Notes from Atlantis

Random Thoughts from the Crescent City

Monday, May 15, 2006

Notes from Atlantis 22

Dear Folks,

I’ve been reading Chris Rose’s marvelous collection of essays about life in New Orleans right after the hurricane (titled "One Dead In Attic"...and by the way, every single person reading THIS essay should immediately stop and go out and buy a copy of Rose’s book, it’s that good) and I’m struck by how far we’ve come.

Not necessarily New Orleans, although that’s true too in a way. The people I’m thinking about who have come pretty far in the past eight months have been Bill and me.

Eight months ago, we were sobbing wrecks watching CNN with horrified fascination as the city we loved more than any other was (apparently) swept away. Today we’re filled with determination. We’ve gotten past the trauma (at least till the next hurricane) and we’ve gotten past the giddiness too. We know we’re in this now for the long haul. We know how much we can take, and it’s more than we thought we could, which is a good thing to know. And maybe New Orleans is like that too. The city is still paralyzed in many respects (and that’s shameful) but as far as individuals go, I think we’ve gone from horror to grief to rage to a grim feeling of WHATEVER IT TAKES...and that makes us strong and potentially dangerous to the status quo.

We know we’re pretty much on our own now, despite the individuals who have helped us and continue to help us. We know the federal and state governments are largely jokes. In fact it’s like that OLD joke, “The Aristocrats”. Surely you all know this one by now? A couple walk into a talent agent’s office to pitch their act, a ghastly, obscene, scatological, incestuous catalogue of perversities performed by a single family. The name of the act (and the punch line)? The Aristocrats!

Well, New Orleans is distilling new versions of that joke right now. A man walks into someone else’s life and pitches his agency’s services...destruction, death, incompetence, insult, pomposity, cronyism and sloth. What’s the agency called? FEMA (or Congress, or the Army Corps of Engineers, or the White House. You fill in the blank). It’s not funny, and neither is “The Aristocrats” (although the movie is a stitch), but that may not be the point. If “The Aristocrats” takes its original puny humor from a jibe at the ruling classes, these new “jokes” betray corrosive contempt for our most cherished institutions and concepts. The idea that government is not only “of” and “by” but “for” the people? Ridiculous! The notion that we pay taxes to get something back in return? Quaint! The idea that Americans are inherently better people than anyone else? Well, this one is dying hardest, and is the most contradicted by the many volunteers we’ve seen down here all along, who continue to give of themselves, one gutted house and repaired roof at a time. But I think that’s just PEOPLE who are, by and large, individually nice (thank you Anne Frank). Americans collectively? Are we really better than anyone else? Well, let’s see what happens next November. I still have the sneaking suspicion that if gasoline prices go down, Americans as a group will reelect the same blood-spattered crooks and megalomaniacs who got us into a lot of our messes in the first place.

But never mind. What else has changed down here? Well for one thing, I think in some ways we’ve gotten a little better at beating back the spirals of fear that threaten to consume us. That’s not always true, of course, and it isn’t true for everyone and about everything. People down here are paranoid about crime for one thing, even though the crime rate is still lower than it was before the storm. People are afraid about money even if they’ve got plenty of it at the moment. They’re afraid about insurance rates, health care, the future, and people are afraid, afraid, AFRAID about the next hurricane season... which officially begins in just two weeks.

And they’re unsure who’s the best person to lead us. Right now polls are showing the run-off for mayor of New Orleans between Mitch Landrieu and Ray Nagin at virtually a dead heat. In fact, in early voting, Bill and I each voted for a different candidate (see if you can figure out who voted for whom).

But I think we’ve gone (as individuals and as citizens of a traumatized city) from raw anguish to a slightly surreal feeling of “this is just what things are like right now”. You go to parties and enjoy yourself...and yes, we had our housewarming (roasting a whole pig...yes, the Pig Roast lives!) which was a great success. Thank you to all who attended, and to those who didn’t, make your plans for next year. At the same time, you lay in supplies for when, and not if, the power goes out, and you map out your evacuation route, and you read the paper every day with the care of Talmudic scholars parsing a holy text. You meet people, and there’s always that moment of caution before you determine if the person is living in a FEMA trailer or a house, how much they lost, and how much they’re still hurting. You don’t want to step on a raw nerve. You do laundry, make groceries (isn’t that a lovely phrase?), and wonder if the flies you shooed away from your lunch today were feasting prior to that on the festering garbage still piled up sky high in the Lower Ninth Ward.

In other words, we’re getting kind of used to this, and I don’t know if that’s terrible, or heroic, or normal. I still love it down here more than anywhere else, and I know the heightened reality following the storm is all part of that, but yes, I forget about the hurricane sometimes for days at a time.

And I feel guilty about that, because I’m in a POSITION to forget about it for days at a time.

I think, though, that there’s a storm brewing down here, that has nothing to do with current water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico. It has to do with what people down here have learned from all this and are in the process of learning. Which is simply how powerless we are.

And that’s a dangerous thing to teach to a large enough collection of people.

Because if the collection of people is really large enough, they’re not really that powerless. If a large enough collection of people gets REALLY PISSED OFF, they’ll stage an uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, or they’ll march on Selma. They’ll break open the Bastille. They’ll riot at Stonewall. They’ll riot at Kent State. They’ll riot in Detroit. They’ll tear down the Berlin Wall, or they’ll kill the Czar.

I don’t know if any of that’s going to happen down here, or if it’s going to happen anywhere, but I’m saying it could. I do know people down here are becoming far less afraid and far less traumatized and far more hands-on and angry. Mitch Landrieu, if he becomes mayor, may hope to ride that tide of anger to national prominence, and if he can make some real changes and make them fast enough, he will. Ray Nagin’s time is almost up. If he gets reelected and DOESN’T start kicking some ass, the very people who voted for him are going to start screaming for his head.

James Baldwin was right, it may BE the fire next time. And God help me, I can understand the sentiment.

We’ll see.



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