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


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