Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Happy Mardi Gras, all!

This is the time when I'm happy we are here and sad for those who aren't, including my poor husband, who had to schlep to work in Baton Rouge today - a city that is in the same state as New Orleans, but is nowhere near the same state of mind. Friends of ours today said he should quit his job. "Bite your tongues," I said. Dan just started his job here, number one. Number two, don't knock something too quickly that has enabled us to move back to where we want to be. And number three, it gives all our friends a place to pee on Mardi Gras day that is only a block and a half off the parade route. Work with us here, people!!!!!

I was all set to cook some pancakes and stuff for good friends who were to arrive early this morning to stake out a good spot to view the Zulu parade. Shortly before 7 AM, I heard my husband cursing. I began cursing inwardly myself, thinking I would have to clean up after one of our three animals, which is usually what such cursing from Dan means. But no. This time it was a curse on Entergy, because our power was out.

Now this city has been through a lot. People here have suffered way more in the way of trials and tribulations than we have. I have heard many ongoing sagas of New Orleanians tussling with the gazillion-headed hydra named Bureaucracy and the hydra's close relative, that dragon of Daily Living Amenities.

But, please, folks. No power on Mardi Gras day is just insult to injury. Most of the powers that be fought like hell to celebrate Mardi Gras the way it has always been celebrated down here. It was of great economic necessity to continue it - private organizations are the ones responsible for the parades and the balls, the elaborate costumes, the stuff thrown off the floats, and the hiring of the military and school bands that play in the parades. The ascendance of superkrewes in which celebrities are the toast of their celebrations also brings in a lot of outside money, because they open their membership to folks from out of state who can pay the dues and their costuming and throws costs. A large number of carnival krewes also affiliate themselves with major local charitable causes and donate money and time to those causes.

It's bad enough that there aren't the usual cleanup crews that travel right behind the parades. The cleanup after the Bacchus and Endymion parades took two days to be fully completed - and that had to be done in between another three parades that rolled the night after.

A call to a friend in another part of town established that not all of the town was dark. Whew! The power company told us it would be back on in another two hours, and five hours later, it was back. However, I couldn't entertain the folks I was looking forward to cooking for. My son got paraded out today and we ended up hanging around the house most of the day and letting our friends and their friends in to pee off and on. I wish we'd spent more time outside enjoying the weather. I got to talking to some numbers of passersby about all kinds of things, and I guess my one regret this year is that I didn't have the time to talk to more of them, and to get some doubloons from the Zulu and Rex parades for Dan, the doubloon man. Then again, I get paraded out, too, by the time this day arrives.

Parade themes are always a hoot. They range from fictional themes to anniversarial reprises of past parade themes to mythology to places and people...but my favorites have to be the satirical themes. Once I get my scanner hooked up, I'll throw up the cards thrown by the Krewe of Chaos that show illustrations and explanations of each float in the 2006 parade. Hades - A Dream of Chaos was very well done - of all the different things around here that have lampooned the events after Katrina and Rita (including a novel fundraiser for charity: a fashion show with clothing made from FEMA blue roofing tarps), this parade was a nice masterpiece of spoofs on everything from failed leadership to nasty refrigerators to a "Chocolate Divinity" float whose riders tossed out special cups with the float drawn on them. The parade themes are usually a secret until Mardi Gras time rolls around, but knowing this city, the hurricanes and their aftermath was fair game for the royal Carnival treatment.

I myself dug up a T-shirt I saw in a local shop and had to have. Two fleur-de-lis flank "FEMA: We All Ask'd For You!" on the front. The back lists all the flood damaged neighborhoods and areas that "ask'd", concluding that "They all inquired 'bout you!". The woman in the shop said it was a big seller, and I said that sadly, I could see why. Other homemade Carnival costumes included some more blue tarp suits, folks wearing large 45s of the top ten Katrina hits (among them "Up On the Roof" and "When the Levee Breaks"), a guy in a short jacket, purple Speedos, and a hideous Dubya mask, people dressed as MREs (Meals Ready to Eat, given out by the federal authorities to the earliest returning residents), and people in cleanup gear with small graffitied refrigerators, pushing a Katrina Deli cart serving up some nasty treats. Stand in one place along the parade route, and it all passes you by. Same with the French Quarter, only it's raunchier down there.

Anyhoo, I'm glad it's Mardi Gras time and not just all crammed into one day. Our own neighborhood has been great entertainment all in itself. Our new neighbors hired a live band to play on the weekend in their front yard, and the music was good, though I don't think they should have attempted the Police's "Roxanne" without a tenor. We managed to find a parking spot close to our house on a major parade day, a victory of near-Biblical proportions. Our son honed his mooching skills by bumming a seat on a ladder along the parade route for a superkrewe parade...next to a little girl of six or seven (an older woman, no less!). He made out like a bandit with stuffed animal throws one day, and he asked me to go to the neutral ground with him to wander around. Not bad for a kid who got clocked in the head with some chunky beads in his very first parade and was a bit shell-shocked for the next few parades after that. One day, on the way to a parade, he told Dan he wasn't worried anymore, and that fear of being hit with beads that had dogged him was no longer an issue. This kid may well forget he was born in Flushing - then again, it may well predestine him for membership in the krewe of Tucks, which throws out printed toilet paper and small squirting potties.

So to those of you who have no concept, don't begrudge this town its partying spirit. It may well be a major key to keeping the post-hurricane demons at bay in this area. The most telling thing I have seen ( or haven't seen, really) is that though many religious types have said the storms and flooding were divine punishment for a wicked city, the numbers of fanatical displays that protest Carnival (guys toting huge crosses, street preachers trying to convert revelers) have gone way down. Some may say it means this city has been written off spiritually, but I think a city with as many houses of worship as New Orleans has has got a good handle on spirituality. New stories of miracles and new myths are being writ into this city's fabric every day.

Anyone with eyes and a peanut brain can see that this is a city that needs the time and space to unwind.

So though I am Jewish, I celebrate this time some, too. May this town muster up the strength to get through the next six months. Laissez les bon temps rouler!

Sunday, February 26, 2006

The big Congressional tour began yesterday (March 3rd, that is) in New Orleans, with Dennis Hastert and Nancy Pelosi accompanying a group of 100 congressmen and women through a disaster tour of the city. Pelosi said that what she saw "challenges the national conscience. I'm not sure that our federal agencies are meeting that challenge." An understatement if I ever heard one, though she could well have lumped city and state agencies into her assessment. What follows is an account of my own trip to hell. Since my own tour, the barge in the Ninth Ward has been removed, and demolition is slated to begin there and in Lakeview in order to clear public rights-of-way, the lawsuits against the city having been settled for the time being. But make no mistake: there is still loads of work to be done. -------

My mother told me I shouldn't have done it, and in retrospect, I shouldn't have. Not on my first day back, anyway. But my friend Edie volunteered to take me in the afternoon, so I went.

My second mistake was bringing my son along in the backseat of Edie's car. Now that I never should have done. I should have put that off as long as possible. But Edie's daughter had to go back to work, so there it was. The only thing he could serve as, and did very well, was as a beacon of simple hope. "Wow, they better fix it," was what he said.

So much for protecting him from most of what I saw.

Yep, you guessed it. I took the levee breach tour of 2006, and it was horrible, awful, terrible. I'm tearing up right now just writing about it. I threw on a T-shirt that morning that was to prove highly prophetic for me. It said "FARKLEMPT", the Yiddish for that choked-up feeling that can silence a person to tears. Mike Myers turned it into a big joke on Saturday Night Live. Well, it was not funny when I was in Edie's car. It was less funny when she brought me to a friend's house in Lakeview, near the 17th Street Canal breach, at the western end of the city. She said her friend had okayed looking in the house, which was abandoned. The former lady of the house had salvaged her china and a very few valuables that were still intact and had relocated elsewhere in the city. She didn't want to go near the house, and I could see why.

Edie waited outside with my son while I went in the house. I walked into a moldy, unkempt hell that had once been a nice ranch bungalow. The kitchen, once nicely redone, was filled with water damage, and still had its refrigerator - its doors were wide open, awaiting food it would never contain again. The water line in the house was at eyebrow level on me, and the house itself had mold creeping up the walls and onto the ceilings. Walking out the back door into the yard afforded a view of a neighborhood wasteland. Houses sporting blue tarps were largely abandoned, their FEMA emblazoned roofs a half-hearted attempt at salvageing what was clearly a lost cause physically. Debris covered a playgym in the backyard.

Edie said later she had been puzzled by the huge amounts of mud people were still carting out of their flooded homes - how could it have gotten there? Well, water is a powerful thing. The force of the waters that poured through the holes in the levees washed houses off their foundations and lifted cars up only to rest them any old place when the waters receded. That force also brought a lot of sediment out from the sides and the bottom of the canals, which deposited itself in homes that were in harm's way. It was also toxic mud - anyone in contact with it for long periods of time had to use an approved respirator and cartridges around it, and a flimsy dust mask wasn't going to do it for protection.

There wasn't much mud in the house I was in, but the mess was still awful. The worst of it, for me, was in the kids' rooms. Prized trophies, photographs of family and friends, favored books and toys were ruined - collateral flood damage and the end of someone's young memories. One girl had recently graduated high school, and a framed copy of her commencement invitation and her tassel were left to the rot and ruin.

Shaken by it all, I left the house, closing the door behind me. I was told later a different kind of looting was going on now. Rather than hitting the shops and businesses, looters are now making their way through abandoned homes, a tidbit of information that makes my iron-straight hair curl like Shirley Temple's. These places ought to be treated with respect, regardless of what their status is now. I could barely cross the threshold of the house I was in - it was unthinkable to me at that moment to just up and take anything from what had been a family home.

Out on the sidewalk, I ran into a Times-Picayune reporter who was writing a story about Lakeview and its status. He asked if the house I had just left was mine. I told him no, that it belonged to P_____, and he said he knew her. I was so upset about what I had seen that the first words out of my mouth to him were, "I don't know how anyone can rebuild here without jacking their house up." He then said that his home had been in Lakeview, and I felt so bad having said what I said to him. He reassured me that this was one of the issues he was concerned with himself, and I felt a little better, but not by much.

We drove past the second levee breach at the London Avenue Canal, past houses with mud for flooring, past a school that the New Orleans school board had decided to abandon. Edie, a former New Orleans school district administrator and teacher, lamented the abandonment of a perfectly salvageable school facility, in her estimation.

What I have been learning is that the issue of recovering and rebuilding school facilities is a touchy one now, especially in areas that flooded. At stake in the life and death of these places is repopulation, first and foremost. The repopulation prospects in the Lakeview area are not good right now, judging from all the damage and the large numbers of "For Sale" signs I saw. Even in the flooded areas where just over half the population has returned, people there are not sure if they will be able to stay where they are : some revised plans of the Greater N.O. area have parkland sitting where people are trying to rebuild and recover. The wild card in these scenarios is that the quality of the public schools is now slowly improving as a result of their becoming charter schools. Eventually, they could give the private schools in the area that have benefited from the mess that was the N.O. public school system a real run for their money.

The next and last stop was the Industrial Canal breach and the Ninth Ward, the nastiest of them all. Nasty not necessarily because of the size of the breach or the amount of water loosed on the neighborhood, but because the conditions of the houses in the area were so bad to begin with. It is here that houses were completely and utterly wiped out. Those that were somewhat intact crashed into other houses, landed atop cars, and blocked the streets. Contrary to what I admit was my initial belief, there were a lot of cars left in these neighborhoods. A person had the means to get out of Dodge when the storm was coming, he just didn't do it until his vehicle was under tons of water and he was using an axe to chop his way out of his own roof. I'm really at a bit of a loss to explain why anyone would stay in a place like this, but among the reasons might be an unwillingness to deal with evacuation traffic, an uncertainty as to where one would evacuate to, the somewhat secure belief that yet another bullet would be dodged, that the storm would weaken or turn, and, in the end, the beckoning presence of facilities such as the Superdome as places to ride it out, where people had to bring their own food and provisions, but where a certain amount of faith in the idea that the city would take care of its own was ever present.

A large landlocked barge that dominated part of the landscape by the breach was also present in the neighborhood, the tallest thing around besides the levee and the nearby bridges. I saw a picture Justin took of the area, and right beside the barge is a dreadlocked artist with an easel, canvas, and paints at work on a landscape of the area. Well, the only other people there when I was there were people at the Common Ground house setting up in a home as a relief outpost, and a tour group in a small bus flanked by an Army Corps of Engineers escort. Since any recovery efforts or demolition in the area was being tied up in lawsuit red tape filed by former residents and activists, protesting that the city wasn't giving anyone advance notice before beginning its efforts, the Ninth Ward destruction was serving as a tourist site for all sorts who wanted to visit...including, sadly, myself. I had asked to see it, had expressed an interest. Be careful what you wish for.

As for my tour guide, Edie seemed to be well up to the task of showing everyone around to the breaches that she possibly could. I told her, after she showed another visiting friend around over a week after my visit, that she should present herself as a guide to the powers that be who are organizing the big Congressional tour in March. In some ways, Edie acted as a nurturer of pessimism and doom one minute, and then the next, she brought us on a merry ride to find Fats Domino's house, which we did. Graffiti on Fats' house attested to the worst imaginings of locals, who thought at first that the man was dead: a big "RIP Fats" was scrawled in spray paint on an outside wall. Thankfully he was found alive, lost a number of his gold records to looting or flooding or both, and was put up by a boyfriend of a relative, a football player at LSU who had Fats hole up on his couch for a while.

Edie told me that if her home had flooded, however, she wouldn't have returned. Her home sports some graffiti marks as well from National Guardsmen going from house to house to see if people were there. The big "X" to the left of her front door had the date of the visit on top, the number "0" to the right and the bottom indicating the numbers of people found in the house alive and dead, and the initials of the person who did the examination. The flood waters missed her home by just a block or two. Aside from some storm damage, and her generator being stolen from her garage, her home fared the whole thing pretty well.

I wish Edie herself was faring better, though. She returned to a job teaching at her former school, where she had once been an admissions administrator and teacher. The school is now being run as a charter organization, which means that the running of it has become more like a corporation - and it also means that the political infighting amongst administartors has actually become greater, since the number of schools has dwindled. Edie is close to retirement age anyway, so she quit last week. She hated to do it, but she couldn't deal with the politics.

As for my tour, I wish this city all the luck in the world, because it will need it. Those breaches opened my eyes - no pictures or films can do them justice. I have run across many who haven't seen these areas even though they have been back in the city for months. For most of the people I know, it isn't difficult to avoid those areas, but I feel strongly they need to see them and get some idea of what they are in for. Help out with the Katrina Krewe or a similar organization that organizes volunteers to help with the cleanup efforts, just to get some idea. Circumstances could have put any of us in those same situations as the folks trying to rebuild or clean up these areas. Just standing right in one of these spots is enough to show the enormity of what happened and to marvel that it really could have been worse. Everyone here has the chance to make a fresh start, and I hope we make the most of it.
Oh, where to begin? It's been a crazy few weeks, and I may be playing catch-up with my impressions for a while.

Suffice it to say that getting down here was no picnic. Events and lots of snow conspired to stop us from leaving at our appointed time on a JetBlue flight out of New York. Once the Port Authority quit holding us hostage, we took the airline's offer of a refund on our canceled flight, stayed with our now former landlords for the night, rented a car the next morning and were on our way. For Dan, it was his third time driving south in a little over a week. I ended up doing most of the driving, largely because I wanted to get there.

We stopped off at my granddaddy's house in Tennessee for the night that first day of driving. Wish we had had more time to stay there, especially since my grandparents haven't seen their great-grandson in a while, but we had to keep on. I was anxious to get there and a bit ticked that I wouldn't get to see the city in the light of day on our first approach in. I was feeling somewhat queasy that day and it felt better to be behind the wheel for some reason, so once again, I drove most of the way.

I began to get a preview of what was ahead when we approached Hattiesburg on I-59. There were clumps of downed trees right off the highway, and some clusters of trailers that were close by. I learned later that the hurricane's path had taken it nearly straight north into Mississippi, turning to the northeast just north of Hattiesburg. The storm was approximately a category 2 at that time, which meant that it still had the power to yank bunches of trees from the ground. The trailers have become a common sight around here as large numbers of people have snagged them from FEMA as a temporary stopgap while repairing their homes or for housing responders and cleanup crews.

Dusk was falling as we approached Slidell, Louisiana, which was hard hit. It was one busy place, despite the telltale signs of storm damage - large billboards ripped from their frames, houses minus roofs, or some rubble where there were houses. Driving across the I-1o "twin spans", the section of the interstate stretching between Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain, was an experience in itself. Storm winds and surging waters had tossed sections of the spans off their moorings, and the temporary replacement sections carried signs warning drivers not to exceed a certain speed or else the replacements would be damaged. I could feel how flimsy they were just sitting in the car, and was glad when they had passed.

What came next horrified and scared me to no end.

The Jazzland theme park should have been showing up on our left as we approached Chalmette, but I could just barely make out the damaged sign in the darkness. The lights of New Orleans East should have beckoned to us shortly after that, but the only light came from the middle of the interstate. Occasional floodlights and the headlights of patrolling security vehicles shed some occasional light on acres of deserted apartment complexes, homes, and businesses damaged by the floods, all enclosed in barbed-wire fences. It was everything I could do not to drive off the "high-rise" bridge over the Industrial Canal, the waterway where the greater New Orleans area begins.

Driving into the Central Business District was better, but shocking in a different way. Lights shone on and in hotels, the Hibernia Bank Building, Entergy headquarters, but crucial buildings near I-10 : Charity Hospital, LSU and Tulane Medical Centers, the Superdome complex - all were shrouded in darkness. I had an added reason to get home: I needed to be around light, around people again. Little did I know how close these areas really were, how familiar, until my friend Edie showed me the very next day.

Douglas Adams, in his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, described a people who decided to eliminate the middlemen in its society by placing them all on a giant spaceship and sending them away. Shortly after the people do so, however, a disease spread through telephones kills them all - all except the ones they sent away on the ship. If only they had kept the middlemen...

The storm most certainly sent a lot of those people away. What is now keeping them from returning is what kept them in squalor in the first place: the sense that they were inferior in so many ways that service and menial tasks were the only things they were fit to do. The recovery is occurring at a snail's pace, reinforcing this inferiority, and one of its hallmarks is what could well be called the Middleman's Revenge.

The Middleman's Revenge rests in fast food restaurants' inability to fill positions. It rests in the limited hours businesses are forced to maintain because there aren't enough people to work at the bars, the hotels, the restaurants - even the grocery stores and convenience stores. It rests in waiting in long lines to get even the smallest of errands done. It rests in infrequent trash pickups and limits on what one can receive in the mail - or whether or not one gets mail at all.

Ultimately, all of this is a further indictment of city institutions and how far they have fallen in providing for their citizens, no matter how rich or poor they were or what they did. People who had to evacuate and place their children in schools outside of Orleans parish noticed how much more their kids were learning. They noted how their overall quality of life got better outside of this area. Yes, there will always be a number of people who won't take advantage of those new opportunities. Fact of the matter is, though, many of those people saw this city as their home - and home should have had good schooling and a better quality of life all along.

I drove through New Orleans' heart of darkness that night. The heart of this city may be in the French Quarter, or Uptown, or tucked away in the bars and clubs, or even in the water that washed away so much. But what I drove through were conditions that were bad before the storm hit - and yet people had stayed. It took this storm to make them leave because they loved this place deep down, too. I believe that.

But what I also believe is that to sustain a beating heart, one must treat it right. This area, this state, this country must work to do that, because without these folks, New Orleans doesn't have a ghost of a chance of being reborn for everyone. In the past few weeks, I've learned that putting that kind of work into effect is way easier said than done, and I'll be writing about it for sure.

Off the soapbox. On to bed. 'Night all.


The above was entered into the Zero Boss' Blogging for Books contest in December 2006

Friday, February 03, 2006

Got a bit of a shock earlier this week. My husband called me from work and asked if we could push back our moving date by a few days. Whenever he makes these suggestions to me, or runs an idea by me that seems off, I have a hesitation noise I make, and boy, did I need it. That sonic pause that refreshes...and keeps me from shooting the messenger.

Turns out there is some sort of Gulf Coast relocation tax that two out of three of the movers we asked for estimates on our move neglected to add to our estimates. And its a whopper of a tax, too - a good $450 whopper. Granted we aren't paying for the move, but its the sort of charge that makes us uncomfortable, thinking of its implications. This is the federal government's way of squeezing blood from turnips to pay for Gulf Coast recovery - God forbid our illustrious oaf of a president should admit he made a mistake in, say, sending troops overseas and call them back, thus diminishing the need for pulling more money out of our pockets.

Of course, this tax will no longer be effective come February 15...which is why Dan floated the good idea of pushing the move back five days. It turned out, though, that it was a tax that applied to the packing and shipping of the move, as well as to the delivery of our stuff. Dan has to start his new job right away, so that idea was toast. A chunk of money like that goes down the drain - or, optimistically speaking, towards a good investment in recovery and revival.

In related news, I settled on C-Span - again- as a riveting thing to watch while my husband was packing some stuff and our cats into the rented minivan he began to drive down south in yesterday. I don't know whether to kiss Brian Lamb or throttle him for enabling cable TV to bring us such things as the Katrina commission hearings. Ray Nagin was being interviewed by the committee, and the proceedings were an excruciating cross between getting at the truth and the cover your ass process that politicians seem to have brought to a low, low art. A committee sympathetic to what happened in the first days after the storm and the floods interspersed such sympathy with an attempt to pin Nagin down on the chain of command pertaining to recovery, on whether or not orders to open the Morial convention center to Superdome evacuees was in writing and corresponded to the timeline of events, and on whether or not Amtrak was asked for help or had its supposed offer of help accepted or refused by officials. Nice to know where the moving tax might be going. Thanks, Congress...

Dan's copy of the Tulane alumni magazine came just the other day, bearing its recovery news.
The president of Tulane, who stayed on the campus through the storm and a few days into the floods, passed on such crazy tidbits of information as this: he had to break into every building on campus in the search for food and water, the only means of communication he had with the outside world for a while was text messaging on his cell phone, and he helped the physical plant employees and skeleton staff who stayed behind with him with activities such as siphoning gas and hot wiring cars to help keep the campus afloat (so to speak) and evacuate people two days after the levees breached. The magazine also reported many instances of large amounts of frozen research samples lost to the power outages - and it also details a complete restructuring of the university and its goals and programs. I'm happy to see them make provisions for liaisons with city institutions - developing a joint tutoring program with the public schools and developing an urban planning school in an area that will need its expertise are great steps to take. Moral of this story? Support this higher learning institution and the students who have chosen to go there. They're going to need it!

I'm not entirely sure how to take this latest barrage of news I seem to be getting from all sides - and in the week before we all move down, too. Plus, it seems every time I turn on the radio to my favorite station these days, they're playing Lucinda Williams' music, one of these musicians and songwriters whose persona and style are inseparable, in my mind, from the South with a capital "S". And the songs are almost always from the albums of hers I don't have - Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and World Without Tears. Lord, Lucinda, what are you trying to tell me?

One song in particular has really struck me - one called "Sweet Side". It's the closest thing to a rap she does - detailing a fellow's life that has clearly been a hard one, contributing to the makings of a hard man. Then the chorus caps it off with a "You don't always show your sweet side."

Man, am I ever trying to see the sweet side in all of this crap this week. Maybe it's in the newsletter we got from our New Orleans synagogue this week (yeah, yet another newsletter), the first paragraph of which detailed committees and connections for people who wanted to help with recovery, people who needed the help, and people who needed a place to stay while they were getting the help. It also detailed stress-busting workshops being run by members of the synagogue with the professional background to do so and a cleanup day of some local neighborhoods that we will unfortunately be missing, as we will still be up here. A French philosopher and Americophile was on Charlie Rose this week, a fellow by the name of Bernard-Henri Levy. He said that the national response to Katrina's aftermath was something that had a slim chance of occurring if it had happened in Europe somewhere - that Europeans wouldn't be opening their hearts and pockets like that. The participation of religious institutions in such recovery was also a fact worthy of note to Levy.

Okay, so maybe that's the silver lining. A little faith, some belief, and the giving impulse will take us far. Now if I could just apply that to my family life all the time...... 8-)