Inches toward life
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."