Friday, September 23, 2005

Re-New Orleans

It's bizarre this morning. Hurricane Rita spins toward Texas and I'm forced to recant all the jokes and prods I've ever teased about the place. I always wished for a nation with 49 states, wished that Texans would invoke that option in their constitution to withdraw from the Union. I'd read the "Don't Mess With Texas" bumperstickers and say "Oh, you don't need to tell me!" And now, especially after Texans opened their doors, their domes, their hearts, and their wallets to my own neighbors, those generous folks are hunkered down for a slamming of their own and I regret every single hardcore joke I ever made about the place and its people, its cowboy culture and its Tex-Mex mushy food, its stretch limos and ugly Dallas architecture, its "howdy" greetings, Branch Damned Davidians, and space shuttle firey fly-overs.

One ranch near Crawford, Texas, however, still carries my wrath but I won't go there.

Diasporans are evacuating from the evacuation and Texans and New Orleanians are wondering where to go? Where is safety? For Chrissakes, where can we go to be safe?

Remember Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs from chapter two in your freshman psychology textbook? I thought about that yesterday, that the basic needs must be met before other, higher pursuits can be sought after. A million people at once are working on all the lower levels of the Maslow pyramid: escaping temperature extremes, securing shelter for their families, feeding their kids, looking for work, figuring out a new bus schedule and confusing new and old zip codes.

I can only wonder what level I'm on. It's down there, let me tell you. Way, way down below.

Unfortunately, I know the level the City of New Orleans occupies.

Tuesday I re-entered the city, as I've written earlier. But nothing, not even staying throughout the flooding itself, could have prepared me for what I encountered. Cars parked on the high neutral ground in front of Jesuit High School on Carrollton Avenue had been entirely submerged. Buildings are crumbling from being soaked for weeks. Front doors are sealed shut after having swelled and fused to the doorframes. Roofing nails are strewn about and threaten car tires and feet bottoms. Structures are weakened, many having been burned to the ground in natural gas fires. Plantlife is killed. Dead fish lie on the street after having been washed inland in the flood. Everything is an ugly gray after being coated with the horrible petroleum skin that floated on the flood waters; anything you touch feels like it was dipped into a can of motor oil. The putrid smell of decay, mold, and death catches in the nostrils and causes one to gag. Flies are everywhere, buzzing into your nervous system, stopping up your throat. Piles of debris have been pushed to the side along the roadways. The SPCA has placed open bags of animal food on the sidewalks for the poor animals left desperately behind. The bright orange spray paint used by rescuers catches your eye on every house in the city: were there souls in there? or corpses? Gladly, I cannot discern their codes; I don't wish to know.

Before leaving, I wrote on my front door: "There are no dead bodies in this entire house."

My house! The place I've loved my friends, partied, created. The place so many of us have smoked in, laughed in, joked in. The place I slept safely in snuggled up with my catahoula. My house. Not some far-away place in the Pacific. Not some doomed city on a fault line in California. Not some washed away spot of Bangladesh.

My little corner of the world in Fauberg St. John.

My house. For god's sakes. My house.

There are no dead bodies there.

I cannot know the futures -- plural intended -- that await my city and its people. Which future will function for a city in need of long-term resurrection? Which future for the poor? Which future for the carpetbagger land speculators? Which future for the corrupt officials, the city planners, the designers, the architects, the school kids, the small business owners, the chefs and waiters and dancers and fire jugglers and piano players and WWOZ radio jocks and Tulane students and backgammon porch dwellers and coffeehouse addicts and crawfish boilers and oyster shuckers and zydeco dancers? Which future will work for a city whose history remains special in global scope? Which future for a Re-New Orleans?

Too big. These questions are too big right now.

Dr. Maslow has taught us so.


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