Friday, December 29, 2006

Christmas in New Orleans

Well there have been lots of articles about Christmas in New Orleans. Some of them about families who came back to spend their holidays together as they always had, others about the evacuees who couldn't get back home.

David and I have our own little New Orleans Christmas story to tell.

When we first started writing these emails, we sent one out about the people who were missing. These were people we actually knew, not the people of the statistics. As they've turned up, we've let you all know. On Christmas Eve some of those on our personal "missing" list showed up on our doorstep. Gifts.

We were standing outside, the weather was warm for this time of year. Zack and Melissa's folks were here, and they're always a joy. So we stood out there talking, laughing, having a couple drinks. David was due home shortly but was still at work. I had come back in the house for something and the doorbell rang. When I opened it there was a man with a wonderful smile on his face, dressed in a bright Christmas red sweatshirt, black pants, and red hush puppies. It was Louis Towns, our neighbor. All he needed was a bow on his head and he would have been the best gift of Christmas. Before he could get the "Hello Miss Marie" out of his mouth we were hugging each other. Then the phone rang and it was David. I told him there was someone here who wanted to talk to him. I handed the phone to Louis and he said, "Hey, Mr. Dave!" David was thrilled and hurried home.

I still don't have the whole story of Louis' odyssey, but I'll give you what I do know. First a little bit about Louis. Louis is one of the most decent and one of the hardest working men I've ever known. A black man, born and raised in Louisiana, very intelligent, not very well educated. He's married, has a son who wants to be an engineer, and he had two grandsons. He may have former wives, other kids, other grandchildren, but we've never discussed any of that. Pre-Katrina David and I met him on the Ferry as it seemed we were usually coming and going at about the same time, all on bicycles. He lives a few doors down on our block and of course we'd seen him, but it was on the Ferry that we made friends. Many nights we'd be coming home from work the same time as he did and we'd talk about lots of things. He worked in a warehouse in Metairie, which is by bicycle a very long way from Algiers Point. Louis is in his early 50's and he rode his bicycle to and from his job in a warehouse every day. If we didn't see him on the Ferry we knew that his boss, who thought he hung the moon, must have picked him and his bicycle up over near the bridge, but usually if the boss did that it was at 4:30AM. Louis, grateful for the ride, would go to work early then ride his bike home. Our relationship was casual. He'd come to our porch to talk, we'd stop at his porch to talk, but we always talked on the Ferry.

About three weeks before the storm, Louis had somehow dropped either a pallet full of stuff or a large 5-600 lb drum on his foot. I can't remember which, I only remember him telling me the story and it was a totally freak accident. His foot had been literally smashed and the doctors had put multiple pins in it just to keep the bones together. One of the pins was sticking out of his big toe. Just looking at it made you cringe because you could imagine, or thought you could, how painful this injury was. David and I had talked back then about how difficult it would be after this accident for Louis to do his daily Algiers to Metairie ride. Louis said he'd find a way to get to work because he was trying to help his son become an engineer, besides, he had said, he'd been saving up some money to buy some old beater car. About a week before the storm, Louis moved up to a friend's house in Metairie, or near there, because it was closer to the doctors who were treating him and walking to and from mass transit wasn't really an option for him at the time. Then came Katrina. We didn't see him again. When his family returned to the flat up the street, we'd ask every time we saw them if they'd heard anything from Louis. They had no idea where he was. They were worried too. We all knew that he had been in a part of the city that had flooded. At least once a week David or I would wonder if Louis had made it. It was one of those vague little aches that we didn't know how to fix, someone once there suddenly gone. We didn't know his last name---he was simply Louis and we were David and Marie, a name that I am not sure how he ascribed to me but he's always called me that and I've never corrected him. We weren't really close with his family so felt like we'd be intruding if we asked for last names and we figured they'd already checked all the various lists.

On Christmas Eve when he showed up on the doorstep we found out what had happened to him. Unfortunately, it's not a particularly unique story. He's just one of many. He had been in Utah. I should have figured that out by looking at the Utah Utes red sweatshirt, but hadn't noticed anything but his smile. How he got to Utah is a story that I hope to get in toto one day. He says he's written some of it down and has warned me that his spelling is no good. I don't care. I got the "short" version the other night and want to hear the complete version. (He said he'd been interviewed several times by the Utah newspapers. I wonder what they made of his story.)

When the storm hit he was lakeside in the City, either in Metairie or nearby. That is the area that the 17th St Canal breached and flooded. His foot still full of pins and in a cast, he walked through waist deep polluted water until someone rescued him and took him to the Convention Center. There he spent five days. Another couple of friends were also in the Convention Center and have told me about the level and degree of filth, including two inches of urine on the floor. He was there with his 19 year old nephew and some other friends or family. His nephew went to get bottled water for some of the elderly people near them at the Center, and somehow he wound up in the chaos of evacuees and police and was shot and killed. Louis stood in my kitchen at one point and sobbed saying, "I watched my nephew die and all he was doing was going to get some water for the old people." He looks utterly bewildered when he says this. There is some anger in him, but his anguish over not being able to help his nephew outweighs the anger. At least for now. At this point his feet and legs were in terrible shape from walking through the water in combination with the injury he had sustained prior to the storm. He left the Convention Center on foot and joined the people on the Crescent City connection. He was one of the people the Gretna police turned back. Remember, he lives over here. He was told that if he could get someone on the phone to come and get him, that he could come through. He didn't have anyone's phone number and no cell phone, so that option was gone for him. He walked back to the other side of the river and through some intervention, not sure whose intervention, he wound up on a Jet Blue to Utah.

When he got to Utah, they put him straight in to a hospital, where he was told that his feet and legs were so horribly infected that they might have to amputate them. Evidently his feet and lower legs were triple the size they normally are. They pumped him full of antibiotics and painkillers, and remarkably, saved his legs. I told him he was actually lucky not to have been allowed to cross the bridge because at that point I'm not sure that there would have been a hospital in the area who could have taken care of him. There was still no power in most places. He spent weeks in the hospital and was so sick and so out of it that he said he didn't realize how much time had passed and he didn't know where the rest of his family was either. Finally he was released, evidently has been set up in some kind of living arrangement, still has medical issues that need to be dealt with so he could only stay here for a couple of days before heading back to Utah. He also found out once he got in touch with his family here that one of his grandsons had died. So his return here was bittersweet, but he was so grateful to be home. He says he'll return home permanently at the end of March, but for now he'll be in Utah not liking the snow but grateful for all the help he's had. He believes absolutely that he was saved for a reason. His emotional pain will take much longer to heal.

As we were talking with Louis and the neighbor/family next door, we see two short people walking toward us. It was two of our "angel urchins" and they had also been lost. Kendrick and Trevonne are brothers. Their mother works offshore on a oil rig, they live with an aunt a few blocks from here, but last we'd heard they were going to move to St. Bernard parish. Gratefully they didn't, but we hadn't seen them since about a week before the storm and we'd worried about them and their cousin Terrence. Kendrick is 12, his brother Trevonne is about 14, Terrence is about 14 too. We were delighted to see them. I grabbed Kendrick and gave him a big hug and we told them how much we'd worried about them. Melissa said she saw Kendrick's bottom lip quiver when I grabbed him. I didn't see it, I was so grateful to see these boys that I had tears in my own eyes and wouldn't have noticed if Kendrick did too. Trevonne stood down at the bottom of the steps til I asked him if he was too big to give me a hug on Christmas Eve. He grinned and came up and hugged me. They told us they had been in Napoleonville, "the country" as they call it, and were glad to be home. Terrence is in another little town "in the country" and probably won't be coming home. Kendrick and Trevonne will start back to school sometime in January.

So we got to chalk four people off of our personal "missing" list. It was a lovely Christmas!

Others won't be so lucky. You've all seen the death toll numbers, which I'm still not really convinced of. (Does that number include people like Louis's nephew?) But no one's talking about the "missing" numbers. As of last week, according to I believe it was an Associated Press story, these are the statistics so far:

-80% of New Orleans was under water
-284,000 homes were destroyed
-81,000 business were destroyed

Horrible stats, but the following statistics are rarely mentioned:
-6644 people are still listed as MISSING, and this number includes 1000 children

Where are they? Is someone doing anything to find them? With over 1000+ confirmed dead, what about the 6600 missing people?

Seems to me this needs to be looked into, not just reported and dismissed. We are lucky. Most of our missing people are turning up. I cannot imagine not knowing where my daughter and grandson were for all these months. Wondering if they were under a building somewhere dead and still not found, or had been sent three states away but not put on any list. Them being so untrackable would be torture. This is the reality for many people in this region.

I am so grateful that our Christmas gifts this year were on two feet walking up our steps and giving us peace of mind as far as their well being was concerned. We couldn't have asked for more.

Love and Light,
David and Bec

Monday, December 18, 2006

It's the week before Christmas, and all through the house. . . .

. . . . is the second trip to storage salvage. Really. Behind me as I write are dolls, lots and lots of dolls. All sitting in front of the electric heater, where they've been for days to dry out. I turn them like chickens on a spit. There's another tupperware full on the porch, still wet, but there's only so much room for salvage so I do it a little at a time.

Meg had a large doll collection, which was added to each Christmas for many years til she decided she'd rather have a stereo at 12, a car at 15. You know the way that goes. We had carefully packed them all up and brought them with us, figuring some day she'd probably want them. When we pulled them out of the sludge that is our storage, the porcelain was mostly okay, but the bodies and the clothes were soaking wet and starting to mold. I've discovered that salvaging this stuff is a three pronged operation. First you get it out of the storage unit, yes it's still in the dark out there, then you get it home and try to dry it out, then you try to clean it up. Some of what you think you can save you can't, some of what you think is just gone, you can. It's pretty schizophrenic. Once this batch of dolls is dry, I'll bring the other batch in and do the same thing. It poured yesterday. Some of the stuff on the porch got wet. Oh well, it's already wet. What else can happen to it?

Snapshots------OOOOOOOHH now there's a bad word for us this week.

Lemme back up a bit. We got into storage again on Wednesday. Apparently it won't be such a problem now as there's going to allegedly be someone there all the time. THAT is a big help. Of course it was still wet, of course it had no power, but we got smart and got little hangie lanterns. The coal miner idea is cemented in our heads now. It looks like a mine in there. So we open the door, get some carts, hang up the lanterns and move some more book sludge. The floor is very slippery and our unit is in the dead center of this maze like building. After a couple of trips in and out with the cart, I literally slipped/tripped and saved myself from falling completely in the dark by placing my face squarely onto the corrugated metal of the corner of the units that I didn't see. Hey, at my age the eyes don't adjust as fast as they did. Don't panic! Quit gasping! I'm okay. I had a fat lip and a couple bruises and a bad headache for a couple days. It was to be expected that one of us would fall. We had to sign waivers prior to going in saying that no matter what happened UHaul wasn't liable so they're off the hook and next time I wear better treaded shoes.

The books don't get any easier to toss out. Each box harder than the last. Then came the box of games, Monopoly, Scrabble, all the games everyone has and soggy Monopoly money flew around us as we tossed the pulpy scraps into the dumpster which is about 10 feet tall. It was a windy day and it drizzled a little, which made tossing things over one's head a redundant effort in a lot of cases. "Hey, honey, here's the FEMA money!" The great golden 500 dollar Monopoly bills going up towards the mouth of the dumpster and then back down on top of us, kinda like a really perverse jewel thief movie where the thieves put all the "take" on the bed and toss it in the air. We are a sick couple. We'll take our humor where we can get it.

Back into the mine we go and now I must issue a retraction of my last email. TUPPERWARE DOES NOT SAVE PHOTOS. We look down and find a gigantic green tupperware. Lid firmly attached, looked pretty okay, sitting on the floor. This was a coup in and of itself as getting to the floor level in this thing is done in little increments by taking all the sludge from the top, then the middle, then finally you clear an area and see floor. Neither of us had any idea what was in it. David opened the lid and the worst odor came out. We picked it up and it was incredibly heavy. We wheel it out, open it up and it's full of black water, then I realize what else is in it. Photos. Tons and tons of family photos. Baby pictures of me. Baby pictures of David. Baby pictures of Megan. The Christmas card I made of her when she was four in her leather jacket and hat eating a candy cane. I had several extra. No more. School pictures from every year of her school. Mine too. My mama had given my sisters and myself our "kid pictures" and they were gone in the black water. I felt like I had let her down, I hadn't protected them. Bullshit, I know, but it's one of those flickering thoughts which must be multiplied 100,000 times all over New Orleans every day. It was horrible. And there are more photos in that storage unit. I haven't gotten to them yet. We're still only about 2/3 of the way through. We figure it will be one more, maybe two more trips to the mine before we have dealt with all of it.

Snapshots, gone. Snapshots of the day, some of which made it through stage one of salvage. Bizarre things. Meaningless things that have become meaningful:

A temporary driver's license with my Guerrero St. apartment address on it. Some old shoot schedule from Video Caroline. The complete Videowest staff list and contact numbers, which I typed on an ancient Xerox word processor years ago. A contact sheet of photos of a video shoot with Greg Kihn, the only picture still intact was one of Juanita, smiling up at me. I'm going to dry it out and send it to her. A sketch Joe Dea made 23 years ago of Meg with bunny ears. A postcard of the Jefferson Starship shoot. Meg wants that. Some sketches made for paintings that I had to throw away. Found the "heart" sketch from the Janis Joplin painting which did survive in my house. If it makes it through the drying process I'm giving that to Stuart and Lon, our dear friends here. A faded picture of me in a baton twirling recital when I was about 6 I'd say. I remember my Mama sewing every stinking green sequin on the yellow fabric and how proud I was of my boots. Pictures of two cats, now gone, the only pictures of pets that remain. Our beloved Dakota's photo was a mush. I had to ask David what had been in the frame. A photo of David's nephew and his dad fishing. We could only see their feet before we tossed it. Some touristy postcards and old newspaper articles from the Dalton Gang Hideout in Kansas. If any of that lives, I'm going to divvy it up between Meg and my nieces who were along for that trip. A Blue Angels tshirt that Meg got when she went to see them with David at age 6. I'll save that for her.

Talk about your life flashing before your eyes. It was all there in storage. I tossed out 30 years of my work. Any writing I'd done was gone, the paintings went into the dumpster, most of the sketches are pulp, and any photography I'd done was now matted blank space. Funny though, one painting that I was always unsatisfied with went into the dumpster but the sketch survived and it was better than the painting had ever been and having spent so much time in water on top of a water color that was in there, it's now a kinda cool piece of art itself. I'll try to keep that. It's a weird kind of numbness that overtakes you when you're sorting through the crap that we all save that reminds us that we were here, we created, we experienced. I actually am nuts enough that I took some photos of some of the stuff before it went over the top of the blue dumpster, especially some of Meg's stuff, so she knows what she had. And I need to tell Angie that I saved most of Meg's Barbie's, and the clothes that Angie had given her for them. At least I think I did. We'll see how stage two goes.

Now, put that kleenex away. This is one of those things that comes with living through Katrina. We'll sort through the rest after Christmas. What else can happen to it at this point? And we'll see Christmas. We'll be walking around dolls and boxes of other stuff that most people would call junk, but we'll be walking around.

David has a friend at work whose neighbor was so distraught that he took his own life this week. Those numbers keep climbing. He had been estranged from his wife prior to the storm, then his house went under water, and he lost his job. He hadn't gotten his FEMA money either (we're hearing that only 13% of people have, and I also heard a story which I've yet to be able to confirm that a large percentage of people were listed as "ineligible" because they had bad credit ratings. I don't get the relationship there. I'll let you know as soon as I can confirm that story.) He had started gutting his house, was getting on with rebuilding. Contractors were coming in. His house was in Mid-City and was reasonably stable. Unfortunately, the whole thing took it's toll on him and the contractors found him upstairs in the house, dead.

City Park did the Celebration in the Oaks this year, much to our surprise. I heard some people griping about that. How can one do a celebration of any kind, they asked. Tonight the traditional carolling on Jackson Square will happen. People with candles and song sheets singing in the Christmas lights and the shadow of the Cathedral. I hear several restaurants will manage to do reveillon dinners, the dinners traditionally served after Midnight Mass. Of course they must.

We are months past the storm, and still there is so much to be dealt with personally and in terms of planning what the future of the City will be. I was in Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop one evening and heard some guys standing at the bar discussing all this. One said, "Okay, it's time to STOP CRYING. We can go on crying forever, or we can get to work and get something done." No doubt we'll cry some more, it's unavoidable, but this guy made a good point.

One thing that will help is for people to celebrate. This is a city that five months ago would hold up traffic for any kind of parade. "Mayor Nagin's dog had a litter!" "GREAT! Let's have a parade!" "It's Wanda's birthday!" "Get a permit, we MUST do a second line!" "No parade today?" "Nope." "Why not?" "No reason." "WAIT, it's St. Theralian's feast day." "Who the hell is St. Theralian?" "No idea but let's have a parade!"

New Orleans won't be that way again for a long time, but celebration is needed. Hell, I saw an actual streetcar coming down Canal the other day! PARADE! There was no parade, but there should have been. Every little step has to be applauded, celebrated, and built on. There's so much depression and despair in this little corner of the world that every bit of joy has to be noted. Christmas lights up on houses, singing, reveillons, these things must be there however sparse. It will help so many get through the ongoing salvage and rebuilding process. And we'll all have to help those who have a real let down once the holidays have passed, because many will still not have a home, or will be going through one more room in their house throwing out everything in it and gutting the walls. David and I will still have to wade through the muck of storage and go through the trunks, the things we're dreading most. It has to be done and we'll do it along with everyone else in New Orleans.

What we need the rest of you to do is not to forget us. Don't let the current quick fix levee solution become a permanent, neglectful patch so that this happens again. The storm would have been a bad one, but it was the failure of the levees that caused this wholesale destruction. I got a great email from a friend in Montana. Showed the system London uses to keep water out, then showed the Netherlands system, then showed the New Orleans system. Appalling. (I'll forward it to you if you want it.) Write the Army Corps of Engineers and tell them that we can do better. Write your representatives and tell them thank you for the 3 billion, but we're going to need so much more than that, then those of you who are versed in "finance speak" can tell them how it wouldn't be a lump sum but would be spread out over the life of the project and it will cost so much less than rebuilding New Orleans a second time. Tell them the insurance industry lobbyists will thank them in the end and contribute more to their campaigns. (Hey, whatever works!) Tell them that if we can afford to run an outrageous deficit to rebuild Iraq, which we spent over 300 billion on last year, that we should be able to make this city safe for it's citizens. Oh, and tell them that you know people here, and that they're tenacious and willing to throw them a parade if they just make it seem like they give a shit.

Tell them that a phoenix rose from the ashes, and that there are a bunch of us here waiting to see what kind of glorious City rises from the sludge. Tell them we won't let them bury any more of us in it.

Now, after you've done that, take that damn kleenex in your hand. That's it. Good. Hold that hand up in the air. GREAT. Put on a brass band CD. Got it? Okay. Now, stand up, wave it in the air. Move your hips around to the music. Get a few of your friends to join you. Now take it to the streets. People will look at ya funny, but they'll get over it. Now you've created a second line. Have fun with it! Pour another eggnog if you want! Keep going, don't wimp out.

Now imagine how wonderful it will be to do that in a renewed New Orleans, knowing that you're in a City that wouldn't let itself die.

Love and Light,
Bec and David

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

But we don't have a drink called the Typhoon. . .or red headed step-child. . . .

Hi all,
First let me say thanks to all of you who sent birthday greetings last week. It was much appreciated, and for those of you who sent snail mail cards, don't despair, they'll get here. Maybe it will be January but they will arrive. Mail service here is still hit or miss. Sometimes we get mail two days in a row, then nothing for days, but eventually things do show up. Priority Mail to New Orleans can take as long as two weeks to arrive here, so please, if you sent something, don't think we're unappreciative. We might not have gotten it yet. I'm not doing my usual Christmas this year. I'm only sending to my grandson and daughter and anything that we sent we had shipped from the place we bought it. Online shopping! The only way to go at the moment.

We've been thinking about a lot of things, so this will probably be a little disjointed. Forewarned is forearmed, they say. Consider yourself forewarned.

One thing we've been thinking about is Mardi Gras. The arguments surrounding do we do it or do we not do it are astonishing. There is the racial issue, which can seem insurmountable in just about any discussion of anything at the moment. There are truly some valid points on all sides, but the Mardi Gras issues are really something. Our mayor, whom I have mostly liked, really screwed up this week by saying in Atlanta that he didn't think we should have Mardi Gras this year but that the tourism industry people said it had to happen. Um, YUP, they're right, Mayor Nagin. The police, underfunded and understaffed, are saying they can't patrol Mardi Gras as it has been since there's no money for overtime, so apparently some agreement has been made that all the krewes will parade on the same route (not standard, but workable). Okay, phew. Now come the weird arguments:

1. We shouldn't do Mardi Gras because for decades it was segregated (true, absolutely) and it sends the wrong message to the displaced citizens of color that only white returnees are welcome. These people seem to ignore the fact that Zulu, one of the super krewes is in negotiations now re:their route and will parade. I do hope the city lets them go into the Treme as is customary, because it's needed. For those of you not from here, Zulu is a huge mostly Afro-American krewe that started out as a parody of white krewes and has become one of the premiere krewes in Mardi Gras, and the Treme is an historic black cultural area. Without Zulu, it just wouldn't be Mardi Gras, and they appear to be coming back which leads to the next weird argument.

2. We shouldn't do Mardi Gras because it sends the wrong message to the country that we're all down here partying on the bodies of the perished. New Orleans needs to continue moving forward. That doesn't just mean getting tourists back here (although that's needed and is indeed happening slowly but surely). It doesn't just mean cleaning debris up and rebuilding houses. It doesn't just mean re-opening businesses and doing what we can do to keep existing small businesses viable (a real problem since SBA loans are taking so long and the employees can't come home with no where to live until FEMA trailers show up). Of COURSE all of that needs to be done and it will be done. It will take time. In the meantime, though, we have to psychologically change this city. This is a very sad, very tired, very depressed citizenry at the moment. The culture of New Orleans is something that everyone here is hoping to retain because without it we might as well become Atlanta or Tampa or someplace other than New Orleans. Our collective psyche needs Mardi Gras. Everyone has worked hard and is continuing to. You see people everywhere digging through their stuff, gutting their houses, standing on their rooftops fixing the roof. While Mardi Gras may not be "normal" in any other city, it IS normal here, and we need a dose of normal.

Meanwhile, as everyone argues about Mardi Gras, Grey Line Tours has started tours of the devastated areas. At least that's what we heard. This wouldn't necessarily be as tasteless as it sounds IF the money was going to help the areas being toured and IF it showed people that parts of this city still aren't anywhere near what they were four months ago. There are so many people who think things are back to business as usual here. If those taking the tour would act as ambassadors when they returned to their hometowns, great. BUT I fear that is NOT what will happen and it will just be more horrible exploitation with Grey Line making money.

We went to some friends' house the other night. They were determined to have a Christmas tree this year, so over we went to help decorate it. There were about nine of us, til David showed up after work. We wound up with a tree covered in ornaments that they'd had for a long time that had sentimental value, along with ornaments made from various pieces of an MRE (well, except for the one that Churchill the glorious bulldog ate! It was MRE wheat bread with beads glued to it and he, apparently, is the only creature I know that likes it.), and instead of tinsel, it was strewn with Mardi Gras beads. It is a beautiful tree, and a shining symbol of hope, as hokey as that sounds. Just the act of DOING it was hopeful. And we avoided a huge vet bill for Churchill after a panic over the probability of his having eaten the wire we had used to hang the bread, so all was better than well with the universe.

The next day I went through all of our ornaments from storage. The tin can they were in is a rust bucket and the water still in the can was extraordinary. I do have some words of wisdom for you. Never ever wrap your ornaments in colored tissue paper, particularly red. I have an elf that started out with a little blue jacket and shoes on. He's plastic or resin, something like that. With the red stain of the paper, he's now quite a showy guy. His pants are orange and his jacket and shoes are purple! I have a porcelain angel that survived, but she looks like she's spent entirely too much time in the sun. I saved some, and others are still in the "maybe" column, but at least they weren't all wiped out. Aside from the tissue paper advice, make sure you pack anything that matters to you in tupperware! It will float and keep the water out. It took me about 6 hours to slog through all the tissue paper in that can and clean each one to see if it was salvage pile or trash pile. The ones that made it will be treasured, even though they are few. They are drying in front of the heater right now, then they'll go to stage two sorting. If we can keep the mold off of the wooden ones, we'll be good!

We think we should sell New Orleans to Japan. ::::::::::::::::::::Can you all say LEFT FIELD?????::::::::::::::::::::::::Think about it, folks. As the Japanese say, "You won the war, but we won the peace." Japan, as you know, is tiny. It's an island. It has typhoons, which are the Pacific version of a hurricane. No evacuation routes to Atlanta or Memphis or Texas. Where are they going to go? No where. So they have put together a remarkable system of floodgates and levees to protect their highly populated, heavily urban cities. While FEMA goes on and on about should we rebuild near our coastal cities, Japan is surrounded by coast line, and they manage. I was reading an article about a typhoon a year ago or so, and there were some deaths, three I think. Why can't we manage that? I believe it's a question of will.

There are flood plains in the Midwest. There are fault lines in California. Do we just say that anywhere a catastrophic brush fire is probable there should be no building--certainly no REbuilding. No one blinked an eye when New York needed help. No one blinked an eye after the San Francisco earthquake in 1989. I do not remember a discussion about whether or not to rebuild. And we're certainly not booting people out of tornado alley. "So sorry, this is your home but the insurance companies and we, the other citizens of the country feel it's just entirely too dangerous and expensive to rebuild here, so you need to relocate to.. . . . ." Canada maybe? I imagine they have their weather problems there too. Fact is New Orleans is not recognized for her Port, which is extremely important to the nation's economy. Louisiana, and the entire Gulf Coast, is viewed as the red-headed step-child of this country. Nothing but decadent rich white people throwing beads and eating etouffe or criminally oriented impoverished black people live in New Orleans. At least that seems to be the perception. So now the battle rages over whether to rebuild, where to rebuild, and who's going to pay for it. (Don't get me started on the thieves who call themselves the insurance industry.)

Screw it. Louisiana has been bought and sold more than any other state historically. Let's just sell it to the Japanese. Get their engineers in here, along with some from Venice, Italy and the Netherlands. They'll fix these levees, which have to be the first order of business, and I bet they'd do it right.

Of course we'd have to keep the Calle's and the Rue's for historical accuracy. Rue Royal Tokyo. Rue St. Louis Amsterdam. Rue Bourbon Venezia. We can do this. And we'll just have Pat O'Brien's start serving Typhoons, instead of Hurricanes.

Love and Light and forgive the rant,
Bec and David

Saturday, December 02, 2006

A Christmas Tree on Canal Street, Aaron Neville and Tennyson

Hi all,
Well Thanksgiving was a little schizophrenic, but lovely. First we went to Bridge House, a place long known as a haven for the homeless and the substance abusers (hey, wait, wasn't that the TOURISTS in the pre-Katrina days?) of New Orleans. We had called them up and told them that we would volunteer on Thanksgiving as they always feed people there. We got there and found that the definition of homeless had changed radically this year and furthermore, there were more volunteers than those needing food. They were prepared to feed 1000 people, but didn't get nearly that many. Most of those who arrived had lost their homes and jobs, or were here from Honduras working on roofs. It was truly surreal. The woman in charge asked us to just sit and talk with people who were coming in so they wouldn't have to have Thanksgiving dinner alone.

The first man we sat with was probably in his fifties. He said, "My mother and father had 15 kids, all of us still living, and all the nieces and nephews are still living. But last year Thanksgiving was at MY house." His family is scattered to the four winds, his house is gone, he emptied his refrigerator and strapped it closed as he knew the storm was coming. He said he did it because he knew it would float and it did. He floated out of his house. He is trying to rebuild and says he is NOT leaving, but he cried when he said that most of his family won't be coming back. This storm has destroyed families in a way that can't be expressed. All I could do was hug him.

The second man was in his early 80's. He grinned as he told me that his house was all but gone, just a shell really. He had thought the grandkids had taken the dog. They hadn't. When he found out that the dog was still here somewhere, both he and his remaining son went to the house daily and never found the dog. They started gutting the house, and the son went upstairs, lifted a mattress to get it out of there, and heard a growl. The dog had gone to high ground in the upstairs and had stayed under that mattress for 38 days. Roger, was the man's name, Roger thought the dog must have survived on the water that was seeping through some damage on the roof. We were all celebrating the survival of that dog!

There were others. All with similar stories. All sad, all displaced, all saying they're not leaving.

We left Bridge House and headed for the Quarter. We were meeting some friends for dinner at Muriel's, a lovely restaurant on Jackson Square. It was kinda like going from a workhouse to Versailles in a matter of moments. We sat on the Square and enjoyed seeing some families walking together and then met our friends. Muriel's is truly exquisite, great ambience, great food, great service. We sit down with our sweet friends at this huge round table and we found ourselves talking about our collective mental states. All on a rollercoaster in various ways. And we talked about our determination to stay and help rebuild this wonderful city. Then Bruce says, "I really hate poetry, but am wondering if you all would mind if I read this?" We said no, of course we wouldn't mind. He had searched for days for this passage from "Ulysses" by Tennyson:

"Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

I'm in tears just typing it for you. We were all in tears at dinner when he read it. It's perfect for us right now, and neither the dislocated at Bridge House, nor the friendship connected family at Muriel's are willing to yield. It really was a beautiful day and we were all so grateful.

David and I were steeling our courage to go to storage. We were finally going to be allowed in on Tuesday at 10AM. We knew what it looked like, but nevertheless we were ill prepared for what the reality was.

Still no power out there, so one feels like a miner out of Germinal. We opened the garage type door to the storage unit and started filling up the carts with what David calls "book slop." We heard that you could freeze books, papers, photos, and save some of them, but we'd need a freezer the size of a meatlocker to freeze all of our papers, books and photos. David wondered out loud how much we had paid for all these books. We decided better not to think about it.

We rolled the carts out, piled high, and went straight to the dumpster, looking at the titles as we tossed them in. All of my first edition Zola's were gone, David's first airplane book that he got from his dad at the age of 6, also gone. All the Native American books we had, all of Jim Gonsey's beloved auto books, all of our film books, everything, just gone. The toxic water and mold had taken them and we slogged them in to the dumpster. Every now and then one of us would find one of our favorites and the other would hear, "Oh god." THUMP. "Jackie gave me this book." THUMP. "You and Meg got me this one for Christmas." THUMP. We made trip after trip. We went through every single thing piece by piece because it was so jumbled up that we couldn't take for granted that the remnants of that box were actually the remnants of the box we thought it was. Just sludge. On one trip I pulled out a black box. I hit the deck on that one. It was all of Megan's graduation pictures from Kim Jew in Albuquerque. I sat in the middle of the street and sobbed. I remember being upset at how much they had cost. I'd give about anything for them right now. So many photos, just plain gone. Some look like weird art projects and if I can salvage them like that, I will, but most, certainly any in stacks were just pieces of white photo paper with a black slime that was emulsion showing a smile or a dog or. . . . .We think Meg was right when she said it might have been better that we couldn't see what WAS on them because we don't know exactly what we lost in some of those soggy stacks.

We walked back through the eerie black hallway and when David stepped into the unit I heard a little "clink." I told him not to move, took the flashlight, and looked down. There on the floor in pristine condition, no mud, no sludge, was a little white bone china tea pot that was from Megan's childhood tea set. I bought that for her in Chinatown in San Francisco when she was about five. Not a chip on it. Amazing. A precious little gift. We found other precious little gifts as we went along.

An oak microwave cart that had been holding up several boxes was unrecognizable. Just a jumble of wood pieces. This thing had been built for stout. David and I couldn't figure out what all the wood WAS, then he said, "Microwave cart. I put that together one Christmas eve in the garage." We stood there amazed that it was just pieces, then tossed them aside.

After four hours, we managed to get through about 1/3 of the unit. Out of that one third we have about three tupperwares and a small box. That's all that could be saved and even in that some of it is still iffy. I haven't had the courage to go through the can of Christmas ornaments to see what lived. David was so hopeful when he opened it, he thought since it was metal, maybe just maybe. . . . .but the water had gotten in and the bottom had rusted. I'll go through it piece by piece and see if anything is salvagable. (Pictures of what we salvaged will be in your mailboxes soon. It was such a surprise that that was all there was left. Can't imagine if this was my entire home like some people.) We have to go back on Monday and we're hoping to get it all done by then, but the steamer trunks, I fear, will be casualties along with everything in them. We're both dreading those. The mold is just horrendous and had we been allowed to get in sooner, we could have saved a lot more. Another week, another layer of mold, one a fluffy white like angel hair, the other a nasty black mold that eats things. We're talking way past mildew. We brought it all home in the rented Ford Focus (tiny little car!) and it's sitting on the porch. We're hoping that it will dry a bit in the air and we'll have a better shot at saving some of it, like some of Meg's dolls. If I can dry out the bodies, get rid of the clothes, they might be okay. We'll see. There were a couple dog crates in there, just full of the black water that this stuff steeped in for three months. Took a picture of it so you can see what people are dealing with in their houses.

Oh yeah, the car was rented because our car was finally getting fixed. The body shop just opened back up. Hurray, the voodoo mobile is whole again.

Sitting at Yo Mama's filthy, having a drink and a burger. We looked shell shocked, but everyone does at the moment. A woman sits next to me and orders a shot of tequila. It was clearly not her first. She told me her house was in Lakeview, was being the operative word. She had been a nurse at Tulane for 18 years in pediatric chronic illness. She's moving to Mississippi although she was born and raised here. She looks like a ghost. She told me of her house, pristine on the outside, like my storage unit on the inside. Then she told me a story of her friend, another nurse, in Gentilly. Weathered the storm okay, then the next morning got out of bed and felt a little water on the floor. No idea where it was coming from. Two hours later, her friend was floating on furniture cushions and anything else that would float until they got to I-10. The water from the Industrial Canal came up from nothing to rooftops in two hours.

You'll be getting a rant soon about the levees. About a petition we want to start in the next week or two. You'll hear us rant about the Army Corps of Engineers and the lies about the depth of the levees. You'll hear how we started a conversation in a bar one night and now there's a move to march on Washington. But I'll leave that alone for now. Give you warning that you might want to hit the delete button on the next one!

But for now, remember that for you: The mail comes to your house every single day. The stores are open, some 24 hours and you don't even have to think about it. Custody issues in your city are no doubt difficult as they all are, but the various parties aren't scattered all over the country and the records at your courthouse are not flooded and being frozen so they can be re-copied. Gas prices are up, but most of your gas stations are open. Businesses that were there last week, are probably still there. Your neighbors, those loudmouths, are still annoying you, but they're still there. Your city's population hasn't gone from 500K to 60K in three months. Your doctor is probably still right where you left him or her. More importantly, you know where your family is whether you want to know or not. Your mayor doesn't have to do a tour rivalling U2 in order to talk with his citizens. This is just the tip of the iceberg. The mental health issues are skyrocketing. The grief counselling clinic is saying that people come in because they lost a loved one in the storm, then the counsellor finds out that this person also lost his house, his belongings, his job, his friends, his traditions, and his family is scattered into four states.

People keep asking me when I'm going to turn all this into a book. I truly have no idea where or how to start. But yesterday morning on WWL TV news, Eric Paulsen did a phone interview with Aaron Neville. There had been rumors that he and his brothers were not coming back. He said that wasn't the case, but his house was gone, a lot of the musicians lost instruments, I'll be sending stuff out on that too, and that all the musicians he meets on the road have a strange look in their eyes. He said he'd been interviewed by Rolling Stone, and when they asked about his childhood in New Orleans, he had a difficult time keeping it together because, he said there was "A River Behind My Eyes." That's how we all feel, and thanks, Mr. Neville, for the title!

A Christmas tree went up on the gallery of the Crowne Plaza Hotel this week. The shops that are open are decorating for Christmas. Those of us here are delighted to be here, and just being here is our present this year.

Love and Light,
Bec and David

PS Pictures will be on the way soon. Also, my mother sent me a story written by a man who was just here a couple weeks ago. It was fascinating to see his take on what we see every day. Here's the link:
Deroy Murdock on New Orleans on National Review Online