful for their attention, and dearly wants to believe them, but every glance in the mirror and every difficult step up the stairs to bed tells the truth. One may have survived, but is no longer young.

And yet Lakeview does not look out of place. It has become just another aging neighborhood in a city as steeped in its past as it was in the waters of the flood, a city destroyed and rebuilt by great fires (so that the architecture of the French Quarter is uniformly colonial Spanish), a place tried and proved by past floods and epidemics. Time's imprint, so clear in the rest of the city, has reached across the railroad tracks and interstate highway that separate Lakeview from my neighborhood and the core of the city, just as the water found a way under and around those barriers, and has left its unmistakable mark.

Having come through the water, Lakeview was born again in the grace of New Orleans. It is draped not in the crisp, white cloth of the baptismal font but in the faded and a-bit-wrinkled cloth that speaks not of a blank newness but of wisdom won through time, like the cloak of a wise old woman. Each wrinkle and stain of her cloak renders a map of the safe paths through this boggy land, each mark is like hermetic writing in which are hidden the secrets of life in a place at the mercy of the waters that surround it.

Some in Lakeview, particularly the builders of McMansions, will lament and try to erase this change. I suggest they should embrace it as the vigorous embrace old age as just another step on the journey. They should raise their houses up as that old woman might lift her skirts to navigate a puddle, and settle gracefully into their recovering homes in the newest of the old New Orleans neighborhoods as that elder might settle into a wicker porch chair.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Mr. Bush, you are not welcome here

George W. Bush has announced that he is going to soil the anniversary of 8-29 by coming to New Orleans, returning like a cancer we all hoped was in remission.

Mr. Bush, you are not welcome here.

I think I about summed it up for all posterity in this post--You Lying Sack of Shit--when you did the same damn thing last year.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Come On Rise Up

Join the New Orleans blogging community this Saturday, August 25 at the New Orleans Yacht Club at 8:30 am for a day long conference examining the state of the New Orleans recovery two years on. You can meet some of the people mentioned in my last post (or profiled in the list at right), along with author's David Zirin and Joshua Clark.

Don't forget that the incredibly cheap $20 registration fee includes chicken and red beans from Dunbars.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Bowling on the bayou

Today I was a guest on the radio show Community Gumbo, hosted on Tulane' radio station WTUL-FM by Brian Denzer, aka Schroeder of the blog People Get Ready. My purpose was to tout the Rising Tide 2 blogger-organized conference on the recovery of New Orleans. I think I did a tolerable job, with Brian making sure the correct plugs for the event were made up front and repeated

His show is one of the gems of the New Orleans media scene, a heart-felt and intelligent examination of the issues that shames the rest of the local broadcast scene and much that is produced nationally. Often political and opinionated without being didactic,his guests tell the story themselves in a personal way exemplified by his recent rebroadcast of A Gentilly Fourth of July, or the broadcast that stick smost firmly in my mind: a visit to post-Flood Lakeview on the event of a Sunday game by the playoff-bound Saints.

We spoke for a while of the place of blogging, and specifically of blogging as done by the people most involved in the Rising Tide 2 conference as it differs from much of what the public perceives as blogging: the often ridiculous comments beneath online newspaper stories and the facile wasteland of Facebook. Yes that is blogging in its most catholic sense, but it is not the work of the organizers listed in the sidebar of the Rising Tide 2 blog. Some of the core of the NOLA bloggers community offer a deeply personal journal of life in this city. Novelist Poppy Z. Brite's Dispatches from Tanginyika and local artist, almost attorney and grandmother Kim's Danger come to mind.

At the same time citizen journalists such as American Zombie, Matt McBride's late and lamented Fix The Pumps, and Bayou St. John David's Moldy City offer critical stories of the recovery missed or hidden by the major media. The commentary and analysis of the situation published by Oyster's Your Right Hand Thief, Ashley Morris: the blog and Matri's Valtul Blog routinely match and exceed that offered in the editorial sections of our newspaper. I know I've left out someone, so apologies in advance.

Blogging of the sort we perform (and radio as Brian presents it) is better suited to the story of New Orleans after the Federal Flood than any outlet in the major national or established local media. The scope and timeline of our story is novelistic, not episodic in the fashion most suited to the corporatized media of the twenty first century. The big media could no more cover the story we collectively write than they could serve up the serialized works of Dickens without being fileted and serve to their stockholders.

I said we write collectivly. That has evolved from the earliest days of what I consider the NOLA blogger's community, the group of on-line writers who emerged right after Katrina and the Federal Flood to write about those events. Most of us started blogging or redirected our prior efforts into communication about The Event. As we searched for information on-line to republish to our own small communities of readers, we found each other. We began to link to each other and leave comments. Sometime in late 2005 I started a Yahoo mailing list, and began to invite the bloggers I had found. At that point, we began to become a community.

From a first meet-up Ash Wednesday, 2006 at Fahey's through a series of potluck "Geek Dinners" we continued to connect as a community, a path that lead to someone (I can't remember who, so I won't give credit wrongly) suggesting that we put together a conference on recovery in August, 2006. I did not have high hopes for the idea, as organizing began little more than a month before that event. Somehow, we succeeded beyond our highest expectations. We discovered that some of us had readers in the mainstream media, and were able to lure two high-profile Wall Street Journal reports anxious to promote their new book as keynote speakers and panelists.

The first conference succeeded, and the second is on track to do the same, because we had moved beyond the solitary, saloniste approach to blogging into something loosely but clearly organized, like the first ragged assemblage of clouds in the Atlantic that becomes a storm. And we were not alone in organizing ourselves around the salvation of New Orleans.

Our experience is that of much of the rest of the city. The neighborhoods that were both most damaged and furthest along the long and winding road of recovery are those that self-organized themselves, places like Broadmoor and Mid-City. Out of the disruption of the city's social networks resulting from the largest displacement of Americans since the Civil War, new social networks emerged around neighborhoods and causes tied to the issues we struggled with.

In his now famous book Bowling Alone, author Robert D. Putnam posits that the social fabric of America is disintegrating. I can't find anything to disagree with in his premise. I am unchurched, and struggled as a minor political party functionary to find candidates and volunteers. I do not belong to a social or service club. Before I returned to New Orleans, were I to go bowling, I likely would have gone "alone" with just my immediate family.

Because the larger social contracts--especially those that underpin our system of government-- were torn apart like the floodwalls by the forces of Katrina and the Federal Flood, New Orleans has been forced to examine this issue by necessity, to build new networks that enable us all to survive in a leaderless city and nation, to organize ourselves as we finance ourselves in the credit-card recovery.

There was a quote I clipped and lost in a story quoting one of the actors in K-Ville, the new Fox Entertainment crime series set in After the End of the World New Orleans. He compared New Orleans' position to that portrayed in the fictional post-apocopytic television world of Jerico. Left on our own, we did what the human species has done through all history and memory: we organized ourselves and got on with the business of survival.

New Orleans did not lose all of its integral social networks. We all feared a year or more ago that the social clubs and Indians would be disbursed to the four winds, that the famlies that built the St. Joseph altars and people the truck parades on Mardi Gras Day might never return. We were concerned that the unique aspects of our culture they represent would be lost forever. Every passing day that seems less true. Indians and second liner's march. Churches our inept hierarchies had written off and tried to close meet. While the New Orleans Recreation Department sits in disarrary, the Carrollton Boosters are organizing sports for kids. St. Joseph Altars are built, and the truck parades rolled until my children could take no more. We are building the New Jeruselum right under Ceaser's nose and the mayor is forced, for lack of any accomplishment of his own, to adopt the neighborhood plans and claim them as his. Let him. We know who will really have built the community center in Mid-City.

Americans may not be joining the Elks or Rotarians as they did a half-century ago, but in organizations like the NOLA bloggers we are building the new Rotarians: self-organized groups that are born and grow both for the fellowship and the necessity of organized public service. Here is New Orleans we are increasingly proving out the second part of the "bowling alone" thesis: that this dissolution of the social contract is not an inrreversible trend. Here in Debriseville, we are joining together to do what ever it takes to make sure that in the future we will all be bowling together to a Cajun dance band at the Rock-and-Bowl.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

A clean slate

"How you like dem ersters?"
-- Famously corrupt New Orleans
Mayor Robert Maestri to visiting
President Franklin D. Roosevelt

So, City Councilmember-at-large Oliver Thomas, a favorite to succeed "Chutzpa" Ray Nagin, has fallen like so many before him. Commentators all across this nation will cluck their tongues tomorrow and wonder what is wrong with us, staring out the windows of their high-rise, media-conglomerate studios vaguely in our direction, and thereby missing all of the corruption around them.

Try Googling (should that be capitalized? Should it even be a verb? Have you ever Chevroleted or Jesused or Kleenexed someone before? sorry...) Try searching the Internet for city government corruption. Funny, New Orleans comes up fourth when I try that, and on the blog that one of those link to, New Orleans is listed behind San Diego, Atlanta and Philadelphia in the post. What is up with those people in San Diego? Perhaps it has something to do with so many people with such short haircuts spending all that time in the sun on the golf course.

That would not, how ever, explain Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. I find the headline "`Uncle Ted' Stevens's Corruption Probe Imperils Aid for Alaska" odd. What sort of aid, precisely, does a state that receives so much in oil royalty payments from the federal government that they cut checks to their citizens rather than collect taxes. Must be nice to actually get paid to have your oil taken. Maybe we should look into that for Louisiana.

New Orleans and Louisiana in general isn't particularly more corrupt than the rest of the nation. How many prominent men and women have done their "perp walks" in the last few decades, and how many more have looted companies and governments with impunity. Our local reputation arises in part because we tolerate the little bits of corruption, the expectation that someone who performs a service should be given a little something extra. My wife used to be amazed at my insistence that I tip people like city garbage collectors. I was raised to make sure no tradesman or laborer should leave my property thirsty or without some money is his pocket. I'm not sure what the root of that is, but I suspect it is the pervasive poverty of those who do the most menial jobs, perhaps even a throw back to the master-slave relationship. Whatever the cause, that large economy of small tips and favors is the way things are done down here.

From that, it's not a large leap to expect government to run on the same principles.

In Washington and the nicer states of the nation, these things are done with a bit more discretion. Contributions are given, dinners are held, and tax breaks and government contracts rain like manna on the Israelites. No one should suggest this is corrupt. At least I know the arguments well, having rehearsed them during my years defending the system while I worked on Capital Hill. Why, those PACs are just good people like yourselves--teachers and real estate agents and plumbers. Its downright unAmerican to suggest that they not be able to band together in free associations to stuff a little something in the pockets of the people who do all that heavy lifting for them in Congress.

What's sad about Oliver Thomas is that he is someone who tried to bridge the racial divide in this city. Many people looked to him as a reasonable successor to Nagin. Now he is out of the picture. What does that mean for a city in our situation? I think it offers, if not hope, at least an opportunity. It gives us one more chance to move beyond the alphabet soup of political organizations that have one after the other ruled this city, back to the days of Maestri's Regular Democratic Organization in the first half of the last century.

Machine politics with all of the baggage of patronage and the potential for corruption is something that should be carted away with all the sodden sheet rock and moldy sofas. We need to find people who are neither the wards of political machines nor the step-'n-fetch-its of the old-line Uptown circle of clubs and krewes. The machines that that arose out of the civil rights movement foolishly followed in the steps of the Italians and Irish before them in other large cities, becoming a conduit for transferring patronage and corruption to a new group because it was their turn. The old money power structure has failed for over fifty years to effectively govern the city or, when they lost control of City Hall, to use their money and influence for any general good.

As the old leadership fall or are taken out one by one in the aftermath of the Flood, there is still the promise we saw in the aimmediate ftermath of disaster: the possibility that we would be given a clean slate, given the chance to make our city over into something that preserved the best of what it was while eradicating the worst of what it was. Every day that takes us further from that path is more disheartening than the last. I have to view these continuing collisions between the old way and a determined federal prosecutor as second chances to do it right.

As I've written here repeatedly of late, the issue that is most likely to drag us down is the profound racial divide boarding on the paranoiac that governs every one's reaction to events. We cannot let ourselves be ruled by people who see in the Landrieu Administration and its integration of Blacks into the city's leadership and government as the root of every ill of today, or those who view any criticism of an elected Black official however venal or incompetent as if it were a harangue at a torchlight procession to the noose. Those who are the heirs of the integrationist and the segregationist have nothing to contribute. They are too bound to a past that the Flood very nearly washed away.

But not quite.

Here in our solitary salons of the blogosphere some names of our own have been bandied about as candidates for the vacancy Oliver Thomas' almost certain resignation on Monday will create. While those nominated in the underworld of Internet comments are just the sort of people I would have running city hall, they suffer from what Hunter S. Thompson once called "a profound racial handicap". They are white. I think that to avoid touching off another firestorm of paranoid ranting by civil rights has-beens and their friends among the ministry, Thomas' replacement will have to be Black.

That we even have to have this conversation as if were were settling the civil wars of Lebanon or Iraq is a sad commentary, but I'll stipulate to it as the lawyers would say. It is my own belief that it will be easier for the right Black candidate to reach out to the white community than the opposite, at least in the current atmosphere. I think that given the level of paranoia in some circles, Thomas' replacement will not be Bart Everson or Karen Gadbois as some of my fellow bloggers have suggested, although I'd pretty much follow either of them to the gates of hell and back.

I have no idea who it should or will be. I only know that we need someone to fulfill the promise Nagin offered but proved incapable of delivering, the promise of someone outside the old machines who could bridge the two communities, could appease the fears of both communities while promising the ability to run something as complex and cranky as a city and make it work. It should be someone like Bart or Karen, people who are giving immensely of their lives to rebuild this city without any thought of reward, people of high character, noble purpose and immense energy. We need in our next election to run a clean slate.

Somewhere in this city of now 300,000 people like Bart and Karen are reading the news about Thomas and wondering as I am what will happen next. If they are going to step forward, now is the time to do so. We have missed so many chances to make a real change of direction in the last few years, I don't know how many more we are going to get. Right now we are all an angry rabble, black and white, uptown and downtown, river and lakefront. We are ready to believe the worst when we hear it. Without some real leadership, we can no more save this city than the children in Lord of the Flies could recreate the polis of ancient Greece. Without people of good will ready to step forward, we are instead liable to end up hunting each other through the rubble with sharpened sticks.

Friday, August 10, 2007


"Do I worry about [the murders in New Orleans]? Somewhat. It's not good for us, but it also keeps the New Orleans brand out there, and it keeps people thinking about our needs and what we need to bring this community back. So it is kind of a two-edged sword. Sure it hurts, but we have to keep working everyday to make the city better."
Mayor C. Ray Nagin to Fox 8 News, from a Times-Picayune story

How long, Lord? How long?

I asked this, what: seven, eight month's ago?

How long, Lord, how long? ". . . Thou feedest them with the bread of tears; and givest them tears to drink in great measure. Thou makest us a strife unto our
neighbours: and our enemies laugh among themselves . . .", the Psalmist laments
in number 80. Unlike the children of Israel, release for the [people of New Orleans] is as close as the nearest tank of gas and entrance to the interstate. A conversation with a friend [back in December], a couple that came home early and rebuilt and who threw themselves into the endless parade of rebuilding meetings, turned to talking whistfully of what life would be like in Memphis, and I wonder, how

We are branded, Mr. Mayor. We wear the indelible mark of a people foolish enough to live in a city below sea level, behind levees built by a government we know incompetent, governed by fools and scoundrels of our own choosing, in a city where the streets run with blood while houses are torn down at random and it's called recovery. The branding burns our foreheads like the mark of the people of the biblical beast; cries out like numbers tatooed on the wrists of the survivors of the Nazis: we suffered and we will never forget; is hidden in shame sometimes like the scars of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Like the tatooed people of the last century, we will rise up and go on and build the New Jeruselum, will rebuild our city as Hiroshma and Nagasaki were rebuilt, will not accept the mark as a sign of the end of time. I listened to a radio talk show host ranting the other day about all of the people who say they are leaving because of the crime, because of it all. I hear those stories, too. I heard them back at the turn of the year.

The couple I spoke with are still here. Everyday more people come home. We are determined. We have been tested and have passed through the water and been made stronger. You, Mr. Mayor, have been tested and found wanting. Every day someone who voted for you in Houston or Atlanta comes home, and sees the result while your family settles into Dallas. How much longer do you think we will tolerate this before we march again to city hall, sit down, and wait for your to announce your resignation. How many more must die and how many salvagable houses demolished before we are not content to sit peacefully on the steps and wait for you to leave, but come in to get you.

The brand you need to concern yourself with, Mr. Mayor, is the first flaming brand that lights those in the rest of the crowd, the flickering firelight playing off of the sharp times of the pitchforks and the glassy, angry eyes of the crowd calling for you to be given to them for the crucifiction. How much more do you think the city can really take before we begin to organize ourselve in our own defense against crime, before we confront your random bulldozers with something sturdier than flimsy Do Not Demolish signs?

If you think we are not capable of whatever is required of us, look about your ruined city and consider that we have come home in the hundreds of thousands, to this. We are ready for anything, and we are of one kin with the people who stormed Bunker Hill, who followed Pickett up that hill, who today patrol the streets of Bagdhad. We did not look around at the desolation and turn around and go back to Texas. We came determined and driven. We will do whatever is asked of us to defend and save this place we love. And our patience has run thin.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Rising Tide 2

NEW ORLEANS—A community of over 100 New Orleans, La.-based bloggers will sponsor Rising Tide 2, the second annual conference to examine the state of post-Katrina/Federal Flood recovery in their native city. The conference will be held Aug. 24-27, 2007. The main conference will take place at the New Orleans Yacht Club, 403 N Roadway St, on Saturday, August 25 with registration starting at 8:30 am.

Featured Speaker will be author and columnist David Zirin, author of Welcome to the Terror Dome. His book of essays on sports and society opens and closes with chapters on the New Orleans Superdome, first as shelter of last resort in August 2005 (the Terrordome of the tile) and again when the New Orleans Saints returned to play their first home game against the backdrop of a city still in ruins a full year later.

The conference will feature day long panel discussions on issues of the recovery of New Orleans, including panel discussions on Politics & Corruption, a discussion of community-led recovery titled Civic is Sexy, and a panel of New Orleans writers discussing the flood’s impact on their work. Featured speakers include Matt McBride, whose blog Fix The Pumps has exposed the continuing failures of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans and author Joshua Clark, who has just published the well-received memoir of life in post-flood New Orleans Heart Like Water.

Cost of the day-long conference is $20, and includes lunch from Dunbar’s. Featured speakers will be offering their books for sale. This year the conference will kick-off with a Friday, Aug. 24 party and screening of Katrina-related short films and videos at Buffa’s Restaurant and Lounge, 1001 Esplanade Ave from 7:30-10:30 pm. Cash bar available.

For more information on the conference or to register, visit or call toll-free 866-910-2055.

Last year’s successful conference featured keynoters Chris Cooper and Robert Block, reporters for the Wall Street Journal and co-authors of Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security.

Click the link above or the graphic at right to learn more and register.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

In the Zone

Today I walked past the Fairmont Hotel on University Place and the back door was ajar. I stopped and leaned over the police barricades that still block the entrance and peered over the once red carpet on the steps--now a burnt umber--down the long lobby hallway into the dark. There was enough light to admire the first ornate arch in the long procession that divides the lobby, and I was fascinated at the lizardish dragon rampant on the gold colored span. The hallway was strung with a chain of work lamps that together with the receding arches gave the impression of looking into a mine works. It was difficult to see much past that first arch in the dim tunnel. A distant chandelier that still hangs between the arches winked faintly with refracted light.

I can't tell you the last time or reason I had to walk down the hallway of the hotel we all know as the Roosevelt, but I do have an almost visceral memory, like the recollection we have of dreams, of walking down through that lobby, stopping in at Bailey's on the Baronne Street side for a cocktail after whatever event it was that drew me there. Still, I can't remember the occasion. That glimpse into the past of Sazerac and the Blue Room (a venue I peered into once but never visited for a concert) sent me rummaging in long forgotten corridors of my own mind, dimly lit and little visited themselves, trying to recall the reason for my last visit without success.

In New Orleans we tend to live in our cherished past a lot of the time. For us history is not a marker on the side of the road, one notable building or a small district full of quaint shops to which we take visitors. Our past stands all around us, bears down on us like the towers of Manhattan on a first time visitor. It reaches up like a hand from the grave and tries to trip our ever step forward, the smoky ghosts of slavery blinding us and the afterbirth of the civil rights movement twisting every turn of public policy in ways we can not seem to stop. It is not just the the momentous events of the past we must contend with, but a thousand small things from the past that inform the way we live in the present moment the way water cups a swimming fish or the breezes lift a coasting bird. Our past may be monumental in spots and burdensome at some moments, but it is also as ever present as the humidity, a very part of who we are and how we live.

In spite of that awful moniker Big Easy, New Orleans has never been an easy place to live. Just ask my wife, who traded the Nordic efficiency of the upper Midwest for a turn in the south, a place where mañana and baksheesh are not just scores in Scrabble but instead the way we govern the machinery of our life. I won't rehearse the entire litany of woe involved in rebuilding a city from scratch. Suffice it to say that every few steps forward, as we watch the ground carefully for roofing nails or bits of nail-studded plaster lath, we walk forehead first into something hard.

In spite of the weight of history and the difficulty of the moment, I am not living in the past. Increasingly, I am living in a Richard Alpert Right Now, a locus in time informed by the landscape around me and my sense of its age, its rightness for the place, the uneven and green-occluded site lines of a city settling into the earth as perfectly as a Mayan ruin rising out of the jungle. The monumentality of the city informs the moment as you perceive it, but to truly live here is to walk through a series of present moments like cells in a film, the action is in front of you or inside of you and the great pillared oaks and moss-draped homes are just backdrop.

I think it is in part that very difficulty, as well as something in the climate, that leads me to find myself increasingly living in a present moment. More worrying is the feeling that here where it's After the End of the World, I am becoming like Thomas Pynchon's anti-hero Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity's Rainbow: inexplicably entangled with the ugly juggernaut of history as it unfolded in World War II until he disconnected from it altogether, withdrawing into himself, his "temporal bandwidth" approaching zero.

There is also the story about Tyrone Slothrop, who was sent into the Zone to be present at his own assembly perhaps, heavily paranoid voices have whispered, his time's assembly and there ought to be a punch line to it, but there isn't. The plan went wrong. He is being broken down instead, and scattered. His cards have been laid down... laid out and read, but they are the cards of a tanker and feeb: they point only to a long and scuffling future, to mediocrity not only in his life but also, heh, heh, in his chroniclers too..." (737-38)
In New Orleans our way of life is as old as the oaks that brush the ground in the park near my house but for me it as timelessly in the present as a squirrel frozen on a branch of one of those oaks. It's neither as Zen as it sounds or as dark as Slothrop's fate, but after 20 years abroad in America Norte I find I am slipping into the easy, my horizon constrained by the familiar dinner litany what am I eating today, what last meal does it remind me of, and where do we want to eat next week.

Part of it is the need to focus on the task at hand. To me, it is the renovation of my bathroom to repair a leak and re-tile. It's not a small project. We had the room gutted to the studs, pulling out the archaeological layers of sheet rock and plaster from 50 years of construction and repair. The project is the recent history of the city in microcosm, and because of all of the demands of work and family, it is all of the reconstruction I am able to handle for the moment. The city will largely have to get on without me.

At work I am a project manager for large software efforts, and the tracks of several of them are converging at critical points this month. In my last job, where I had been long enough to have a core of good friends I worked with, I used to approach these moments by sending out an email with the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy "Don't Panic" logo, and an MP3 I had of "It's The End Of The World As We Know It". I'm not sure the guys at the new bank are quite ready for that.

Its important in these large endeavors not to lose cool in the moments of high drama, or to let the endless procession of problems grind you into the ground. Some days I feel like the number two on a ship attacked by Zeros in some World War Two movie. It's important I keep everyone focused on the task in front of them, in spite of the explosions and the strafing fire, if we're all going to get through this. Don't think about the sky full of planes trying to kill you. Focus on the one that actually has you in its sites, point the machine gun, and shoot back.

The reconstruction of the city around me will last at least as long as WWII. There will be long periods of boredom and routine punctuated by times of great excitement, much of that of the unpleasant kind. Yes, we will have shore leave for Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest but most of our time will be spent scrapping rust and paint knowing all the while that just over the ocean's horizon there is something threatening.

In this peculiar armada the officers are as useless as the French nobility. They look fine high up there in their crosswise hats and give marvelous speeches, but we know from hard experience that they are worthless. People mutter all around the city about mutiny of one form or another, but mutiny is a lot of damn work and it is awfully hot. I like to think we could yet rise up and have our storming of the Bastille moment but every passing day it seems more unlikely. No Fletcher Christian or Maximilien Robespierre has stepped forward to lead us, and every angry mob needs a leader.

Perhaps I ask for too much. If history and the city consumes us all one-by-one but the city lives on, that perhaps what was always intended, why were were all lured home. In the end, perhaps Pynchon has given us the model to surviving It's After the End of the World. If history has gone too wrong for any one of us to stop what is happening around us, maybe it is better to amble down a shady street in New Orleans without a particular thought in my head except the distant sound of what might be Slothrop's harmonica, to disappear into the random noise in the signal.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

White House to MN: It's your own fault

I've tried to move beyond the anger of the first year or more of this blog, but I simply can't help it tonight.

The first response from the Bush White House to the tragedy in Minnesota:

White House press secretary Tony Snow said the Interstate 35W span rated 50 on a scale of 120 for structural stability. "This doesn't mean there was a risk of failure, but if if an inspection report identifies deficiencies, the state is responsible for taking corrective actions," [White House spokesman Tony Snow] said.
Not our problem, dude. Is this a great country. Or what.

My other issue (already raised by other bloggers including Dangerblonde and People Get Ready) was the comparison to other major failures of public engineering. Among those mentioned were the Big Dig failure in Massachusetts and the explosion of an aging gas line in Manhattan.

One other small example of a public engineering failure, one which took over 1,700 lives and did over $100 billion in damage, wasn't mentioned.

Thanks for remembering, America.

Friday Morning Update: Thank you Rod Diridon of Marketplace, the NPR business show.

[Host Kai] Ryssdal: It's worth mentioning that it's not just bridges, as tragic as yesterday's incident was. It's water supplies and tunnels. It's the steam pipe that exploded in New York City a couple of weeks ago.

Diridon: It's the levees that we've recognized as being deficient in New Orleans. ...

"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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