Wednesday, September 28, 2005

"I Hope You Good Luck"

"I'm sorry?" I said.

"I hope you good luck," he repeated.

We sat only one seat apart in the waiting area of the Richmond Salvation Army, a place of remarkable activity.

I've never heard his good intentions voiced quite that way before. But I've been thinking about it, and I've grown quite fond of the phrase, with wishes being so un-worldly, so unattainable.

So Cinderella.

True, our ears expect such phrases to be repeated -- we don't say "Happy Christmas" or "Merry New Year" now do we ? -- but his intention rung so real and unmistakably sincere. I dig hopes; they trump wishes. I'm hopeful right now.

Last week wishful. This week hopeful.

That's progress, moving beyond wishing.

Last week I wished the pain and destruction of this storm away.
Last week I wished I could return to my studio as it existed before.
Last week I wished I could get a full night's sleep.

The sleep has yet to return but the Kubler-Ross denial stage fades and the studio is undeniably wrecked. Period. Facts be facts, damnit.

As Richmond and I grow closer, I'm visiting houses looking for a place to live and work. And I'm hopeful.

And yesterday gave cause for a true celebration, too: a commission that had been in discussion before Katrina has moved forward. I've been green-lighted on a $2200 piece and the 75% deposit is on its way.

I'm working again!!!!

Well... Soon I'm working again!!!!

How's that...?

One's dignity, I'm discovering anew, weaves tightly to work and my own independence remains a central issue. As soon as I rent a house, I'll start up the artwork.

Bring it on.

Learned today, though, that not everyone offers help. The weasel behind the desk at St. John's Realty on the corner of 22nd and Broad Street gave me grief and assured me "his boss" would deny my application because I'm currently unemployed. I reminded him that the entire Gulf Coast of the United States is currently unemployed! Bozo.

I'll go elsewhere.

And I'll go there confidently.

Because I and so many others have been hoped good luck from a kindly soul also in need and waiting near me in the reception area of the Salvation Army.

I hope you good luck, too.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Generosity and Gratitude

Some of you know of a twisted path I've walked with religion. From my religious days -- literally so, as being a member of a "religious" order in the Catholic Church is a specific and differing identifier from being a "secular" priest -- to my days now as totally a-religious, a tranformative journey has occured, changing my life for the better in ways I'm unable to describe. The Katrina event sharpens my perspective about religion: I place my trust in people and nature, beautiful and endless are they. I simply see no need to jump to other-worldly entities when the people and lives right here around me are so deeply blessed. I don't care if god exists. I don't care about Jesus. (Poor fellow, the crap people have laid on him these past two millenia.) I don't feel aggressive about god; I simply see no justifiable need for the distraction of believing in him.

Perhaps this puts others off? It doesn't matter; your experience is cherished and fulfilling, I hope. And so is mine.

Everything is made of Love. Everything. Love is the brick and mortar and the bricklayer. Love is literally the Stuff of Everything. It's pre-existent. It's the start, the Alpha. And god, at best, is only the beta, an invention of humanity.

Trusting Love challenges me far more than spitting out rote prayers in church, fooling myself into thinking some entity cares about my fate and affects it only because I've quietly asked him to. Strikes me as a foolish idea, really.

Contrast that with a story from last night, when I went out with brand new friends to a nice little place in the Fan neighborhood here in Richmond. Trisha and I were talking about things and next week she and some friends are travelling to Iceland to celebrate a birthday. Her original plans included a trip to Sweden after Iceland, but she changed her mind when she saw the devastation from Katrina and instead of travelling further, she has donated the money she would have spent to the Red Cross.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out the Red Cross debit card that has made such a difference to me these past few weeks. "Then it's you. You gave me this, Trisha."

Feeling a wave of gratitude, I've learned yet again the lesson of Love and the power of humanity to make this world perfect and gorgeous. I can't buy gasoline with a prayer. And your bible doesn't find me a house to live in.

So Trisha, to you and to every generous soul like you: You are god to me and people like me who need you. You are Love and caring, food and water, safety and warmth. You are comfort in my storm, the mast I trust I can tie myself to in the churning waters. You are the hope and strength I need to re-build a broken life. You are the role-model, the example of living that challenges me to be like you later, when I'm in one piece again. You expand, fill, calm. You delight in dark moments, ease in troubled places, hold me when I'm desperately lonely for friendships swept away in a moments time three weeks ago. You have changed this little life. And a million others.

Everything is made of Love: hurricanes, houses, dogs, forests, seas, you, me, Trisha.

Everything is made of Love. Can you handle it?

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.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

1.3 Million People -- And Their Friends -- All Going Bonkers

I'm writing from a public library in Richmond, Virginia, my newly adopted hometown. Staying briefly with a rather new friend, I've checked out the city and find it completely liveable. Since I consider the Gulf Coast as permanently unliveable, I'm here. It's a good place. I genuinely like it.

After driving more that 3200 miles since leaving New Orleans, I need to rest. But I can't. Others are far too rested and want to move. I'm far too moved and need to rest. But I've got some possessions still in New Orleans. Dogs and a car (newly purchased by my mom from a friend of hers for the generous price of $1.00 -- true generosity!) wait in Daytona. And there's a studio and home to find and create here in Richmond.

I've left my brain somewhere around here. Which city, I wonder? Or is it only in pieces along the side of the interstate? I-95 or I-65 or I-85. Take your pick.

And money is as tight as ever. And I have a home to make????

Anxious, I've yet to pass a night of unbroken sleep. The nightmares being almost too predictable, the other night I dreamt I drowned in my own bed. I sat up in a panic and I know I yelled "NO!" at the top of my lungs. What a freak. I stayed that night with Jimmy and Penelope Descant; I hope I didn't wake them or scare them.

But I had entered New Orleans that day to retrieve some of my stuff. It's horrible. Really awful. I can handle the death of an individual, you know, an old family member. But this is the death of everything. Cars that had been submerged entirely; buildings coming apart from being soaked for weeks; trees brown and gray from the polluted, brackish water. The city remains mostly empty, it smells a putrid, nausiating odor, causing me to gag a few times as I entered my house. Without a doubt, the return two days ago shocked me and sickened me more than any other part of this entire ordeal.

A word about another part of all this: all of us Diasporans are imposing, and we know it, on others. We're in the extra room, the game room, the garage, the barbershop. Our dogs are in friends' yards. My new friend is great and caring, but I'm very careful about presumption. I mean, if an old friend literally set up shop in my house while I was away on vacation, I wouldn't mind. But can I ask a new friend if I can stay for two nights? Three? Can she accept some mail for me? Can I wash my clothes there? I'm doing what I can to reciprocate and express my thanks, but money is short and my gratitude must be expressed in other ways.

So we're aware that we're putting others out. We're pacing the floors waiting to go home, only to discover a stomach-heaving place when we return. We're out of money. We're out of patience. We're out of touch with friends who we know we might never see again.

I've got the blues. The anxiety-producing, sleep-stealing, rotten-feeling-in-the-gut blues.

And from what I'm hearing from my friends, I'm not alone.

There's no corney "hang in there" line that will suffice. And christ knows I don't want to hear a single word about god and prayer. What crap.

So like a spider on a hot skillet, there's just no place to get comfortable.

No rest. No peace. No home.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

New Orleanians of the Diaspora

Richmond, Virginia.
Nashville, Tennessee.
Texarkana, Texas.
Cleveland, Ohio.
Lafayette, Louisiana.

This is a list of only myself and close friends.

We New Orleanians of the Diaspora have found ourselves everywhere. And my mind races as I wonder: What are all of these people doing?

At the "Katrina + 11" mark, my group successfully escaped flooded New Orleans. As communiciations slowly improved since then, I've learned the whereabouts of many of us, those who evacuated before the storm and those, like me, who stayed for a time. The few I've been totally unable to reach are those who stayed in New Orleans for the entire duration, who remain there right now. I suppose these folks will throw the first "Welcome Home" parties for the others.

I've travelled from New Orleans to Daytona Beach. And from there to Richmond and back. I'll return to New Orleans for my stuff, then back to Florida? or to Richmond? I've decided to move to Richmond; logistics will not be simple.

And all of this is costly.

Within the larger volume of sadness associated with this disaster, there's one chunk of it that weighs very heavily on me right now: We'll never be together again. Never again will my group of friends, as we were, find ourselves at my studio for Sunday brunch. Never again will my studio host a band on the stage with a few hundred friends all over my house. Never again will we fall into Cafe Degas or meet by the flagpole at Jazz Fest.

Don't get me wrong; I know some of us will return for the Fest. But...

As the initial reaction to this comes and goes in waves, added to it is the secondary reaction, the realization that nothing in my life will ever again be as it was. My studio will soon be changing. My hometown will change. My artwork will change. My friendships, my habits, my diet, my radio stations, my sausage from Terranova's is no more to me, my coffeeshop, my neighbors, my walks on the bayou with Ida and T-Bone, my visits to the sculpture garden in City Park, my Pabst Blue Ribbon at Pal's on the corner.

Those of the Diaspora, we're all over, sure.

But we've all remained throughout in only one small, lovely space on earth: New Orleans.

Monday, September 12, 2005

A Category All Its Own

My story is one of bad decisions followed by good luck, good friends, and good choices. I have no gritty life and death struggles with bandits. I've seen no dead bodies floating in the streets. But can I tell you: Katrina plus eleven days made for the saddest and most challenging experience of my life.

Of course, I should have left before the storm. Had the destructive eye plowed through vulnerable New Orleans instead of Mississippi, I might not be typing right now. I exhibited a stubborn stupidity before the storm, convinced that it would be better to secure my home after the worst had passed, frightened more of what possessions I might lose than what life I might lose.

Bad decision.

I rode out the storm with five others, a family named Pedeaux, in their big, old, sturdy-as-a-rock house on the high ground of the Esplanade Ridge, on Ursulines Street, just around the corner from my studio. Amazingly, we watched much of the storm from the front porch, tucked surprisingly safely into the recessed area of the front door. Huge limbs crashed to the ground. The howling wind producing awe, beautiful in its own way.

When the worst of the storm passed, I walked on dry sidewalks to check on my house. The house remained fairly dry, though beaten up badly.

I returned to the Pedeaux's for much needed sleep and woke to the fateful words: "Joe, the water is rising."

I dashed now through sloppy streets to my studio and raised my possessions, any that I could, ever higher. I returned again and again as the waters rose. And on Tuesday night I returned in haste and anguish as the mayor told us there could be nine feet of water on Saint Charles Avenue. Chairs stacked on tables stacked on larger tables. The stereo and computers and artwork raised to safety on platforms suspended from the ceilings.

Forcing my way through the waters and around fallen tree limbs, I checked on my house and possessions daily. Shocked at the quickness of decay, I watched mold form almost immediately.

After a few days, I returned to the house in a canoe. I opened up the windows, removing the boards that earlier had protected the house from windswept debris but now were locking in moisture, converting my house into a huge terrarium. Water dripped from the large plate glass windows, everything above the waterline taking in moisture and working its way to ruin.

Since the Pedeaux house had remained mostly dry (only two or three inches in a basement kitchen), I have stored the most important of my possessions there. On one return visit, I rowed straight through my open front door and into my studio, with several feet of water inside.

Because I stayed on, and able to check on the house and return to it with a canoe, I have saved my power tools, my paints, clothes, computers, stereo equipment and disks, artwork, even golf clubs.

I'm very aware of my good luck.

At the Pedeaux's, we never suffered. We had all the food we needed, with three dwellings' worth of provisions. A neighbor had left five, five-gallon bottles of water on the front porch of his house: it saved us. We took a generator from the same neighbor's basement (just in time, before the flood waters engulfed it) and syphoned gasoline from neighbor's cars. We ran the generator sparingly, creating a cool room for elderly Naomi and the others who are accustomed to cooler air. We were constantly aware of the news. We cooked on a Coleman camping stove, though the gas stove worked for the first day or two after the storm.

During a rain shower on the Wednesday following the hurricane, we collected rain water in a 30-gallon crawfish boil pot. Adding a touch of bleach to the water, we could bathe ourselves outdoors each day.

We kept a bucket of hard bleach water always ready for cleaning ourselves after any needed work was done in the floodwaters. Antibacterial medicines stayed ready on a corner of the kitchen counters and Nancy checked Bryan and me after each time out, rubbing iodine on any cuts or scrapes in our skin.

Our challenge was one of patience. By definition, the floodwaters would receded enough to drive out someday. The house is situated on the high ridge, so we'd go earlier than most in the city.

Our wait lasted eleven long days. Imagine inviting five friends to your house to watch paint dry or grass grow. I've never, ever wished away more time than the days spent watching waters recede in New Orleans. They are days lost forever and I'll spend my life trying to make them up.

We rarely, if ever, snapped at each other. And any snapping came from me more than any others. Never too bad, however, and quickly ending.

Paranoia and rumors didn't make the stay easier. Would they force us out? Would they euthanize our dogs? Would they toss our scant possessions if we needed to be helicoptered to dry land? Would they bring us to the dangerous Superdome or to the Convention Center?

We dodged rescue and asked for nothing from the military but to be left alone. We had gotten ourselves into this, we'd get ourselves out.

Bryan and I took soundings of the water levels and checked the owner's manual for each vehicle to learn wade capacities. We discovered the most shallow route out, cleared broken limbs, and waited for the moment when the water would fall to allow safe driving passage.

Finally, this past Thursday with a few pumps running, we got our chance, made our way, and escaped the flooded city.

I took in the site as much as I could as I drove through the streets. The images are seared into my memory. Gladly, many of the homes I saw are not as damaged as I had thought they would be. Though much of the city is totally ruined, of course, many houses will need only repair, not demolition.

IF the waters don't ruin them.

I've driven here to Daytona Beach, my hometown, in a car loaned to me by the generous and caring Pedeaux group. I'm sleeping each night with the dogs in my dad's barber shop. And I might have a chance to return to the city as part of the clean up team with a company based here in Daytona who will tow ruined vehicles from the streets.

Despite that possible return, I have no plans to live in New Orleans in the future.

Florida has been hit with seven hurricanes in the past two years. The Gulf has taken a few of its own and Katrina has caused damage to 90,000 square miles. Since I don't own a house in the city, and since I'm on my own with only two dogs, I have the option of leaving and I'm taking it. The risks have become too great to stay in the storm-prone Gulf Coast region.

I'm still unsure where I'll go.

As with so many others, options are many but means are dwindling. I need to act quickly and sooner more than later secure a new home and studio. I'd like to get back to work at first opportunity and complete some artwork on order from pre-Katrina days.

I'm very fortunate. Had I left the city, my possessions would be totally lost. My dignity and ability to work would be ruined.

But I also could've been killed. Next hurricane, should I ever be near one again, I'm gone. Early and far away. Gone!

Like so many others, it's a day at a time, taking opportunities when they come and struggling to grasp the enormity of this destructive event. My gut is wrenched. My heart is broken. My body is fatigued; rest and sleep have not returned despite coming here to safety.

My thanks and gratitude to so many friends who have expressed their worry.

I've exited this thing with more than most. And for that I'm very grateful.