Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Cities of the Dead

"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"

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. (The Folses 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 (although you'd have a hard time finding any in the pre-Katrina French Quarter), our jazz 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 mound off it's feet before it can be found elsewhere.

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 humblest 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 quietly 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 a fear that the New Orleans we remembered is slowing eroding under a relentless barage of pre-fab mainstream "culture" that has converted the Famous Door into a karaoke bar; that we have become characters in an Anne Rice novel, living testemants to history but living outside of it.

We are haunted by the past that surrounds us in orderly white rows. We are haunted today 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--the faces from small paintings in peeling gilt frames of men named Honore' and Omer; the former owner of Stella Plantation and his wife, an ancient woman we ignorantly called "Aunt Tante"; two great aunts who lived in a first floor apartment on Royal Street where I spent Hurricane Betsy; my father who never got the chance to live his dream to hang his paintings on the fence at Jackson Square.

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


Today the death toll from Katrina has passed 1,000, almost 800 from NOLA.

The New York Times reports that 6,800 people are logged as "missing" by FEMA.

The survivors are not allowed into the top secret morgue facility in St. Gabriel, operated by a firm previously most famous for dumping hundreds of bodies in the swamp behind a cemetary because the creamatory wasn't working.

No one has yet explained Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee's early comment that only 10% of bodies initially found in Jefferson Parish would be counted as "Katrina dead". The others presumably died of natural causes, in no way exacerbated by the stress of imminent drowning or by days of dehydration.

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Searchers smashed through doors in New Orleans on Wednesday, bringing their hunt for the dead to homes that had been locked and to blocks hardest hit by Katrina's flooding. Behind those doors, officials said they expected a sharply escalating body count even as the overall death toll passed 1,000.

"There still could be quite a few, especially in the deepest flooded areas," said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Jeffrey Pettitt, who is overseeing the retrieval of bodies. "Some of the houses, they haven't been in yet." Officials said searchers are beginning to find more children.

Many homes are unsafe to enter, while others lay under piles of muck and debris. Some homes are so structurally unsound they are marked, "Do not enter," and seemingly every house has mold growing from every surface.

The difficulty of gauging the number of dead in those neighborhoods will delay a final count for weeks, said Dr. Louis Cataldi, medical incident commander for Louisiana.

"There's some folks out there we can't retrieve," he said.

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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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