I truly weep for Poppy Z. over here in some ways...
But I am glad she's linked her site to this lovely list of talking points, because sometimes this is an issue. Especially when there are more and more clueless people wandering the earth now that Katrina and its aftermath is not a hot topic in the media, unless the pundits are intent on lambasting the country's current leadership.
I'm feeling a bit melancholy myself, largely because birthday #34 is tomorrow. And it really hit me this year that I never really mapped out milestones by age for myself. I guess mentally my age is that of a fourteen-year-old, in that I am constantly thinking that life is beginning just around the corner. My impulse, when things are going well, is for me to just go with it for a while and see what happens. I've always seemed to have just enough confidence in myself for things to work out.
It occurs to me now, however, that the way I lived once is not all that different from the way Poppy Z. is thinking about her life right now:
Among other things, I'm undergoing a pretty major period of career disillusionment. I feel as if I've spent twenty years busting my ass for nothing. Well, not nothing by any means; I've written things I'm proud of, met a lot of amazing people, and traveled to places I'd never have had the chance to otherwise ... but right at this moment, none of that is going to buy me a house. As I told a friend, if it comes down to a choice between moving to a cheaper housing market or living on the second floor of a gutted shithole in the worst neighborhood in New Orleans, you can bet we'll be in the shithole. I'm just alarmed to realize that's becoming a very real possibility. Alarmed, and angry. I feel as if I should be able to afford a decent home at this point in my life, as if I've worked hard enough and achieved sufficient success that this should be, if not a given, at least not a total pipe dream. You may be excused for thinking that the problem is at least partly due to my poor money management skills, and you'd be at least partly right. Still, I've gotten paid very well for a couple of books, ridiculously little for others, and if you average it out over the course of twenty years, I've never made what most people would consider a living wage. And yet I earn way more than most full-time writers. I'm one of the lucky ones, or have been. Writers aren't even the poor relations of the entertainment industry; we're the crumpled paper in its garbage cans.
You start spouting off like this, and somebody will inevitably twist your words: "Oh, she's just in it for the money." I've no patience with that ignorant, mouth-breathing, submoronic attitude. Only a complete fool becomes a writer for the money, and I'm not a complete fool. I just want to be able to live with some dignity, to take care of my family, to have a little fun. To be paid reasonably well for something a fair number of people seem to think I do reasonably well, just as a chef or a doctor or a plumber is paid for his work.
And aren't writers and chefs important to New Orleans? (Doctors and plumbers are too, but as far as I know, they're doing all right.) We hear every day about well-known musicians, irreplaceable treasures of the city, who are living in Lafayette or Houston or Mississippi because they can't afford housing in New Orleans. Now Chris (DeBarr, her husband)and I must fight to keep from becoming part of that diaspora. And we're only the more visible ones affected by this; countless line cooks, busboys, bartenders, waiters, cleaners, cashiers, postal workers, and other poor-to-middle-class working people have been priced out of the housing market here, with an obvious effect on the quality of restaurant menus and service, the ability to easily do one's grocery shopping or receive one's mail, the running of a thousand little necessities people elsewhere take for granted.
Chris and I can probably figure out a way to rebuild our life in New Orleans. We're literate, we're smart, we're fairly resourceful when we put our heads together, and each of us is good at something that most people can't do on a professional level. By and large, though, the human infrastructure of New Orleans cannot afford to live here anymore. I don't know what that's going to do to the city, and it scares me.
Once upon a time, I was so hell bent on being a glassworker, so much so that I chained myself to a job for well over five years being massively overworked and criminally underpaid just so that I could work with the material. As far as the criminally underpaid status went, though, New Orleans was the one town where one could still live on not very much and do the kind of thing that I was doing. You could be a writer here and not starve. You could develop your chops (so to speak) as a burgeoning professional chef in this area. Hell, if I hadn't met Dan, allowed the thought and then the act of marriage to permeate my being, and then turned around and had the little guy (which I never really thought I would do), I would be sharing Poppy Z.'s fears and depression.
As it is, my husband, always money-conscious and cheapskate-ish, is constantly harping on the rising costs of our energy bills, on the fact that rents are rising all around us, and on the fact that our neighborhood is going condo crazy. Then this congressional runoff comes and goes around here and highlights just how disgruntled the possible voting public is with the status quo (only 23% turnout at the polls, which is dismal) and how idiotic and backward the voters of this district really are (ol' "Dollar Bill" Jefferson got reelected after all, with 54% of the vote). Ouch.
Did I really want to be here at nearly 35? Living in a ruined city with a four year old and a husband with a three hour round trip daily commute to his job? Enter that fourteen-year-old brain again: I never really thought about it. Until I found it in New Orleans ten years ago, I simply wanted life to be like what I imagined it was like in NYC's Soho in the late sixties and early seventies - cheap, a tad out of control, but sustaining enough that I could do what I liked without asking my parents for money.
Now that I have a nuclear family of my own, I am a tad more concerned about my family's future - and it is forcing my brain to grow up some. I'm jumping into the elementary art teaching thing in part because I need to get out into that workforce again for my family's future's stake. It has been trying most recently because lately my son has been sick with colds or conjunctivitis, there was one day when the boiler in his school building wouldn't come on on a freezing cold day, so everyone was sent home, and that infamous full day of teacher in-service at his school went into effect this past week - and it all really messed with my teaching obligations. In truth, I had lived my life up to this point wishing to avoid such conflicts, and now my fourteen-year-old brain was saying, "See? This is one of the many reasons why you vowed at an early age that you would never be tied down by a husband or kids. You saw what happened when your mom tried to balance work and family, and you decided not to have the latter. What are you doing?"
I found the courage this past week to say,"Suck it up, you teenage queen. I'm an old married broad now, and I cannot lose my head over some missed work days. The little guy needs me now, so the rest of the world will just have to turn without my skills for a bit. And hey, fourteen-year-old me - go think about something or someone besides yourself for a change."
Poppy Z., I love you dearly. These days, you are one of the true voices of this town and you deserve to be here in a lovely high-ceilinged palace that suits you and your husband. Though you are hurting physically and mentally, please buck up a bit more and try to hang on to whatever will get you through this dark age in which New Orleans seems to be immersed. This is a difficult thing to do, I know, and I know you are up for the task. But this rebuilding of an entire infrastructure begins with ourselves. There is only so much each of us can do, but we have to do it well and to the best of our abilities. And we always have to keep it in the back of our heads that stuff will happen. We just gotta deal.
It also helps that you are way older than me mentally, most likely. Maybe this year my brain will reach fifteen or so. I could even hope for twenty-one...