Sunday, March 18, 2012

New Orleans, 2012

In my new favorite movie, "The Names of Love", the main character, Baya, is out grocery shopping when she runs into a friend who reminds her of a meeting. She dashes out of the store, leaving her date at the register where she had been only moments earlier before she remembered to get coriander. When she gets home her own body odor becomes too much so she jumps into the shower. The phone rings and she is reminded of a birthday party. Out she dashes to get the birthday present. The date, who is still waiting at the register, sees her walk by the front window on her way to buy the birthday earrings wearing only her boots, purse, and eyeglasses.

This is how I understand life.

You see, last week I was in New Orleans on my seventh volunteer rebuilding trip but first I had to see my favorite band Lucero live at Tipitina's.
I was so tired the next morning that I only worked 3/4 of the day. The following day I worked almost all day but I realized that the tickle in my throat was not thirst but infection. So I stopped my work on siding and spent much of the day after that in bed. Except when I went to the juice bar and on the way back from the juice bar I saw something ahead that I needed to take a picture of which led me to other pictures. And thus and so went the week.

I had booked my trip failing to take into account college Spring Break and St. Patrick's Day both of which my mom-ified self has no interest in. So I re-booked to come home a few days early.
Before I flew home I went back to the Lower 9th Ward, the neighborhood where I have done the New Orleans portion of my rebuilding work. And then the full realization hit me.

No, I was not naked. The Lower 9th is. This neighborhood looks shockingly like Long Beach and Gulfport Mississippi looked five years ago when I first began rebuilding: empty, stairs leading to nowhere, nature reclaiming the land, something missing.

The bulk of the residents are gone. The houses that were vacant on my last trip are now disappearing by the dozens as the city of New Orleans takes over properties and bulldozes them for failure to pay taxes and fees. There are houses that have been abandoned mid-rebuild due to having all their resources lost thanks to bad drywall imported from China. They couldn't fully afford to rebuild the first time. They certainly don't have the funds to do it again.

The sounds of the Lower 9th in the past couple of years I've been volunteering have been electric building tools, radios, people shouting from scaffolding for supplies or assistance, and rumbling trucks carrying contractors, volunteers, building materials, carpenters, and electricians.

The sounds of the Lower 9th now are birds, bugs, breeze, and bulldozers.

 I had cried on the first day I drove in because so much of the landscape was missing from just a year ago. But it wasn’t until the last day, when I was no longer chasing my tail, taking cold medicine, checking things off my list, scampering and bustling that I really saw it.
Truth on something as large as this is almost impossibly subjective. Here is the truth as I have seen it, experienced it, and been taught by the residents and workers in the Lower 9th. That's the best I can vouch for. I am sure someone else sees it differently.

August 29, 2005 - The hurricane came. Many left. Many stayed including large numbers of poor and/or elderly. The levees broke. The help didn’t come at first. Over a thousand die. Tens of thousands go to the Super Dome and convention center. Then thousands are relocated to other cities. The black mold grew. The businesses did not re-open. The jobs aren’t there.

Here are some trailers! Whoops! The trailers are sick. Here is some drywall! The drywall is sick. Here are some jobs, but here, too, is an oil spill. The water is sick. The economy is sick. Here is some help. Some of the help are wolves in disguise. Here is some time. And more time. And more. Time doesn’t cure. Time just allows the sick to get the best of you and for someone else to move in. Take over. Plow you under.
Goodbye, neighbors. Goodbye, homes. Goodbye, businesses. Goodbye, media coverage. Goodbye charities who work until the last penny but can’t defeat the legacy of poverty in the neighborhood, indecision by lawmakers, corruption by fake contractors, an oil spill, tainted building materials, a recession, and ignorance-fueled apathy which grows by the year.

Hello, funerals. The people who stayed sure do seem to die a lot. Heart attacks, strokes, out of control diseases. Lots of medical names for broken hearts.
Hello, tourists by the thousands who think that money spent on beads and daiquiris actually makes it to grandfathers and little kids in the lower 9th. But Treme has walking tours now thanks to a TV show. And the churches are rebuilding and new clergy come in with new energy and feet that don't ache. The fish fries are going strong during Lent. There are new businesses as close as Bywater. Amen to all that.

Hello, Brad Pitt with your ridiculous looking houses that cost a fortune to build and solve 1/1000th of the problem. But, God love you, at least you care, try, and get something done. So we are truly thankful but how hard would it be to build a New Orleans shotgun on stilts with solar panels that doesn’t look like the architect was a love-child of Dr. Seuss and Walt Disney? But don’t go. Seriously. Don’t leave, Brad!

Hello, wildflowers and birds. It feels weird that you are the main inhabitants of the lowest blocks of the Lower 9th. But don’t go. Seriously. You are a comfort and even prettier than Brad and his family. It's a blessing to know something still survives and thrives here. Hey chickadee, do you know any tunes by Trombone Shorty?

Hello, dump trucks. You are civic morticians and grave diggers of a neighborhood‘s memory. We knew you would come. We had thought it would be sooner and that we would get new houses in the old neighborhood. We had hoped you would be the harbingers of our hope. Now you belong to someone else’s hope but, hey, it's hope all the same.

Hello, new life. There is life ongoing in this neighborhood. Children are still raised here. Memories and history are still made. Good happens even in the funniest looking of houses. There are still some people sitting on porches raising a chin or a waving hand to strangers and friends alike. Turkey necks still get boiled in driveways. It’s different. But it’s alive. Seriously, everyone can be thankful for that.

March 16, 2012 - As for me, I stand wondering how I got here. Our lives are a great big rushing around from obligations to life events, from planning to coincidence. It's a wonder we don't find ourselves walking down the street naked all the time. I was in the middle of something and I ended up in the Gulf Coast for a week or two every year. I'll be darned if I can remember what I was doing before I got that call.

But now what? My kind of work is not the first priority of the neighborhood any more. I know how to bind up the broken. I don’t know how to make something brand new.  Like the Lower 9th I have a future I didn't expect. I'm not saying that I won't return. It just became very clear in that quiet community on a sunny Spring afternoon during an interlude between rushing abouts that the work of the Lower 9th has changed and I need to as well.
So here I go, stepping out on the next part of life post-Katrina. There is nothing that guarantees I won't end up directly on a zip-line to another life adventure nor that this was my last trip to New Orleans. There is also no guarantee that I won't find myself wandering through the next leg of my life journey wearing nothing but my good intentions and my walking shoes. I'm just moving forward and trying not to forget. I think that is what I hear most loudly from the places in the Gulf Coast where I have volunteered.

Mississippi - Gulfport   Long Beach   Pass Christian   Cuevas   Waveland   Bay St. Louis  
Louisiana - New Orleans, Lower 9th Ward

Don't Forget

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