Thursday, October 05, 2006

Ghosts of the Flood

'' . . . 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 crowed 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 they 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 ghost of the Flood is 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 Flood—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. Je me souviens.

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.

Katrina NOLA New Orleans Hurricane KatrinaThink New Orleans Louisiana FEMA levees flooding Corps of Engineers We Are Not OK wetlands news rebirth Debrisville Federal Flood 8-29 Rising Tide Remember ghosts je me souviens

Note-Reposting to try to force Technorati to report this article. This note is the only change from Wednesday, Oct. 5

Wow. Well said. I guess you need to wax eloquent, otherwise we'd be inclined to dismiss the story of the beads just like you say. But wrapping it up like this, who would dare? I believe you, and that is one of the freakiest things I've ever heard.

Someone seems to have tied the "brown cord" or its equivalent at the corner of Jeff Davis and Conti. I hope to post a picture soon.

PS: Strictly speaking, wasn't that Scrooge's "undigested bit of beef," not Marley's?
Synchronicity is a lot more than meaningful coincidence. Fine post.
incredible post. thanks.
I'm not inclined to dismiss the story of the beads. Here's a strange coincidence that happened to me the Saturday before the storm, when I evacuated. Whenever I decide to evacuate, I leave early on because I have five cats to deal with and the prospect of sitting on the highway with them for twelve hours is too much. If I wait too long, I'd just as soon stay put. Add that to the fact that my husband was already slated to go out of town early Saturday morning, and my mind was made up late Friday night.

I dropped my husband off at the airport in Kenner at 7:30am. By the time I hit I-10 and cleared the last outskirts of the city, it was approximately a quarter to eight. That didn't seem significant at the time; I was more concerned with the yowling of some very unhappy cats. Later that day around lunchtime, I happened to glance at my watch. My wristwatch had stopped dead at 7:42am, which is exactly when the last of the New Orleans suburbs were disappearing in my rearview mirror. It gave me the chills, and a terrible sense of foreboding. It reminded me of the old world custom of stopping the clocks in your house when someone dies.

Sure, I'd had that watch for almost a year, and it was just a department store fashion watch. It didn't cost any more than forty bucks. Maybe the battery was ready to crap out, although it kept time perfectly well up until that morning. However, I didn't bother trying to get a new battery for the thing. I just got another watch.
In the 2 weeks before Katrina, I had the same dream 3 times. It was a hurricane dream but the overwhelming message I got was "You have to get out".
I left at 1:00 Sunday morning.

It's a mysterious world.

Beautiful post, Mark.
Only real New Orleanians will understand this post.


The city is filled with ghosts, almost as if something stirred the pot and all opens up. I see the ghosts.
we are all haunted....yeah...I love that. I truly have felt like a ghost, or (forgive me) zombie, since the storm.

Beautiful post man. Thanks for this.
Thanks, Mark. Yes the ghosts are here, and yes I've felt like one regularly in the last year.

Beautiful post.

I needed it today. Read it right after posting about FEMA and mental health! Your piece was much better than running off to the doc (if one could be found) for meds!
What a stirring post. The search tags do look like veves, don't they? I guess they are now.
Wow, eloquently put. There was definitely a forboding sense before the storm. People who've lived here forever -- like my dad and my grandmother -- who've never thought of evacuating, for some reason, evacuated for Katrina.

On a local station, on 8/29/06, they showed footage from the weekend before she hit. They interviewed an older couple from Slidell as they were about to hit the road; the wife said [paraphrasing]: "I never leave; I like to stay. But yesterday morning [Saturday], while sitting at the table, we just looked at each other and had the same thought, 'We gotta go.'" Then she said: " I don't know why but I just got a feeling about this one."

Alot of us did.
I have never posted on your blog but have been a reader for a long time. This is the best I have read. You captured the feeling.

I shall remain anonymous...that is how I like it.
Wonderful. People honor the dead to keep them alive. New Orleanians love life so much, we share our lives with our dead. There's simply no better place to live--or to be dead--than New Orleans.


Was September 2006 the first month without more Katrina/levee victims bodies found?

Or were there some more and I missed the news?
gYou get it. New Orleans is the only place where things like this happen. An alternate universe? The in-between space? The connection to the past and to the dead? I got chills when I read this post. Here is what happened to me, but I never have told anyone...fearing they would not understand.

I did not live in NO when Katrina hit, but still consier it my HOME. A few days before Katrina, I could not sleep. The Friday before, I got in my car to go to work, and I sat there for about 3 minutes, staring into space. I just stopped. My mind went blank. At that point, I didn't even know that Katrina was a threat. That night, it was muggy, hot and humid. Much more so than I had ever felt before up here in East Tennessee. I thought, geez...this is what it felt like when Georges came through. Later that night I returned home to see that Katrina was hitting FL. Was the stare a gift from the spirits? One last moment of silence to remember how life was? One brief chance to be thankful for what had not happened?

On Sunday night, I watched's cams. The wind ripping, the rain slaming. They went out one by one. The last was the parade cam (I think on Canal). As the trees twisted in the wind, eery flashes of light rose from the ground. I knew they were ghosts, I knew they were spirits...coming to guide the poor souls home.
I watched the cams go out one by one Sunday night too. Paradecam is at Fat Harry's on St. Charles at Napoleon. My son's apartment is just beyond it's view.

Mark, this is a magnificent post. I think the spirits move you to write most beautifully for them. Thank you, for you made me remember and brought tears to my eyes. Your story of the beads was most particularly moving. I'm glad you finally shared it.

Every time you write about hearing them, feeling them calling you to remember, you make me think of the Union and Confederate soldiers who skirmished in these woods in which I live, days before the battle of Atlanta.

Your words are beauty borne of loss. We are the beneficiaries. Thanks.
Wow! What an excellent bit of prose.

I do beg to differ on one point though, it is not just N.O. that has that magic. N.O. has a special magic for sure, but other powerful magic can be found in other places too (but not Baton Rouge). BR is a place of corruption. Anyone who has spent time there is likely tainted. This has been my experience.

We to the West also have our own Mojo. Remember that too. Come visit. You will be welcome. This though does not in any way take away from the fine words you wrote. So, thank you, from an adopted son of the bayous and this State. We pray for you and the city, we really do.

The CP
That was excellent Mark. I've had my ghostly experiences in New Orleans and didn't wig out. When the 'hand' pressed against my back as I lay in bed in an 1827 Creole townhouse supposedly alone...I merely acknowledged it, asked that it not knock me out of bed and went back to sleep. The next night (Halloween), the spirit(s) opened the very difficult gate for me before I could even get the key to it. And they left little bruises on one of my travel companion's arm! They didn't care for her. I have been taking pics of the X's in the Marigny, the ones that are peeking back thru the paint. I tell them, we haven't forgotten them, we never will.
word verification: stries = lines...apropos or what!?
(full disclosure to others: I don't have a home in New Orleans, yet - and yet I live more in New Orleans than I do where I pay rent 5-1/2 hours to the west)
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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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