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Thursday, October 06, 2005

A Letter from New Orleans

This Letter from New Orleans is by Hank, an industry colleague, passed on by a mutual friend.
October 3, 2005—just past midnight New Orleans, Louisiana It’s at least as bad as you’ve heard. It’s really, really bad. It was just before midnight Sunday. I was taking a break from downloading tracks from my favorite CDs to my laptop. I went on my back porch to grab a smoke and a bottle of water from the cooler. It was a beautiful New Orleans evening. The air was warm and moist without being oppressive and there was a nice breeze. Upstairs, Teri was in bed with our new cat Scram (he’s a stray that somehow survived the hurricane and we’ve adopted him before the SPCA guys could catch him and send him wherever they’re sending stray cats). I was simultaneously exhausted and wired because Teri and I had spent a day filled with raw emotions and hard physical labor. The night was dead quiet. Literally the only sound I could hear in the city was that of my absent next door neighbor’s air conditioning compressor cutting on and off in 15 second cycles. The hurricane crippled it and now that the power is back on it’s like a desperately wounded animal instinctively struggling to stay alive. Since her A/C unit is very new, the machine’s death rattle was barely a whisper. As I sat on my porch, a heavily armed and armored military patrol marched down my street. They were soldiers with flak jackets, assault weapons and some of the electronic gewgaws that our modern army carries these days. They spotted me, I waved, and two of them came through my front yard towards the gate to my back yard to check me out. I invited them into the back yard and we talked for a few minutes about this and that including the fire down the street a few hours earlier. I wanted to know about it since it was very close. I could hear the sirens and see and smell the smoke, but it took place after curfew, so I couldn’t check it out myself. The soldiers were from New Hampshire and they were hot and sweaty because of all their war gear and because they weren’t yet acclimated to the New Orleans humidity. I was perfectly comfortable in my t-shirt and shorts. After a moment one of the guys radios beeped. “They’re worried about us,” said one of the soldiers. Sure enough, a voice came over the radio—“are you okay?” “Affirmative, it’s friendly contact,” he replied to his buddy just down the street. Then they took their leave to continue their patrol down Peniston Street. That’s life in New Orleans as it is right now. It’s a place where a middle aged guy sitting quietly on his porch in his back yard is a potential threat to be investigated. Welcome to the post-apocalypse. It’s Sunday night as I write this and tonight Teri and I are the only human beings inhabiting a block of 10 homes. Tonight I am pretty sure there is not another soul in any house for at least a block in any direction. Last night there were a few others in the neighborhood, but they had to leave before the 6 p.m. curfew to get to their new temporary homes in Baton Rouge so they could get to their new jobs on Monday. During the day our loaded .357 revolver is in a spot in our living room where we can easily get to it if need be. At night it goes on the nightstand by my bed. My relative lack of caution shows how much law and order has improved in recent days. Those who tried to weather the storm tell me they spent the first days after Katrina with guns in their waistbands to deter the bad guys. It might be paranoia on my part since I’m pretty sure that the criminal population of my part of New Orleans is approximately zero at the moment. But there’s plenty of evidence that caution and self-protection are called for in New Orleans these days. Today several New Orleans police officers were suspended without pay—because of their participation in looting. My friend Ray, a rookie New Orleans cop, is one of the good guys and is stationed in a tough part of town. At the height of the madness, he had to position himself on the roof of the First District police station to shoot at a gang of armed men that was attacking them. Cops with assault rifles took the roof while cops with shotguns held the gang at bay from below. Nor is it completely over even today. Ray told me he was shot at just a couple of nights ago while on patrol. Ray has been truly scarred by what happened in New Orleans after Katrina—most of what he saw, he won’t discuss. He looks for all the world like a victim of post traumatic stress disorder. The only problem is that he hasn’t gotten to the “post” part of the trauma yet. He’s still on patrol twelve hours a day and dealing with demons that will take him a lifetime to exorcise. In my part of town things are much quieter. Nobody is shooting at police officers. Nobody is dealing drugs, burgling or doing anything else untoward. Basically nobody is here. That’s the part that is hard for me to adjust to. My neighborhood is generally a busy and noisy place both day and night. People are everywhere and New Orleanians aren’t quiet by nature. That’s not the case tonight. Tonight I will sleep in a ghost town. My block has power, gas and water, but it’s not safe to drink the water or even bathe in it. I have ignored the bathing mandate because I’m a thrill seeker, but I’m limited to cold showers because both of our hot water heaters were lost in the hurricane. I’ve only seen a tiny bit of the city—what I could see on the drive in and what’s within a few blocks radius of my house. The house and yard have commanded almost all my attention since we got here. What I’ve seen in my part of town, is a disaster on a scale that I can’t begin to explain. The damage I’ve seen is stunning. The stories I’ve heard are horrendous. And my neighborhood is one of parts of the city that was least hard hit by the storm and the subsequent flooding. The only thing I can tell you is that it’s a surreal thing to see your home town, a major city, desolate. The friendly witches on the corner had their store looted. They had painted a pentagram on plywood covering a window in hopes that it would discourage or at least curse any looters, but it didn’t seem to work. The looting of the store was a double loss for them since the store was also their home. Among other things, the looters cleaned out the supply of ritual oils (the purposes to which the looters put these oils I don’t care to know). To add insult to injury their roof gave way and the whole place flooded. As we arrived Saturday, they were packing up a U-Haul with what they could salvage and were headed for a new life in Denver. My neighbors Derek and Kara two blocks down and my friends Henry and Joan three blocks away were both looted as were many others in the neighborhood. Contrary to what you might have heard, the looting wasn’t all about self-preservation—diapers, baby formula and food—it was also about ritual oils and people’s stuff. No house on our block was looted, probably because our neighbor Helen stayed through the hurricane and kept a sharp eye out for the 1900 block of Peniston. She and the other handful of stragglers in the neighborhood were forced out at gunpoint by the National Guard five days after the hurricane. Most of the people I’ve spoken with in the last few days aren’t from around here. They’re FEMA people, insurance adjusters, soldiers, cops from other places, SPCA volunteers, Salvation Army volunteers, etc. They are all well meaning and desperately needed, but they don’t belong here. Teri especially dislikes the tanks (or whatever they are) that come down our street every few hours. They weird her out, and they do seem a bit excessive, especially since pretty much all the bad guys that were here have long since been evacuated to your city. As bad as it is here in the city, it’s worse elsewhere. There are neighborhoods north, east and south of us are completely destroyed. They’re essentially gone. Government officials are saying that it may be next June before anyone will be able to live in St. Bernard Parish, which adjoins Orleans Parish to the east and south. A parish in Louisiana is the equivalent of a county elsewhere and this one had 66,000 residents five weeks ago. Today the population of St. Bernard Parish is zero. I still can’t wrap my mind around an entire parish being wiped off the map. It’s a place I’m well familiar with. St. Bernard Parish is where Teri and I have gone together every year to buy our Mardi Gras beads and it’s also the place where I once went to buy the .357 that protects me tonight. Structurally, our house is in pretty decent shape but there is some damage. There’s mold in some walls, both our water heaters and two of our three A/C compressors were destroyed. We have fence that was damaged when a neighbor’s tree fell on it. Our yard was a complete mess. It took two solid days of work to clean it up. The government is putting a blue tarp on our roof because we lost a whole lot of roofing tiles and there are nowhere near enough workers to fix all the roofs that need fixing any time soon. Blue roofs are a very common sight in the burbs outside of New Orleans right now, but since most New Orleanians had been barred from the city until this weekend, the blue tarps are still a relative rarity in the city proper until more folks get signed up for the program. One of our windows was blown out in the storm, and an animal (cat, we suspect) took refuge inside for what must have been days until the floodwaters receded. That was a stinky mess and we’re going to need new carpets upstairs. The fridge has been carted to the curb. I wore an industrial mask to clean it out first. On Sunday morning we walked to our church. We had to hold our service in an annex area because our main sanctuary suffered major structural damage in the storm. The pastor expected about 10 people would show. Instead, there were 146 of us. How? Where did they all come from in this empty city? There were tears, laughter and hugs all around. When she opened the service with the words “welcome home,” I choked up as everyone applauded. We ended with “Amazing Grace” and I choked up again. Last night, my neighbor Colleen and her girls came over for dinner. We grilled steaks and baked potatoes and shared a good bottle of wine. Afterwards we sat on the porch and listened to New Orleans music as we told our stories and caught up on five weeks spent apart from our city. Colleen had a request for me to play on the stereo. I had the song and the particular version she wanted—the one done by our city’s greatest son. We all got a little choked up all over again . . . and opened a second bottle. Today the Saints played and won a home game… in San Antonio. Later today we’ll leave just before the dusk curfew and head back to Birmingham. We’ll leave a land of unimaginable pain and suffering and head back to the America I’m used to. We will crossing Lake Ponchartrain on the way back to a place with ice and cable TV and DSL and air conditioning and schools and grocery stores—a place where armored military vehicles and soldiers don’t patrol the streets—a place where most of the people don’t wear badges or uniforms--a place where people can drink from the tap or at least bathe from it. As we cross the lake, I will plug in a CD and will once again hear the voice of Louis Armstrong:
Do you know what it means, to miss New Orleans, and miss it each night and day? I know I’m not wrong; the feeling’s getting stronger, the longer I stay away. Miss the moss covered vines, the tall sugar pines where mockingbirds used to sing. I’d like to see, the lazy Mississippi, a hurrying into spring. Oh the Mardi Gras, the memories, of Creoles’ tunes that fill the air. I dream of oleanders in June and soon I’m wishin’ that I were there. Do you know what it means, to miss New Orleans, when that’s where you left your heart? There’s something more, I miss the one I care for, more than I miss New Orleans.
Postscript, October 4, 2005—9 p.m.: Birmingham, Alabama I did play that Louis Armstrong song while we crossed the lake. It helped, but not that much. Leaving New Orleans last night we literally felt like we were escaping from hell under cover of darkness rather than leaving our home of the last fifteen years. As we traveled north, we could gauge the signs of progress and civilization from the Waffle House signs lit along I-59. If you’ve ever traveled an interstate highway in the Deep South, you’ve seen the bright yellow Waffle House signs with black lettering. They look like this: WAFFLE HOUSE In New Orleans and the immediate vicinity, they were completely blown out. The Waffle House sign in Hattiesburg, Mississippi said this: US In Laurel, Mississippi you could dine at F HO SE “The F-Hose?” I said to Teri. “That sounds kind of dirty.” By Meridian, Mississippi you could eat at the WAF LE HOUSE “The Wafflie House,” Teri said. “I wonder what a wafflie tastes like?” By Tuscaloosa, Alabama, you could once again dine at the . . . WAFFLE HOUSE . . . and we knew we were back in civilization once again. As we drove north, a song came on over my car stereo--a random selection shuffled from my iPod that summed up our feelings at the moment even better than Louis Armstrong did. It’s a reggae song by Jimmy Cliff. It’s a song that never meant that much to me, but one that I completely understand now. Teri wasn’t familiar with it and she made me play it several times for her. For the time being, it’s “our song.”
Sitting here in Limbo Waiting for the tide to turn. Yeah, now, sitting here in Limbo, So many things I've got to learn. Meanwhile, they're putting up a resistance, But I know that my faith will lead me on. Sitting here in Limbo Waiting for the dice to roll. Yeah, now, sitting here in Limbo, Still got some time to search my soul. Meanwhile, they're putting up a resistance, But I know that my faith will lead me on. I don't know where life will take me, But I know where I have been. I don't know what life will show me, But I know what I have seen. Tried my hand at love and friendship, That is past and gone. And now it's time to move along.
Peace and love, Hank

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