And so it begins … hurricane season, that is. Not that hurricanes haven’t been known to happen outside the borders of the official season, but nonetheless today’s date – June 1st - has been tying my stomach in knots for months. Now it’s here and you know what – I don’t feel any better.
It’s all we talk about around here. Conversations used to all start with “how’d you make out?” and now they all start with “you staying or going?”
A lot of us have already left – students have decided now’s a good summer to do that whole off-campus program/European vacation thing. Families are heading off to visit relatives in places inland, preferably ones that have just finished thawing out from blizzards and the like. Those of us still here walk around all jittery and suspicious, like kicked dogs.
Because we’re scared. We’ve seen what happens when the Big One hits, or rather, when the Not Actually that Big but Big Enough near-misses, and as they keep telling us It Could Happen Again. So, yeah, we’re a bit spooked.
Maybe because the city hasn’t made enough progress, maybe because they’ve been telling us to expect four or five evacuations this year, maybe because last week one of the new levees “slumped.” At least, that’s the word the media seemed to have agreed on using to describe how a large section of levee just dropped several feet. I guess “slumped” sounds better than “collapsed” or “broke” or “fell the fuck down.” Slumped has a kind of casualness to it, as if the levee was just feeling a little lazy and decided to kick back on the couch and crack open a beer for a bit.
Maybe because those new levees are being built by the same people that built the last ones, the same people that told us the old levees would hold.
My father the other day told me the new levees were being built higher. I opined that kinda didn’t matter since the levees weren’t over-topped, they breached. I think he got my point.
So why am I staying?
Last Saturday, some friends and I met up at the Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo. Billed as the “first annual,” it took place on the Bayou St. John that winds through my neighborhood – or, to be more specific, the neighborhood my gutted house stands in. Picture a canal surrounded by green space curving through little shotgun houses, schools, restaurants, a couple of bike shops, a funeral home, an old factory turned into apartments, and one ugly gas station/convenience store and you have the general idea. Now imagine a bathtub ring on everything and you have it exactly.
The Boogaloo featured all the standard N.O. fest treats – food, art, drink, music. Nearby restaurants, many still closed, set up booths and provided Mexican, pasta, Middle Eastern, and good ol’ N’Awlins cookin’. The Mid-City Art Market – a venue for locals to show their stuff and make a buck – moved from its usual City Park locale for the occasion and a wine shop sold a quite nice rose for $9 a bottle (and if you don’t know about the rose revolution, get yourself to a decent wine store; it’s not that sickly sweet stuff you’re expecting). We sat by the still water sipping wine and watching the fish jump while listening to the music, a fabulous eclectic mess that I’ve come to expect in N.O. and know I can’t get anywhere else – jazz, blues, folk, rock, funk, reggae, Caribbean, Brazilian, and the uncategorizable Mardi Gras Indians. One friend wore a Big Easy Rollergirls t-shirt (“We skate come hell and high water”), and I briefly considered knocking him down and stealing it, but he assured me there were more where his came from.
Keep in mind, this is a neighborhood that remains mostly empty, a neighborhood with little going on besides planning meetings, where nine months after there still isn’t enough of the hopeful drone of power tools. Where that same day, as my friends and I enjoyed the Boogaloo, firefighters found a body, not a new one – a Katrina body, in what was left of a bathroom, in a bathtub.
So why am I staying?
The next day, I threw a party in the gutted remains of my house – the Festage in the Wreckage, very definitely not billed as the “first annual” but rather “first and hopefully only.” I never expected to have to rent a portable toilet for a party at my house, but such are the times. I filled my bathtub, currently resting comfortably in my bedroom, with ice and beer and water and invited people over in the afternoon while the light lasted. A bunch of friends and some strangers came over, stories were exchanged, gossip relayed, bad jokes told, and all the beer got drunk. One friend spun fire out on the street, which I recommend for any good party. We fired up a generator and made everyone listen to our band Smuteye for a half hour, ‘cause it was my party and I was gonna play if I wanted.
Afterwards, I spent an hour or so closing the place up as the light died and I had to lock the windows by flashlight, and then I walked half a block to Finn McCool’s (“Rebuilding Mid-City 1 Pint at a Time”), open since St. Patty’s Day, all bright lights and cold beer. Inside, I found my friend Miss Amanda and her guy, deep in conversation with a couple of women I didn’t know. I grabbed a beer and introductions went around; soon we were all chatting like old friends. I asked one of the women how they knew Miss Amanda and she smiled and said, “We just met five minutes ago.”
So why am I staying?
I keep hearing about people who don’t think New Orleans should be rebuilt, that we simply got what we deserve for living here, though I have yet to talk to any of these people myself. Perhaps because the people who don’t think we should rebuild are people who have never talked to a New Orleanian, I don’t know. Perhaps the Chris Matthews of the world assume they exist without bothering to find them because the news isn’t any fun unless you argue about something. Perhaps the President and I live in our own exclusive bubbles. I don’t know why I haven’t talked to anyone who doesn’t think New Orleans should rebuild and more to the point, I don’t care. I don’t care why I haven’t talked to them and I don’t care what they think. Personally, I don’t think we should be in Iraq, and yet there we are. Theoretically, a democracy is run by the majority, not the nut-jobs on the fringes. Theoretically.
Way back when, we needed a city at the mouth of the Mississippi to serve as the port to move goods and people in and out of the heart of the country, so we built one. We built one on the highest ground we could find at the bottom end of one of the world’s biggest rivers, on land that wouldn’t even exist if the river hadn’t carried silt here over thousands of years. At the time, New Orleans faced plagues, wars, hostile natives, river floods, ever-changing colonial allegiances, a fire that burned down the entire French Quarter, and even the occasional hurricane, but we endured because the country needed us, and it still does.
85-90% of this city got out. Of those that didn’t, the vast majority were either unable to or, like many of my friends, taking care of those who couldn’t leave. Many of them made their way to the Superdome where help was supposed to be on the way; they were following the plan. The Army Corps of Engineers had told them that the levees would hold. Their government officials (local, state, federal, all of ‘em) told them help would come.
When your house floods for the first time since 1923 when it was built, when you have to chop your way through your ceiling with an axe, when your entire life just washed out into the sea and you’re sitting on your roof with the rats, snakes, and alligators also looking for high ground, there just ain’t much to do besides wait for help.
Nevertheless, most of us didn’t just wait for help. We got out, we got friends and family out, we helped those who couldn’t get out. We loaded bed-ridden patients onto helicopters, we rowed canoes from rooftop to rooftop, we trucked in clothes, food, whatever we could get our hands on. We re-opened schools, we gutted houses and rebuilt them, and while fighting with insurance companies we used our own money to hire local contractors so they could use that money to fix their own places while fighting with their insurance companies. We’re still doing all those things, and we’re telling stories, and playing music, and yes, sometimes we help by throwing a party. Most of us didn’t wait around for the feds to help then, and we aren’t waiting around for them now.
I’m actually still waiting on the insurance and mortgage companies, on the wonderfully efficient magic hand of the free market.
So why am I staying?
What else am I supposed to do? Insurance is supposed to give me enough money to fix my house, not pay it off. If I don’t fix it, the money goes to the mortgage company, and I owe $70,000 on a hunk of junk I have no money to fix and couldn’t sell for $30,000. Maybe other people can walk away from that, but I can’t. Us new professors don’t exactly rake in the big bucks, and this house is pretty much all I have.
Well, that and I have a job I love. Sure, Loyola and I have our differences, but I’ve taught at seven universities so far and Loyola is easily my favorite. I have friends here; not as many as I used to, but still plenty, and new ones come along all the time. I have a band, a loud, obnoxious, rude, silly punk band that people seem to actually enjoy, much to our surprise. I have writers around me that are smart, encouraging, and talented. I have the Bayou Boogaloo and the Festage in the Wreckage.
And finally, I have a city of suffering people, and the U.S. is supposed to be the kind of place that doesn’t turn its back on suffering people, whether halfway around the world or in its own backyard. But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps those that think we shouldn’t rebuild, those that think we got what we deserve are right, and the U.S. isn’t that kind of place anymore.
But I’m still that kind of person.
So why am I staying?