Notes from Atlantis

Random Thoughts from the Crescent City

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Notes from Atlantis 29

Dear Folks,

Okay, we made it through August 29. I was originally thinking I’d stop writing these essays after the one-year anniversary of Katrina, but I think I’ll go on with them because the story isn’t finished yet, the job of rebuilding down here isn’t anywhere near finished, and the continuing fascination, frustration, excitement and drama of being here never ceases to amaze me. I feel alive down to the tips of my fingers...and I guess if being alive means occasionally being scared to death, that’s all part and parcel of it.

I’m speaking of course of our recent brush with Hurricane Ernesto, which went on to merely disrupt the Labor Day weekend on the East Coast. For a while, however, we were “in the cone” of the hurricane’s projected path, and things looked more serious, so we made our plans. We’d already stocked up on supplies: cans of tuna fish, Vienna sausages, pudding, fruit cocktail, soup, deviled ham, vegetables, and Dinty Moore’s beef stew; water, scotch, gin, and wine; batteries, flashlights, candles and glo-sticks; and toilet paper, blankets, pillows and a portable toilet.

And that was just for HERE.

We had the same survivalist kit stashed in Bill’s studio in the Quarter (because we MIGHT have to evacuate there) and the same ready to pack in the car along with the cat carrier, clothes, shoes, coats, books, computers, jewelry and all our important papers.

All this was to tide us over for the approximately three-hour drive out to the Edmundsons’ plantation in western Louisiana, where there was food, a generator, cases of Veuve Cliquot, and Dickie Unangst waiting to cook for us.

But you never know. We had made our plans because after all ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN.

And we had also made our plans because August 29 was approaching, and the entire city was having a collective nervous breakdown. Picture a VERY slow-moving airplane approaching the East Coast with the word “Bomb” written in Arabic on the outside, on the first anniversary of 9/11. You wouldn’t know where it was going. You wouldn’t know when it was going to get there. You wouldn’t even know if there WAS a bomb on board, or if it was just a false alarm. But as you watched it approach and learned its projected path, you’d be sick with dread. And you’d stare up into that deceptively clear blue sky and pray, Not here. Not me. Not yet.

Because let’s be honest, New Orleans is still as fragile as used Kleenex, and the prospect of another major hit was frankly terrifying. It still is. I don’t know if the levees and canal walls will hold, and the Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t know either. What’s fairly certain is the drains are still clogged, the electrical system in the pumping stations is still very dicey, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet is still wide open, and there WILL be some flooding. The cops are stretched finer than a thin blue hair, there are something like fifty firemen on duty at any given time, every sixteen-year-old drug dealer in the city is armed to the teeth, and the law-abiding population of the city is armed too. There WILL be some violence. Add to that a Mayor who’s gone AWOL, a population still living in trailers, an economy that’s still struggling and suffering through the summer doldrums, and well, you do the math.

Cases of Vienna sausage and Dinty Moore’s stew may not save us, but in times of fear you do what you can.

So we watched and waited, and Sunday morning, August 27, I turned on the TV and then ran upstairs shouting to Bill, “We’re out of the cone! We’re out of the cone!” as Ernesto turned towards Florida. So we could relax, at least temporarily, and provisionally.

We could relax and enjoy the celebration of our survival for a whole year, if “enjoy” is exactly the right word, which I’m not sure it is. Not that the powers-that-be weren’t trying to put a jolly spin on things. Mayor Nay-gone (his latest nickname) had the bright idea of celebrating the occasion with fireworks and a comedy show, which would have been delightfully ironic in the midst of an evacuation, but fortunately more tasteful heads prevailed. Instead there were church services and a concert, and memorials unveiled here and there (pillars showing the height of the floodwaters in the Lower Ninth Ward, and a blanket of small white anonymous flags in Metairie Cemetery).

And we were even part of it in a way. Last January, Eden Gass, a talented local artist, announced her intention to burn a black-on-black American flag she’d created for a show at Barrister’s Gallery. She also announced she MIGHT consider selling it for a (to her) exorbitant price, and I immediately told Bill “That’s what I want for my birthday!” He made her an offer, which she countered by saying she still wanted to burn THAT flag, but she would make us another one just like it...a kind of phoenix rising from the ashes, which naturally appealed to us.

Well, she did, and it was beautiful, but we’ve never known how to hang it. Then she called a few days before the anniversary and said could she borrow the flag for a show here at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art! We leapt at the idea, since a professional curator would figure out how to hang the flag, and it would even have a little card saying it was “on loan from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. William Bowman”! And in fact, that’s what happened. We spent the afternoon of Tuesday August 29 at the Ogden, where a little piece of the Parks-Bowman collection was on display...maybe not the weirdest piece of our art (that would probably be the full-size mummified Pope), but still a worthy example our taste.

We saw the flag, and we chatted with friends, and we listened to Don Vappie (he’s a marvelous banjo and bass player) and saw a documentary about his life pre-and post-Katrina (I think it’s airing September 7th on PBS, titled “American Creole”’s great, so as the saying goes, check your local listings). It was a nicely aesthetic way to salute a time of so much pain and sorrow that’s still so poignantly with us, because really, sometimes there’s too much reality here for anyone to bear. Add a time of “harvesting” for some members of Bill’s family (his aunt’s death occurred following hard on the heels of his mother’s, and his uncle is far from well) and we’ve been a little frayed around the edges. So we distanced ourselves with art, which is a great way to feel without feeling too much, and it turned out to be exactly the right thing. Put a frame around anything and it can become oddly beautiful, and if that’s a good explanation for why you create art, then you can put that on my tombstone. God knows it’s kept me out of the grave for fifty years, and hopefully it will continue to do so.

So right now it would appear our prayers have been answered and the skies are calm, at least for the very near future, and we can take a little breath. And if that puts the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA and the State of Louisiana and Hizzoner “Mayor Renege-on” into gear, then God bless Ernesto for frightening us so badly. I’ll be able to write to you about Spike Lee’s documentary (which was going to be my “Katrina posting”, but which will have to come next) and so many other great stories and moments I’ve been privileged to witness down here.

Because that’s also what happens when you get scared to death, you start thinking about all the things you haven’t gotten done yet! So thank God we don’t have to hold the city’s funeral yet, since we’ve all got too much to do. I’ll be writing again soon, God and the hurricanes willing.




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