Saturday, April 22, 2006


I just returned from Whole Foods, where actor Terrence Howard apologized for butting in on my grocery pile. (Nooooo problem.) Anyway, it was a nice little moment in an otherwise odd Election Day.

So, yeah, it is election day, and the neutral grounds of New Orleans are crowded with signs. At every corner, folks in candidate T-shirts wave signs. As I drove Uptown to Whole Foods, I noticed that the closer one drove to the river, (and the bigger and more expensive the houses got,) the more Ron Forman signs one saw. Landrieu's signs were popular, too, but the Uptown contingent loves their money, and they love their denial, and they love their zoo--and evidently, Ron Forman.

I find Forman annoying. Somehow this barely-democrat business man got ahold of my email address and has been filling my inbox with rhetoric about This Historic Opportunity. We are told that rarely will there be an election that matters more than this one (though I can think of a couple)--rarely will our votes count more than today.

So last night I was discussing my Historic Vote with some of my colleagues from UNO.

At first, I was all about Mitch Landrieu. In the first weeks after the storm, I remember his comments being empathetic and understanding--that he spoke about the right of everyone to return--not of the kind of racial cleansing that folks like freaky Peggy Wilson (who's used terms like "Welfare Queens" and "pimps" when referring to displaced New Orleanians) have been touting as an "opportunity." Plus, Mitch has pretty eyes and hair plugs that he seems to regret that make him somehow endearing.

But I'd told Simon that he could have my vote. Simon cares deeply about all elections--in the last presidential election, he even campaigned door-to-door--in spit of the fact that he can't vote. Simon had interviewed Tom Watson, a beJesusy pastor who is a righteous dude and a populist kind of guy, and had decided he was our man--until we saw his campaign ad that was all "Let my people go," and so Watson was out.

So we were back to square one. On Thursday, we watched a televised debate, and I listened skeptically to oneVirginia Boulet. I'd heard about her proposal to move UNO downtown--a hare-brained idea, I thought, until she talked about it. She also talked about universal health care and housing vouchers to allow displaced renters the ability to return (rents here are absolutely unforgivable outrageous, and I am SICK of people talking about f-ing supply and demand. Opportunism is opportunism--and unless you are a Republican or a business man, or you have secret conservative leanings like my future brother-in-law Tom appears to have, you will acknowledge that ANY landlord charging $2300 for a two bedroom in a neighborhood that is a shell of itself, in a city that is a shell of itself, is a straight-up JERK, to put it mildly.)

Anyway... I liked what Virginia Boulet had to say. It wasn't empty "we have a historic opportunity" rhetoric. It was We can't rely solely on tourism. It was universal health care. It was juvenile justice reform and other righteous idealistic stuff that gets the Dennis Kucinich supporter in me. So Simon and I agreed that we would vote for ideas in the primary.

But back to the Parkbview discussion with my colleagues.

So we're talking about this idea of moving UNO downtown, and I seem to be convincing people that it's a good idea. We are all very worried about the future of UNO, and there's a joke that in order to recruit a student, you have to blindfold them before dropping them off at campus. The neighborhoods surrounding the campus are very nearly destroyed. It is depressing and grim, the landscape, and it is my daily commute.

If UNO gets moved downtown, not only would improve our chances of getting better public transportation--of downtown being cleaner and better protected and generally more stable--but it would alos improve the Lakefront. The Lakefront campus fronts Lake Pontchartrain. It's prime real estate, and it could be developed into mixed-income houses that get sold for the kinds of prices Bush talked about way back in September (when he seemed to actually care). Furthermore, if permanent residents live on the lake, they are more likely to care about the lake, which is unswimmable. Perhaps we would be able to swim there again. Additionally, the neighborhoods of Lakeview and Gentilly would benefit from the new houses and commercial interests. It makes sense.

But my colleague, Kim, didn't think so. In fact, she nearly spat at me when she suggested that in voting for Boulet I was telling people like her--people who lived in and lost homes in Gentilly--to go f--k themselves.

"Kim, you're not being fair. That's not at all what I said."

"Yes, you are. You're telling me, 'f--k you.'"

If I weren't made of kinder stuff, I may have really lost it, but I tried gently to explain the benefits of the plan, and how it would, in fact, be great for her neighborhood. (Nevermind that Kim lived there for all of six months.) Still, she wouldn't relent. She looked harried and angry and lost. She pulled out a bottle of pills and took one while she talked. David--who said when she left the table that he agreed with my logic and that he really wished Kim would see it, too--looked concerned. He changed the subject and I said to Kim that we would have to agree to disagree--and that she would have to get over this notion that my vote meant "f--k you."

There are some fragile people amongst us, and it only takes an election, I guess, to break one's cool. I read an article in the NYTimes this week about mental health in Katrina victims and it worried, worried, worried me. I, too, am fragile.

So today I voted for Virginia Boulet. My old polling station--Douglas High School on St. Claude--is closed, so Simon and I walked to St. Paul Lutheran Church to vote. St. Paul's suffered roof and water damage, and so the inside looked stripped and skeletal and not at all holy, which I appreciated. I signed in and Simon and I reviewed's recommendations, along with Simon's own take on some of the candidates.

Then, one of the women at the table said that Simon and I could go in together. I was ecstatic. Simon has never voted in his Whole Life!

So there were were together: I pushed the selection buttons and Simon pushed the button "cast vote," and we felt good and hopeful until my neighbor across the street accused me of "throwing my vote away."

"I don't think that letting whoever wins know that I'm about universal health care and housing vouchers and, like, an actual PLAN is 'throwing my vote away.'"

Later, though, as I drove away from Whole Foods, high on my brush with Terrence Howard, I began to worry. What if Landrieu doesn't make it to the runoff and the decision is between Forman and Nagin? What if we elect another f-ing businessman? I made that mistake in the last mayoral election, when Nagin was running on a "marketing our city" platform (some PR he provided!), and I won't make it again. Still, that idea of New Orleans being a "business" is a popular one to the Uptown upper-crusts who have returned. Forman represents the upper escelons. He represents business, not people.

And cities are not businesses. New Orleans is not a business. It is a home. Mine and thousands of folks' who would like to be able to live here, to vote here, like me.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

I am nostalgic for the first days of our return, when brokenness and devastation had a certain charm. Charm is not the right word, of course, but at that time--in early October--life here was, well, awe-some. The scenery made our hearts swell, and the tears then were less for the pain that comes with the uncertainty of an unstable future and more for the horror of the short then-past.

What has changed? Why is it that the eagerness with which we met each other, everyone--friends-now-comrades, now fellow survivors, people who you recognized from somewhere, somewhere--an old bartender (even one who poured you weak drinks), the neighbor who you never spoke to, the weird effeminate dude who used to force himself (you thought) to leer at you even though you were sure he liked men, an acquaintance of an acquaintance who surprised you from behind a mask on Halloween--everyone back then with the joyful reunions. We talked to anyone! We talked and talked and talked and listened, too, and all of it--our being here--felt sparkling and miraculous and like: Lucky, lucky US! Because many of us WERE lucky. Really lucky.

But now we are all getting tired, so that even wedding-planning feels burdensome. I find myself pretending that I don't see so-and-so when I am in the coffee shop. While I wait in line, I examine the headlines in the paper. (And those I wish to avoid, too.) But she, too, must be pretending not to see me. She, too, is tired.

On the forums, out-of towners show up to tell us to quit pitying ourselves, to pick our pathetic selves up by the bootstraps, to stop asking for, expecting, wanting help already because they are sick, sick, sick of our whining. I start vitriolic rants urged on by my rage. But then I stop writing because I, too, am tired. Because I, too, am sick, sick, sick of us. Of this.

Yesterday I ran into my former boss from Tulane. He, like me, loves New Orleans, a fact that came up in our conversation as if it were an unfortunate illness we're both stricken with--one we'd like to get over, thank you, (sigh). T.R. was drinking a smoothie and the child's seat of his cart was filled with bottles of Odwalla Super-Food. I had coconut milk and curry paste in mine. Our little purchased comforts.

We greeted each other and remarked on our being at the only grocery now open within miles of our house. It's the Sav-A-Center on Franklin, by the lake. When I go there on my way home from work, I have to wait in line behind droves of contractors buying hot lunches from the line. I try not to look at anyone.

T.R. asks me politely if I still have my job (New Orleans is a terrible place to be a teacher, these days.) I tell him yes and thank God and tell him the truth: that I love it, that it keeps me together. I tell him that my future at UNO, for now, looks good, in spite of the doomsday prophecies and the emails that announce delay after delay in the FEMA trailer move-ins and numbers like "15 million dollar deficit" that arrive in my inbox, impossible to understand. I think I say Thank God a second time.

I ask about his teaching at Tulane--about the situation Uptown. He says he has made 12 out-of-town offers to post-docs to teach composition (evidently Tulane only hires instructors with terminal degrees, post-K,) but that no one had bitten. "I can't pay them enough to afford the rent," he says. I nod and we talk about the f-ing rents in this city--the f-ing, f-ing, f-ing way this city is slipping away from us like the rents--spiraling out of our control (as if we ever had any control.)

"I can't imagine anyone would want to move here," I tell T.R., and we smile, sadly at each other. T.R. says he thinks that things will probably get worse in 2007, but that then things will start to get better, if we can only hang on.

We talk about needing vacations. We talk about wanting a break. He tells me if he can just get a little away-time he can make it, but that honestly it's wearing him out.

We wish each other well.

As I leave the parking lot I consider stopping at the Subway that just opened--which is announced in puffy cursive on a fluorescent pink posterboard. I decide to wait and make a sandwich. I need a new car, I remind myself. I pass a sign that reads, "Not an Exit" next to a makeshift-camp for contractors that lies on the east side of the parking lot. The men from the line sit in camping chairs and eat their take-away. One of them nods at me.

On the way home I get aggravated by shit that used to bug me: potholes and aggressive drivers in their behemoth SUVs. I curse the workers at the corner of Franklin and Robert E. Lee. They are just now putting up a traffic light, when we are just fine with the stops signs, thank you. I curse a van full of Baptists in town to gut a few homes. An old man in a slow truck pulls out in front of me at South Miro and I step on the breaks, which stop me just in time in spite of Simon's truck's tin-can-iness and his balding tires. The man gives me an apologetic wave, but I am in no f-ing mood. At home I put my purse cross-ways over my shoulder. I look out the rearview mirror and both of the side ones. I gather my things and rush inside, inside, where there's my Simon and my cats and worrisome windows with no bars.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

This joyless spring...

The Misbelieves in the loquat tree drop, rotten, with no children to pick them.

The buckmoth caterpillars remind me of something much more wretched than their natural selves. They are cruel politicians. They are mean-spirited tricks of mother nature. They are poisonous, spiky, angry, stupid turds, and as each fat fiend falls from our oak tree in the back yard, I am convinced that every one of them is destined to land on me.

So I avoid the backyard.

But I was doing this already. Because next door the contractors are perpetually at work on a house that will take years to finish just as it took years to paint. The owner is a viscous overseer of Mexicans, his dentures are too large for his mouth and he yells at the Mexicans in his incomprehensible dialect, louder, slower, toothier, as if they will then understand him. They bang, bang, bang but seem to get nowhere.

One of these contractors drives a car that hit mine a couple of months ago. He was drunk and drove off. I got only the last two numbers of his license plate, and for weeks he stayed away, but now there he is again, his truck with scars the size and shape that correspond with the wounds he delivered to my car that has now been hauled away. Simon hates this man in a way that I find unhealthy. He wants to play gumshoe. He takes photos of the truck while it is parked outside the bar two houses down, and I am scared. Who knows about this man. I think about the beating we witnessed a couple of weeks ago. I think about the 28-year-old who was killed later than week at 5 a.m. on Chartres street. I think about the aggression and frustration that comes with losing everything--with working long hours and sleeping in a parked car. Simon thinks about justice. I think he is too f-ing British. Naive. He angers me.

As he did that day that I saw the beating. It was the middle of the afternoon, and I was just home from teaching. I saw a grown man and a thuggish scrawny dude pushing each other and yelling. I came in and mentioned to Simon, off-handedly, that there was a fight down by the traintracks. I went out and peeked around the fence and saw the older man hitting the young guy's head against the tracks. When Simon comes out, the young guy has gained the upper hand. He has a friend with him, and his friend is dragging a galvanized steel pole to the curb, where the young guy is kicking the man's head in. I run inside and call the police. I am frantic. When I return, Simon is out playing cop again. He says he wants to help, and I tell him he is fucking crazy. Some skinny white dude with a funny accent walks up on a volatile situation. He is a witness to who knows what has even happened, and he is offering ice and help. He is a target. He is a pawn. Which is just what he becomes when the cops arrive and the young dude acts as if he has done nothing and Simon gives and incorrect description of the older man, who has fled to who knows where and the young dude is saying it was his uncle and that he just drove up in a green Suburban and started beating him. I saw very little, but I know this isn't true. When the cop is done taking my limited statement, I tell Simon how angry I am that he didn't listen to me when I asked him to stay inside. He says things like he wanted to help and I say HOW HOW HOW?! And he doesn't understand my worry or my rage. Two days later he tells me as we are driving to Metairie to pick out wedding invitations that he went down the makeshift trailer park where the fight originated (a green space filled with parked cars and trucks where tired workers sleep) to ask around. I am furious and he doesn't seem to care. He shrugs, like, "I'm sorry I mentioned it." I feel like he doesn't understand violence, like he is too privileged, too British, too naive. Part of me wishes I were, too.

Other parts of me are simply tired. My mom and dad were here to help with wedding stuff and my mom, bless her heart, asked all sorts of questions about what this or that was like before the storm and did I think they got hit particularly hard and did I think that the racial tensions are racial ones or are they class, maybe, and I wanted to crawl into a hole. A comfortable one with pedicures and margaritas and nothing, nothing, nothing related to hurricanes or politicians or race or class or beatings or shootings or sagging, rotting fruit trees or buckmoth caterpillars raining on me, giving me further reason to want to stay inside while outside it is spring but feels nothing, nothing, nothing like it.