Monday, November 28, 2005


here's a link to the first set of photos i took... pardon the awkwardness with my new digital camera :)

Friday, November 25, 2005

Sometimes things do go right

Every day for the past few months, I've seen people's stuff out on the street. Every day. Sofas, photographs, laundry, musical instruments; I'm sure you're sick of me talking about it. Sometimes, the stuff is all soggy and moldy and turned inside-out and you know it got flooded out with everything else. Lots of times, though, everything is intact and there's a big "For Rent" sign in front of the house, and I wonder.

A few weeks after I got back, it was a beautiful Saturday and lots of people had started returning to my neighborhood to clean out their houses. In less than an hour, I'd talked to three different people who had all gotten evicted by their landlords. One landlord even told her tenant, an older Black gentleman who'd been living in the place for 15 years, and doing all the renovations for free (!), that she wanted him out so she could make more money.

"That's cold," he told me. "Where does she think I'm gonna go?" He ended up moving to Baton Rouge; he says there's nothing for him here anymore.

We keep hearing stories of people coming back to find all their stuff out on the street with no notice at all. The 73-year-old neighbor of some friends in Treme who went out of town one night and came back to find everything thrown, shattered, into the street. He ended up setting up a camp on the curb outside his house because he had nowhere else to go, and that night the temperatures started dropping. Cold, cold, cold.

Until very recently, there were hardly any tenant protections in New Orleans, and people were reluctant to fight evictions anyway, because they didn't know if it was worth the hassle. One of my neighbors said he wasn't going to fight his landlord in court even if he was in the right, because he couldn't afford a lawyer, and didn't know where to find one, and wasn't sure he'd win anyway, and it still didn't resolve the fact that he needed to find someplace new to live.

Sometimes, though, things do go right.

A few days ago, team of lawyers from the People's Hurricane Fund and New Orleans Legal Assistance (NOLAC), as well as other groups, won a major victory that now makes it impossible for Katrina survivors to get evicted without adequate due process. They will be mailed eviction notices and their trials can't even be scheduled until 45 days later. And FEMA is obligated to provide information to protect survivors.


And then, the next day, FEMA, after tremendous public outcry from evacuees in hotels around the country, pushed back its deadline for evacuees to move out of FEMA-subsidized hotel rooms, giving people breathing room to look for a place until January 7.

These are 2 major victories! And they wouldn't have happened without people organizing together to improve their conditions: hurricane survivors and grassroots organizations creating a strong voice to demand real justice and accountability. What potential we have in this moment, I keep thinking.

Let's keep our voices up, y'all: right now it may be all we've got.


Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The camera, the love and the recipes

Yesterday I got back from Washington, DC. It was the first time I'd left Louisiana since I'd returned here, about five days after the storm. I was strangely apprehensive about leaving. I know this storm has made us wierd down here: I am used to people cooking huge pots of red beans for strangers on the neutral ground; I am not used to eight different kinds of toothpaste in Walgreens. What would it mean for me, I wondered, to go to a place where people take the subway to work, and don't talk to each other, and then go home, or maybe stop for groceries or a beer on the way? Could I function in a place that wasn't so marked, as we are here, by such deep collective grief?

And of course I had those moments of culture shock: looking at my friend's enormous pile of junk mail in her entryway; being amazed that I could recycle my Arizona tea can at a party; getting snapped at by a shopworker when I pocketed a tiny perfume bottle that I'd really assumed was free. (In New Orleans right now, you can find huge crates of bottled water, and dry food, and hot meals, and cleaning supplies, and toiletries, and blankets and coats and pants and baby clothes and diapers, almost anywhere. I kind of forgot that in the real world, if there's stuff in a big bin, you can't just walk up and take it.)

And of course there were all those reminders that DC is a functioning city: garbage, for example, does not consist of furniture and electrical wire and sheetrock and decaying animals. It can fit into cans that people organize neatly on their curbs. And it doesn't get picked up by tractors and bulldozers, but by garbage trucks. And every single billboard has an advertisement on it. And every single streetlight works, and the mail comes, and there are no 1-800-GOT-JUNK? signs on the telephone poles, and the powerlines don't lean down over the sidewalks like nooses. But I knew about all that. I had been expecting it, and it was somehow less wierd than I'd thought it would be to see so much intact-ness.

Here's what I wasn't expecting: the love, the camera, or the recipes.

I'd decided to take a train, partially because it was so much cheaper than flying, and partially because I wanted to look out a window for 24 hours and watch the land change. I had all these visions of myself sitting alone on a train gazing out of a window for hours and hours, not doing anything, not thinking anything. I knew it would be exactly what I needed.

Here's what really happened on the train: 20 minutes after pulling out of New Orleans, my whole car started talking. Everybody. About the storm, obviously: it's become a sort of dysfunctional security blanket for us. It gives us definition and purpose. We don't go anywhere without it, tucked, barely visible, into our back pockets.

But not only about the storm, not only about houses, jobs, relatives, schools. Not only about jail and being evicted and not being able to find the doctor. No, not only about those things. We talked about grandparents, holidays, the games we used to play as kids. We talked about cooking for about three hours. We got into arguments about how long it takes to learn how to make good red beans. A 23-year-old cook was going back to Pittsburgh, where his fiance' and three-week-old son were waiting for him. He'd found a job in Pittsburgh restaurant, where he'd convinced them to let him cook "real New Orleans" food. Now the restaurant is making all kinds of money.

"Yes, indeed," the 90-year-old great-aunt across the aisle kept saying. "Yes, indeed. But I bet it's cold up there."

"Baby, it's cold everywhere," the old man said in front of her, buried in his jacket.

Once people found out I was in medical school, that was it. "Congratulations!" people told me. The seat next to me was never empty again. "But I'm not a doctor yet," I kept saying over and over again. "I don't care, baby!" everybody said as they showed me their rashes, told me about allergies and headaches.

Then I started speaking in Spanish with a construction worker from Panama. He had gotten on the train with paint still drying on his clothes. He was going up to Atlanta to get his truck and his five roommates to come down here to work. After that all the Spanish speakers on the train made a little corner in the lounge car. Deep into the night we drank hot chocolate and talked about food and kids and immigration policy and how to fix cars.

No alone-time on that train. That was ok. Privacy might be nice sometime, but I guess now's the time for us to be together. "This is what's happening to me now," I thought, surrounded on that train by so many beautiful people. "I am so, so grateful."


The reason I went to DC in the first place was to meet with other national leaders of the American Medical Student Association (AMSA), a joyously progressive and dynamic group of medical students from across the country. I was really apprehensive about the meeting, because I'm so aware, even back in New Orleans, of how much my own capacity for doing work has shrunk in the past few months. I was worried about being around people who can function at a really high level. (And if you think medical students in general are super-high-functioning, try spending some time with these brilliant, committed, activist medical students. Whoa.) Energy is dizzying to me these days. I was worried I wouldn't be able to keep up with folks, and that people might think I was a slacker.

But then I got there, and spent the next few days being crushed in all these enormous hugs the AMSA people are sort of famous for. There is so much love among these folks. And so much committment to social justice.

And here's what else: AMSA is serious. They are totally committed. We spent a huge part of the time there talking about how to be strategic about ending healthcare disparities based on race. This is an enormous national organization of medical students, taking on insitutionalized racism in the healthcare system as a number-one priority! That's huge!

I spent so many moments, maybe while I should have been trying to catch up (!), looking at all these people who are doing so much amazing work, and thinking, "if this is the future of medicine, we might have a chance."

At the end, they gave me a digital camera.

A digital camera!!

I'd been talking to someone about how I usually hate cameras, how I feel like they interfere with memory and how they have the capacity to intrude upon the lives of the people you're filming; but how right now I feel like I really need one. I feel this huge sense of responsibility to communcate to people what's really happening here, and I think I need to be taking pitcures. The next thing I knew, Wanda and Rachel had organized with all the other national leaders to collect money... and they got me a camera!!

Nothing like that kind of gift to keep you accountable. Expect pitcures soon.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

No Losing Us

Today my mother called me to say that a family friend, a well-respected doctor, had killed himself last night. He had lost most of his patients after the storm and was struggling to rebuild his practice. Everyone knew he was depressed. I played with his kids when I was little: I remember rolling Hot Wheels through their kitchen, grabbing CapriSuns from their overflowing pantry. He hung himself in their house. All those closets we used to play hide-and-seek in.

He hung himself. After my mom told me that I couldn't breathe. I sat down on someone's pale blue steps in the middle of Dauphine Street and I couldn't even cry.

He was a good person and a good doctor. He will be missed.

Fittingly, perhaps, I went to the All-Saints' second-line this afternoon. Irvin Mayfield was playing trumpet and, as expected, lots of tourists and media showed up. At the beginning I had that "where are all the locals?" feeling that still marks so many of our cultural events. Where were we, in the midst of all those TV cameras? There are so many cameras marking our lives these days, it is hard to tell where we are sometimes. It was a little too much for me. I went into the St Louis No.1 and walked alone among the graves, the evening sun turning all those decaying tombstones silver.

Then the music started and I walked back out onto Basin Street and then I could see us. There we were! Suddenly I felt so silly: there is no losing us, even amongst all these strangers.

There is no losing us.

The sun hung low over the empty Iberville projects and the St Louis No.1, and the music started, and all the New Orleans people started dancing like we have for centuries. The way we move our feet, even the streets know it's us.

Here are my people: Mostly, we are not the ones with video cameras. We are not wearing Mardi Gras beads. We are not the ones not dancing. We do not say to each other, "Irvin Mayfield is a really good trumpeter." We do not say, "Such a shame, all the devastation," or "Martha will be so sorry she missed this."

Here are my people: the ones who did not have time to change after work. The ones who have come to the second-line in coveralls and scrubs, and chambermaids' dresses and hardhats, and Burger King T-shirts and security-guards' uniforms and cook's pants and even some people in all-white haz-mat suits. The ones who are back, the ones who never left, the ones who are here. The mothers carrying babies and groceries. The friends embracing wildly on corners saying, "how'd y'all make out?"

This is what we say to each other:
"I didn't get any water but my mama, she got about six feet of water."
"Girl, I never thought I'd see you here!! I thought y'all went to Dallas!"
"Everybody's over by my sister's house and she about to kill us all."
"I lost my house and my job but I'm ok. How you doing?"
"Baby, this is my first second line since the storm. I'm all right!"

Here are my people: the ones shivering on this first cold day; we are the ones who bundle up when it becomes 54 degrees out. We are the ones drinking '40's out of paper bags, the ones who know all the words to all the songs, the ones who know how to dance and walk at the same time. The old people pushing walkers and still keeping time!

Did I say there is no losing us? Even amongst all those strangers, all those cameras, all that water? Even amid all that distance? Even though we have been scattered to the four corners of this huge planet, even though I have seen so many of you for the last time? Did I say there is no losing us? Even with everybody's baby pictures decaying on the neutral ground, and all our refrigerators standing out on the curb with the magnets still on them, and all the trophies and trumpets and graduation suits warped and stiff and moldy, piled on sidewalks for miles and miles and miles?

Did I say there is no losing us? Did I say it?

Look around you. Listen. Here we are. We are everywhere. We are even in the air we breathe.

Monday, November 14, 2005

How we hold each other, and how we don't

I had another amnesia moment today, in the Walgreens on Decatur Street. I didn't realize until I got inside that it was the first time since the storm that I'd been inside a fully-stocked chain store, and I suddenly had no idea why I was there. For a long time all I could do was wander down the aisles, gazing at the neat rows of deodorants and Tylenol. Finally the manager came up to me and asked me if I was ok. I told him it was the first time I'd been a store so well organized; I was feeling mystified and trying to remember why I'd gone in.

His face softened. "Lotsa people are having that," he said, and put his hand on my shoulder. "You just let me know what you need, baby. I'm here for you." As soon as he said that I remembered: barrettes and a Sharpie marker. I started to feel a little normal again.

Right after Walgreens I went to the A&P on Royal, where some shelves are so bare you can see the rust that happened even before the hurricane. Yellow collard greens wilt onto the produce shelves; there isn't any lettuce. "This is more like it," I thought, before I even realized it.


It seems like everywhere I go, everyone's talking about the cops. Since the time I got pulled over a few days ago, I have been stopped by police two more times. Once they said they were checking the licenses of people who were driving around "in this neighborhood" and once a sheriff waved me over to the side of the road because he said I was speeding. Probably I was. Again, I didn't get a ticket. He even said something like, "I wouldn't give a ticket to a person like you."

Wow. A person like me? What on earth does this sheriff know about me, besides what I look like?

Two days before that, my friend Greg, who is Black, was arrested while he was watching the police arrest someone else, next door to the clinic in Algiers. They never told him what he was being charged with, and they took hold of his shirt collar and banged his head aganst the windshield of the car, again and again.


We have a patient named Mr Ross who comes to the Central City clinic every day we're there, so we can check his blood pressure, and so he can remind me to call FEMA, and so he can tell us stories of what Central City was like when he was growing up here, back in the '40s. His mother owned lots of apartment buildings in the neighborhood, and one day we were sitting on the corner and he pointed to a buiding a few blocks away that now has an entire wall missing, desks and bedroom sets still arranged for the whole world to see. "If my mama was alive," he said, "I would have found me some tools already, and fixed that whole place up for her. She liked to keep her places nice."

"Your pressure's amazing!" we say, every single time he comes. But he still comes every day. "Y'all are basically the only people I have to talk to anymore," he told me the other day.

Yesterday my friend Joanna was talking about how people just come up to her on the street and start talking. So many people's networks are completely disrupted, especially people who are poor. One of her neighbors said she was the first person he'd talked to in three days. He told her everything. I wonder if this is what it's like when you get older, when all your friends die and you don't have the desire or energy to build new relationships. Will we become a city of mourners, sitting alone on stoops watching other people's lives parade by? All these broken hearts we wear on our sleeves.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

This is real, and a step toward justice

I keep having conversations with people about how "surreal" everything is right now. On so many levels, it's true: we're running a free integrative medicine clinic out of a mosque; we set up other clinics in churches and parking lots and baseball diamonds; military police patrol the streets in Humvees; people have dinner in fancy restaurants like nothing ever happened. There are so many day spas open uptown! Huge parts of the 7th Ward still don't have power. My block is still lined with drowned cars and upside-down refrigerators. I spent a large part of this afternoon lugging huge vessels of water to my house so we could flush toilets; a house in my parents' neighborhood has a sign out front that says, "Cox! When can we get our cable back?" The animal resuce people are still out in full force. I really wonder what they do all day.

But I'm not sure about the word "surreal." On some level it seems like too much luxury for us to declare that ultimately this is anything but real.

Today I gave a ride to a man who had been walking all day. He walked from the Greyhound station all the way to his house in the Lower 9th ward; he looked at his house for 20 minutes, couldn't take it anymore, and walked back. Water had gotten up to the roof. The military had kicked in his front door and everything was all over the place. So many people talk about how it's one thing to come to the knowledge from far away that you've lost everything; to see it before your eyes is another thing entirely. He won't come back, he says. He will get a job in Baker, Louisiana (right outside Baton Rouge); his wife and 12-year-old daughter are in Texas, where they will stay so his daughter can finish out the school year. He only wishes he could be with them at the end of a long day. His daughter is growing up too fast.

Yesterday we went to the March on Gretna, which was organized in protest of the time during the hurricane when hundreds of weary African-American people tried to cross the Mississippi River Bridge to safety and were turned away by armed police with guard dogs. The police shot at the people and sent them back to New Orleans, which was flooding, and which had no food or water or electricity or medical care. People had to go back to the Convention Center, where they made orderly stacks of bodies in corners and on sidewalks as the people died.

Over 100 people crossed the bridge yesterday, but still I felt surrounded by ghosts. I have never been more conscious of the people who weren't there: all these families scattered to the winds, picking up new lives in Texas and Wyoming and Ohio. It seemed fitting to me that the most beautiful aspects of this march were the drivers in the opposing lanes of traffic: a driver of an 18-wheeler who couldn't stop honking, who kept yelling over and over, "I feel y'all, man! I just feel y'all!" The backs of pickup trucks full of work crews, shouting and cheering, their fists up in the air.


Friday, November 04, 2005

Littering, and what we remember

Yesterday at the clinic I had a patient who couldn't remember the name of the street he used to live on. The Times-Picayune had a big story in the Living section today about short-term memory loss. I find myself gazing at people and wondering where I've met them before. The other day, a woman drove by the clinic and said, "I can't find the Winn-Dixie anymore! I've been living in this neighborhood my whole life, and I don't even know where the grocery store is."

I remember one of my first patients ever since the storm, a woman from Chalmette who spent twelve days tied to a steeple. She says the only way she could survive was by forgetting many, many of those days. "I lost nine days of my life," she told me. "That's why I'm here now."
What does it mean that so many of us have forgotten some of the things that used to define our world; things like numbers and names and addresses, places, people? What has taken up that space in our minds? How, and why, and what, must we remember now, in order to keep surviving?

I dressed up as fire for Halloween and it was all right. People danced on Frenchmen Street until about one-thirty in the morning, when the National Guard actually tried to enforce a Last Call in this 24-hour city. On the way home from the street party, our friend L. got stopped by the police because some paper fragments of her costume fell onto the sidewalk. They were wearing pig noses and she thought they were joking. The ended up arresting her for littering and she spent that night and most of the next day in jail.

Littering! On my block there are twelve refrigerators, with contents that have been rotting since August. There are bales of electrical wire; there are heaps of sofa cushions, moldy mattresses, soggy shirts and trousers. There are warped bookshelves, their contents spilling out into the street. There are entire trees, shattered and dusty. There are broken chairs rattling on the curb like kindling. There are the bones of animals. How can anyone be arrested for littering here, in this whole desert city full of garbage?

Our other friend, M., spent most of the night trying to figure out how to get L. out of jail, a disaster even when New Orleans is functioning normally, but in this case it involved even extra questions, like, Where is jail these days? She asked about 8 cops and no one knew, since a few days ago they'd closed down the Greyhound station they had been using as a makeshift jail. After over an hour of searching, she found what they're using as jail these days, a garage in the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff's building. Court is a cubicle in the garage, where thirty male prisoners, shackled at the ankles, sat on the floor awaiting their hearings. No one had seen a lawyer. Our friend L didn't have any water for almost 24 hours since she'd been in jail, even though in the court next the the judge there was a crate of Ozarka bottles. L asked the judge for one but the judge said, "Those aren't for you. Those are for the staff."

Our friend M says this experience brought home to her how the prison system doens't only lock up its inmates, but all their loved ones too. She felt like she couldn't leave the jail at all, because maybe that would be the time they'd decide to let L out, or give out some tiny bit of information. She, too, felt captive. All that time she spent waiting for L to get out, she couldnt' read or talk on the phone or do anything. She slept and looked around a lot. All she wanted was a hot shower and some food that wasn't peanuts.

Today the thing about this Halloween arrest story that sticks with me is its ordinariness. it is not abnormal in New Orleans, especially for people who are poor or people of color, to be picked up off the street at the drop of a hat. Parents are used to the idea that children may not come home one day. Even in privileged circles, jail is seen as a wierd inevitability: Tulane Medical School gives out the name and number of a lawyer to help out any students who may run awry of the law.

Even still, though, I don't know if I can imagine rich white people getting arrested in this city for littering. (L is Mexican). Another friend talks about how anytime she is in the car with her African-American boyfriend after dark, they get stopped by police. There has only been one night since the hurricane where they didn't get stopped.

Today I made an illegal left turn off Rampart onto Esplanade. I've been doing it every day since the storm. today, a cop pulled me over and explained that I'd made an illegal left turn. When he was going through my license and registration, he found out that my license plate was also expired, my insurance card was out-of-date, my registration was expired, and I didnt' have a brake tag. He said he'd only cite me for the brake tag, and if I got a new one before my court date (which is not until January!), the charge would probably be dropped. When he gave me the ticket he'd written, he said, "I made your court date a long while away. That way you'll have plenty of time to get your brake tag taken care of. I know things hare hard right now, with the hurricane and everything."