Thursday, August 31, 2006

So how did I observe the Katrina Yahrzeit?

I did my best to avoid any formal ceremonies, opting to take my son to school (he started on Monday, and he's still not sure about the whole Montessori thing. I could see him on the first day wandering through the classroom and looking for the cars and trucks that weren't there. He then asked me on Tuesday morning why we were going to the "work school".) and then walking my dog with Edie and her two dogs on the streetcar tracks near her house. Since the tracks will be devoid of streetcars until sometime next year, walking the dogs on the wide neutral ground (N'awlins for "median" for those not in the know) is a good activity and a good exercise opportunity.

As it happened, we found the ceremonies anyway, at the foot of Carrollton Avenue. A Katrina memorial fountain was being dedicated, something of an aptly twisted thing of European beauty sitting right near a city bus turnaround. An all-black metallic fountain, the topper was an urn with three faces. Just what this city needs - a water feature in remembrance of a flood. A Janus-headed urn trying to catch the overflow and failing, not unlike all levels of government involved in the whole fiasco that has been this past year since the storm blew through.

And then we were all keeping an eye out for Ernesto and willing it not to come this way. It better not, was the general consensus. It wouldn't dare. Hell, our mayor still doesn't have a recovery plan in effect. There can't be another major storm here unless that happens.

Our plans are to head to Baton Rouge, since Dan's workplace is there. We half-joked that if the storm were to head our way, the Labor Day road trip we have in the works would simply be an evacuation vacation with both our cars on the road and our pets as passengers as well. I told Dan about a T-shirt I'd seen recently - a big hurricane is bordered by the slogan "Go With the Contraflow!" He said we'd take the West Bank Expressway instead of I-10, effectively going south and west to go west-northwest. Whatever will get us out of the city quicker.

The anniversary reared its head in other ways. A father picking up his child from school told me his daughter had been afraid to go this year, because this time last year, there was school in session for a week, and then the storm and its aftermath came. See what can happen if you go to school, kids? A year later and everyone still needs a sanity check in one way or another.

The night of the 29th, I called my parents to wish them a happy belated wedding anniversary, since the 27th had come and gone. Of course my mom brought up that the 29th was a different sort of anniversary! I thought of the dinner plans I had tried to make at any one of the restaurants participating in the Restaurants for Relief program, only to find that most of them were booked. I caught a teeny bit of a Katrina program later that night only because it featured Leah Chase in one segment. Dan and I had been curious about why Dooky Chase's restaurant on Orleans Avenue hadn't reopened by midsummer as was promised by Leah herself at the JazzFest. We tried to make reservations there last week and found that it hadn't reopened yet. Turns out the building had only recently been cleared for mold remediation services, so the renovations were now moving forward. Now that's uplifting news.

I popped into my nearby needlework shop the next day and overheard the shop ladies chewing the fat on Spike Lee's Katrina documentary - specifically, Barbara Bush's crass comments about the evacuees that were moved to Houston's Astrodome after their Superdome ordeal, among other ordeals. It made me so glad they shut off our cable recently.

As far as this yahrzeit being a media event, I have to credit Andrei Codrescu for articulating what I'm feeling way better than I even knew:

One year after Katrina, we are no longer photogenic. The cameras focus on narrow slices of rebuilding, which is all that fits within the lens. If you've been looking at the city for a year, things look better. Most of the flooded cars packed in the neutral grounds and under freeway overpasses are gone. There is no debris in places most visible to motorists. There are trailers and gutted houses in every wasted neighborhood. If you look only at the swarms of life in isolated spots, you might feel optimism, but if you look at what's around these spots, you might feel dread instead. Yes, there is a recovery going on, but there is also a pervasive depression. The media isn't equipped to deal with both hope and despair; it can only show and tell one story at a time. The Gray Zone where we live is beyond its power.

In New Orleans, nothing is what it seems. People believe things they don't say and say things they don't believe. To the media, we are recovering. To ourselves, we are sinking. Our heavily mediated and heavily medicated city is generating paradoxes, not certainties.

I wanted to have a part of this blog be a photographic response to recovery. That explains "The Line" part of my title. The idea was to go straight to the edges of the floodwater lines, from the levee breaches to the neighborhoods that got a foot or so. What I saw my first day here, and what I continue to catch glimpses of when I drive about town, are the neighborhoods that still look like hell after all this time. These wide swaths of abandoned homes and buildings still scare me and sadden me in my heart of hearts. I agree with Codrescu: how can a camera lens capture all of this madness? A picture is something one can walk away from very easily - but there is a deeper feeling of exhaustion and depression that cannot envelop the viewer through a photograph. I find it a tad easier to write about it, but I know eventually I will have to face what I fear. It is so much easier to think in the abstract that a roof and material possessions are not very important, but there is still a certain mourning for them, too, when they actually are lost to the elements. It takes a very long time to get over that.

The lessons of this whole debacle are being learned the hard way. Really, if all of us in this country truly learned anything, we would be talking about restoring the wetlands right now instead of kvetching over nonexistent rebuilding master plans. No one in a position to do so wants to make the hard decisions concerning the fate of this place.

We are in limbo. A bad kind of limbo. Dante would have called it purgatory.

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