Recently, I visited New Orleans with my friend Diana who had been urging me to make the trip for a while. She was eager to introduce me to some of the work and people there. This city hits you smack in the face. It is a city of tragedy and crisis, of resiliency and redemption. It is a city of music where just about everyone can beat a rhythm or create a song. It is a city of down-and-outers and those who make miracles. Not for those who like tidiness, it is a messy city of splintered wood and unkept promises, of dreams and good works.
New Orleans is a city of broken homes and young men who can’t read or write but can clean a gun and fire it every night. Their frustration and anger lies buried in drugs, beer, and violence. It is a city betrayed. It doesn’t trust. Dependent on levees to keep it safe and dry, as are many of us are in this country, the Army Corp of Engineers let them down. Without literacy, the educational system let them down. And without a way out of poverty economic justice let them down. Even music, as Spike Lee says, has bamboozled some by enticing them to gangsta rap that glorifies a violent lifestyle they don’t deserve but fall into.
A Pig In The Front Seat
New Orleans is also a city of storytellers. Rob, the owner of the B&B where I stayed told this story of his leaving New Orleans that night. “The only time Kevin and I ever fought,” he says, “was the night of the hurricane.” I said, ‘Go’ and he said, ‘Stay.’
“We have to protect our property,” Kevin argued.
But I insisted, “Go.”
Finally he gave in. We gathered up our two schnauzers and bundled them into the jeep. Then we called our friend with the pig. That pig weighed about two hundred pounds, but our friend wasn’t about to leave him behind. Oh no, he had to go, too. We went over to his house to load the pig into the jeep but he wouldn’t fit. We tried everything, but the pig was just too big. This friend had just bought a new BMW. It was sitting there right beside us. Finally, we said, “We’ll put the pig into the back seat of the Beamer.”
But, no way; that pig was just too big. The only option then was the front seat. Well, that pig fit there, so we strapped him in and set off with Kevin and I and the two schnauzers in the jeep and our friend and the pig in the Beamer.
The highway going out of town was jammed. You would think that the authorities would open the inbound direction to outgoing traffic, but no. We inched our way along. Funny thing. No one on the road seemed to notice the pig. Usually it takes a little more than an hour, but this time, it took seven hours to get to Baton Rouge. Once there we went to stay with our friend’s sister.
It was hot and muggy, and dark outside. The electricity was out, but her house was entirely closed up. The windows were locked; the doors were bolted. The sister was all worked up.
“I’m sure I’m on his list,” she said. “I’m not taking any chances. He’s been going though the city raping single woman. No sir, I’m not taking any chances.”
She let the three of us in with our two schnauzers and the two hundred pound pig, but wouldn’t open the windows. The storm raged outside and inside we could barely breathe. God, that pig stunk. That was the hottest night of my life. But we made it through.
Jenni, Ed, and the Garden
Lots of people volunteer. Some are born and bred in New Orleans; others come from far away. They remove debris, build houses, teach kids, make art, and grow gardens. One garden in the 7th ward was built by a group of architect students from Virginia. It’s a nice garden with raised beds, plenty of shelter from the sun, and barrels to catch the rain water. Well, the barrels don’t quite work, but they are there. There’s a picnic table and barbecue grill, too. The idea was to not only grow vegetables for the community but also to use the garden as a safe meeting place in a dangerous neighborhood for families to socialize and for kids to do art. Ed is from the neighborhood and works for a neighborhood organization running music and drama programs for kids. Jenni, like many others, came from outside into the community to run art programs. The garden brought Ed and Jenni together.
Ed’s organization gave Jenni the job of getting the garden up and running. One of the big tasks was to get the water turned on. Jenni found a plumbing company willing to donate the work. The gotcha, though, was who would be responsible for paying for the water bill every month once the city had installed the water meter. Jenni, not having any formal umbrella organization, was in no position to do it. And, for whatever reason, Ed and his organization didn’t step up. Frustrated after months of trying to resolve the issue, Jenni walked away from the garden. Ed wasn’t happy with her for doing that. He lamented, “Now, I don’t want to talk about nobody but all we asked her to do was to get the water turned on and she didn’t do it.”
Telling her side of the story, Jenni said, “I won’t say anything bad about Ed. He’s a survivor. He’s doing his best. Last year his son was mowed down in a hail of gun fire. No, I won’t say anything about Ed. He’s doing what he can. Too bad the communication broke down over who would take responsibility for paying the water bill.”
In the end I decided that this was a classic insiders vs outsiders problem. Deep down, Ed and his organization didn’t really want the outsiders to come in. Even though, the insiders haven’t much and live in violence, the neighborhood is theirs. And, especially in New Orleans each neighborhood has its own cultural identity and plenty of pride to go with it. There’s lots of competition among them, too. In this sense New Orleans reminds me of Siena. Each has its fiercely proud neighborhoods. New Orleans has its Mardi Gras and second line; and Siena has its Palio.
Donna, Her Great Aunt, and the Hurricane
At lunch one day, Donna told me her story and that of her great aunt.
The day of the hurricane I was out of town. I had gone over to Houston for the weekend to a friend’s shower. My great aunt, who’s eighty-four was in town. All she had in this world was her house and her dog, so she wouldn’t leave. When the floods came she was in her house. As the water rose, she took the dog and climbed to the second floor. Finally she had to go the attic. It didn’t have any windows and, being August, it was so hot. She started calling for help. A man in a boat, looking for people, heard her cries through the attic vent. He went for help. The rescuers cut a hole in the roof and pulled her out and up into a waiting helicopter. They took her over to the hospital, and when that flooded, they moved her upstate. Luckily she could tell them the name of her sister and remembered the name of the town where she lived. After a while the authorities found the sister, but that took a few weeks. All that time we didn’t know if she was dead or alive. We were so happy when we found her.
When I finally got back to New Orleans after a month, I found my house gone. All I had in this world were the clothes I had taken for that weekend trip. I went to stay with a friend in another city and concentrated on finishing my Masters degree in Social Work. To get to class, I had to drive four hours each way, but I finished. Last year I completed rebuilding my house. Now I’m working as a social worker, but the program’s funding is running out and may not get renewed, so I may be looking for a job.
The biggest problem right now is mental health: Not just of the people who came through the storm, but also of those who came here after the storm. A lot of people without any money came here because they thought there would be work. But, there are no jobs and without money they have no way to leave, so now they are here, too. There are lots of mental health problems in this city.
Dave and the School at the Grocery
Dave, a young guy from Boston who had come to volunteer, took us over to the Lower Ninth to visit the School at the Grocery. He and a teacher from Brooklyn started the project about three months ago. The teacher had come to New Orleans with just twelve dollars in his pocket and an old blue bus. He had been using the bus to do literacy outreach to kids in their late teens and early twenties who had fallen through the gaping holes in the educational system. Although some of them had high school diplomas none of them could read or write or do sufficient math to get and hold down a job. The teacher would drive up in the bus to the street corners where they hung out; recruit them; and, then, teach them right there.
The idea of the School at the Grocery was to have a place where these young people could learn to sustain their own lives, not just by learning to read, write, and do arithmetic, but also by growing their own organic food. As Dave explained it there are few grocery stores in the neighborhoods and the ones there sell mostly, if not exclusively, beer and highly processed food. “Getting whole food is difficult; and most people can’t afford to own a car,” he said. To Dave and the teacher the lack of access to healthy, whole food was symbolic of the affront the people have to deal with every day. They have been let down by every system and every business. They have to learn to sustain themselves.
Dave showed us around. The perimeter of the property was surrounded by destroyed houses that, after four years, were slowly decaying, returning the organic matter, like wood, and toxic materials, like lead, to the earth. But inside, next to an enormous compost pile, was a large haphazard garden already producing a variety of vegetables. “The vegetables are organic although the soil is still being remediated,” he told us.
Not seeing anyone but us around, I asked “Where are the students?”
“They’re at the farmers market selling the produce from the garden,” he replied. “People from the neighborhood are starting to drop by for vegetables, too.”
He pointed at the ramshackle former grocery store. “The children of the couple who used to run the grocery have given us permission to use the property,”
“Are the children here in New Orleans?”
“No, they’re not here. They live scattered around the country.”
“See the shade canopy. That wasn’t here a week ago. Some people from the Make It Right Foundation saw what we were trying to do here and built it for us. They realized that a community is more than its houses, that it is also the spaces in between.” I could understand his appreciation for the shelter. It was two o’clock in the afternoon and the June sun was bearing down on us. It was so hot that perspiration was running down my cheeks. He continued, “The Foundation is also helping us create a wetlands area to use for teaching about their important role in the ecosystem.”
Dave was smiling as we congratulated him on the progress of he project. I missed seeing anyone from the neighborhood though. A troubling thought passed through my consciousness. These volunteers from afar are doing good, but what about the neighborhood leaders?
Tidal Wave on the Gulf Coast
Earlier in the week we had gone over to the Gulf coast of Mississippi which, like many areas of New Orleans, had been leveled by the effects of the hurricane. There, a massive tidal surge, reportedly thirty feet high, had decimated houses, roads, churches, and schools. The loss of life had been high. One morning a man in Bay Saint Louis told us about a friend from Pass Christian. The friend, his wife, and their daughter lived in a three story house on the long, fine white sand beach. Like many others, they stayed to wait out the storm in their home. The wave came in and when it when back out it took them and their house. The woman and daughter survived by grabbing hold of a tree. But, the man was never seen again.
Talk about resilience. The old oak trees along the coast not only saved that woman and her daughter, but hundreds of them saved themselves. They not only survived the tidal wave but also more than a week of being submerged in salt water. When the water finally receded, the trees were nothing more than black skeletons. Some died, but many survived. A woman told us, “Three years ago when I first came here to volunteer, all the trees looked bad, but now,” she said, “they are really green. They are going to make it.”
All along the Gulf coast, real progress was evident. Businesses were moving back; youth centers had been built; homes had been restored or rebuilt; harbors had been reconstructed. People had had enough looking backwards. Now, they wanted to only look forward. As a waitress in a restaurant put it, “We’re so grateful to all the volunteers who have come here. But, now, it is the time for us to finish the job.” And, a guy who had just moved his book shop back into one of the old coast villages told us, “I’m tired of looking back. Enough about Katrina. I just want to look forward.”
Seven children, four helpers, and two teachers make a circle. The leader asks us to join the circle if we wish. We do; we step forward to join in. I take my friend’s hand and that of a little boy in a too big striped shirt. Diana and I grasp hands firmly, but the little boy’s is limp. I gently take it and hold on. We give thanks for a beautiful day.
After the introductions we step back and sit outside the circle to observe. The leader is a skilled teacher. Letting each child make noise with a musical instrument, she attempts to direct their energy into the instruments. The children’s energy abounds. Their random music excites them. When it is time to put away the instruments for the story telling, some of the children comply, but others don’t or can’t. One ten-year old boy continues to beat rat-a-tat-tat, bing-a-bang-a-bong on the drum set. He knows what he is doing; his talent overflows. But, it is impossible for him to put down the drum sticks and listen. It’s as though he has to keep beating out a rhythm to save his own life. Those drums are his life line.
The teacher telling the story is ready to begin. Placing a basket in front of her, she starts a tale of long ago. Taking a wooden bear from the basket she places him of a square of green fabric, the earth. Another ten-year old boy in a bright red shirt has crowded the teacher and starts taking the props willy-nilly from the basket; the teacher points with her finger at the correct prop. The little boy follows her lead; now, he is her helper taking the appropriate prop from the basket and putting it in the scene at the right time.
As the story unfolds, many props appear: A gauzy blue river and a yellow fish, some brown deer, a tree made from a real tree branch, a bird made of two feathers tied together, and some people, a father, mother, and child. At the beginning of the story, the little boy in the striped shirt seems uninterested and sits distractedly outside the circle, but as the voice of story enters him, his eyes grow wider and his attention becomes stronger. He becomes totally present and riveted to the story.
When the story is done, the teacher brings out branches, red yarn, and feathers and invites each child to make a peace stick. The little boy in the striped shirt immediately sets to work carefully, deliberating, winding the yarn around the branch. Then he attaches two feathers to the stick as though they are the wings of a bird. The teacher praises his work; he almost smiles.
The red-shirted boy pays no attention to the peace stick making; rather, he continues to play with the wooden animals and people and various bits of cloth representing earth, water, and sky. At one point, he hurls all the animals and people off the top of a chair declaring, “They’re falling off the cliff.” Later, in his pretend game, he takes a stand. “Keep out! This is my forest,” he shouts to whom I don’t know.
The boy seems a little too old to be playing with the wooden animals, but he is totally engrossed. He doesn’t appear to notice the play of the other children. Having finished their peace sticks, most are running, laughing, and banging around him. The youngest, a seven-year old girl is happily allowing one of the helpers to braid her long hair. The little one sits perfectly still as the teenager gently parts the hair and folds the strands one over the other.
Afterwards, one of the teachers tells me that these children come from large families with either no father in the home or one debilitated by drugs and drink. They live in poverty and violence. “It is not uncommon for the older kids to have weapons. The younger kids don’t like guns; they don’t like the violence. In our story writing class they write a lot about violence and its affect on them,” she says. I wonder whether this will be enough to stop them from following in their older siblings’ footsteps once they are older.
All original content copyright 2009 Mary E. Slocum