Guest Columnist #85 - Shelley part 2

I have been to New Orleans 3 times since the storm for a total of five days. We got in with some bogus company documents printed off the computer in a way that looked so janky I just can’t believe they worked, but they did and I got to survey the city a bit while it was still a ghost town occupied only by military, police, and the developers driving escorted around the city in search of property investments. The first visit was difficult, walking into my home I had only seen some photos of since two friends snuck in by bike, finding a canoe on the bayou a then canoeing to my house, through the rubble of my garden to my door to find it swollen shut. My house got about three feet of water inside, which in my mind didn’t seem like much until I saw the state of the water, and later smelled it myself. It was the toxic soup that we had always talked of over beers in the quarter, for seeming the impending hurricane that might some day wreck our lives. Water, though soft, gentle and pliable can do amazingly destructive things. It overturns shelves laden with books, rearranges furniture and soaks papers and photos into soggy, mushy, moldy, unsalvageable masses. I didn’t think losing things would really affect me. I have tried for years to cultivate this feeling of non attachment to objects, but have at the same time been an avid collector of junk and memories, photos of years and years past, and have never thrown away a single letter received since I got my first one, some time in high school. I had boxes of them, and after years of living in a van, had cultivated a love for metal containers to store such memories in, and needless to say, they didn’t fare well in the waters, nor did their contents. I don’t think I will ever be able to stomach the smell of rusty metal again.  Surveying the mess in 95 degree humid heat and with the smell of rotting things and elephant ears, and some deathly smell of my chickens who didn’t make it through the storm was no fun. Death, dead rats in the bathtub, dead grass and fertilizer in the football field across from my house, dead dogs in the street. All of it added up made me lose the desire to be in my home, and New Orleans, a feeling I never thought I would have. The second and the third visit, the latter lasting three days, got a little better, and over that time I salvaged what I could from my house, drying things in the sun wiping the mold off to store it in a dryer building in front of my place. Finding precious things that helped take the sting out of the other losses. Then the news came of another hurricane, one that could again top or but the levees and leave my things again in feet of water. Again, as on the day I had originally evacuated, I couldn’t muster the strength, or maybe the belief in the impending doom, to put my things up a little higher. “Fuck it”, I thought, “If it gets wet again, maybe I just shouldn’t own things, or care about them.” So I left things as they were. The piles of photos and art work that John had taken from my walls, the letters from a great advice giving friend I was desperately trying to salvage. I left it all there and again to evacuate. We spent our final hours on the last day tarping the just purchased collective warehouse I had once lived in, its roofing material torn off in the storm. My lungs hurt so bad at that point that even hammering in a roofing nail felt like torture. Leaving the city felt like a relief. It just had been so much, digging through my things, driving with John to his house to salvage what he could of his stuff and that of his two housemates who were picking apples in New Hampshire. His house was incredibly smelly, incredibly moldy and still wet. We drove to the homes of so many friends, feeding cats and dogs along the way, taking notes and photos of the waterlines to report to them how their lives had fared. The city was so empty we could make it from one end to another in 10 minutes it seemed, debris and mud and hundreds of washed out cars lining the streets were are only impediments. We saw almost the whole of the city minus the sunken towns of the Lower Ninth and Saint Bernard Parish. Some places looked like nothing had happened. Other buildings lost walls or were cracked by trees falling over in the soaked earth. The heat brought an intensity to the days of work, and a restlessness to the evenings shut up in a dry house away from the mosquitoes, not even the slightest breeze blowing. But the moonrise, full and yellow over the silent city made it feel worth it. I could imagine the lost sounds, the way we could hear the Caliope’s organ play from way up in the middle of the city, the train whistle from the Bywater, the hip hop blaring from cars and the sounds of the music seeping from bars all over the French Quarter. Birds were strangely absent as well it seemed, and I could hear the two lost dogs in the neighborhood approaching from two blocks away. It was silent and beautiful. If only the summer plants were still blooming, the datura, the night blooming jasmine, the sweet olive. Man, I hope we can smell those smells again some day.

This is all personal stuff though that seems miniscule in comparison to the bigger picture. And even that is a picture that just keeps getting bigger and bigger. When I think about it, the way this mess is going to affect my city, my home, to the way it will affect the country, it just makes my head feel all spinney. George W is still using this as an excuse to reference military strategy, as a way to apply government force to our cities and towns in a totally unprecedented way. Realtors and investors already have their hands and eyes all over the city trying to figure out how to profit on the suffering of others and all I can do is wonder where all my favorite musicians are going to live after all of this. Where will the renters go? The people who have worked and studied hard to maintain the culture that tourists crave, without ever being recognized for the contribution they have made to the survival of our city. What about all the children of the city, bussed out from the Superdome with or without their parents and relocated to places their families don’t have the means to return from? Without operational schools (though we never really had many of those) where will those kids have to return to, and what is a city without children? What will happen to all the spaces in the city left after demolished houses are actually demolished, when the federal government is trying to cram 100,000 mobile housing units down our throats? And how can they further blame us for our neglect in preparing for hurricanes when every time even a tropical storm is announced, mobile homes are the first to be emptied? Cable news anchors and reporters are still talking about the neglect of the levee system as if it were a problem to blame on the poor people of the city without ever blaming the mayor for having a total of three people working on hurricane preparation, and for having no food or water stored in the Superdome, the city’s shelter of last refuge, calling the hospitals at the last minute to try to loot them of supplies. Who really is to blame? The government for neglecting to take the final step towards proper levees, for denying our hospitals back up generators for years until they finally arrived only after a grant was written calling them terrorism preparedness tools. Everyone has always known that New Orleans was on track to get decimated by a hurricane like this one. California has been retrofitting buildings and bridges for years for fear of the “Big One”, yet no attention was paid to the impending doom of the already neglected South. The federal government has been ignoring us for years, at least until 2004 when Bushie made an appearance in Florida after their hits from multiple storms that won him the election. Other than that it has always been assumed that the South was to poor to give a shit about and that the racism there guaranteed a republican vote without any effort or campaigning by politicians. Forgive me for my grand generalizations. I know full well I have a thin grasp on history and politics. I am only talking about what I SEE, and that is what troubles me most, because for the most part, the real New Orleans was unseen by the world. Sure it was hugely popular for tourists, but the real New Orleans was hidden behind borders that hotels and tourists maps warned not to cross. New Orleans was found in the unvisited neighborhoods and parishes that people are now visiting through the words of old and frightened people on the news picked off of roofs in those areas. People, including my family members, have vocalized their surprise at how different these people look from the America represented to the world through media, advertising and HBO movies. Our little dirty secret just escaped from the closet and now some people have some explaining to do. This is what I am afraid of, that this lack of honestly about this place, these people, their culture is going to turn into some kind of cover up, some kind of quick “white washing” (so to speak) of the place under the guise of rebuilding “bigger and better”. It brings the fear in me, that these people will be brushed under the rug, forgotten forever with the city I know and love for its beauty, faults and eccentricities. So many people have been fighting and working to help the city through its hard times by getting to know the people and the culture and by being able to accept some of those faults as part of the inescapable beauty of our home. The government may have been neglecting New Orleanians, but a lot of people haven’t. Those voices need to be searched out and heard, made part of this process of rebuilding instead of focusing on the people that never really knew us anyhow.

The point of this is that the city is going to change, there is no doubt about that, but we need to make sure that the things that lead up to that change are not forgotten. It is going to be up to all of us to remind people. Those of you who watched this from afar on television, or listened to it all go down on the radio, please remind people how bad and crazy it was, remind people about who was forgotten. Remember to speculate about why all these things happened. For those of us who were here, we will remind folks, those coming home to clean and those who are ready to celebrate, of the hell this city has gone through since the storm hit. I know for me, for what I saw in those first days of my return, for the ways I desensitized myself to moving dead animals out of the road and seeing my favorite homes and belongings destroyed, that I am going to approach the celebrations with the teaspoon of sadness that celebrators in this city have always saved as a way to remember the dead and the forgotten history. I want people to remember that my city was left to drown with many of its people, with thousands of animals, and with an amazing culture that sadly, I can’t seem to live without anymore. If I knew where else I could go, maybe I would be there. Instead I am here, in the city I love, to fight to get it rebuilt, and to help people remember the things in danger of being forgotten.