Today is better than yesterday, perhaps because I am comforted by work, and the New Orleans Network team have been doing great work these past two days.
Yesterday we toured the lower 9th, going right up to the Canal. The National Guard paused us and then said just be back by curfew, which is currently 8pm for the lower 9th. I heard of folks being arrested for being on their porches after curfew, but the guys we crossed paths with were nice enough, and Shana says that a lot of folks will actually be sad to see them go, these young men and women who are mostly glad to not be in Iraq. So complex…to be scared and to feel comforted by the same uniform…
Riding around with Abram and Shana in their truck I was saying stop and snapping shots as often as possible, and continuously disappointed with how they came out, how little was captured in them. Finally Abram pinpointed it – pictures don’t get it because the devastation is so immense, its everywhere, in every direction. I’ve never seen or felt this kind of totality. Acres, no end to the destroyed homes…We were driving in the dark and I felt scared, I felt spooked, I felt sad. The smell, the air gets up into the back of your throat and shots of tequila won’t burn it away.
I was holding on until we pulled up to a school and Shana said, "Oh that’s where all those people died. They gathered in the school to be safe and the water burst through…my friend taught there. One of her students swam from here to the Superdome and she said all these people just drowned."
We pulled up a bit further and it was a different school, but it was too late, I was in the experience, in the midst of this dark drowned ghost town with nothing to say, only photos to keep as some sort of proof to myself that I looked at a world in this state. What can even be done – there is indignation at the idea of bulldozing it all down but driving down those streets and seeing the water lines on the roofs, smelling the land, feeling the dirt come through the windows and the air vents and get under my skin I couldn’t think of what else to do. It must be rebuilt, and what is rebuilt must be shaped by the people of New Orleans; but these homes, these cars and streets and belongings, they can’t be touched again.
New Orleans is like no other city. The black city, the beautiful city – its so unique and stunning. The people are unlike any I’ve ever met – survivors with a sick sense of humor and kindness. Everyone who gave me anything in this city gave me a story, and I want to share them with you:
First, Terri – Terri was our lunch waitress yesterday. Her Lakeview home was destroyed, and she says she sat around for 7 days and finally had to do something, so she got this job at Frank’s waitressing. Her youngest daughter, a Cabrini student, was killed in a car accident last year. She was wearing her daughter’s ring. When they were evacuating, her last action was to grab her daughter’s senior pictures off the mantel. Her husband’s last action was to grab the two duffel bags of their daughter’s belongings which had been used to decorate the funeral home and move them up to the attic. That’s all they have of her. Terri and her husband Robert are looking for a home now.
Then there’s Lauren, our waitress at Byblos last night. She came up to our table in a tizzy – which Abram identified as the common performance of all waitstaff – and she seemed like someone who could easily be on the Real World. Pretty, a little airheaded, wide open…she and her mom and her cat survived. They lost everything. She said she feels stronger now. But before that, when she first got to our table, she said, ‘I don’t even know what I’m doing here’, and laughed.
This morning we stopped to get coffee from Thomas. He’s been serving coffee on the block where the Rainbow Connection and Food Not Bombs are serving free community meals. We asked how he was and he smiled, like everyone in New Orleans has done, and then said he’s been open for 10 days, but its been a hard few weeks (that drastic understatement). He has family in New York, but he’s staying here in New Orleans. He gave me the best rasberry flavored mochachino with whipped cream I’ve ever had. I may go back and propose to him.
And finally there was Stepho, who travelled from Algonquin, Illionois to work for a few weeks in the free kitchen. This space is serving food from 7am – 7:30pm each day, and are based in a community that was hungry before Katrina. A variety of folks sit around with their pets and coffee in the sun, and Stepho thinks she’ll be among the last of the folks serving here. She wouldn’t really accept any thank you.
I have to leave this city and I don’t want to. I’ve numbed to the smell, I’ve taken a scalding shower, I haven’t smoked any more cigarettes, and I’ve done my work. There’s so much, so much to be done – there’s nothing but time and people to support. The New Orleans Network is doing groundbreaking mapping work that will support a people-powered, informed rebuilding effort. Plus being one of the best groups of brilliant women I’ve ever had the honor to work with! Holla for more information!
I leave you with one last image – Abram’s favorite sign in N’awleans…