New Orleans: Bottom Line
“Seven months after Hurricane Katrina, FEMA trailers, miles of white FEMA trailers, are still homes to no one because people don’t have an electrical and sewage hookup,” I say to Erwin.
“Why can’t the government just give ‘em a damn hookup?” says Erwin.
I shake my head, “Can’t live without a f’n FEMA trailer hookup.”
My post-Katrina friend, Erwin, and I sit on the steps of my home on St. Roch near the French Quarter.
“Where’s Magic Rock?”
Erwin shrugs his shoulders. Coughs. “Maybe gone.”
Gone like Erwin’s home.
Erwin’s house shifted under the weight of water. There’s watermarks ten feet high on his home that slid sideways then rested where the neighbor’s house used to be, now two blocks away. The air conditioner yanked from the window wallows in the glass on the kitchen floor and a whole wall sliced off lays in rubble, a mess, a huge mess. In the corner of the kitchen, stand beer bottles and the Miller Light electric wall hanging is still plugged in on the one remaining wall of the house where the roof is connected only by gravity.
“This is a grave situation.” I say.
Erwin lives with post-Katrina friends in the making. Everybody’s got friends in the making and everything is punctuated by pre-Katrina and post-Katrina. Erwin coughs. And coughs.
My pre-K friend, Sylvia, a stripper, stops, rolls down the window, says, “Get in.” We get in her four-wheel-drive Ranger. She’s going to go to college to be a graphic artist when things get back to normal, but for now she makes three to four hundred dollars a night stripping for National Guard Troops.
“Not much you can do in New Orleans that makes four hundred a night,” says Erwin.
“I make two dollars and fifteen cents an hour bartending at Schiro’s Community Bar and Grill. After taxes, I took home twelve bucks yesterday. Including tips.”
“Sucks,” says Sylvia.
“Tips should help, but tips are thin.”
“Except for the gov’ boys, the military police.” Erwin coughs and spits out the window.
“They’re big tippers but they’ve gone home,” I say.
“Must be nice to go home,” Erwin says.
In Sylvia’s Ford Ranger, we drive around the Ninth Ward, around Erwin’s home. Houses idle on top of cars. Locked cars with busted windows are embedded in front porches. A dozen or so Amish, some bearded, some just facial fuzz, walk up the road where one levee broke under the weight of water cascading down, down the streets, driven by a run-away barge, buried in the silt and mud of the Mighty Mississippi.
“The Mighty-Mississippi,” says Sylvia as if it’s one word.
“Mighty-Mississippi.” The words slip from lips that witnessed the barge plunging through the levee. I sing, “Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was gone. And good ole’ boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye and singing this will be the day that I die.”
Sylvia taps the steering wheel. “This is a Ford, not a Chevy.”
I know, but the song fits.
The barge busted in two blocks then slid seven blocks east. Swallowed homes, devoured trees, chomped cement.
“What do you suppose those Amish are here for?” asks Erwin.
“To help rearrange the mess,” says Sylvia.
One teenaged, pimple faced boy turns to his friend, holds up his camera, points to us. The friend looks at the ground, shrugs his shoulders. Sylvia takes off her sunglasses and stares out the window at them. “Think they’ll take our picture?” Looks to me like those Amish boys have an ethical dilemma. Sylvia gets out, hikes up her skirt, pushes on the front bumper with her foot like the Ranger is stuck in the mud of the Mighty Mississippi. Click.
Ethical dilemma gone.
Ethical dilemma gone from the minds and hearts of those in D.C. too.
We drive on.
In a moment of confusion or optimism, a white woman bends and dredges up a spade full of mud and plants petunias outside a home that has red military marks on the door that read: “No Dead Animals or People Inside.” Lots of houses marked “No Animals or People Inside.” This one’s marked “No Dead.” “No Dead” echoes across the Mississippi River and reverberates down our spines and rests in our marrow.
Late last night, seven months late, the Channel 12 News tells of a 7-year-old girl found dead in a house marked “No Animals or People Inside.” Seven months too late houses are being marked, “No Dead Animals or People Inside.”
From on top of the viaduct, we see houses with letters, W-F-M. Red letters painted on tops of buildings.
“Must have been painted there by gov’ boys in a boat,” says Sylvia. “Water must have been roof high and those military police must’ve been paddling around marking buildings and homes with WFM from a f’n row boat.”
WFM is painted in large red letters on plenty of homes. No one seems to know, not the military police, not Mayor Nagin, not what the WFM stands for. Locals say it stands for, “What a Fuckin’ Mess.” Our two neighbors, Mick on the south side and
Ron on the north side, stricken with the HIVs pre-K: dead. What a f’n mess. Seven-year-old girl dead. What a f’n mess. People’s bodies floating down the streets. Babies dying. No help. What a f’n mess. Arboretum under water, snakes and spiders and alligators lost or dead. Sylvia shivers. “Don’t talk about that. Gives me the creeps thinking of all those things on the loose.” Dead babies don’t get talked about either.
A white film, a dust, covers waterlogged automobiles buried in graveyards under the I-10 and I-610. A shit load of cars and trucks just rusting away. A few blocks away, the French Quarter wasn’t hit so hard, no flood lines ten feet high. No water at roof level. No rusted cars with white film. No Magic Rock.
Magic Rock got his name because one day he found that magic rock, smoked it, and has been high ever since. He’s always picking litter up off the street, just picking up after people that don’t know no better than to throw trash on the streets.
Keep America Beautiful. Don’t litter. Yeah, right. But don’t help the poor either. Funny. Real funny how that barge rampaged through the levee on the poor side of town. Saved the rich side of town. “Now ain’t that a coinkidink?” says Erwin.
“Got spare change?” a girl, twenty-ish, in a nice, new green camo jacket and Capri’s asks as we leave Angeli on Decatur with a pizza box in hand.
“No,” says Sylvia.
“Got some pizza?” says the girl, nodding to the pizza box.
“Got hungry people to give it to.”
“You’re not a local.”
“Yeah, sure I am.”
“No, you’re not. Go back where you came from. We can’t feed the homeless we have, don’t be taking up their spot on the sidewalk.”
“I got a right to be here as much as you,” says the new Capris.
“No, you don’t. Why’d you come here?”
Erwin coughs, spits on the sidewalk. We walk on, on to a spot where the locals hang out. They take the pizza without looking at us. We get in the Ranger without looking back. We stop at a row of houseboats on Lake Pontchartrain and get out. On one of the houseboats there’s a cardboard box full of Barbies with matted hair. Their pink plastic car isn’t rusted like those under the I-10 and the I-610. Barbie’s horse leans against a wall in the Barbie kitchen where a little pink Barbie blender and margarita glasses still stand. “Take ‘em with us?”
Sylvia shakes her head, “They have a right to live right here on Lake Pontchartrain. Nobody should take that away from them.”
The gutted houseboats lean against each other, into each other, on top of each other. One houseboat with only inside walls and no walkway has a sign, “4 Sale Needs a Little Work.” Cute. Lots of “For Sale” signs in New Orleans.
“Bet we could buy a four bedroom pretty cheap,” says Sylvia.
“Yeah, on a piece of shit ground,” says Erwin.
Some say the ground is polluted, lots of those environmentalists say the ground is contaminated, a muddy gumbo of sewage and lead and oil and gas, toxic chemicals from flooded areas, from rising waters.
Rising tides of discontent.
Other side, the government side, says the soil is the same as it was pre-K. So, I wonder, why does the dust make my throat sore? Breathing the dust makes my throat raw and sore. I wonder why does Erwin and most everybody else got Katrina Cough? Even the dogs got Katrina Cough.
I’m watching the Channel 12 News and this gov’ man, a chemist, takes a bite of dirt, New Orleans dirt. Right there on camera, it’s shown on the nightly news, him putting dirt from the Ninth Ward on his tongue. He swallows real hard and calls the environmentalists, “Liars.” Then the news lady puts dirt on her tongue and swallows. Who else is swallowing this; that the land isn’t tainted after all the pollutants from the Mighty Mississippi and from American capitalism and from poison that was spewed onto pre-K lawns? Who’s swallowing this?
Boats are beached on land, their full-bellied, pot-bellied sides up on top of brown, dead grass. “Don’t rock the boat baby. Don’t tip the boat over,” I sing. Sylvia rolls her eyes, shakes her head. Topsy-turvy world, boats upside down on land, cars under houses, insides of houses outside, Barbies making margaritas on skeleton houseboats, white FEMA trailers lined up on railroad tracks, white lines waiting for the poor to sniff them up.
The Ford Ranger screeches to a halt. The smell of burnt brakes fills the air. A goddamn traffic light works. Traffic lights dangle from live wires at occasional intersections. Occasionally some work; most often most don’t. We saw three accidents yesterday. Today, a driver in a little grey piece-of-shit car, comes from the other way, goes through the green light and a big white SUV barrels down the street, the street with the red light that may never change, and slams into the grey car. With mouth agape, the driver hangs out the door, stares at the dangling red light, at me, at New Orleans. Scares me that I don’t feel anything. Just another dead body. Does the numbness ever go away? As the EMTs place him on a gurney, red-green-blue-red-green-blue dances off the dead driver’s face. All the lights should be yellow. Caution. The red light never changes. Sylvia drives on.
The potholes, filled with dark, dank water, eat up tires and bodies. Raw wires criss-cross the road. Huge, humongous piles of wallboard, linoleum, plaster, carpets, 8X12s, 6X12s, 4X4s, 2X4s, 2X2s sit in the middle of the road. 2X2X2X2 by two, by two, by one, by one, we rebuild this, our community, a mess, a whole humongous mess.
A really nice, use-to-be-white couch sits on the street in front of a big used-to-be white, two-story house. People getting rid of their stuff, shit that smells of grey mold. An old red pickup truck pulls up and three guys throw the couch in the back. Probably sell it for a buck, a bud, a 6-pack, a 10-sac.
We inhale the smoke, plunged deep in a bucket of water. High school shit, I know, but the only way to relieve the pain today. Tomorrow the anger will still be there. Too bad Magic Rock isn’t here. No matter how bad it gets, Magic Rock was always singing and smiling, picking up trash. Magic would be so happy with so much trash in the streets. Post-K trash in the streets.
The French Quarter has little shops with gardens in the back where we sit and eat pizza then leave and get asked by out-of-towners, squatters, to give up our pizza. But we don’t. We face them and ask them if they’ve ever had matted-haired Barbies on skeleton houseboats and loose alligators and spiders and snakes and ever watched as dead bodies floated past them?
“Sittin’ on the dock of the bay, watchin’ the tide roll away.” Songs from way past spin ‘round and ‘round in my head. Old songs, not even jazz, spin in my head. Jazz crawls out of the broken windows of old houses, out of the potholes of cracked streets, out of thick Southern walls of broken homes, out of the veins of the locals, out of the soul of New Orleans.
“It’s palpable, palpable I tell you. Just put your fingers up and rub them together. Feel that?” I ask.
“Yeah. It’s like rubbing fine china between sandpaper.” Sylvia rubs her fingers raw.
“That’s jazz, New Orleans’ jazz, way down deep, being rubbed out between the coarse legal documentation of the expansion of the Mighty Rich.”
Sylvia lays back on the hood of the Ranger and points up to the sky. “Look, way up high.”
“Where?” Erwin looks between coughs.
“Right there. That old, stained glass window’s broken out. Too bad they had to break that historic window, so they could climb onto their roof to…” Sylvia’s voice trails off “…escape the burden of New Orleans.”
In the 19th Ward, we drive by a big, white boy in baggy pants and flip flops playing basketball. Alone. By himself. Just shooting, dribbling, dribbling, shooting. A big white boy, all by himself in Ward 19. Never, ever, seen that before. Around the corner, the oldest church in the South, St. Augustine, is closing down. Too few people, too few dollars. Minister at St. Augustine already cashed it in. The Catholic Church with the tomb of the unknown slave is cashing in on its patrons while others are breaking business deals with the devil. Jessie Jackson came down here, tells everyone, “Keep it open.” Keeping the damn door to God’s house open is crap. It’s dividing community members.
One woman on the TV news says, “We gots to keep St. Augustine open. In fact, there should be a church on every block.” Nonsense talk. That’s nonsense talk. How are we going to keep St. Augustine open when the Black folks aren’t here to sit in the pews?
Big Black politician running for mayor, big race, lots of folks running for mayor. Big Black man says, “I sees enough white folks here. I want my folks back.” Bring Black folks back. Yeah, right. And where you going to put them? And where they going to work? For twelve dollars a day? For a strip joint? And whose God sent them to Houston? And whose God is going to bring them back to sit in the pews of St. Augustine? To live in the white coke lines of FEMA trailers?
Here, on St. Roch, with a home and a twelve dollar-a-day job, I’m luckier than most everybody I know. Saturday nights, post-K, on the huge cement slab outside my home, bounded on two sides by high wooden fences where cats escape from dogs and on another side, where a long metal gate swings open to neighbors both known and unknown, both pre-K and post-K, we have a bar-bee-cue where folks can fill their empty bellies with food and fill their souls with community. A hundred plus show up every Saturday night to listen to music, eat, talk, and tell stories. One rule, one rule made without ever a conference or a negotiation, one rule and everyone adheres––no storm stories allowed.
“Have you seen Magic Rock?”
“Heard Ellie went to live with relatives up north. Just packed and left.”
“Where’s Magic Rock?”
“Big old mid-town high school closed its doors.”
“Now where our kids suppose to go to school?”
I flip ten more hamburgers and slap a hot dog into a little kid’s bun. Little kids think this is fun. All the elementary schools closed down too.
“I heard there’s a couch on Esplanade.”
“Not any more, somebody stopped and got it.”
“Damn, could’ve used that couch.”
“Next time I see a couch, I’ll get it for you.”
“Thanks, man, thanks.”
“Mayoral racers all talking about how they’re going do better than Mayor Nagin.”
“Did you hear a “Deep Pockets” is going to run for mayor?”
“Now why’d a white man want to be mayor of New Orleans?”
“Gots to wonder.”
“Wonder about Magic Rock, that’s who I wonder about.”
“Didn’t you hear? He got offered a ride up north from Charmaine Neville.”
“Charmaine is good people.”
“Real good people.”
“She got raped in a church, you know.”
“Right here? In a church?”
“Uh huh. She was helping out other folks and got raped.”
“Lots of women getting raped.”
Sylvia catches herself on the arm of a lawn chair.
“Rape our women? Haven’t we got enough problems?”
Sylvia threw some pills, white pills, into her mouth and took a swig of whiskey.
“Charmaine’s back singing now.”
“Got a voice better than her dad’s.”
“Once you got New Orleans in your blood, you can’t let go. No matter what.”
“No matter what.”
The next day, I see on the Channel 12 News that an old Black teacher got beaten by the local cops. He’s real old, like 80 or something. I know there’s a true story for each side, but the bottom line is, no old man should ever get beaten by three young cops.
“Bottom line,” I say, “no folks should be beaten down.”
Erwin turns his head and coughs.
Sylvia turns her head and swallows hard.