Monday, December 19, 2005

Inches toward life

"It's just sad," my brother says over a plate of praline bacon at Elizabeth's. "I don't know. It just sucks." This is a lot, coming from Jonathan. It's only his second time back in town since the storm and it must still be hard for him to see alll these vast spaces where so much life used to exist. It does suck, I know. But we're trying.

The tablecloths at Elizabeth's are festive today: sceaming plaid, bright peach. The whiteboard above our table joyously proclaims that here, they have the best desserts in the world! Down these Bywater streets the houses are Carribbean in their brightness, magenta bougainvillea strangling the aqua fences, the turquoise walls, the brilliant orange trellises. All this color is somehow comforting, these silent silver days; those raucous houses marching down the quiet streets like determined clowns in a nursing home.

Day by day, my neighborhood inches toward life. Terranova's Supermarket opened last week. Behind the counter, Ms Karen says, "baby, I'll letcha owe me" if you realize you don't have enough cash for today's groceries. Someone has put up multicolored Christmas lights in the trees in Alcee Fortier park on Esplanade. Most days the People's Kitchen sets up there, serving free hot meals to anyone walking by. Yesterday a man was selling flowers on Esplanade: gorgeous irises, lavender orchids rising up from their pots like swans. The windows of his truck were open and he was blasting WWOZ community radio, where every time the music stopped the DJs would tell you how excited they were to finally be back in New Orleans.

All along Bayou St John there are still handpainted yellow signs. "We Love NOLA!" they say. "Please keep the bayou beautiful." Fair Grinds coffeehouse, which still hasn't reopened and probably won't for a while, gives free coffee to the neighbors and the crowds gathered outside to use their WiFi. Down on Hagan and St Ann, more neighbors serve red beans and rice every Monday at 5:30. "Come early," the sign on their house says, "before we run out!"

But still I feel like I'm in ghost town. Anywhere I go I have to travel through complete darkness, neighborhoods where the wind moans through the empty sockets of houses. Bales of electrical wire still scuttle down my street like tumbleweed. Cats scavenge through the piles of trash and sheetrock; they climb among the rusty skeletons of cars. The ghosts of those who are not here are still so much louder than all our attempts to create life in their absence.

One of our patients at the Central City clinic goes by his old apartment building at the BW Cooper housing project every few days. They still haven't let him into his place since the storm, and the Housing Authority isn't telling anyone about what their eventual plans are for these projects. "They put these metal things on the doors and the windows," he tells us. "Like jail." We've seen these barricades, all space-age and steely institutional. They're not on every door and window, just the ones you could conceivably walk or climb into. Someone's going to great lengths to make sure no one gets into those apartments. Yesterday our patient told us he's not going back there again. "I'm through," he said. "So what. What I miss about that place is the people, and I think I finallly know they're not coming back."

Friday, December 09, 2005


Yesterday when I was running in my neighborhood, I saw two brown pelicans sitting calmly in the middle of the bayou, like nothing ever happened. I stopped and looked at them for a while until, aware of my presence, they flew away together.

Seconds later, four Blackhawk helicopters droned across the sky, their blades slashing through the air like knives.

For the rest of my run all I could do was wonder: which of those two things is more normal these days? It has become almost traumatic for us to ask ourselves this question. I think something that’s starting to affect all of us is that we’ve lost our frame of reference: we don’t know what to base things on anymore. We are drifting through this new city without our anchors; we don’t trust ourselves to put our roots back down into the earth.

I got heat a few days ago. It is December and even the New Yorkers are cold here these days. I’d borrowed a space heater, gotten accustomed to wearing layers of sweaters in the house and waking up inside the misty clouds of my own breath. And then one day we got gas service in our neighborhood and I can take three hot showers a day if I want to. Or more! The idea that heat is unlimited, that all I have to do is press a button and my house suddenly becomes warm and welcoming, has become unreal in its realness. I am more amazed at heat now, when I have it, than I ever was when it wasn’t there. And so I don’t really know the answer: is it normal right now, in the middle of winter, to have heat inside one’s house, or is it normal not to? And how do I think about that question inside the bigger context of New Orleans, where there still isn’t even electricity in so many neighborhoods: where bare branches and powerlines loom like ghosts against the gray night sky and the insides of houses gape blankly through their open doorways? What does my suddenly cozy house mean down all those lonely streets?

I was talking to an acquaintance at a coffee shop Uptown the other day and he said, “It’s amazing how quickly everything has come back to normal.”

Whoa. What planet are you living on, I almost said. But I realized that it has become completely possible for certain segments of the population to carry on essentially the same lives they had before the hurricane. There are people who live and work Uptown, or in the French Quarter or the CBD, who can wake up and drive to work and maybe go to a restaurant or a coffee shop or a bar, and go shopping, and go to the gym, and go home and sleep comfortably just like they used to. This is really happening for a lot of people. There are some relatively intact lives here. Is that normal? People (mainly white, middle-class people) buying lattes while a vast diaspora of our neighbors stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, so many folks without even a bus ticket back yet, without even knowing yet if there is anything to come home to? How can we say that anything is normal when our whole context has been entirely leveled?

But here’s the other thing I noticed on my run the other day: finally, in December, the trees are beginning to shed their leaves. Not all of them, mind you, but enough to where I might begin to be convinced that it’s wintertime. This is actually a really big deal, because for months the plants were not behaving. Right after the hurricane the city looked so much like a desert that there would be days when I couldn’t figure out where I was. I remember talking with friends about how we’d always imagined that post-apocalyptic New Orleans would be lushly overgrown, shotgun houses and corner bars drowned under heaps of jasmine. But after the storm everything died, and for weeks a fine yellow dust coated all the brittle plants. Nothing had lived through all that mud. Then about mid-October, when it was still warm enough, the plants started bursting forth in full bloom. Orange hibiscus clanging like firetrucks through the trash piles; the smell of old fridges on some streets almost entirely overpowered by sweet olive. “The plants all think it’s spring,” we said.

But slowly now the trees are starting to get it, and the weather is starting to do what it’s supposed to, and the birds are coming back to this water where they fish and sit in the sun with each other. Maybe normal starts here, in the natural world that played such a big part in humbling us all those months ago, while we still fumble through all our worlds of denial and emptiness. The other morning, seeing those bare graying branches against the white sky, all I could think was, “at least somebody’s starting to pull themselves together.”

Sunday, December 04, 2005

conversations with friends

Some random pieces of the last few days

At a rebirth show 2 nights ago:
“Hey, love! How are you?”
"Oh, you know. Excited and sad. Same as everybody.”
"I'm so happy to be here, and then the music stops and I'm like, 'Oh.' "

With a local musician
“I would move back in a second if it wasn’t for the damn curfew. What are they doing, trying to kill us? It’s like they’re taking the only bit of life we’ve got right now, and making it totally impossible.”

Dancing at Mimi’s last night
“My boyfriend just dumped me and I don’t even care! Is that bad? Am I cold-hearted?”
“I don’t think so, darlin. I think sometimes our hearts can only take so much before they just stop.”
“Yeah, but that’s terrible! Is that really what it’s come to? Oh well. Look at my awesome tattoo!”
“Oh, it’s awesome.”
“Yeah. I love it. Have you gotten yours yet? Your Katrina nostalgia tattoo?”
“No, but I’m gonna.”
“What are you gonna get?”
"I think an infinity sign. Destruction and rebirth and stuff.”

Almost every day, with almost every one
“I feel like I’m in limbo. I’m so sad to be here, but it’s so weird to be anywhere else.”

With a middle school teacher from Mc Donogh 28, around the corner from my house
“I went to school to get my stuff out of my classroom and they switched the locks on us! I had to beg the security guards to let me in and they were so rude. And some of those teachers have been teaching there for like 30 years, and they treated them like that. I was coming out and I ran into one of my students and she was like, ‘When is 28 gonna open back up again?’ and I had to say, ‘it’s not.’ And that girl’s face just fell.”

Driving down Jeff Davis, which still doesn’t have power
“Sometimes I feel like I’m on a trip somewhere. You know? I catch myself thinking things like, ‘when I get home, I’m gonna do this.’ And then I remember that I am home.”

With a friend who just came back from LA
“So I was at Kyoto the other day? Which was weird anyway, you know. And there was this guy sitting next to us at the sushi bar and we kinda talked a little bit, you know. Not too much. Anyway at the end he had all this sushi on his plate and he asked us if we wanted it! ‘Cause he wasn’t gonna eat it.”
“That’s cool.”
“Cool? I was totally amazed. I mean, the whole time when I was working there last year I can swear no one—I mean really no one—ever, ever, gave their sushi to anybody else. I totally couldn’t believe it.”
“Yeah, I feel like that’s happening a lot here these days.”
“Yeah. I have these neighbors who just cook red beans for whoever, every Monday. You just go over there at about five. And this other guy who cooks red beans on the neutral ground sometimes, and yesterday this guy at the rue gave me the other half of his sandwich.”
”Wow, really?”
”Yeah. And so much other stuff. I feel like people are sharing more, saying hi on the street more, you know. All that stuff.”
“I guess I can understand that.”
“Yeah. I think what’s weird to me is that I sort of forgot that isn’t how things usually are.”

With another friend at Mimi’s last night:
"I love you so much. We need to hang out in more meaningful ways.”

On the street with my old landlord, who is part of a multiracial gospel choir called Shades of Praise
“We’re singing tomorrow; you should try to make it.”
“Yeah. Bring friends. How are you doing?”
"Oh, you know. Muddling through.”
"I think that’s just the pace of things these days.”
"Yeah. I'm totally struggling, but I feel like it's ok because everyone's kind of on the same page.”
"I know. I finally feel like a New Orleanian. I used to be prompt; I used to expect other people to be on time and get mad at them when they weren’t… Now I’m just there when I’m there.”

With an 8-year-old child at the clinic yesterday
“Lots of times I wish things were like it was before. If this flood hadn’t happened, everything would be just like it was.”

In the car with a displaced friend in town for the weekend
“Wow, you just asked me how I was doing and I really told you. I feel like that hasn’t happened in a long time. I kind of feel like I was just in a little counseling session.”
“I feel like that’s just how conversations go these days. You know, what else are we supposed to talk about? ‘You look so cute tonight? I love the way your hair looks?’ I think most of us feel like those kinds of conversations are totally absurd right now.”
"I think that’s why even though it’s so sad, it’s really good to be here. I finally don’t feel crazy. I feel like I can breathe.”

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Friday night on Canal Street

Last night we did a clinic on Canal Street, under the light of an abandoned business. It was Friday night and Canal Street was hopping. Our patients, mainly Latino immigrant cleanup workers, crowded around, asking us questions in Spanish about mold, and waiting for tetanus shots or a visit with the doctor. Police rode by on enormous black horses, and two men with a small bulldozer were scooping up trash from the mounds of sheetrock and old refrigerators down the block. At one point a rat the size of my forearm brazenly jumped over a pile of garbage and scampered down the block. Hardly anyone noticed.

These days at the Chinese restaurant nearby, the staff takes orders in Spanish. They dish out fried chicken along with lo mein and fried rice. Every night, the restaurant is packed. When we do outreach at the restaurant, we don’t only tell people about the clinic: usually, people invite us to sit down at their tables, and we do. They ask us about our lives and the hurricane; they tell us about their families and their work and the places they’ve come from.

Last night I spent a long time talking with Paco, a man from Monterrey who now removes debris from flooded houses seven days a week. He was eating Chinese food out of a Styrofoam container and still had on his hardhat: bright blue with “The Chosen” written on it in Sharpie marker. “The work,” he says, “It’s not hard on the body, but it’s hard on my heart. Every day I have to take people’s photographs out of their living rooms, and their books, and the things their children draw. Sometimes when I throw something onto the curb it breaks into a hundred little pieces and it makes me so sad. The other day we were working at this house and the man who lived there came by. He was a Black man, and so many of the people I was working with couldn’t even really look at him. I don’t know if it was because he was Black or because they knew he was sad and they didn’t know how to deal with that. Sometimes people are prejudiced, and that’s bad. This man, I could tell he was sad and so I was sad too. I don’t speak a lot of English and he doesn’t speak Spanish but somehow I could tell him I was so sorry that he had lost so much, and I know he told me thank you. That was all right.”

The stories we are hearing from workers are so monumental we don’t know what to do with them. Some people are working in mold-infested houses with no masks or protective gear; some contract laborers are being imprisoned in hotels by their bosses, who won’t let them leave the premises once they return from the day’s work. People are working six and seven days a week, often for ten or more hours a day. We have talked to many day laborers who don’t get paid after working for a day or even an entire week. These cold nights, many people are sleeping in tents while their bosses stay next door in heated trailers. Some people sleep under cars or bridges. Everyone is worried about flu, what it will mean to get sick in this climate where no job is guaranteed and a day’s wage helps support as many as ten people back home.

A friend who used to live near the clinic told us how one day, when he and some other people were going to work in Chalmette, they got stopped by the police at the checkpoint and the police asked them for their green cards. Our friend showed his Texas drivers’ license and explained that he didn’t have a green card since he’s a US citizen. “You need a green card,” they said. They turned back the entire truck and told everyone they couldn’t go to work that day.

A few weeks ago we began talking with folks from the People’s Hurricane Fund about starting up a multiracial workers’ center in New Orleans, which would link the struggles of poor Black workers with those of poor Latino workers. Starting up a workers’ center is a daunting task but it needs to happen. Now more than ever, people in New Orleans need to join together across racial lines and demand the respect and dignity every one of us deserves.

In the meantime, people find ways to help each other out. Last night, Paco was buying dinner for another man who he had met at his shelter, and who didn’t get paid for the work he’d done that day. When he left the clinic, he was bringing two more people to his shelter because they had been sleeping outside for the past few nights. “I think I have a good heart,” he told me. “I don’t want to become cold-hearted.”