12 February 2006

Desperately Seeking Solace

A week ago today, I hit full emotional absorption overload, wearing a wide-eyed blankness as a shield to more seeing and more feeling. I was riding the open highway back to Birmingham from a long weekend spent in New Orleans, where I alternately logged hours as a trash-toting volunteer and succumbing to the pull of the Crescent City: the lure - now with a poignant past and a near-desperate present - of a Home with character, culture, and a thread of funkiness running like a backbeat all through it.

It's enough to give a girl a complex.

I went (further) down South as a volunteer with the Southern Foodways Alliance, aka The Best Organization Ever, which has partnered with the Heritage Conservation Network to reconstruct the modest restaurant and adjoining shotgun home of Miss Willie Mae Seaton. The restaurant, Willie Mae's Scotch House, with Miss Seaton at the cooking helm even into her 80s, has been providing home-cooking - especially her famous fried chicken - for over 50 years. Check out the coverage at http://www.southernfoodways.com/; their links to various news outlets who've covered this project speaks to my volunteer time as well as my own words would.

Except for a few small details: One, the stink that still permeates some areas, like the dank rooms at Dooky Chase, a nearby restaurant of greater size and renown, where we spent time Friday clearing rooms of flooded dishes, foodstuffs, furniture, and linens. A short time ago the entire city smelled of this foul floodwater effect. Two, the intense enthusiasm and emotion seen in the crew of volunteers I worked with this weekend, and expressed in the gratitude of Leah Chase and Willie Mae Seaton and their families. They know now that when they say "I've got nothing," they can only refer to material possessions. And I know now what a renewed faith in mankind is like. On the flip side of that is Three, a passionate contempt for government and what we can no longer even call leadership. At all levels, elected officials, and those who are just paid shamefully large salaries, have dropped the ball of responsibility, or haven't bothered to pick it up in the first place. On several occasions in ItalyI was asked about the complacency of Americans towards their inept and undiplomatic government. It's embarrassing, and making our country an embarrassment. To all those who still sport "W" stickers, I have to ask: Where all the democracy has gone?

I was drawn to this work weekend not only to glimpse anew the city whose spell I fell under pre-Katrina, but also to show very civic-driven support for this marginalized place (probably possessing the nation's richest food culture), and to find an outlet for my own grief.

On Thursday , when we drove into New Orleans from the East on Interstate 10, I glimpsed ugly stuff - skeletal apartment buildings, doors and windows open from weather/looters/who knows what...few cars, gray with dirt and condensation, rammed up on curbs, into one another, many with trunks and hoods open, contents spilling forth...parking lots empty of traffic, save that of trailers, construction vehicles, and mounds of stuff - trash, belongings, stray debris...strip mall store signs missing letters, free-standing ones bent over onto buildings. As far as the eye could see were blue tarp roofs, a sad contrast to the red tiles I saw for months in Italy. The trash-strewn highway was lined by trees blown over by the strong winds that came after the eye of the hurricane passed over the city.

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Bookending the weekend was the Sad Sunday Tour, nothing even a real drive in the country can remove from my mind: a pasture of rubble stretching out in all directions where neighborhoods once stood, a landscape broken by uprooted houses which had been lifted from their beams and foundations and had slammed into other homes, trees, cars. This was the area where residents broke through their roofs in efforts to save themselves.

The streets - those that I could make out - were brown and muddy, edged with debris. Many were blocked with homes that had landed willy-nilly, Wizard of Oz-style when the flood waters receded. The landscape was horribly open, and we were wholly constricted, short of breath. Pableaux, the local, narrated, to help us make sense of what we were seeing. "Just so you know," he said, "about two hours from now, you'll be wanting to curl up in a fetal position and bang your head against the wall."

Adding to the confusing view of a neighborhood that's no more were signs of its expiration, the haunting signs from Then as well as those of Now: clothing hanging in shreds from barbed wire fences, moisture-riddled cars half-upended over a neighbor's fence/rubble/other cars, camouflaged tanks on the streets. A few other people were around, most of them visitors who were pulled over and out walking, absorbing the battle-zone. Volunteers with Common Ground, a comprehensive relief effort organized shortly after the hurricanes hit (http://www.commongroundrelief.org/), were manning a makeshift distribution center amidst the rubble.

"All the windows you see that are blown out, were done so by water," Pableaux pointed out. In neighborhoods more fortunately located, we'd seen devastating wind damage, elderly oak trees expired from an overdose of brackish water, and dirty water lines marking flood time. Homes in the Lower 9th Ward weren't ringed with water or missing roofs - the water rose too high to leave such legible signatures. What I saw last weekend is as you've seen it on tv, but real, un-distanced, confusing, and harrowing. And surreal, because the people are gone, their dimension missing from the cause of their despair.

As a friend who lives there commented: "It’s just f'ed up." And it really is.

For those who are interested to know, there is new life being breathed into New Orleans. All this really means, though, is that a fraction of those who call this city home are returning. This "new life" is not due to federal emergency relief efforts, or those of the city's officials, as much as it's the result of those fortunate enough to a) make their way back into the city, b) have the resources to rebuild their lives, or c) have something to come back to and try to work with. It's better than nothing, to be sure, but the last thing New Orleans needs is to be overlooked as "ok" again.

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A majority of our "leadership" hasn't seen first-hand the state of New Orleans. Care to write or call and ask them to do so?