- "No More Hippie Food! Electricians, Not Lentils!"
- A deep-fat new year
- Today's vital statistic, Mr President
- Boils next time
"No More Hippie Food! Electricians, Not Lentils!"
1 November 2005
So now we get down to the mechanics of daily existence in the main part of the city, where perhaps 25,000 people now live. Only those 25,000 have returned from the hundreds of thousands who called this hallowed place home pre-storm.
It is All Saints' Day, and the "hippie" Rainbow Coalition are feeding a breakfast to, and clothing, hungry people in Washington Square, a block away from where I write, but the frustrations of trying to exist with intermittent utilities and life-support services is beginning to wear on the nerves of those of us determined to make a go of living back in our homes.
It was cold this past week, and we had been lobbying utilities people to get natural gas turned back on in our neighbourhood, especially since almost all the furnaces in the Marigny are fuelled by gas. For some unknown reason, an inspector had crawled under my house and disconnected the gas line, but one of my neighbours showed me the trick and reconnected us. So we have heat. Now the weather, of course, turns warm. However, the inspectors put padlocks on the lines of any house they suspected had damage, and so those people still have no stoves or heat and now no way to find someone to take the locks off.
Faun celebrated our good fortune and the return of our oven Sunday by baking bread non-stop all day, and after each batch came out, taking warm loaves to our remaining neighbours. She said they smiled and hugged her a lot.
Smaller matters remain obstacles.
The gas cap from my truck was stolen when all the gasoline was siphoned from my tank immediately after Katrina. Again I begrudge no one their escape. But after repeatedly almost suffocating trying to drive my old truck on food and supply runs, I began to also fear an explosion from the fumes.
There are no auto-supply stores open anywhere near this part of the city. So yesterday morning I started the day by becoming a scavenger, driving up and down Elysian Fields Avenue, searching abandoned and trashed cars for a gas cap that would fit my vehicle. On the tenth try I got what I needed. I found immediately that this addition makes for a much easier ride, since I now don't have to drive with my head outside the window.
The old '88 Trooper is on its last legs in any case, having been bashed by flying roof tiles and debris during the storm. The roof is peppered with dents, and the windshield is a spider-web of cracks. If I hit one more good-sized pothole, it will fall into my lap, so I drive carefully.
But the whole frame vibrates badly, even at thirty-five miles-per-hour, from the damage of frequent encounters with quickly-eroding streets. I decide that part of this is due to a serious lack of pressure in the tyres. So after getting my second-hand gas cap, I try to find a gas station with air.
No luck. Every single station, of those few that were open, had had their vacuums and air-pumps broken open and looted of quarters. So I return home to resort to a very, very old bicycle-pump, and with a bit of arm pain and the bashing of knuckles return the tyres to a slightly more circular shape.
The third task of the day follows. Somewhat filled with air and gas and water, the truck and I make it out the ten miles to a large hardware store in the suburbs, transporting home needed roof tin massive trees had damaged the shed in the patio plus I need shingle-flashing and window-caulk to reseal the main house, and copper-tubing for the new fridge.
The drive is not pleasant. I drive Tulane Avenue and then Airline Highway from their origins by the main library downtown, almost eighty blocks across Claiborne and Carrolton Avenue, and see no sign of life. Water lines rising as I pass to the west. Not a house habitable, not a business without massive damage and looting, for mile after mile.
And, apart from the LSU Medical Center and the civil district courthouse, not a sign of anyone even attempting to get it back together. Not a single soul. No one.
Coming back with my purchases through another part of Central City, on Louisiana Avenue through even poorer neighbourhoods, I see pockets of residents gutting their houses. The water lines, here black, dense, and a foot wide, mark most of these frame structures above the doors of their raised porches, at nine feet. Not deep enough to drown anyone in the attic, but quite sufficient to completely destroy and defile everything inside.
But there they are, undoubtedly homeowners rather than renters, trying to salvage what is left. Which in the best of cases, is only the frame and rafters. The decayed gelatinous contents of each house is now a shapeless mass on the sidewalk. Twice I saw an individual standing in the street, staring at such a pile. Just staring.
There obviously is no sense trying to get anything out of what had been the physical structure of their lives until 29 August 2005. Everything is now reduced to this unidentifiable grey liquid. Formless. Functionless. A blurred picture, a favourite chair, an expensive rug, all part of the same mass.
Personal lives and possessions, melted into waste and set out on the street for anyone to see.
Up ahead shuffles an elderly man in dishevelled and filth-stained clothing, working on his house just north of Claiborne Avenue. He has no facemask or rubber gloves. No haz-mat suit. As I come up alongside him, he pushes another wheelbarrow full of muck onto the pile and pauses to catch his breath. I couldn't help but watch him as I wait for one of the few functioning traffic-lights in the neighbourhood.
He did not look up as he dumps the barrow. I saw his face. It is deep, deep, deep in another place. I do not exist there. He continues to look down, started to reach for something he saw, but then realises it was not worth it.
He stands up straight, lets go the handles of the wheelbarrow and let his hands drop to his sides.
"My life come to this."
I could hear it. Unspoken, but there it is, the words hovering, taunting him, darting about his head in unspeakably sour and rancid air.
His emotion, that of the whole neighbourhood, an infinitely magnified gravity, pulling at me, pulling me down, ripping my gut as I drive off, leaving him at the curb.
He is me, but for fate.
I am only a witness to this man's pain. I am not living it. I still have my home. I have heat and a stove. Which makes his heartbreak, an old man struggling to find any normalcy at all for his remaining years, by restoring the only thing left to him, even harder to bear.
I drive home, the increasing dysfunction of the truck helping me temporarily to forget.
I block the vision of the Central City with manual labour. After four hours of work, I secure a new roof on the shed that protects my tools and chainsaw and generator. Shortly after sundown, the first rain in two months begins. There are maskers out in the Marigny for the night, for Halloween, but I cannot bring myself to leave the house. I wonder where, or if, the old man sleeps.
I find none myself. Through a long night I am haunted and hurt and at times breathless from rising panic, at the memory of what is just another day in New Orleans.
And I am the lucky one.
A deep-fat new year
1 January 2006
New Orleanians have come to long for, and relish, the mundane. I happily maintain myself as an example of such aesthetics. So the new year is to be a day spent sleeping through rented movies. It takes a long, long drive to the suburbs to find a rental place, and by the time I get there none of the movies that remained in the store were actually B choices, or even Cs. Consequently, I am facing a very eclectic mix of Japanese Zen sword dramas and black and white 1950s detective flicks. I anticipate competing for reasonable couch space with the three sprawled cats who couldn't care less that I am the guy who works for their food.
In spite of this inherent inertia, I go early to visit a friend's traditional 1 January black-eyed-peas-and-greens-and-cornbread meal this afternoon. I guess it's just southerners who must have this menu fed to them annually to magnify chances of good fortune, and I suppose the ritual seems more relevant having lived through this past year, but me, I just happen to like simple home-style food, no matter the occasion.
However, I probably wouldn't leave my comfort zone for the chow and camaraderie. I go for the transport.
I have a new vehicle. The old truck, battered and beaten by Katrina and damaged by gasoline poachers, finally gave up the ghost two weeks ago, and I began the search for a car, a necessary evil, even though I admit to hating driving.
The process was complicated by the fact that there are few unflooded, unspoiled used cars for sale here, but after a week of second-hand negotiations with the nephew of an elderly Cajun gentlewoman in Lafayette, Louisiana, I now am the proud owner of a vintage Mercedes 420SEL.
There was mojo involved, as always, a sort of reverse exorcism, as post-sale I had to remove the sweet but devout lady's many religious medals from the vehicle, especially the large silver crucifix on the visor that was embossed with the two-inch-high message: "The driver of this car is a Catholic. In case of an accident, summon a priest." I rather liked the eeriness of that invocation, so when I removed the piece, I installed it on the top shelf of my mojo altar in the house. My mother would pitch a fit if she knew.
But medals were only part of the automobile karma. There were Knights-of-Columbus floral sachets in all the car pockets, each packet certified to have been blessed and sprinkled with holy water at St Francis of Assisi church. To ensure simultaneous protection from bad odours and bad vibes, I am sure.
I actually thought I had cleansed the car, and was preparing to crank the stereo with Sonny Landreth's slide-guitar, when out came the previously-installed CD: The Hymns of Medjugorge. No kidding. A south Louisiana matron finding inspiration in eastern-European tourism miracles.
The car is now purged, though there is a lingering scent of doilies and frankincense.
So it's new year's day, and I am travelling cross-town for a meal because I have only driven the new old car three times, and I figured this is a good excuse to play with the toy. Men are so predictable.
My friend lives uptown. I could go north twelve blocks and travel that direction quickly on Claiborne Avenue, which cuts across the top of the bend in the river, but the journey up there is too depressing. Every home and business on every block of that major thoroughfare from St Bernard Parish on the south to Jefferson Parish upriver is badly damaged or destroyed. The coffee stains from the flood levels go on for miles.
I decide on St Charles Avenue. The trees are beat-up and the streetcar lines are down, but otherwise the beautiful avenue is relatively unscathed. Relatively.
It is in the first blocks of St Charles past Lee Circle that I hit the gridlock. And I mean a complete traffic standstill. On a quiet holiday, with the town deserted.
I get out of my car and walk up half a block to see what the matter is. A massive fender-bender? A stalled Federal Emergency Management Agency garbage-truck? Another loose mental patient? Another streetside suicide?
I find on the next corner a source of the disruption that is far worse and more life-threatening than I had feared.
openDemocracy writers examine the fallout of hurricane Katrina:
Mariano Aguirre, "The Hurricane and the Empire"
Ian Christie, "When the levee breaks"
Godfrey Hodgson, "After Katrina, a government adrift"
Michael Thieren, "Katrina's triple failure: technical, ethical, political "
Dave Frame & Dáithí Stone, "Hurricanes, global warming, and global politics" (September 2005)
If you find this material enjoyable or provoking, please consider commenting on it in our forums and supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue
The return of fast food to New Orleans.
For the last four months, this neophyte village has been eating via a small, very limited food supply. There are only two supermarkets and two small mom-and-pop grocery stores available to feed the entire city. There are a dozen or more amazing restaurants reopened and serving the hungry masses lovingly. So the city the national health surveys have mockingly dubbed "the land of the obese" has been a very healthy place, menu-wise, since the Big K.
But now, today, there they are, on corners directly opposite each other: burgers and fried chicken.
The inevitable return to bad diets a Wendy's and a Popeye's. Four months after the 'cane, and here is the only fast food in the city, concentrated in one place. A two-block-long line of cars waits for Wendy's Drive-Thru Window. People are cursing and gesturing as they grow impatient for their bag o' burgers. You can't get near the front doors for the crowds, especially at Popeye's, and the line there spills into the right lane of traffic. The chain of spicy-battered bird parts started here in New Orleans, Louisiana, and has its most fanatic hardcore fans here.
The line of people waiting for food more resembles a queue outside a methadone clinic than a fast-food outlet, though I suppose lard withdrawal can be quite painful.
Worse, as I drive onto a side street to get around the unmoving traffic, I get a whiff of what is cooking inside, and feel my own soul groan in hunger.
I find myself drooling on the steering wheel of my new old car.
And somehow feel a notch closer to normalcy. Starting 2006 on a positive note.
Now if I can just get me that #3 spicy dark dinner with a side of red beans and a jalapeno pepper.
Today's vital statistic, Mr President
12 January 2006
Things are still unworldly and off-kilter here in the bourbon-splashed floodplain. No matter what figures the government throws out, we're still a very small band of settlers, and we're nervous and stressed.
A percentage of the university community is back this week and the next, but many of them, staff and students, are living in trailers in Kenner in Jefferson parish, remote from the city centre. And the community colleges, which were primarily made up of working-class locals, have been decimated.
Delgado had 90% of the buildings on its City Park campus severely damaged, and many of the classroom structures are no longer habitable. That one school is expecting to return fewer than 7,000 undergraduates out of a pre-K population of almost 18,000, and since the majority of its students originated in the now completely defunct New Orleans school system, the college's future is not bright.
None of the folk in charge seems to be able to decide our fate, at least while anyone is looking. They're waiting to do the deals when the shadows move in and attention is elsewhere. Which may mean that action is on the way, since the world seems to have forgotten New Orleans and moved on to other things or at least they've decided that things aren't so dire here, especially in light of ongoing earthquakes, floods and Senate votes.
Bush flies in once every twelve weeks or so and gets his picture taken by wreckage. He's back this afternoon. None of us have been invited to see him. As a matter of fact the feds have brought back a renewed military presence for the day, ostensibly for the photo op, but more likely because they are afraid that an irate New Orleanian might fling seafood gumbo at the all-powerful president of the United States.
The word is that he gets rashes upon contact with spicy food or ungrateful disaster victims.
Meanwhile the real and living residents hang about, treading water and hoping for regular mail and garbage service. Or phones, or electricity. Or supermarkets and drugstores. Or hamburgers and fries. Or real medical service.
It's odd, though. A few unexpected positives jump out of the muck to surprise you, or horrify you almost every day.
Like this Monday.
On Monday I discovered real and physical proof that most of the Bad Guys (most) are gone.
For the last decade, New Orleans has been under siege by hoodlums and drug gangs, and every third person in the neighbourhood has had their house burgled, or been carjacked, mugged or robbed at gunpoint in recent years including Faun and my good friend TR and six other neighbours.
In spite of a slightly lower murder rate.
My theory is that we had fewer murders not because of less criminal activity, but because the city had found the economic and social circumstances to invent an even less intelligent brand of thug.
The shooters weren't less violent. They were simply worse marksmen.
On this day, I was in the company of a waiter friend from Royal Street who had cut his hand and needed minor stitches. He called and said he couldn't drive himself down to the medical site for treatment because he needed to keep pressure on the wound, which though minor, was messy.
I drove to the temporary Charity Hospital emergency room, set up inside the Convention Center, and parked directly outside. There were few cars and no foot traffic. The ghosts from the nightly news still walk the streets there, but the building is now shining, clean and empty. Except for the emergency room.
This facility is mostly sheltered inside sterile tents, which are themselves inside the huge convention rooms. It is run by former staffers now. The military medics are just about all gone home.
Service is quick and efficient. My injured bud is quite content to be getting delicately sewed up by a sympathetic and lovely young female internist, and I let him be. Watching the stitching of human flesh is not a preferred entertainment for me, even in the strangest of times, which these are.
I wander toward the entrance to the great hall where there are some chairs and small tables set up in a loose grouping. There isn't much going on, and I am a bit spooked, so I strike up a conversation with the one other person in the place. He also seems at loose ends, and is sitting in the makeshift waiting-room reading the morning paper, drinking coffee and hanging out.
I say hello and offer my name and place of residence, and the slightly older gentleman identifies himself as a long-time Charity doctor.
I remark on how quiet it is in the cavernous hall, the smallest sound echoing endlessly.
And this doc says: "Yes, there aren't really that many people here now, compared to before, and not nearly the sorts and numbers of people we were treating in the trauma centre at Big Charity on Tulane Avenue. It's been a very dramatic change. "
"Pre-Katrina", he continues after a pause to consider his own words, "I was personally treating fourteen to sixteen gunshot wounds a night."
I must have a doubting look on my face because he repeats himself: "Yes, that many a night. The majority didn't die, they just got treated and went right back out there. And you know, I have yet to see the first bullet wound since the storm."
I consider the revelation now. And its implications.
Maybe that fact would give the day-tourist Bush a little less worry.
Somebody ought to send it along to him.
I can picture the commander-in-chief chatting up his aides, wanting to take credit for the statistic in his next press conference. A good spin, it will be, at least on the surface. Which is where he dwells.
Then all of us here in New Orleans can watch George W Bush on the news: an uncomfortable, artificial-looking human male, clad in a $5,000 designer suit, reading in broken, contrived English off a piece of gilded stationery embossed with his name.
He will be easily recognised as a man supremely happy to be back in the safety and comfort of his White House easy chair,
finally and surprisingly
one source of numbers
detailing the circumstances
Boils next time
4 February 2006
By the time you read this, these words will have been edited, proofed, turned into ones and zeroes, spellchecked again. And quite possibly in the process have become quite readable. Unlike many of my other missives, written in passion and the haste to get them out of my system, which I e'd into the world without a second thought. Only a sigh of relief, to be rid of them.
But this time I am writing with pen to paper, and though it is rather a foreign process, it is allowing me to vent once again, and thus, retain my sanity, even while living full-time in my home.
In New Orleans.
Did I mention that I am writing by the light of a solitary lamp powered by the gasoline-fuelled electrical generator outside? A device which also allows both my neighbour's and my own refrigerator to keep working?
The generator is noisy, but it does allow me the comfort of knowing that my freezer and refrigerator full of food will not spoil immediately. These days, we have to stock up with large quantities of foodstuffs when we make the long trek crosstown to the sole supermarket. It is quite an expedition, and not taken lightly.
Today's was your standard start to a Saturday morning in New Orleans. Get up, turn on the lights, and discover that there are none. Along with no heat. These power interruptions are such a regular occurrence that I no longer take the trouble to set electric clocks, in the house or my office. I consequently live in a neo-modern world, each room of which is festooned with sets of blinking numbers.
Luckily this morning I still have my backup coffee-maker, an old Cajun four-piece four-cup pot which I have lovingly possessed for over thirty years. I haul it down, boil water gas stoves are a necessity here and head out to find a newspaper.
Who knows, Bush may have been here again.
But as I approach the front door I hear a siren, then another. And another, and another. It was only yesterday that the venerable Coliseum Theatre burned to the ground, aided by high winds and low water-pressure. Even with helicopters working in tandem, hauling 800-gallon bags of water from the river to dump on the fire, the theatre burned and disappeared from the earth quickly and finally.
Another bit of our soul gone.
So when I open the door to my home and walk into a wall of smoke and an audio cascade of even more approaching sirens, I become more than a touch uneasy.
There sound to be dozens of fire-engines approaching closely, and as the smoke clears in a breeze, I see that there are. Dozens. I see them wheeling into the neighbourhood, one-by-one, roaring up at the end of my street, dropping into a rubber-burning screaming halt just two blocks north.
Less than a minute later, the deafening thud of approaching helicopters makes me duck. They are flying really low, less than a hundred feet up, and they are carrying the same bags I'd heard were used at the Coliseum. Each of the aircraft is hauling a large round orange sack, suspended from its belly at the end of a long tether. A spray of water is blowing from the upper mouth of each bag as it moves into position, again just to the north of me, and prepares to drop its water.
There is most certainly a fire. Nearby.
I throw on an old warm-up jacket, hop on my bike, and sprint up the street, which is rapidly filling with people in their pyjamas and robes. Two blocks away, just above Rampart Street, people are stumbling into the mouth of a rock-strewn driveway on the eastern side of the street. There is a large open space in the centre of the block and it is directly behind the fires, which are now coming from the upper stories and roofs of at least three buildings. The row of century-old shotgun houses face Mandeville Street, the next parallel street east, but the rear of the burning houses intrude well into the block very near Marigny Street. My street.
Luckily, for me at least, the wind is coming strongly out of the north-northwest, and is blowing the flames straight down the block. Unluckily for the rest of the houses on that side of the street. The fire is literally leaping from wall to wall. I can see flames blowing horizontally from the upper windows of one house like a blowtorch, directly into the shattered windows of the next, and then out the other side of the second house.
There must now be at least a hundred firefighters on the scene, and more arriving by the minute. They do not look like actors in a movie. They look like tired old men, just awakened from sleep. Which is exactly what they are.
I spot half a dozen of them standing precariously on the roof of one house, fully equipped with oxygen-bottles and grappling gear, hacking at the side of the adjoining building, flames just a few feet away and coming closer every time the wind slackens. I lose sight of the firemen as another 800 gallons of water falls directly on them from the sky.
"These guys really are heroes", is all I can think. Trite. Simplistic. But, Christ, just look at those guys!
People all around me are standing about in clusters with their mouths open, watching the firefighters risk their lives for someone else's property. We start into conscious life only occasionally, each time to simultaneously point at yet another burst or explosion. I can see the faces around me. Neighbours, all wondering if this fire in a gale wind can be stopped before it jumps the next street south and moves into that block. And on into mine.
Thinking this, I pedal one block in that direction, where the fire is headed. The firemen from three trucks have formed their vehicles into a line down the street, directly in the path of the fire. They have of course thought of the same possibility that I imagined. The smoke is blowing directly in their faces, and the heat is already so intense that I have to stay half a block away and watch them stand there, feet set and hoses in hand. Knowing that they have only the small amount of water stored in their trucks with which to stop the flames.
They can see by its short arc, that there is barely enough water pressure to maintain the hose on the giant crane to the north. Not enough for the pumper trucks to tap into the neighbourhood fire hydrants.
It is that way all over the city. Thus the choppers have been brought into use. These men know that, if the 500 gallons they each have is not enough to stop the fire's advance, they will have to evacuate quickly, very quickly. The drivers are in fact already in place in each truck, waiting.
The helicopters are now in a rhythm, dropping a load of water every ninety seconds. I know this because the gentleman standing next to me is timing them. They are remarkable. We are all in awe of the pilots, getting so close to the fires, and we now see them so frequently that we have come to note their individual characteristics. The red-and-blue chopper gets much, much closer to the flames before dumping, but even so, the orange flyer is more accurate, in spite of the rising wind.
One of the bystanders says he heard that the fire was started in the storm-ruined furniture store on the corner, by squatters. Once out of control the wind took it to the house immediately behind it, then the next. And the next. By the time I get near enough to see for myself, the fire is consuming its seventh building. Only two are left between it and the fireline at the street.
That is when the tanker trucks arrive, three at a time.
The pumper-drivers scramble to hook up to the additional water and begin to spray, into the wind. Finally, the additional water coming from the south begins to slow the fire's progress.
And then it is out. The fire is out. We are left staring at three-quarters of a block filled with charred blackened totems.
The houses in this neighbourhood are either made entirely of old-cut cypress or of stucco set on cypress beams. Cypress wood is wonderfully resistant to water. And equally susceptible to fire.
The owner of the last house to burn, a gorgeous two-storey Greek-revival mansion, had just completed hurricane restoration on his home last week.
The water here now has no pressure and lots of smell. It stinks with chlorine. Friends have told me that you can bleach clothes clean by leaving them overnight in a tub of tap water. Drinking it is not an option, though I have found that a kettle of water boiled and left standing for a few hours becomes a great deal less offensive.
As I ride my bike home, one of my neighbours yells out to me: "If you think this is bad, wait until the boils get here." I laugh and smile and wave as I pass, but I am confused thinking of it as a water reference, and don't get the joke until I am almost home.
You see, day before yesterday a pair of tornadoes ripped through town, one heavily damaging the airport, and another running top to bottom through Lakeview, completely destroying the very few houses that had survived the flooding caused by the 17 th-Street canal breach. Then yesterday, with the wind and dropping water pressure, the fires started. Today there is no electricity, and the phones only receive, and we can't call out.
Boils and a plague of locusts cannot be far behind.
A person could get depressed.
They do. Our suicide rate is skyrocketing. During one single week in October, eight doctors, unknown to one another, took their own lives. They could not stand the memory of what they had seen along with maintaining themselves in a malfunctioning and defective environment.
This place we call home on a daily basis.
Months have passed now, but the quality of life here has actually begun to slide downward again. A few weeks ago the United States president said he saw people here "with a spring in their step again". I wonder if he can have really left his airplane.
That said, my electricity just came on. I guess I will go shut down the generator, power up the computer and process these words.
Process these words about New Orleans.