“No More Hippie Food! Electricians, Not Lentils!”
-- New Orleans refrigerator graffiti, Halloween night 2005
The New Orleans Police Department has become a horrible, rabid, festering animal. Luckily the National Guard remain amazingly even-tempered, and have been a life-saving defense against our own cops, keeping the twisted remains of the Police Department at bay. I don’t know what will happen when the Guard leaves us.
Like I don’t know who is coming back. More than half the City is unlivable, and will never be again. I know now. I’ve seen it.
Daily life, breathing, is eerie and disconcerting. I ate a hot meal at a soup kitchen at Washington Square around the corner last night, from a group of old-time hippies called “The Rainbow Coalition”, and felt myself a character walking knee-deep in Steinbeck. These folks from around the country raise their own money, use their own credit cards, and just drove in and started feeding and caring for people.
They have a doctor and a midwife and a big battery-fed boombox with a great collection of ‘60’s NOLA R&B. They do not like FEMA. They got permission from the City to do what they are doing, but the NOPD came to roust the crowd when a brass band walked into the Square to play to the hungry people who were eating.
“No permit,” they declared, hands on holsters.
Yes: “No permit.”
Luckily a Humvee of Guardsmen showed up just then – the Coalition had been feeding them too – and shooed the local cops away.
There are more flies than I ever experienced in the poorest parts of Mexico or India, and mosquitoes who have been feasting on the dead descend in clouds onto your flesh if you stop moving for more than a minute. I wear insect repellent from the moment I wake up until I go to bed at night.
A FEMA flier decorated my gate this morning.
I opened it to find a warning to residents in large lettering:
Do not place cadavers or feces on the sidewalk for curbside collection.
So 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 is feeding a breakfast to, and clothing, hungry and cold 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 neighborhood, especially since almost all the furnaces in the Marigny are fueled by gas. For some unknown reason, an inspector had crawled under my house and disconnected the gas line, but one of my neighbors 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 no way to find someone to take the locks off.
Louise 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 neighbors. 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 the tank immediately after Katrina. Again I begrudge no one their escape. But after repeatedly approaching suffocation while 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 smoker 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 spiderweb of cracks. If I hit one more one good-sized pothole, it will fall into my lap, so I drive carefully.
But the whole frame vibrates badly, even at 35mph, 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 tires. 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, has 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 tires 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 re-seal 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 neighborhoods, 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 spot 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. Everything is now reduced to this unidentifiable grey liquid. Formless. Functionless. A blurred picture, a favorite 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 disheveled and filth-stained clothing, working on his house just north of Claiborne Avenue. He has no face mask 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 can’t help but watch him as I wait for one of the few functioning traffic lights in the neighborhood.
He does not look up as he dumps the barrow. I see his face. It is deep deep deep in another place. I do not exist there. He continues to look down, starts to reach for something he sees, but then realizes it is not worth it.
He stands up straight, lets go the handles of the wheelbarrow and lets his hands drop to his sides.
“My life come to this.”
I can 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 neighborhood, 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 to temporarily forget.
I block the vision of Central City with manual labor. After four hours of work, I secure a new roof on the shed that protects my tools and chain saw 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.