Monday, October 31, 2005

"Natural Disasters Don't Discriminate" ?

Today is Halloween, which means that in addition to trucks full of National Guard and contractors, the streets are also teeming with superheroes on bikes and winged angels driving pickup trucks. Tonight I hope we are all out in force, costumed freaks dancing our demons away.

The other day I spent five hours at the FEMA station with Yogi, an 82-year-old African-American man who lives across the street from the clinic. We were both there to find out what happened to our checks, which were supposed to have been mailed out weeks ago. I know so many rich white folks who got their checks back in September. Some even got two. Neither Yogi nor his son have gotten anything yet; meanwhile they don't have a phone and depend on the Red Cross and neighbors for some of their meals. And they are better off than most in the neighborhood.

The FEMA office is a cryptic maze of desks and folding chairs, and depending on what you're there for, they assign you to a different row of folding chairs. Every time someone gets up to go see a caseworker, everyone else in the chairs behind them has to get up and move one spot closer to the top of the line. Every time we had to move, all the old folks had to heave up their tired bodies, gather possessions, maneuver walking sticks, readjust to the new seat. We are all used to moving too much these days. From three seats back I could hear Yogi's rusty bones creaking like old doors.

There's a big poster on the wall there that says, "Natural disasters don't discriminate." I spent a good part of my five hours wondering who put that poster there, and why. Do they want us to scrape our minds for any trace of logic to convince us that we are all equal here, that the people who waded through floodwaters, and lost relatives, and waited under a scorching sun for days with no food and water, and who are even now being prohibited from seeing their houses, and who are even now being stopped by police and arrested with a force and exuberance greater than i have ever seen before, even here, are not overwhelmingly poor and Black? And that so much of this, and the racism that allows it to exist, is not actually the result of disaster but the cause of it?

After being herded around the FEMA office for so long, Yogi felt like he needed to thank me for taking him on this errand. He and his son cooked an unfathomably huge meal for me at their house. They're worried that the hippie cooks at the clinic don't know how to cook mustard greens properly, so they made me bring my leftovers back to everyone else. They put an enormous amount of greens and cornbread and rice and potato salad into a plastic Betty Boop bowl, covered it in foil, and told me to make sure everyone got a taste of what "real greens" are like.

After work on Saturday I ran, in my work clothes, to a street parade with the Box Of Wine Krewe. It started in the Treme and ran to MiMi's in the Marigny. The Soul Rebels brass band played, improvising lyrics to traditional songs so the refrains now said, "Where's my FEMA check?" I was one of the only ones not in costume, among a horde of pirates, dominatrixes, and various abstract renditions of hurricane loss. Along the route I picked up branches and streamers and scraps of yellow Caution tape so that by the end of the evening I was a tree/majorette. I felt more at home then than I ever would have if I'd stayed in my unaorned hoodie. Being in costume is really really important in New Orleans. By the end of the evening, the dominatrixes were whipping the National Guard's humvees and all these individual Guard people kept coming over to us and saying things like, "Man, we really wish we could come party with y'all.. maybe after our shift? how long y'all gonna be out here for?"

Then I went to see the Rebirth Brass Band play at Tipitinas. I've been seeing Rebirth play since I was about thirteen and it's been a while since I was blown away by one of their shows. But that night it was beautiful. The majority of the crowd was local Black folks; it was the first time since I've been back in New Orleans where I've been around so many Black folks just hanging out. I mean, hundreds of people, singing along to all the songs. Leaning over the balconies, arms outstretched. Dancing on chairs and tables, pushing over the stage and dancing on speakers, so many people dancing on the stage you couldn't tell who was the band and who wasn't. It was one of my most welcome-home moments yet, all these hundreds of sweaty people in this familiar space, each and every one of us making that music.

The next morning I took a long walk through the Bywater, where there are still streets that have things like, "Mom bad legs please help now" spray-painted on them. People walking dogs and watering flowers amidst all these piles of sticks that used to be someone's house. There's one silver warehouse there that I used to love, shiny in its decay. Now strips of the corrugated metal have been peeled away and you can see straight through it, all the way to the Mississippi River Bridge, silent and gleaming like church towers in the white morning.


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