Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A lot of experience, but very little learning...

Before we finally went to bed last night--for the second time--I said to Simon, "I don't think I'll blog about this one." And all day I've been thinking about not blogging about the events of last night.

My mom is my most consistent reader, after all. She reads my blog weekly, as regularly as I write, and each post inspires an email whose naked concern for my well-being is only very thinly veiled. "You're in my thoughts, Dear Heart," she writes, and by "thoughts" I know she means "prayers." But she has spared me the God-talk ever since the holy-wars of my adolescence.

The prayer I hear her reciting goes, Please, God, keep my daughter safe.

Because she knows that this prayer is a heartfelt one no matter my location--and because she knows I love New Orleans fiercely, defensively, even--she doesn't pray, Please, God, keep my daughter safe in New Orleans. She's no fool; to utter "daughter" and "safe" and "New Orleans" might jinx things. Better to offer general prayers with maximum coverage.

In spite of my frequent reassurances, though, my mother worries about my safety in a sense tied closely to my setting. She's heard a thing or two about crime in New Orleans. She reads the papers, after all. She reads this blog.

So: better not to write about last night, I thought (and thought, and thought).

The trouble with this is twofold (why do I feel the need to rationalize?):

For starters, the purpose of this blog is to inform my (three) readers of what it's like to live in New Orleans, post-K. In that sense, an experience-any experience--becomes part of the larger "what" that it's like.

Secondly, it itches. After the events of last night, I feel like I NEED to get it out. I want to throw up this story, flush it, clean myself up, and go on with my getting drunk on this city, renewed.

But it's not just that I don't want my mom to worry about me that I hesitate to write about last night's events. It's also that I am painfully aware of how writing can alter meaning. If I write it, it becomes something. (In her book Trauma and Recovery, which I've been re-reading for the purposes of an academic paper on teaching writing, post-Katrina, Judith Herman Miller writes that "In the process of reconstruction, the trauma story does undergo a transformation, but only in the sense of becoming more present and more real." Perhaps it would be better, then, for me to adopt the stance of my husband's British homeland: chin up! carry on!)

Also, it becomes something not just in the telling, but something else in the hearing, the reading. (Again, Herman: "Testimony has both a private dimension, which is confessional and spiritual, and a public aspect, which is political and judicial.") In telling last night's story, in airing it publicly, it also becomes a "political" story of The Crime Problem in New Orleans. It becomes What It's Like to Live in New Orleans, post-Katrina. It becomes A Story instead of just my story, since public psychology and political positioning makes any New Orleans story resonate so, so differently after the storm. (God, these stories! The f-ing weight of them!)

I want to make this perfectly clear: I am not sharing this experience in order to illustrate some larger point about New Orleans. I am not going to tell you about last night because I want you to see how our city has descended into crime, or fear (See How Even the Privileged White are Now Touched by the Dark Hand of Desperation!). I am sharing this because it happened. I am sharing this because I have a big fat writerly mouth. I am sharing this because... okay?


Now that you've made it past all that build-up, a spoiler (or for Mom, some comfort): In this story, no one gets hurt.

Last night, Simon and I were just turning in--turning to our respective nightstands to put away our books and turn out our lights--when we heard a loud noise just outside our window.

Because we live next to a house that has been under renovation for ages upon ages, and because the drunken contractor/nephew-of-the-owner now squats there at night (blaring adult soft rock on his ghetto blaster, tossing empty cans of Budweiser from the upstairs windows into the alley below), we've become used to the occasional woozy-clamorous whatnot. So we looked at each other briefly. I said, "It's probably some drunk dude next door." We decided to settle.

Almost immediately, though, we heard another noise--like wood breaking, and then the tumbling of something, this time very clearly on our on our side of the fence. We looked at each other again. I can't remember this part--what we did--I just remember thinking something along the lines of That's not good. "Someone's in the yard," I said. And immediately: "Call the police."

Simon was still listening, so I leapt up and called 9-1-1. The operator answered right away (oh miracle of miracles!).

"There's an intruder in our back yard," I said.

"What's the address?"

I gave her the address.

"Do you have a description?"


"Is he still there?"

"I don't know."

Simon was at the window, lifting the shade. I said "Please get away from the window, Simon. Come in here, please."

Then I heard something knock against the radiator. "He's under the house," I said.

Simon and I were in the front of the house together now.

"Someone will be there shortly," the dispatcher said.

I didn't want to hang up. I didn't believe her, and I didn't want us to be there alone, for something to happen without her knowing.

I hung up.

For the next few moments we didn't hear anything. I told myself maybe it was just a big dog. I'd had run-ins with big, thuggish, NOLA-dogs before, after all. A pack of dogs ate one of my cats one night. Or maybe it was a ballsy feral cat. Feral cats often got into scraps with our own in the crawlspace underfoot, their tossing bodies banging against the radiator.

Much to our relief, the cops were there right away. I don't think I exaggerate when I say they arrived in less than a minute. Later we both talked about what we'd expected: we expected it would take forever. We expected them to knock, tiredly, to blase-ly take a report, to do nothing. The one time before that I'd called the cops from my house, it had gone something like that. That time they didn't even take a report (I'd thought someone had tried to break in--there were bang marks on the gate's lock, and my key was a struggle to fit in). The cops even suggested that perhaps I should move. What was I doing living alone--and in this city, no less?

But this time it was the military police who arrived, and they came military style--banging and announcing their presence, like something from Cops, for real.

There were two military police-members at the door--a skinny, scrawny kid barely out of puberty, and a black woman with a plain ponytail under her camouflaged hat. She was yelling toward the street that they were here, and that "he" was here. We saw several more guardsmen approach. It was clear by then that they knew something we didn't, and that in fact they'd been looking for this guy. It was, in fact, a guy, not a dog. And he was, in fact, here.

We unlocked the front and back gates--both of which open onto our kitchen--and the two, plus a couple more, went back. We heard them say, "Oh yeah, he's here." Simon was doing his usual bit of trying to be involved. I asked him to stay with me. We locked ourselves in the bathroom.

A lot of this is a little fuzzy to me now--who said what and exactly when, I can't get quite right. I guess it's true what they say about the unreliability of the memory of victims.

At any rate, I remember being in the bathroom and shaking. We heard a banging under the bathroom. He was just underneath us. I gripped my phone. I was looking for someplace to be where we couldn't get shot. We couldn't leave because the doors were open and we might confront them there. I thought about climbing in the iron claw-foot bathtub; surely it was bullet-proof. We heard a guardsman say, "I think he's under the house." "He's under the bathroom," we yelled. "We can hear him." We were both pushing against the door.

Simon said, "I'm locking the doors. I don't care if they get him or not, I don't want him coming in the house." He went out and locked the gates and returned to the bathroom. Hugged me.

Then, we heard scrambling again under the bathroom--this time more of it. "He's out, he's out!" they yelled. We opened the bathroom door, and the pimply tugged at the bars on the rear door. "Why'd you lock it?! Why'd you lock the door?!"

Simon unlocked it and I unlocked the front, and then they were all gone and we were standing there, all What happened? We locked the doors again and Simon went to the front of the house to look out the shutters' slats. "He's across the street," he said. He'd gone into our neighbors' backyard. The guardsmen were banging at their door to come in. Finally, Joe opened the door at about the same time as they got him. The guardsmen were saying, "What were you running for? Why'd you run?" They were holding his elbows. He was handcuffed. He was a black male, young-ish I think. I couldn't see.

In a few moments, we were outside. The two guards-members who'd chased him cam over to "thank" us. "Thanks for calling us, " they said, which I thought was odd. "No problem," I said. "We were just trying not to die." There was a little laughter.

"That's what we're here for. We're here to help," the woman said. Simon thanked her. They left.

We realized when they left that we had no idea what had just happened. A State Trooper car had pulled up, and appeared to be just a quickly preparing to leave. Simon ran out and told them we'd been the ones to call. They seemed surprised to learn that. They asked if they could search the yard for "drugs or a gun or anything he may have tried to get rid of." In the side alley, we found his watch, but there was nothing else. the cops asked us to take a look in the daylight. One took our numbers. When we asked what the guy had done, he said, "We don't know yet." Evidently they'd stopped him on St. Claude for some traffic-related-something, and he ran.

When we went back to bed, Simon asked if I'd been thinking of Helen Hill.


"Me, too."

There didn't seem to be a lot to say, so we lay in bed, awake for a long while. I read some academic article on Ethics in the Writing Classroom. Simon read Zadie Smith's White Teeth. Three-ish, we both tried to sleep.

Today I've been tired as all get out. While eating breakfast, I watched the Federal DA present a boatload of terribly grim information on the state of the local judicial system to the New Orleans City Council. I wrote down grim and grimmer numbers that he'd armed himself with: of 801 arrests between January of '06 and '07, less than 10 percent received indictments in the local courts. Of those 801 arrests 109 were referred to the Feds--all on federal firearms charges. Among those 109, there've been 275 collective previous arrests, 116 previous drug arrests, 93 previous violent crime arrests, 11 murder charges, and 55 previous firearms charges. What this says: our local judicial system is utterly broken.

More evidence of the broken-ness of our local judicial system: DA Eddie Jordan dropped charges against those charged with two of the most high-profile murders of the past year, claiming cold cases. In the case of Dinerral Shavers, the problem is a cultural one of witnesses refusing to come forward--partly because of inherent suspicion of the police, and part because of fear of retribution. In the Central City case, Eddie Jordan was simply wrong (the police easily found the witness just hours after the DA's announcement--further evidence of the rift between the DA's office and the police). Now, many residents are calling for Jordan's head.

As far as we go...

I told Simon that what happened last night made me feel exposed. I said I'd like to be logical now, to tell myself that yes, this could have happened anywhere. I reassured him that I won't allow this expereince to send us packing. And it won't.

But really, how much can one take? When you've experienced the trauma of the loss of your city, when you're experiencing the trauma of an ongoing failed recovery, and when even your sense personal safety has been socked in the gut, how much more can you take? How hard should we fight? What do we learn from this? For f*&#%^'s sake, what is there to learn?

Simon and I have agreed to keep fighting for now. We've decided to follow the case of our backyard intruder, to see where it leads and what it can tell us about crime and the judicial system in our city. In short, we'll try to find out what there is, in fact, to learn. I can only hope that the lesson will reasure us--that it will reaffirm our commitment to living in New Orleans.


Danielle said...

I don't know how you go back to bed after that--it had to be terrifying. Since I'm not your mom and never fought religious wars with you, I'll lay my cards on the table--I pray for you guys all the time, and will continue to do so. Love you guys!

John said...

Dear Heart,

You both done good. I think the bathtub woulda beena good place to hole (whole?) up. And I didn't have a "get out of town" reaction you might have thought your article would inspire. Rather, I thought how reassuring that 1) the 911 call was taken immediately, and 2) the MPs responded so quickly.

I suppose I have to pray (if I went in for that sort of thing) that, once the Guard pulls out (or takes their turn somewhere even scarier), that there are adequate public protection personnel.

And I suppose, in a little way, you hope you won't later wish that whoever it was holed up downstairs could have gone unapprehended (if that's a word--maybe I mean he might have been misapprehended). Inquiring minds want to know what he did and why he ran.

Okay, just move to Wisconsin.

--Your Uncle