Notes from Atlantis

Random Thoughts from the Crescent City

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Notes from Atlantis 9

Dear Folks,

I’m thinking about gallantry, and how gallantry isn’t merely gritting your teeth and soldiering on with life despite the odds.

Gallantry is also about happiness. It’s about being happy when it’s probably a little ridiculous to feel that way, and about ignoring the bad news as much as your intelligence will allow, for as long as your intelligence will allow it. It’s about living in the moment, if the moment is pleasant, and about being a grass-hopper instead of an ant when all the fields are fallow anyway and you’re not going to find any picnics to scavenge, so you might as well just pull out your fiddle and dance.

It’s about fiddle-dee-dee, and I’ll think about it tomorrow, and tomorrow is another day. And it’s a skill we should all definitely cultivate...although, like most talents, some people seem born with a gift for it.

Gallantry involves letting go...letting go of your sorrow, if only for a little while, and letting go of your fear and letting life course through you. It involves a big fat Molly Bloom-style YES to life, even if the smart money, the prevailing wisdom, and your own life experiences all say NO. It’s about being a fool. About being a child, who knows play-time is infinitely more important than homework. It may be how God puts up with us, with all the trouble we give Him (or Her). And it involves an absolutely clear-eyed acknowledgment that, yes, we are generally doomed, and a willingness to say let the good times roll anyway.

Okay, so what does all this have to do with New Orleans? Well, we went to a big free concert down by the Mississippi River yesterday, just off the French Quarter. A beautiful day, around 70 degrees, light chop on the water. The Mississippi there isn’t the behemoth it is up around Cairo, where it joins the Missouri and truly appears to be the Father of Waters. Here you can look across it to Algiers Point and almost imagine you could swim it (although the current’s rough). There are barges and ferryboats sailing back and forth across its gray-brown surface, and a long esplanade built where the old warehouses used to be. A few thousand people joined there yesterday to hear Kermit Ruffin and Jon Cleary and Walter "Wolfman" Washington and a bunch of other musicians lay it down and sing it out in pure D delight in being alive and being back home again. And we danced, and we sang, and we waved our hands in the air like we just didn’t care, and yes, we did what New Orleanians always do, which is we were gallant.

I wish I could be like that all the time. Of course I can’t, very few people can. I worry about the future and fret about the past and try and second-guess myself like everyone else does, and my gallantry generally goes right out the window.

But some people really come close to living with that kind of panache (to quote Cyrano de Bergerac, who also had it).

I had two great friends who died recently, both of whom seem to have had a real gift for gallantry. They both faced the modern world’s Calvary, cancer, and both lived every second of their lives as if their time on earth were limitless...and infinitely precious.

My friend Alice had a message on her answering machine that said, "Hello, caller, you’ve reached 674-1762, please leave a message after the well-known tone, and HAVE A GOOD ONE." Just like that, she transformed a bromide ("Have a nice day") into a buoyant injunction to be happy. My friend Hootkins, when provided with lunch by a friend, opined, "Ah...I see you’ve discovered the true secret to the cold buffet...RELISH!" He lived every second of his life with relish, whether it was for food or drink or sex or cigars or anything else, including life itself.

And of course I’m thinking about New Orleans, and its well-known penchant for frivolity. Now everybody knows this isn’t really a city that forgot care...or was ever forgotten by it. It has, however, sometimes deliberately chosen to ignore care: generally when it was dying from yellow-fever anyway, or facing a Northern blockade, or languishing through the Depression, or cleaning some frat-boy’s vomit off its front steps for the umpteenth time. Like my two dear lost friends, it was never stupid. It knew what its odds were...and believe me, it knows them now. Ask anyone down here, does New Orleans have problems, and you’ll get a ringing and elaborate YOU BET! And as anyone who’s been reading these notes knows, I don’t think this city is dead, or even dying. But it’s still dancing on the knife’s edge like we all are...only some of us are more aware of that fact than others.

And some of us choose, having that knowledge, to sit down and mourn, and curse fate, and stare with unblinking eyes at our own destruction, and know it for what it is.

And some of us choose to dance.

God keep me in that second line.



Sunday, November 20, 2005

Notes from Atlantis 8

Dear Folks,

Alright, I’m mad as hell and I can’t take it anymore. It’s Sunday night and I’ve just watched 60 Minutes and they aired a segment called “New Orleans Is Sinking”. Various “facts” were trotted out as gospel: in 90 years New Orleans will be underwater...or a fishbowl, surrounded by towering levees. The coastal erosion of Southern Louisiana is irreversible and it will cost untold billions to rebuild the city after Katrina. Untold thousands of houses will have to be demolished (which is in fact a flat-out lie). We all need to think about abandoning the city and orchestrating a gradual withdrawal to higher ground... etc. etc. etc, to the same old drum-beat of New Orleans Was Stupid To Build There In The First Place And Now We Should Just Make It Wake Up At Long Last And Be Like Everywhere Else.


Okay, first of all. Aside from any issue of was New Orleans built where it was because of important logistics (i.e. it’s at the mouth of the biggest river system in the U.S., and there’s huge resources of oil and natural gas and fish and rice and farmland here)....NEW ORLEANS DIDN’T FLOOD BECAUSE OF NATURAL CAUSES!!! It flooded because of human error and human greed. The canals were improperly constructed. It’s now open knowledge that the canals (not the levees, which did not break) were built according to imperfect plans, and that the construction itself was shoddy: steel pilings which should have descended for 20 plus feet were only mandated for 17 feet by the Army Corps of Engineers, and were in fact constructed for only 10 feet. Who pocketed the price of that extra steel? Who knows? (Let’s hope whoever it was built their mansions at Lakeside and were themselves inundated). The best engineers at the time (1960s to 90s) suggested “inverted T’s” as a way of anchoring the retaining walls. Were they listened to? Of course not. The old “I” wall construction was used, and under the pressure of water without and wet soil within, the walls collapsed. Basically, New Orleans was sitting there with levees and canals built to the specifications of hacks and constructed by crooks with half the protection they’d promised, and a big hurricane hit and...guess what? The house of straw fell down. Was this because New Orleans is in itself an unviable concept, on a par with building hanging gardens at the South Pole? Of course not. New Orleans drowned because nine decades of neglect and graft allowed it to. If the retaining walls supporting the underground foundation of the World Trade Center had been built that badly, the twin towers would have fallen down too, without the intercession of any terrorists. Would Americans have then called for people to stop buiding skyscrapers on Wall Street? I think not...but America has always had a prejudice about the South, which I’ve only come to realize lately.

I know, there’s a lot you can criticize about the South. In the popular mythos of our times, all our country’s problematic hatreds of other races, other nationalities and other creeds have been seen as being rooted in the South--as though racism, prejudice and insularity didn’t exist in the North as well. I know a lot of you still think of the Deep South in terms of “Strange Fruit”, and of course you have a point. But still, get over it. This country, this world, was built on blood from the first human settlement on down. If we deserve the fate of Noah, then there’s no hope for any of us. But surely, at the very least, we should leave our damnation in divine hands rather than exacerbating it, first with human error, and then with human disdain.

For too long, New Orleans has been viewed as this country’s it’s it’s toilet...and as it’s whore. And yes, that’s partly New Orleans’ fault, since allowing itself to be seen as “the Big Easy” brought in tourists. So like any generous fool, New Orleans is now suffering the result of its own largesse. Lawmakers, political theorists obsessed with their own master plans, and media pundits have latched onto the new story-line of the moment,which is that New Orleans’ very existence is somehow debatable. Three years ago, the story-line of the day was that Saddam Hussein was a world threat and had atomic bombs. Everyone parrotted that popular wisdom...and only woke up to the fact that it wasn’t true when it was too late.

Now our lawmakers are debating whether to spend any money rebuilding New that could otherwise be spent on star-wars missile defense systems, or protection against non-existent bird flu, or on bridges to nowhere, or to fund further tax cuts, or to start new wars. Are we insane? No country on earth just lets a major city die. No country on earth just lets a major part of its transportation system wither away, or lets a major part of its culture disappear. The only reason this debate is even happening right now is because the rest of America doesn’t view New Orleans as a major city, or a major transportation hub, or a major cultural entity. It views New Orleans as unnecessary. It views it as an eccentric excrecence, a kind of 42nd Street or Haight-Ashbury or Disneyland or Hollywood backlot writ large. For Christ’s sake, right now Las Vegas would get more support if it were damaged than New Orleans is getting! We wax nostalgic about things once they’re gone that we don’t really care about protecting while they’re present, and I’m terrified that New Orleans could end up being one of them.

Fortunately, there’s something we all can do, and I expect you all to do it. The Times-Picayune recently published a list of lawmakers to contact to request, demand, that New Orleans get the money it needs to properly build its hurricane protection and properly rebuild its infrastructure. Here are there names:

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn; 509 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, DC, 20510; (202) 224-3344;

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R.-Miss; 113 Dirksen Senate Office Building, Washington, DC, 20510; (202) 224-5054;

Senator Robert Byrd, D-W.Va, ranking member Senate Appropriations Committee; 311 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C., 20510; (202) 224-3954;

Senator Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, member Senate Appropriations Committee; 522 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, DC, 20510; (201) 224-3004;

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H.; 393 Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C., 20510; (202) 224-3324;

Senator Kent Conrad, D-N.D., ranking member Senate Budget Committee; 530 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C., 20510; (202) 224-2043;

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chariman James Inhofe, R-Okla; 453 Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C, 20510; (202) 224-4721;

Senator Max Baucus, D-Mont., ranking member Senate E and PW Committee; 511 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C., 20510; (202) 224-2651;

Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, R-Ill; 235 Cannon House Office Building, Washington, D.C., 20515; (202) 225-2976;

House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Mo; 217 Cannon House Office Building, Washington, D.C., 20515; (202) 225-6536;

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, R-Calif; 2112 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C., 20515; (202) 225-5861;

Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., ranking member House Appropriations Committee; 2314 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C., 20515; (202) 225-3365;

House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa; 303 Cannon House Office Building, Washington, D.C., 20515; (202) 225-2911;

Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., ranking member House Budget Committee; 1401 Longworth House Office Building, Washington, D.C., 20515; (202) 225-5501;

House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif; 2411 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C., 20515; (202) 225-1947;

Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, D-W.Va., ranking member House Resources Committee; 2307 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C., 20515; (202) 225-3452;

House Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska; 2111 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C., 20515; (202) 225-5765;

Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., ranking member House Transportation Committee; 2365 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C., 20515; (202) 225-6211;

If you love Bill and me, if you love New Orleans, if you love the secret part of yourself that values beauty as much as comfort and ease, please take the time to contact these people. Please help my beautiful city to live. I’m begging you.


Saturday, November 19, 2005

Notes from Atlantis 7

Dear Folks,

Sorry I haven’t posted anything lately, our moving vans arrived on Wednesday and our house is now crammed with more boxes than a WalMart. This one’s from a few days ago...

New Orleanians do lots of things these days.

They place endless calls to their insurance agents, roofers, contractors, tree services, the Red Cross and (if they’re feeling ironic and have lots of free time) FEMA.

They sweep and haul and scrub and bag and sort through every conceivable item from business records to family snapshots.

They wait in line at the Louisiana Motor Vehicle Bureau (one office is closed, and the other two are jammed...we’re still driving around with NJ licenses), at the bank, at City Hall, at the grocery store, and in front of any open restaurant for lunch (a lot of places are just serving dinner).

They worry and cry and laugh and miss the city they had last August, and try and figure out what kind of a city will take its place.

But most of what they do is tell stories.

New Orleans has always been a city of story-tellers. Like all Southerners, New Orleanians seem born with the gift for spinning a good yarn. They know that cadence and pacing are as important as plot, that language can have an almost tactile pleasure on the tongue, that exaggeration is never a sin, and that a good story, like good food and good drink and good music, is one of the hallmarks of a civilized life.

But now there’s another impulse besides an attachment to ribald humor and a penchant for recounting the adventures of shaggy dogs. New Orleanians right now are telling stories to tell where they went, when they came back, what it was like, and always, always, how their house is. They tell about sneaking into town to check on a familiar landmark, about random acts of kindness they received from motel owners and check-out clerks, about how the ability to text-message loved ones, or the inability to reach them via cell-phone, saved their sanity or threatened it, and how pets, books, souvenirs, and even house-plants survived the storm.

They tell stories to remember, to heal, to vent, and to drawn together. And they tell stories to laugh. Here are some good ones:

At lunch, an Uptown businessman recounted how his house had been vandalized in his the National Guard. It seems two rogue guardsmen broke in and stole his large collection of guns. When he got home and noticed the theft, he also noticed an important clue: the perps’ I.D. cards. He reported the theft, and the Guard assured him they’d already found the thieves, with their loot, but hadn’t known who it belonged to. They promised to court-martial the offenders and be even tougher on them than the N.O.P.D., either because of shame, or simply out of embarrassment.

A woman we ran into at the Napoleon House bar told this story: her aged father, a respected artist, had been having a show at an Esplanade gallery when the storm hit. He had actually been hospitalized a few days before for a minor stroke, and of course when Katrina shut down the generators his condition quickly went from bad to worse. He ended up all the way across the country in Washington State where his son lives, in a nursing home, and when he learned that in addition his paintings had been damaged, the news was almost too much for him. He went on a hunger strike...until his daughter fixed him a plate of chicken soup, undoubtedly spicing it up with a little Tabasco. He tasted it, pronounced that it “hit the spot” and proceeded to eat the whole bowl. Later he admitted that the hospital food had just been so bland he couldn’t bring himself to swallow another mouthful.

When I was at the bank I got a lesson in how connections in this city work. I was waiting on line and the next teller over, a black woman in her thirties, was describing to her customer how she’d spent the whole morning at City Hall trying to get a permit to work on her house. This customer, a poorly dressed laborer with a beer gut and a thick Italian accent, asked her how things stood. She said she’d been getting the which point he told her not to worry, that he knew the head guy who was in charge of giving out building permits, and by the end of the day she could count on having all the necessary documents in hand. I’m sure she did.

And this last one, I’d better change the names to protect someone many of you may know. It seems this man, Boudreau, has a brother, who’s a Tulane professor and very smart and all, but well, how shall I put it? A little absent-minded. Boudreau asked his brother to go over to his house and unlock the door last Saturday morning so the roofer could get in and plug in his extension cord. Boudreau was off playing polo in lower Alabama at the time, you see, and couldn’t do it. Well, Boudreau’s bro’ goes in but then he thinks he’ll unlock the gate instead, so the roofer can just pull it closed behind him when he goes home. Bro’s forgotten of course that the gate was broken into by the National Guard two months ago (hopefully they weren’t looting) and now it doesn’t work.

The key gets stuck in the lock and won’t come out. So Bro goes in the house and gets Boudreau’s portable phone to call him and ask what he should do. He goes outside, and locks himself out of Boudreau’s house. Now he’s got an open gate, a locked house, the roofer up on the roof (without an extension plug) and nothing but his car keys and Boudreau’s phone.

So he goes to Boudreau’s office over on Jackson Avenue and tries to find another set of house keys. But while he’s there he needs to go to the can, so he goes outside and locks himself out of Boudreau’s office. Now all he’s got is the bathroom key. He calls Boudreau again (remember he’s still got the phone) who says no, he can’t just leave the house key in the gate, someone could get in and rob the place. Just break the key off in the lock and they’ll replace the whole gate later.

Bro, being a law-abiding fellow, says how should he break the key off? Boudreau suggests a rock. Bro says he can’t find a rock. Boudreau says well, use a brick, they’re lying around all over the place. Bro finally breaks the key off with a brick (the roofer’s climbed down and gone home by now) and then goes over to Boudreau’s mom’s place and leaves the bathroom key there just to be safe before flying off to Arizona.

I’m not making this up.

Oh, and one more thing. It appeared today in the Times-Picayune. A lot of the famous Mardi Gras Indians apparently lived over in the Lower Ninth Ward, and like many of their neighbors they were trapped when the waters rose. The writer described driving around now, more than two months after the fact, touring the shattered neighborhoods where spray-painted signs still say things like “1 Dead in Attic”.

And yet, people have taken their gorgeous, sequined costumes and nailed them up on the doors as decorations. Against the prevailing grayness, these wonderful “suits” fly like white and gold pennants, tattered feathers blowing in the breeze. Purple and green and red and blue, they’re like beautiful specters standing still on the porches, watching and waiting. And on the one in the photograph accompanying the article, someone had scrawled a sign reading“I’ll Be Back Wild”.

I love this place.



Sunday, November 13, 2005

Notes from Atlantis 6

November 13, 2005

Dear Folks,

Okay, guys, can somebody please explain this to me? Why does The New York Times hate New Orleans?

For the past two and a half months, the Times has published daily articles and images of utter devastation coming out of the Crescent City, AND THEY’RE STILL DOING IT! Today’s paper featured an article entitled “Storm Families Find No Comfort In Death Records,” and described the grisly ineptitude of the coroner’s office in St. Gabriel, LA (which is grossly understaffed, I’ll give you that).

Accompanying the article were five large photographs of destroyed homes in the Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish, featuring lugubrious families gazing into the abyss, accompanied by captions like “We lost the yellow lab along with one of the cats” and “When you don’t have anything left, you don’t know where you’re going to go the next day.” On the opposite page a full color ad for the Red Cross featured a photo of a grizzled black man piloting a boat through waist-high water past flooded cars and homes.

First of all, that Red Cross photograph is a month and a half old. The only water in New Orleans today was a brief rain shower around noon that perked up the plants nicely. The French Quarter is rocking every night, and the air is ringing every day with the sound of hammering and buzz saws cutting fresh lumber. Grocery stores are well-stocked, cafes are bustling, the oysters are fit to eat, and there’s even a comedy club open where you can see some bad improv.

Bill and I tracked down a friend of his aunt and uncle’s from Kenya, whose house sustained some damage out near City Park and who’s currently living in Atlanta. But he was there cleaning up when we arrived, and he promises to move back here permanently next spring once his kids’ school year is over. Mardi Gras is on schedule for February 23-28, and the Jazz and Heritage Festival is planning to be more lavish than ever next year, to lure tourists back. There’s even talk of New Orleans hosting the 2008 Democratic National Convention!

But you would never know ANY OF THIS from the New York Times!

It’s really perverse. Five weeks ago, the Times published Michael Lewis’s charming, insightful article “Wading Toward Home” in its magazine section. In it, he described how a lot of the alarmist, apocalyptic news he’d been hearing about his home town proved to be overblown and exaggerated once he was here checking out the real facts. Stores that were described as looted proved to be just fine. Buildings that had supposedly burned to the ground proved to be remarkably undamaged. A darling neighbor, Miss Dottie Perrier, when informed a major hurricane had taken place, remarked, “Well, no one informed me!” And houses that were turned into armed camps by their terrified owners proved to be at risk for nothing more than warm beer and feral kittens.

The article, however, was broken up by quotes taken out of context like “New Orleans has gone from the leading city of the South to a theme park for sinners” and “Papa Blanc Monroe is dead and gone, but he didn’t take with him the climate of suspicion between rich and poor.” The overall impression was one of heartbreak, danger, and rampant racism (just for the record, storm losses here appear to have been spread pretty evenly across racial and economic lines, although as always, rebuilding favors the prepared bank account).

This would all be funny and parochial on the part of “the newspaper of record” if it didn’t affect people’s perceptions on a national and even international level, and exacerbate the tendency, already growing in Washington, to write New Orleans off as a lost cause. So please take my word for it that, in this case, the New York Times is scarcely printing “all the news that’s fit to print.”

Hope you like the new blog!



Thursday, November 10, 2005

Notes from Atlantis 5

November 10, 2005

Dear Folks,

We drove around through some of the partially drowned areas yesterday. Okay, yeah, it was pretty bad. And we kept having to remind ourselves that these were scarcely the worst hit neighborhoods. There are whole tracts of the Lower Ninth Ward that are still closed except to homeowners, who are allowed to tour their ruined neighborhoods on buses...that’s it, no getting off and salvaging anything, they’ve become voyeurs of their own tragedy. And there are some areas over by the Lake that apparently just don’t exist anymore, they’ve been washed away. But what we saw offered enough heartbreak to get you going.

First we drove through the Bywater, that part of the upper Ninth Ward that’s closest to the French Quarter...just down river from it in fact. This area by itself isn’t that bad: spray painted X’s everywhere, but they look rather like voudou crosses, and there’s a certain amount of bustle. Lots of newer cars are parked at the curb (i.e. they have intact tires and aren’t coated with brown dust) and there were bicyclists and dog walkers much in evidence. There’s a big open air soup kitchen and depot for free clothing, and from the outside, at least, the houses look mostly intact. Lots of ruined bedding and furniture at the curb, but at least it’s being cleared out, which I suppose is a hopeful sign.

Esplanade Avenue was harder. The beautiful trees along this lovely street leading out to the fairgrounds are very much denuded, and the farther you get up past Claiborne Avenue, the spookier everything becomes until you get to Gentilly Boulevard, which is deserted and in near ruins. The silence is very strange. The big new clubhouse at the fairgrounds appears to have taken a lot of damage, but there’s scaffolding up at least to hold everything in place. No such triage has been applied to the little shotgun houses facing it: they just stand there empty and water-logged and brown. Every once in a while there’s some dramatic evidence of damage on view: a corrugated metal warehouse with one side all twisted and bent up as if by a gigantic can-opener, and in one case the whole top of a house thrown up against its neighbor, with no sign of the foundation in evidence. But for the most part it’s just sepia devastation and silence.

Treme is much the same, block after block. This is the neighborhood just north of the French Quarter where the quadroon kept women once had their charming little cottages, and where five or six generations of their descendants still lived. It’s still there, but it’s deserted and sodden. Occasionally you see someone sweeping a yard or walking along the sidewalk, their eyes filled up with far more than they should ever have seen. But for the most part these streets are empty, and no one’s really offered a foolproof suggestion for how to get anyone back.

This is, of course, the $64 billion question. Bill went to a meeting on Sunday where some of the city’s top record industry leaders tried to address the question of how do we get the musicians back? Like everywhere, New Orleans’ musicians are ill-paid by club owners, and very few of them live any way but hand to mouth, but until now they’ve had a city they loved and a loyal fan-base and the chance to live well, even on a shoe-string. Now that’s gone, at least temporarily, and while most New Orleans artists apparently want to come back, as someone put it, they don’t want to be on tour in their own home town. They need to be able to sleep in their own beds and have their families with them. Someone has to figure some way to do it.

The same is true of the restaurant workers and the people who supply the city’s other equally vital, if less glamorous services...sanitation workers and mail delivery people and office workers etc. The people who lived in those abandoned houses are sorely missed, and the houses sit there, empty and haunted, waiting for them to come back.

Sorry this one’s not more upbeat, folks. I promise to do a fun one next time.



Monday, November 07, 2005

Notes from Atlantis 4

November 7, 2005

Dear Folks,

I’m thinking about Edward R. Murrow this morning. As some of you may know, I wrote a novel several years ago featuring a central character loosely based on Murrow (note to publishers: anybody interested??) In it, I focused on Murrow’s crisis of conscience during the McCarthy years, the competing demands of company loyalty and speaking out against prejudice and witch-hunting, and the personal costs to a man, well acquainted with dark nights of the soul, in addressing the ugliness and danger that were threatening his country.

I’m thinking about that today, and I’m also thinking about the earlier Murrow during the Blitz. In those dark days in London, Murrow’s famous rooftop broadcasts did more than provide dangerous glamor to a threatening, chaotic time. They gave people in England hope, and they told America, far away and in many cases skeptical, that England was worth saving and worth fighting for.

New Orleans needs Edward R. Murrow now. As I speak, Senator Ted Stephens of Alaska, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and Senator Craig Thomas of Wyoming, also on the Committee, are meeting in the French Quarter to assess the need to rebuild the levees.

Assess the need??? 80% of a major U.S. city was inundated. Hundreds of thousands of people are either dead, hurt, homeless and/or destitute. But Senator Stephens has already said he’s not sure what the federal government’s response will be if it’s found that the levee and canal system failed because of human error (what, New Orleans drowned itself for fun?) He was quoted in today’s Times-Picayune as questioning the rebuilding of low-lying areas of the city altogether, saying in Alaska when disasters of this magnitude occur, they simply relocate the town somewhere else. I’m sure residents of Anchorage and Fairbanks would be interested to learn that if a major disaster hits their city, their Senator is simply advocating pulling up stakes and heading out for the Territories, but never mind. Clearly Alaska has different priorities, given their commitment to spend $900 million of federal money on a "Bridge to Nowhere". All of this has frankly tempted me to go into the Quarter and throw a rock at this guy.

I think that’s why New Orleans needs Edward R. Murrow. We need somebody to tell the country that New Orleans isn’t simply exotic, or luxurious, or decadent, or historically interesting. It’s a big goddamn city that’s every bit as important as New York or Los Angeles or Chicago in terms of anchoring one section of the country (both commercially and culturally). It’s home to a lot of people, who love it every bit as much as you love your home town (think about this the next time a tornado or an earthquake or a fire or, oh, I don’t know, a terrorist attacks your city. How would you feel if the federal government just said forget about it, it’s all your fault, and besides you were crazy to live there in the first place).

New Orleans needs a spokesman to plead its case before the rest of the country. That’s where we all come in.

Please, please, please, all of you who love this city (or even those who just love it as a favor to Bill and me) tell people how strong New Orleans is, and how it’s going to come back bigger and better than ever. Tell your congressional representatives to vote full funding for rebuilding the levee system up to Category 5 strength (ultimately this is going to come to some kind of a vote before the whole of Congress, so your people will hopefully have their say). Tell them you’ll vote them out if they don’t help New Orleans. I don’t know if any of this will matter a tinker’s damn in the short run, since cronyism still squats over Washington like a big fat toad, spewing out its shit and its venom, but maybe in the long run it will. Americans aren’t all greedy cowards, or careless know-nothings, or unimaginative drones, or slothful dogs in the manger. Surely our collective gorges will one day rise.

What Murrow did for Londoners was to describe them in a realistically heroic light. He enabled people far away to imagine and empathize with the suffering of people they didn’t know, but he didn’t present Londoners as victims--or as superheroes either. He merely said these people are tough, and given the slightest encouragement, they’re going to prevail. I think that’s true of New Orleanians...well, actually, I think they’ll prevail regardless, out of sheer stubbornness...but you can all help this city’s chances by lobbying for it wherever and whenever you can.

More later,



Friday, November 04, 2005

Notes from Atlantis 3

November 4, 2005

Dear Folks,

Bret Littlehales sent me a wonderful e-mail two days ago, that I’d like to answer en masse:

Hi Mrs Parks- Bowman Productions,

A bunch of questions:

Would you say the Quarter is at 50% its old self? If not, what? How's the overall noise? Much much quieter? How's Rampart? I saw fr/ the satellite pics that St. Louis cemeteries were under, as were a lot of places on Rampart, and most of Armstrong Park- what's up w/ that area, like Donna's, for example? How about Audubon Park?

Are most of the people back white? Is there a noticeable lack of black people?

How'd the condos do? In particular I was worried about the roof.

We've been using an elderly black guitar player from New Orleans on our latest gigs. His name is Irving Bannister, he used to work with Danny White, and more recently with Eddie Bo. He's hoping to get home within the next three months, but even though his house is ok, everything else is a mess. Anyway, and this connects to the lunch with Bob, Irving thinks the levees were bombed to protect the richer neighborhoods. This is evidently a widely held belief.

I'll just bet Bob's pissed off. I think there's a huge fear that the whole rebuilding will be used instead to line everybody's pockets, like the World's Fair, or the gambling casinos, or even the '40's campaign to tear the Quarter down- New Orleans loves to bite the hand that feeds it. Even though I thought the mayor had his moments, I wonder if he's up to this whole rebuild.

Interesting about the smell- Cairo has a unique smell- I wonder if this is similar? I'll let you know when I get there (New Orleans, that is.) Of course, this was Metarie- maybe it's the smell of David Duke.

Very sad to hear about Alice, met her that one time after P.R. three roasts ago and felt I'd known her a long time. So... so... so... so....

Does the cell phone work? Send me a number when you can, and meanwhile I'll roll a number and think of you all.


Senor Beega Boy

"I'm bigger than you- I'm the biggest guy around."
- from the Big Boy Little theme song

Okay Bret, here goes:

I'd say the Quarter is about 35-40% back to normal. A lot of famous things are still closed (Galatoire's, Pat O'Brien’s, Antoine's, Preservation Hall, Tujagues) but a lot of the smaller, newer, and gutsier places are open, like Asian Cajun on Decatur, the Clover Grill, Ralph and Kacoo's, Nick and Jenny’s, and a lot of the po' boy joints are cooking and most of the local bars. Ditto the A & P and K-Paul’s. There are street musicians at the corner of Royal and St. Peter, poetry readings at the Gold Mine Saloon, and fence art hanging in Jackson Square. And of course the Café du Monde has now re-opened, although we're still waiting for the Central Grocery.

The overall noise level is much quieter, but it's not really eerily quiet. There's still music spilling out into the street from various stores and people are walking around talking and drinking, only about 20% of them in visible uniforms (although presumably there's a lot of FEMA people etc. in mufti). Totally guiltily, I've actually been enjoying a little of the emptiness: you can currently drive from our house into the Quarter in less than five minutes, and you can walk down Decatur Street at noon without running into 8 million people.

Rampart Street looks normal, as does Basin. Donna's is still closed, but the building appears to be okay and news is the owners are fine, although elsewhere. Jackson Square and Pere Antoine's garden both lost a lot of trees, but they're still very beautiful and they've already gone a long way towards cleaning them up. I haven't gone into Armstrong Park or the St. Louis cemeteries yet, but from the outside they all look good. Really, and this is something I want to stress, if you didn't know a massive cataclysm had taken place here you might not necessarily guess it at first, second, or even third glance. Lots of subtle things are still damaged, in other words, but the overall impression is still much more normal than not.

We went into the Quarter last night and had a great steak at Embers, where the waiter told us 40% of his family had lost everything but they were all stubborn Cajuns and wouldn’t think of going anywhere else. We tipped him almost the full price of the meal and wished him well. For some reason the cops still congregate at the corner of St. Peter and Bourbon Streets, I don’t know why, it’s like a vortex: that’s where they put the police wagons every Mardi Gras and New Year’s, and lo and behold, they’re still there: ten guys in blue all standing around talking, except now some of them come from Newark and New York.

The Quarter’s quiet at night, with lots of refrigerators still out on the curb (they trickle inside, which is spooky), lights burning behind drapes and shades rather than blazing through open windows, and the few voodoo tours and Anne Rice tours that are going on (and yes, they are still going on) are being greeted now, not with exasperation by the residents, but with applause. We went to the Goldmine and had drinks and listened to Andrei Codrescu reading one long, meandering, Dada-esque poem that slalomed, not merely down ski slopes of communist memory and obscene asides, but across glaciers, gravel, asphalt, pink sand beaches, veldts, savannahs, and out across the ice-floes to Antarctica (this is my attempt to mimic his style, but you really need Pernod and a Romanian accent to do it). Two very very VERY bad Open Mic poets followed, so we decamped and drove home, through the Warehouse District and up along Magazine...a lot of destruction here, and very very dark. I felt cozy and guilty by the time we got back to the Garden District, where I’m more and more grateful that everything looks okay.

Audubon Park also looks fine driving by it, although I haven’t gone in yet (the Zoo, however, is open, so I’ve guess I’ll have to go down there and see if the animals are all axing for me). There’s a lot of leaf loss, and the grass is brown, but that's just because it's actually been the driest October here on record. Once we get some good rains everything will green up again in no time, and in the meantime of course it's a HUGE blessing re: roof damage.

And speaking of which, our condos are almost completely unscathed (really, I do feel like we're living a charmed life). The fridge in #11 is making a funny noise, has brown seepage around the gaskets, and seems to be attracting a lot of we're just going to put it out along with everyone else’s. They've apparently got similar ones at Lowe's for around $300 (sans gnats), and I figure it’s a small price to pay to avoid nightmares.

Other than that, though, both places are pretty much in "move-in" condition, which is especially fortunate, since for the next six week our tenant will be Bob Edmundson’s mother! I gather Bob and Cathy had her out at the hunting lodge, and since they rent half the place out for hunting season (and use the rest themselves) Miss Libby needed emergency digs. Blood may be thicker than water, but in Louisiana,. duck blood is apparently thicker than anything. We were happy to offer her a crash pad and will be able to look in on her, as will Bob and Cathy.

Your last question was a real poser: are most of the people here white? No, I don't think so. I see an awful lot of black faces around, both well-dressed business people and also waiters, laborers, people waiting at the bus stop, you name it. The rumor that they dynamited the levees to save the rich folks (or in fact to deliberately kill all the black folks) is, so far as I know, completely false (thank you Mr. Farrakhan), but in the broader sense, was there more concern about saving white lives than saving black ones? Possibly. And memories of the 1927 flood (when city officials did dynamite the levees to flood the poorer sections of town and save the richer ones) are still of course very keen. So far, my impression is that what went on was due more on ineptitude, denial (we'll never really get flooded), panic and bureaucracy than outright plotting, but it's interesting in itself that that rumor is so strong. I'll let you know as I learn more.

I'm still on the fence about Mayor Nagin too, and as far as I can tell Governor Blanco is a tower of Jello, but we'll see.

As far as contacting us goes, here's the poop:

Bill's cell phone: 201-960-9034
Ad'n cell phone: 201-675-4981

We hope to have a land-line in by Christmas, at which point we may also receive Christmas cards, but in the meantime those #s are the best bets.

I'm dying to hear how our smells compare to Cairo's.

Does this mean we'll see you down here soon? Our furniture arrives circa 11/14, and meanwhile you're welcome to camp out with us in empty splendor.

We love you, Sweetie, and look forward to seeing you. Really, the city's not scary. You can come down anytime.

Alice, by the way, appears to be doing a little bit better. She's off the respirator and seems to be responding to more stimuli. Who knows?

Got to go make groceries now. Oh, F.Y.I, a new Whole Foods is poised to open on Magazine Street. So how fucked up can NOLA be?


Mrs. PBP and Mr. Same

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Notes from Atlantis 2

November 2, 2005

Dear Folks,

Okay, we smelled the smell day before yesterday when we went out to Metairie for the closing on the house. A combination of sour milk and manure, like horse or cow dung. Not overwhelmingly bad, really, but still not pleasant. I gather it was hellaciously worse a few weeks ago. As we walked in and out of buildings and met with insurance agents and title company executives, we could smell this strange barnyard smell coming up from the dry dust, under a cloudless sky with temperatures in the low seventies. It was the same cognitive disconnect as occurred after 9/11: the juxtaposition of a beautiful day and death. Maybe the human mind always focuses on the discrepancies in any catastrophe: we want everything to be all of a piece, all joy or all sorrow, and the reality of all the signals being mixed up together is what continually strikes and jars us.

Also, driving by the areas we’d seen in the news (the I-10 overpass, the ramp leading up from the Convention Center) and seeing all the abandoned mattresses and water bottles lying there was definitely eerie, if only for the resonances: by themselves, such things are just trash. Other images: pieces of roofing caught in a live oak, a Goya-style tree stripped of its leaves on which hung impaled yards of asphalt sheeting. One large house on Carrollton Avenue looks like a bomb hit it: only rubble and the gate-posts remain, and I wonder if a tornado struck it, or whether it’s already in the process of being demolished. Also a large billboard, partly destroyed, with the Superdome in the background saying "THOU SHALT NOT KILL". I keep having to remind myself to note everything down (my camera’s somewhere in storage). There’s too much here I’m afraid I won’t remember, and so much I don’t want to forget.

Other impressions, things that Bill noticed and called to my attention: the birds are coming back, but there are still far fewer of them than usual. Where did they all go during the storm, the parrots and swifts and pigeons that used to be everywhere? In the evening, just as dusk is falling, instead of mockingbirds, you can hear the helicopters flying overhead: not traffic ‘copters or commuters flying home, but deeper, the sounds of the Army watching us.

And here’s another image that continues to haunt me: new growth springing out of dead stumps. Of course hundreds of trees now lie abandoned by the side of roads, and as their limbs are cut off, only the root-ball remains...and it’s sending out new shoots. Does the tree not know it’s dead? Is life really as stubborn as that? Apparently. While I’m writing this, our beloved friend Alice White is lying in a coma in New York City, but she still responds to pain stimuli, her eyes still move beneath closed lids, and presumably she’s still dreaming. Even in the midst of the worst, are we so stupid we don’t know it’s the worst, or are we just hard-wired to ignore it? I always thought Man’s inability to imagine his own death was somehow tragic, but maybe it’s one of the most wonderful things about us.

We spent yesterday morning sweeping out Lafayette Cemetery, cutting up branches and dragging them to the curb along with a handful of volunteers, and by noon at least a section of the cemetery looked much better, a fitting clean-up in honor of the Day of the Dead. Then we hooked up with Bob Edmundson for lunch, and listened to his anger and grief at the failures of command all up and down the line (from federal to state to local) for allowing this to happen in the first place. He’s still seething at the lack of responsibility he sees among all those who held the city in their hands and dropped the ball, and I have to admit he makes a compelling case. One interesting question is whether they’ll in fact be municipal elections next February, as currently scheduled. Some members of the City Council will undoubtedly protest that their constituency is gone, so how can anyone vote? It’ll be interesting to see what happens. If what Bob says is true, most, if not all, of New Orleans’ elected officials have at least a certain amount of blood on their hands.

More later,