Tuesday, November 29, 2005

November 22, 2005

Today the Red Cross mobile that passes daily began getting clever, which was a welcome respite, really from the cop-like horn and the grim announcements of “Red Cross has hot meals and water.” Today the honker rhythmically tapped the cop-horn and the announcer yelled “Yoo-hoo, Come and get it!” Still, I can’t help wondering if they don’t feel a bit silly riding around this repaired neighborhood—this mostly-unscathed neighborhood—this neighborhood where we are home and where Simon makes me meals like broiled salmon or roasted chicken and we drink Abita Restoration Ale to wash it all down. It seems off to me that the Red Cross was absent in the immediate aftermath, when people so desperately needed food and water, and that they then began closing shelters and centers in Atlanta and other areas where Nola evacuees are, and then here they are, in New Orleans, finally, where the population is mostly NOT one that needs formed, warm chicken part-patties and canned peas. Where there are over 50 restaurants open and jobs and where those who are homeless are mostly workers who camp in the park and get overpaid by FEMA for jobs or displaced residents should have. I heard on the local news today that of the 460,000 New Orleans residents who lived here before the storm, just 60-70,000 have returned.

I see other returnees in the Sound CafĂ©, where I went for coffee and to grade student essays this morning. T.R., my boss form Tulane, was there, and he asked how we were doing. It’s a hard question to answer. Last night I was so tense—and I am now, too—that I felt like someone was standing on my head. I feel like my jaw is constantly clenched. Still, I told T.R. that we were fine, all things considered; that Simon is not working; that he can’t work because he is “out of status”, until we get married. (I guess given that fact it’s no wonder that I am stressed. Not only do I have my own uncertain future to deal with, I also have to marry Simon before he can make the next step in his life.) And of course I want to marry Simon, but to marry him so he can get a job? I never wanted marriage to be a logistical solution. I never wanted my life to be so logistically uncertain, either.

What I wanted was for none of this to happen. I wanted to return from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and become a Real Writer. I wanted to have my new full-time job and my new benefits and my newfound stability. I wanted to have a romantic proposal and a romantic wedding and a long teaching career at UNO. I wanted to keep writing my stories about hurricanes—hurricanes that miss New Orleans. That was all I wanted. Stories with happy endings, duh!

And I don’t want these stories—stories of my writing a really corny letter asking my friends and family to write congress, to help save New Orleans. I don’t want to tell stories about the periodic power outages, or the woman at the neighborhood association meeting who claimed she felt like she was being treated like a jew in nazi Germany because of said outages. I don’t want to tell stories about the national guard’s Humvees or the wildfire-fighting trucks that are parked down by the performing arts high school—the same school that educated the Marsalises and is rumored to be slated for funding cuts. I don’t want to tell stories about eating MREs for fun or the green “smooth-move” chiclets that accompany them; about sleeping too much and having nightmares about watermarked buildings; of drinking too much and having drunken conversations about having nightmares about watermarked buildings.

I don’t want to tell any of these stories unless they come with happy endings. If they end happily, they will be the color of nostalgia rather than regret. They will have the character of memories that one wants to hold on to… of memories one regrets not recording. Otherwise, I will read this shit and will think if, if, if…

It is hard to have hope. On Thanksgiving Day, I had a (very drunken) conversation with a friend of mine, Arin, who, like me, was feeling powerless. When we were in Atlanta and volunteering for the Red Cross, it felt at least like we were connected to something. Here, I frankly don't feel much like leaving the house, and Arin and I talked about that feeling. Here, the Red Cross drives through the streets every day offering "hot meals and water," which they announce on a bullhorn, to people like me--people who really don't NEED the help. I don't want to do that work. I want to build things and influence people, and so I told Arin that what we, writers and educators, could do was write letters--to remind people that we need them not to forget us. I had written one such letter just a couple of days before, and it makes me cringe in its corniness, but it's heartfelt, at any rate, and here it is:

November 21, 2005

Dear Friends and Family,

In the six weeks since Simon and I returned to New Orleans, we have witnessed a lot of progress. The discarded refrigerators that once populated the sidewalks in front of nearly every home in our neighborhood have been removed, and along with them, the indescribable stink of their rotten contents. The coffin-flies—we’d foolishly been calling them “fruit flies”, a far too endearing term for the insatiable beasts—which once circled our heads with a third-world persistence and peppered fly-ribbons in nearly every home and business in New Orleans, have begun to die off in the cold weather that has arrived. Many of the abandoned and wrecked boats, buses, hearses, and cars that had congregated on the now-brown front yards and neutral grounds across the city have been hauled off to some unknown gravesite, and in their place, a few blades of green grass have begun to grow.

In our more immediate, daily lives, too, there has been progress. Three weeks ago, the gas was turned on. We took hot showers. We stored our Coleman stove in the backyard shed. Last week we received mail at our home for the first time—no more hour-long lines at the makeshift trailer park postal center downtown—although we have yet to receive a FedEx package my mother mailed two weeks ago. On Saturday, the Bobcats that trolled the streets for debris were replaced by a bona fide city garbage truck. (I have never been so tempted to embrace a man drenched in trash-juice.) The Chevron station at Elysian Fields and Claiborne finally has fuel. Our local coffee shop has wireless internet and fresh croissants delivered daily. And—blessing of all blessings—the Whole Foods in Metairie opened. We have grown accustomed to weekly power outages. We find comfort in the nightly rumble of Humvees. We swap FEMA stories and tell Brownie jokes. And, at least once a week, we dance.

But in spite of all this progress, it is impossible to ignore the slow pace of recovery in the parts of New Orleans that received the most damage. In the neighborhood of Gentilly, just to the north of us, where Simon’s brother, Tom, and his wife, Brandi bought a house just one month before the storm, there is no power, no water, and no one with answers. Although insured, Tom and Brandi have yet to receive word from their adjustor. Others with flood insurance have been told that because the flood was caused by levee failure, much of their losses will not be covered. I need not mention the plight of the uninsured. They, too, must wait to be told what’s next. And after weeks of benefiting from the attention and pity afforded them by the media, the hardest-hit residents of New Orleans are now, again, falling victim to the policies of a federal government with a short memory and a penchant for punishing its poor.

Certainly, it is difficult to know where to begin. If we rebuild, do we rebuild everything—even the areas that were once swampland prior to the 1950s and 60s? Or do we rebuild only in the city’s footprint prior to the construction of the levees? Can we consider rebuilding, even, when the levees are not constructed to withstand the inevitable—a Category 5? Why bother? If something like what has happened this year is going to happen again—in 100 years, 10,000 years, whatever—shouldn’t we organize an orderly retreat, instead? These are important questions, but they are the questions that are stalling our city’s progress. They are questions that have the federal government bickering, hedging, and finally, scolding us for living here.

But we live here. I live here. And I am committed to continuing to live here because, frankly, there is no other place in the world I can imagine living. Many of you have visited me here, and I think I can safely say that you all loved some part of our city. Whether we went to a Mardi Gras parade or a second-line, whether we visited the Southern Museum of Art or attended a tequila-tasting, whether we danced at Jazz Fest or late-night at the Dragon’s Den, you have all had an impression of what I am fortunate enough to enjoy year-round.

Still, it’s not the celebrations or the reveling, alone, that attracts me to New Orleans. It’s the other stuff, too. Call me crazy, but I like living in a place where I am not insulated from all that is ugly—from poverty, from neglect, from the threat of disaster. I like it not because I welcome these things, but because I cannot forget that they do, in fact, exist. Knowing this, being surrounded by it, makes me ache, but that ache makes me feel somehow more alive. As Garrison Keelor once said, in New Orleans we dance not because we feel good, but because we know it will help us feel better.

Unfortunately, our party-hearty attitude has hurt us. We grew fatalistic, complacent. We danced instead of doing anything, and now it seems that many people think we don’t deserve to dance again. A friend of mine said that living in New Orleans right now is like waking up every morning to the remnants of last night’s party. You feel so overwhelmed by the mess that you don’t know where to begin. It’s easier to mix a stiff bloody Mary and get comfortable, instead.

But we can’t get comfortable, and we need your help.

Below you will find an editorial published in Sunday’s Times-Picayune. While I’d give it an “A” in my comp-class, I find it came woefully late, and I worry that with the approach of the holidays, we will be forgotten. Who has time for writing senators when there’s turkey to be eaten, gifts to be bought? Who has time to forward emails and cut and paste letters to congress when the Christmas cards have yet to be addressed? And furthermore, who really wants to remember New Orleans when, well, it’s a real f-ing downer?

I never imagined that I would live through an event like this, and I certainly never imagined I’d have the opportunity to participate in the rebuilding of a great American city. Without getting all soapbox on you, let me just say that all of us—New Orleanians and Americans, alike, have a pretty awesome responsibility facing us. How we react to this will speak to our capacity not just to imagine the lives of others, but to act on that empathy. Remember us. Speak up for us. We cannot do it by ourselves; it’s clear by now that we have lost our credibility. We need you.

Please forward the Times-Pic editorial and the contact list that follows to your friends, coworkers, and family. If you are a teacher, ask your students to write on our behalf. Heck, give the kids some extra credit. Ask everyone to remember us during the holidays, and to send a card to Congress that asks for a new New Orleans for Christmas.


P.S. That is about the sappiest, corniest letter I have ever written. I’m darned emotional down here. Deal with it. ; )

An Editorial: It's time for a nation to return the favor
Sunday, November 20, 2005
The federal government wrapped levees around greater New Orleans so that the rest of the country could share in our bounty.
Americans wanted the oil and gas that flow freely off our shores. They longed for the oysters and shrimp and flaky Gulf fish that live in abundance in our waters. They wanted to ship corn and soybeans and beets down the Mississippi and through our ports. They wanted coffee and steel to flow north through the mouth of the river and into the heartland.
They wanted more than that, though. They wanted to share in our spirit. They wanted to sample the joyous beauty of our jazz and our food. And we were happy to oblige them.
So the federal government built levees and convinced us that we were safe.
We weren't.
The levees, we were told, could stand up to a Category 3 hurricane.
They couldn't.
By the time Katrina surged into New Orleans, it had weakened to Category 3. Yet our levee system wasn't as strong as the Army Corps of Engineers said it was. Barely anchored in mushy soil, the floodwalls gave way.
Our homes and businesses were swamped. Hundreds of our neighbors died.
Now, this metro area is drying off and digging out. Life is going forward. Our heart is beating.
But we need the federal government -- we need our Congress -- to fulfill the promises made to us in the past. We need to be safe. We need to be able to go about our business feeding and fueling the rest of the nation. We need better protection next hurricane season than we had this year. Going forward, we need protection from the fiercest storms, the Category 5 storms that are out there waiting to strike.
Some voices in Washington are arguing against us. We were foolish, they say. We settled in a place that is lower than the sea. We should have expected to drown.
As if choosing to live in one of the nation's great cities amounted to a death wish. As if living in San Francisco or Miami or Boston is any more logical.
Great cities are made by their place and their people, their beauty and their risk. Water flows around and through most of them. And one of the greatest bodies of water in the land flows through this one: the Mississippi.
The federal government decided long ago to try to tame the river and the swampy land spreading out from it. The country needed this waterlogged land of ours to prosper, so that the nation could prosper even more.
Some people in Washington don't seem to remember that. They act as if we are a burden. They act as if we wore our skirts too short and invited trouble.
We can't put up with that. We have to stand up for ourselves. Whether you are back at home or still in exile waiting to return, let Congress know that this metro area must be made safe from future storms. Call and write the leaders who are deciding our fate. Get your family and friends in other states to do the same. Start with members of the Environment and Public Works and Appropriations committees in the Senate, and Transportation and Appropriations in the House. Flood them with mail the way we were flooded by Katrina.
Remind them that this is a singular American city and that this nation still needs what we can give it.
Contacting Congress
Sunday, November 20, 2005
The fate of greater New Orleans' levees lies with the committees and lawmakers below. These leaders won't know how you feel about the need to upgrade greater New Orleans' flood-protection system unless they hear it from you.
Making contact can take a little effort. While some members have public e-mail addresses, others only accept e-mail via forms on their Web sites. However you communicate, use your own words, and speak from the heart.
Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn.; 509 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510; (202) 224-3344; Web site: www.frist.senate.gov.
Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss, chairman; 113 Dirksen Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510; (202) 224-5054; e-mail address: senator@cochran.senate.gov.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., ranking member; 311 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510; (202) 224-3954; e-mail address: senator_byrd@byrd.senate.gov
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska; 522 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510; (202) 224-3004; Web site: www.stevens.senate.gov
Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., chairman; 393 Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510; (202) 224-3324; Web site: www.gregg.senate.gov
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., ranking member; 530 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510; (202) 224-2043; Web site: www.conrad.senate.gov
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman; 453 Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510; (202) 224-4721; Web site: www.inhofe.senate.gov
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., ranking member; 511 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510; (202) 224-2651; e-mail address: max@baucus.senate.gov
Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.; 235 Cannon House Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20515; (202) 225-2976; Web site: www.house.gov/hastert
Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.; 217 Cannon House Office Building; Washington, D.C. 20515; (202) 225-6536; Web site: www.blunt.house.gov
Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., chairman; 2112 Rayburn House Office Building; Washington, D.C. 20515; (202) 225-5861; Web site: www.house.gov/jerrylewis
Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., ranking member; 2314 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20515; (202) 225-3365; Web site: www.obey.house.gov
Rep. Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, chairman; 303 Cannon House Office Building; Washington, D.C. 20515; (202) 225-2911; e-mail: nussleia@mail.house.gov
Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., ranking member; 1401 Longworth House Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20515; (202) 225-5501; Web site: www.house.gov/spratt
Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chairman; 2411 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20515; (202) 225-1947; e-mail: rpombo@mail.house.gov
Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, D-W.Va., ranking member; 2307 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20515; (202) 225-3452; e-mail: nrahall@mail.house.gov
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, chairman; 2111 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20515; (202) 225-5765; Web site: www.donyoung.house.gov
Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn, ranking member; 2365 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20515; (202) 225-6211; Web site: www.oberstar.house.gov

Simon and I have been back in New Orleans for almost two months. During that first month, I barely wrote a word. I took lots and lots of pictures, instead. The following is the first entry I wrote. I hope that others will follow.

November 14, 2005

The power goes out again. This happens at least once a week, but there is no getting used to it. At times like these, the here and now feels startlingly immediate, and we try to focus on these things so we can deal with them: where are the flashlights, the candles, the matches? Whether we had plans prior to the loss of power is irrelevant, and I forget what it was I wanted to do anyway. I want light. I want the stove to work. I want my computer and the internet and a fan that I can turn on and leave on all night to ward off strange noises. Never mind that the neighborhood is quieter than it has ever been, that even the trains seem to have been interrupted. Every noise is odd now, even the familiar ones. You can’t really describe what’s changed, either. It’s as if you are seeing someone again for the first time in many years, and their looks are all still there, their appearances are arranged according to your memory, but perhaps they’ve adopted a new accent or gone religious on you. In either case, something happened while the two of you were apart, and even as you try to behave as you once did—remembering-when or re-telling a joke you once shared, the punchline thunks you in the gut, somehow. You laugh less heartily these days.

I point out to Simon that our flashlights are near dead and that our candles are at their ends. He knows I am blaming him. I have told him how silly I think it is to light up the house like a Catholic church in times like these. I tell him we need only light the room where we are right now. It’s true that I liked the way the house glowed the first night we lost power. We made boudin and red beans and rice on our Coleman stove, but back then the blackouts were a novelty—back then we all emerged from our homes to see if the neighbors had lost power, too. Back then we were convivial and maybe even grateful to know that we really were “in this together.” Now, though, I am angry because there is no one to blame.

My new laptop has three hours-worth of battery and so I sit down to get some work done. Simon lights about eight candles, then nine, and I snap at him for being wasteful. He says he refuses simply to sit in the dark and do nothing. He is not working these days, and six weeks into my semester, with midterms approaching and papers to grade, I, too, wish he wouldn’t “do nothing,” but I don’t want him to lounge around reading, as he has. I resent him for having the money and the time to do what I would like to do. It is hard to be in love right now.

While Simon goes out for a run, I call Entergy to report the outage. I ask the man at the end of the line when the power will return. “A ballpark figure will do,” I say, feeling sorry for the guy even as I ask—he who is burdened with the task of apologizing for things he can’t control. Even so, we’ve gotten ballpark figures before. They give us some small hope, even though by now we know to add an hour or two to the time reported to us. The man says he can’t offer one, and I think I hear annoyance in his voice, but find myself complaining anyway. “It’s just that I’m a teacher and it’s hard to get things done when the power goes out every time the wind blows even the tiniest bit.” He must be rolling his eyes. He must hate me. I hate myself. “Nevermind,” I say, and hang up.

We decide to go out for dinner so we will have less time sitting around in the dark. Every time the power has gone out it has been in the afternoon or evening, and now, with Daylight Savings Time, we have longer and longer to wait until the crews fix the lines, always the next morning and sometimes not until late the next day. As we drive to the Lebanese restaurant on Frenchmen Street, we pass by the Washington National Guard’s post at the creative arts high school a few blocks from us, by the river. This is the high school of the Marsalis kids, of Harry Connick, Jr., of Kermit Ruffins. It is now the only place in the neighborhood with electricity. Spotlights powered by generators make the place glow like a state fair. A guardsman and woman sit on folding chairs at the entrance and nod congenially to us as we pass. They will be leaving at the end of the week, I tell Simon. We are both quiet. We, who are liberals and never thought we would see the day when there was a military presence in our own hometown, have been changed by their presence. We have never felt this safe before. We don’t want them to leave. “Who will we go to if we need help?” I ask.
“The police,” says Simon. He sounds almost sarcastic, but I know that I am projecting. The Brit in Simon expects things to work as they are meant to, and the Southerner in me finds that notion almost comical. The one time I called the New Orleans police to come to my house because of a suspected break-in, they almost laughed at me. They suggested that I move.
“Ha, ha,” I say. Even the Louisiana National Guard has a bad reputation. The bartenders at Mimi’s say that they are the ones who hassle them about the curfew. They have ideas about New Orleanians. They don’t find us charming. I tell Simon that we should write a thank you card, maybe buy them a few cases of Abita before they leave, and I work on my letter in my head—how I will tell them about the first night back, when three young guardsmen helped me find my lost margarita I’d set down on the sidewalk. How I will remember to them the moments they shared with us on Halloween weekend at the corner of Royal and Franklin.
That night, a transformer on the telephone pole standing directly over the crowd blew, eliciting a few shrieks from the crowd, and then later, delight. The bartenders at Mimi’s lit seven-day candles and the Washington National Guard turned left their Humvee lights on. The New Orleans police showed up and it was clear that they wanted us to disperse, to go home, but they stood around, impotent. I’d like to think that they envied the Guard then, how the Guard really was only there to protect and serve us, not to prevent us from having a good time. In my letter I will tell them how I will miss feeling as if a figure of authority actually respected our rights.
At Mona’s, we order our favorites—chicken shawarma for Simon and a gyro plate for me. We talk about our wedding, which we have yet to set a date for and which seems an impossibly long way off. We want to have it in New Orleans but have already agreed that our initial plans to wed in January were far too ambitious. It’s not that we couldn’t plan it by then, it’s just that we don’t want our family and friends to see our city this way. I imagine my relatives pitying us, wondering what the hell we are thinking, living in a place like this. On occasion—and often when the lights are out—we wonder the same thing.
After dinner we run into James Singleton on Frenchmen Street. He’d played a few nights before at d.b.a. and we danced and danced and I nearly cried, I was so happy. I ask James if the rumors are true: has he really relocated to Los Angeles. He says that yes, he has, but that he is not abandoning New Orleans. I whine a little and give him the hard time I’ve given everyone I know who’s decided not to return. We need you, I say. How can the city recover without you, I say. But I can’t blame James. For all of its musical glory, New Orleans has treated its musicians horribly. Most of the nola musicians I’ve known have either had to take on second jobs simply to scrape by, or have gigged six days a week. How can you ask the musicians to return to this when they are being lured by other cities—cities where people are living, working, and have money to support our musicians who are, by now, both an object of pity and a spectacular “steal.” I can’t help feeling like New York and Austin and Portland and L.A. are stealing our culture from us. It frightens me. The idea of James Singleton sitting in a traffic jam on some L.A. interstate frightens me.
But: “I’ll always come back to New Orleans,” he says. “I need New Orleans,” he says. He gives me one of his spritely smiles and declares, “New Orleans feeds my soul,” and I know exactly what he means.