Monday, January 30, 2006

Reader's Note/Disclaimer

Did I mention that, like so many others here in Nola, I feel abused, slandered, forced into constantly defending principles and people that should never have been defendants to begin with, misrepresented, screwed over, abandoned and annoyed?

I don't come equipped with an off switch when shit gets this deep.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Overheard in Line at Walgreen's

Man on his cell phone: "They finally get power hooked up in their trailer and FEMA's not giving them the keys to their trailer. They go through all these hurdles just to get electricity five months after the disaster that destroyed their house, and FEMA won't give them their keys."

How can any reputable news organization in America not be writing or reporting about this? Why are we almost nowhere in the national headlines now?

Why have we again been left for dead?

Why is it that when I go to Long Island for the holidays, I have to listen to an inordinate amount of bitching about the MTA strike, which lasted three days? Why is having to walk to work rather than ride a subway, bus or train for three days worth ranting over, but the criminal neglect of this city is a footnote?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

You Stupid Honkies

Okay, I let it go for a while, but when I'm walking down Magazine Street and am confronted with row upon row of shops advertising T-shirts that caricature Ray Nagin as Willy Wonka, I feel compelled to say: Shut up, you stupid (hipster) honkies.

Are you so ignorant of black culture living in a black city that you don't know Chocolate City is a Parliament song?

You are aware that Parliament is not merely a brand of cigarettes, but a funk outfit -- er, band?

That the song WTUL has been pumping since the MLK Day spectacle, the ones with lyrics that include the phrase "chocolate city," is the actual reference you're looking for?

That the Willy Wonka thing just ain't particularly funny or relevant?

I'm talking to myself again.
- Allen Ginsberg

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Only Mayor I've Ever Dug - Really Dug - Done Gone Crazy?

So, there's been quite the brouhaha over Ray Nagin's remarks yesterday.

He's been branded everything from a racist to a fool by online ideologues and the ever-so righteous Caucasian persuasion. I agree that his comments went too far in the "I am God's mouthpiece" direction. I can't stand when people declare God angry or say we are being punished in the wake of a disaster for the same reason I don't trust priests and rabbis; they're middle management, meaning they're most likely incompetent and power-hungry - just ask an altar boy.

Yes, I know there are exceptions - I've been fortunate enough to know some - but the utter hypocrisy of most institutions, like organized religion, renders them null and void in my eyes. Not to mention the pervasive trend of looking the other way while priests molest children, which is still all the rage with Catholics - and, yeah, maybe if I hadn't been brought up as one, with all the psychological malaise that belief system entails, I'd be a bit less disgusted with "religion" in general. Either way, blaming the victims strikes me as a tad sacrilegious, though it's very much the popular pasttime among faux Christians.

Unlike a seemingly growing number of people, I still believe in the separation of church and state if only to prevent politicians from playing the God card in an effort to obtain votes.

Is that what Nagin was doing?

Having read through the transcript a few times, I think the above misguided and somewhat embarrassing comments were meant to appeal to the more evangelical portion of the black community in the wake of the discrimination the latest levee failure revealed - hence, his fervent tone, which a lot of us are not comfortable with. A lot of us are also not comfortable with said discrimination, either, and comments to the effect that New Orleans shouldn't be rebuilt are also born of classism - we really don't like poor people in this country because they make us so darn, gee-whiz! uncomfortable, a pathetic tendency some of my more affluent suburban friends underlined for me while I was dislocated and which Major Educational Publisher recently reminded me of in dropping me as a freelance editor by virtue of the city I call home, regardless of the fact that the mail is functioning just fine in my neighborhood (and sheesh, don't they know better than to send their only hard copy of something?).

This city will be a majority African-American city. It's the way God wants it to be. You can't have New Orleans no other way; it wouldn't be New Orleans.

Okay, I'm with him on two out of three of those sentences. I for one do not want to live in a white-majority city; if I did, well, I could live just about anywhere else in this increasingly banal nation.

Just as I have a hard time blasting Nagin or my fellow New Orleanians right now, especially given all the abuse we're taking both in and out of town, I can't raise much rage over perhaps prejudiced remarks by black people in the media; the latter are the result of centuries of oppression - having one's limbs hacked off, re-attached and hacked off again, as opposed to stubbing one's toe every year or so.

I simply cannot stand when white people cry and whine that they are the victims of racism on the rare occasion a black person publicly expresses his or her distaste for white people, a distaste I - on the historical, big-picture scale - share. I don't hear or see these same white people castigating human refuse like Pat Robertson or the KKK, but, damn, they've been quick to blast Nagin for dreaming of a "chocolate city," a strange, tacky phrase. Facts are still facts, however; this city was a black-majority city before Katrina and while it's the alternating collision and fusion of cultures - Creole, black, white, Cajun, French, etc. - that make New Orleans what it is, the black voice is paramount in the cultural sense. Unfortunately, a little something known as institutional racism has ensured that black citizens here, as in the rest of America, have limited access to quality schools, healthcare and court representation.

Of course, the same white people who are currently jumping down the mayor's throat - not merely objecting, disagreeing or discussing but going, well, apeshit and making borderline racist comments themselves - are probably the same people who deny the existence of inequity between blacks and whites, the very definition of ignorance, and something I heard more than once as an English composition instructor at UNO.

If nothing else, these remarks are a jumbled mess of contradictions that reflect the contradiction inherent in our lives here now. Like a lot of us, Nagin is both acting a fool and asking important questions, such as, "Why do our young men hate each other so much that they look their brother in the face and they will take a gun and kill him in cold blood?" and "Mr. King, when they were marching across the Mississippi River bridge, some of the folks that were stuck in the Convention Center, that were tired of waiting for food and tired of waiting on buses to come rescue them, what would he say as they marched across that bridge? And they were met at the parish line with attack dogs and machine guns firing shots over their heads?"

What's everyone else's excuse?

Friday, January 13, 2006

Life after an apocalypse (ctd.)

The out-of-town-but-terminally-in-town workers give New Orleans a predatory vibe.

Yesterday, when I stepped out my front door to sweep my second-floor porch, the not-from-here worker man on the front lawn started chortling, pointing and staring on cue, as if it is such an unnatural act for a woman to exist at all: she is spectacle.

Today, the roofers living downstairs began playing their radio outside again at 7:30 A.M., right below my windows. These are the same creatures who do not bag their garbage, including uncooked meat packages, bones and the beer that sloshed all over when I put the pails out earlier, and are thus fulfilling my previously unfulfilled dream of functioning as a sanitation worker - they also do not ever put the pails on the curb, despite the fact that the vast majority of the garbage is theirs.

The city is only theirs on Sunday, when they stand around and scream, when they are cashing their paychecks, or when they are hissing at, gawking at or even following them strange women folk around. The rest of the time, well, "we" can have this city - we being the people who live, work and die here, some of whom cannot come back because the above people have occupied their jobs or apartments. And we are literally being trashed - then decried as slobs and whores, a cycle that is perpetuated every Mardi Gras. Sadly, people are still treating this city as their dumping ground when it is actually a disaster area and people have died and every time that roofer smashed that glass bottle in the alley behind my apartment that night, I saw someone dying of thirst and hunger on a rooftop, some elderly woman drowning in her attic, someone's suffering being heckled.

It's hard to remember, on a personal level, how great people have been - in and out of the city - when chester-molester-looking dudes continually attempt to dominate my home space via the machismo cowboy swagger so popularized by our president (and I will not refer to them as "animals" because animals can be understood). I don't want to hear screaming from people who haven't suffered and disgrace those who have and do; I want to hear that horn playing, the one that wafted over from several blocks away one night.


Life after an apocalypse

When I woke up this morning, my house was shaking.

Bulldozers in dirt flashed behind my closed eyes before I looked out the kitchen window later and saw them clearing the dirt lot that used to be the house two doors back.

They say the houses in this lower garden district shook during the storm. The houses that are a hundred years old, the houses that sustained very little damage - aside from those that burned to the embers now being cleared away.

I'm looking at a painting on the wall of one of these houses, four blocks away. Its owner is telling me it was swaying back and forth, back and forth, the whole time.

There's a hole in the weakest part of my kitchen floor, under the stove.

I'm afraid whatever is scratching away the wood at the base of the sink is going to come through there, teeth first. I find the second pile of wood chips today. I will tell my apartment manager, who will become annoyed with me, just as her husband did yesterday when I called to inform them that the drunken, aggro roofers downstairs, who I have confronted ("Stop") twice to some effect (shock, staying away from me, cleaning up the raw meat they've left to fester in the pouring rain), have now left a gas grill running unattended outside, flames shooting up the side of the house.

I realize house burning is a sensitive issue for this wife and husband, given that their own house immolated in the same fire whose ashes are currently being cleared, but one would think they'd be interested in averting another, rather than sounding annoyed that I've interrupted Sunday supper.

To me, they are a part of the old guard and the old guard let this city down, let this city drown, in the form of fear and its corresponding silence, in the form of hiding in their houses while the criminals clamped down, earning St. Andrew the nickname "Heroin Alley," said to be referenced by Perry Farrell in the song "Jane Says," in the form of never standing up, but lying down instead, hoping it would just go away when nothing ever does - unless it's told to, repeatedly.

The process of facing these problems seems to be too painful for them - which is why they should step down, why Tom Benson should take his business, but not our New Orleans Saints, elsewhere.

I see Mrs. V. walking down St. Mary one Wednesday, carrying two heavy bags from Walgreen's, and I double back around the block to give her a lift home.

"I get back and the owner's decided to kick me out and move his family in; he was hoping I wouldn't come back. So now I'm staying three doors down."

The 40 FEMA trailers that occupy what used to be the park on Laurel by Cat and Bruce's new place stand unused. Entergy still has to activate the electricity and this involves a series of permits and hurdles for people with broken spirits to clear.

As always, our homeless have to wait.

Written January 9, 2006.

Run it down!

The second time I taught the film/literature elective at UNHo, I decided to incorporate a unit on comedy. Comedy is something scholars rarely study because, after all, scholars can't laugh.

Since I was tackling comedy, I had to show Stir Crazy, still one of the funniest things I've seen on film, academia be damned. Slapstick, parody, screwball - it's all there. And Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder together were great; Pryor teaching Wilder to be black in Silver Streak, with shoe polish a key component of this transformation, helped break the mold for mocking and embracing racial stereotypes - - in the truly comedic sense, not the "Ha ha, he said 'nigger,' now I can, too" Aryan way.

Richard was the one we could relate to.

The straight man, a minority not only in terms of race, but in terms of understanding his situation, digging his scene, cutting through the jive - despite being surrounded by crazy people, including Wilder, a total spoof of the "new sensitive man" of the 70's.

Richard Pryor got it.

"White people be goin, 'Why do you hold your things?' 'Cause you done took everything else, muthafucka!"

"[As a TV preacher] People are always asking me, 'Reverend; if you need money so bad, why don't you sell one of your houses, or cars or get rid of some of that jewelry?' And I always reply, 'Are you crazy!'"

"You go down there looking for justice, that's what you find - just us."

"When that fire hit your ass, it will sober your ass up quick! I saw something, I went, 'Well, that's a pretty blue. You know what? That looks like fire!' Fire is inspirational. They should use it in the Olympics, because I ran the 100 in 4.3."

"[As Grover Muldoon in Silver Streak] Jesus Christ, man, is that how you murdered your victims? Put them in a car and bounced them to death?"

"Freebase? What's free about it?"

"I was in jail, too, man. It's cold-blooded in the jail. Nixon wouldn't have lasted two days. They'da turned him out. Niggers was waiting on Nixon to come to jail - 'What's happenin, Tricky Dick?'"

"There's a thin line between to laugh with and to laugh at."

"'What it is? Huh? Run it down!'"

Cleansing

On Friday, I ask my apartment manager who's coming back, who's gone. It's about fifty-fifty, she tells me.

Birdman below me and his developmentally challenged sister, who recently gave me a huge Tweety doll, albeit one with dirt caked into its beak and solidified there by months, if not years, of neglect, a gesture that was friendly but whose trigger I just cannot figure, have gone. Both could be hard to take.

Birdman was a ceiling beater. Any time I dropped something or, say, fell and almost twisted something, loud bangs would greet me in the form of his fists on my floor, as if I'd set off an avalanche when his ape-like objections eclipsed any sonic disturbances on my end. Being a quiet person, this didn't happen often, but it was often enough to rattle the nerves and instill that creepy sense of being over-observed.

His sister liked me, though she almost had a coronary when she saw me sitting on the roof above them, hanging with my cat, watching the sunset. Seems the older gent who lived in my place for many years got sick of the ceiling banger and became a voracious noisemaker, going so far as to drag furniture onto the roof and jump up and down there, too - until the day he caved in their ceiling. Perhaps it was poetic justice; it's tough to take sides in disputes between total nutjobs.

This same gent set some bad standards for the men next door, one of whom routinely walked around naked in front of a window with no curtain - the window that faced off my stairway, porch and only passage to and from my apartment. After numerous attempts to alleviate this problem, both through his more personable and normal roommate and the apartment manager, attempts he retaliated against by blasting music on my back wall at 6 and 7 A.M., moving my porch furniture around, and putting up not just any curtain, but a see-through curtain, I called the cops. When one opens their front door and finds a psychologically displaced junkie man standing naked in front of a screen door five feet away, one calls for backup.

Additional backup will be required in my post-apocalypse future.

Written November 10, 2005.

Aftermath

The last time I saw my apartment, it was a bit crowded.

I'd brought in the porch furniture, a tore-up but comfy black foam couch, my plants, and two rickety outdoor chairs. The television was tuned to the Weather Channel long enough for me to develop state-of-emergency television paralysis and, in keeping with the emergency motif, the weatherpeople were blaring what sounded like the evil beep-beep-beep of my alarm clock every five minutes, complemented by the fast-moving text at the bottom of the screen.

Most of my clothes were dirty; I was at the end of the laundry cycle and, fortunately, the grocery shopping cycle. I'd scarfed down some leftover chicken wings and noodles at 5 A.M. The phone began ringing at six.

"Pack a bag."

"We're going to Arkansas - you're welcome to come with."

"This might actually hit us."

"Pack a bag," Angela insists.

I finally call Cat and Bruce, who had invited me to evacuate with them to Bruce's parents' spacious home in Diamondhead, waking them. Five minutes later, they concur, now that the storm has turned much more definitively toward us than the night before: we're leaving.

I pack my three cleanest summer-in-the-subtropic outfits and try to prepare as best I can for a massive hurricane I don't believe will happen - every storm, after all, is the worst storm ever and I vividly remember watching Ivan gust in Alabama last year from a television in the Platte Motel - as the sun shone in New Orleans. I also remember being bumper to bumper for 12 hours to go 50 miles, the state of the Baton Rouge reststop - one open stall for the fifty women waiting in line, garbage everywhere because the bins were too full to fit any more - and my car's black leather interior combined with its lack of air conditioning. This time, I don't drive.

Everything is fine until we get to the bridge outside Chalmette, coasting first through the side streets of the Quarter and then down a nearly empty 90.

The bridge - a drawbridge - is stuck in the upright position.

The sky is getting darker.

Bruce goes to see if it's worth it to wait. Or not. If not, we face an inferno: the I-10.

I remember Rosary's comment: "I'd rather die in my home than on the highway."

Cat and Bruce's dog runs off after Bruce.
My cat is happy for once to be in his carrier.
The dog comes back with the help of a man 50 feet up the road.

Repairing the stuck bridge could take as long as 12 or 2 hours, Bruce reports.

I'm in no rush to get on the 10 and also in no rush to remain a sitting duck. Bruce wants to wait. Our friend Rebecca wants to turn around. I'm somewhere in the middle, wanting to do both simultaneously.

This sensation persists for the remainder of my evacuation adventure through the Deep South.

Angela picks me up at the airport two months later.
We cut over to Carrollton from Airline Highway, heading for Mid-City.

I must have been expecting the worst.

I've also prepared ahead of time, viewing and downloading pictures from the 'rents house in New York. So, it doesn't seem so bad.

The traffic lights are out. Every intersection is a four-way stop; people patiently wait their turn. There is garbage and debris lining the roads and cars with water marks still perched on the neutral grounds (i.e., medians), some stray refrigerators, closed shops. We continue through Bayou St. John, harder hit but still beautiful to me. Everything looks and feels...gray, though. We cut down St. Claude, enroute to the CBD and then on to the main uptown thoroughfare, St. Charles Avenue, largely intact. It's getting dark out now.

We pass the pile of rubble and bricks that used to be my apartment manager's house; somehow, the fire across the street and two doors down has taken out her house but not the two right across from it.

The corner of Camp and St. Andrew is literal ruins.

There is an untouched black metal staircase, ascending to nowhere.

Wires are down on my lawn. I don't see or hear anyone, though I know a few of the old house’s other occupants have been back. I climb the stairs.

Like Angela, who checked the place for me a few weeks ago, I have trouble with the lock; it takes what feels like a very long time to engage the deadbolt. I know from her that the apartment hasn't suffered any real damage, but when I open the door, everything is disturbed. My plants have shed leaves everywhere, save for the aloe, curtains hang limply, posters are half off the walls, and one set of mini-blinds is up as high as it can go, definitely not how I left it.

The refrigerator.

I left it nearly empty, save for the one wing I didn't scarf down in my strange slow-motion panic, some milk, butter and condiments. I don't smell anything aside from the must of a closed-up house. I open the windows, then the fridge. There are dead things in there and a few stains.

It's not so bad. It's dark out now.

Written November 7, 2005.