Thursday, August 31, 2006

Into the breech

I was surprised at how few people cried at the memorial at the 17th Street Canal levee breach on the anniversay of Katrina, I told the interviewer with Minnestoa Public Radio. Grim determination and solemn remebrance were the best words I could find to describe to people far away the small crowd gathered to hear the names of those lost in Lakeview read and watch pink roses tossed into the canal.

The morning was breezy and bright, a rare New Orleans morning when it seems an August day might just be bearable if nine o'clock were the worst of it, if the sun would just stand still and the wind would whisk away every last drop of humidity back to the Gulf, a time to think about the going to the boat or perhaps cycling through the park, to call the office with a lame excuse and forget for a placid hour or two that the stove was just lit, that soon the air would begin to simmer.

The fresh concrete of the nearly new bridge and recapped floodwalls was as blindingly white as the tombs at Cemeteries. Raw red iron sheet piles stood up nearby at the cofferdame, and temporarily silenced cranes and pile drivers hovered over the new flood gates. We were not a funeral crowd, even by New Orleans loose standards, and the moment looked more like the dedication of some new public work rather than the commemoration of the failure of one.

One woman paraded in slow protest through the crowd in a sandwhich board of Hold The Corps Accountable signs carrying an American flag. An irregular line of men in hardhats and orange vests lined one side of the bridge, released from work on the new flood gates so that they would not disturb the moment, standing back from the crowd as if waiting for the ribbon to be cut. The Catholic deacon came in white and red robes, the Baptist minister in rumpled seersucker. The rest of us wore clothes we might chose for any other Tuesday: men dressed in polos and chinos and women in summer dresses, a picture of lunchtime on Poydras Avenue on a casual Friday, while others wore rough work clothes as if they were ready to plunge back into the ruined neighborhood behind us with tools in hand. A few matrons dressed as if today's destination were the clock at D.H. Homes and not a remembrance of the dead. Only a few VIPs tugged at tight shirt collars under dark suits.

The deacon cracked jokes in his practiced wake manner, speaking lightly to the living of their common experience with the dead before he hushed us with a prayer. They called for any family of the remembered to step forward and join the dignitaries in dispensing the flowers into the water. Here in the whitest corner of New Orleans, hard up against Metairie, two black women came forward with the others. I followed their slow march to the front peripherally, watching not the women but the reflection of their pasage in the faces of the crowd. No one seemed to find their presence remarkable in a neighborhood where blacks most often came to clean house or cut grass. Everyone who had crowded up toward the bridge took a careful step back as they passed, as if the two women were carrying the gifts to the altar.

The names were read and the flowers tossed by twos and by half dozens into the dingy canal water below, landing amid the odd trash that always seems to dot these mostly hidden and utilitarian waterways. The roses landed in a cluster around a single sheet piling that seemed to stand up for no other purpose except to display a spraypainted "17th" near the top, as if it were a part of a memorial sculpture, a reminder of the place and the pilings like it that had buckled and failed and loosed the water into Lakeview. When the reading of the names was complete, the local city council woman said a few words then tossed the official wreath the newspaper had promised in among the roses. Another prayer, and we were done.

As the tight crowd that pressed up against the bridge rail and floodwalls for the ceremony slowly backed away and sorted itself out, no one rushing off to any pressing appointment but uncertain of what to do next, the television crews clustered around a handful of the neighbors and small groups circled up in conversation. We had been told to listen for church bells, but the wind was too brisk, and we could not hear anything from the churches in the city behind us. I wandered solitarily through the crowd, and stopped to watch one woman ringing her own small bell, her eyes downcast, having her own private memorial. I shot a brief video of her, and reluctantly went up to ask her name, almost afraid to disturb her moment, ashamed to emulate the hovering cameramen.

Before I turned to go, I hung one more time over the bridge's walled railing and watched as the wind took the flowers and pushed them not into the lake that flooded us but back into the canal , back toward Cemetaries and the city beyond, the sodden blossoms driven toward home by the same wind that pushed the waters into this canal and took the lives those flowers represent, that drove us all away then blew us all home again to stand on August 29, 2006 atop the Bucktown bridge.

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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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