In New Orleans fairly recently, I lunched with my cousin, Janice. Her 1950s-style St. Bernard Parish home now has mold-covered caved-in walls. Her cats are dead. She lives with a co-worker. Her job with a city college may ultimately disappear; with enrollment records lost, employees could be let go.
As I pulled into the parking lot of New Orleans Hamburger & Seafood Company on Veterans Boulevard, Janice stood outside, looking well. Considering all she had experienced, that was a blessing. Inside, we chatted as we inched towards the counter to order our meals. I was amazed at all the people, as if everyone in town was there. Janice explained that few restaurants were open. Most of the ones that were had limited hours, closing after dinner.
“I’d like to force George Bush to come down here and stay for awhile.” Animated, Janice was eager to talk. “We’ll lock him up and not let him go ‘til he pays attention.” The fever in her soul was at a tangible pitch. “Congress would have to act to really help us to get Bush released.”
She shrugged. “Throw away the key.”
Is it Bush’s fault?
“He is the president.” Janice was unapologetic. “Last night’s TV news asked, ‘Should we rebuild New Orleans?’” We took another few steps forward in line. “Should we?!” Her voice rose. “We are rebuilding Iraq – and there’s question of rebuilding New Orleans?”
She stood next to me in clothes bought with Red Cross money. Her usually-smiling face was visibly tired, stressed. Simple questions asked of her, like, “How are you?” meant little anymore. It's our nature -- when faced with adversity, we humans do what we can . . . we continue.
Around us, there were laughing, chattering families. White-collar workers. Construction folks. They came to rebuild.
Remember that. These people came to help New Orleans rebuild.
Janice talked at length about her neighborhood. Strict curfew. Spotty electricity. Water and sewer service no better. In her area, as in others hardest hit, National Guardsmen turned away folks without local identification.
The National Guard policing American neighborhoods.
We had finally reached the counter, ordered lunch, and found a table. Uliana, one of Janice’s friends, joined us. “I wish the National Guard would stay!" she gushed, hearing the tail end of our latest stream of conversation. We were settling in to our meal. "I thanked them the other night,” Uliana continued. She wasn't eating; she just wanted to talk.
A passionate young woman, Uliana expressed clear dissatisfaction, almost disgust, with New Orleans police. She told me the smiles I saw around us were, “. . . shell shock. Mostly shell shock. We go about our business because we have to do something.” She shook her head. “We cope, going through the motions.”
The midday meal continued. A normal event, but what was normal anymore? How can anyone ever get over the destruction of not only a city, but a lifestyle -- a generations-old history? The best way to return to “normal” for all of us has always been to go back to what’s familiar to us.
This made sense as I thought about it. And the businesses in New Orleans that on the surface appeared to have bounced back fastest were . . . restaurants.
What was Louisiana known for?
Later that day, I drove around the historically-poor Bywater neighborhood. Through the 1800s and into the 1900s, my mother’s family woke and slept in Bywater. Married and died there. At that very moment, generations of them were buried there.
Over the years I have roamed the hauntingly-beautiful St. Vincent de Paul cemetery in this very old part of New Orleans, visiting those tombs that held my ancestor's remains.
Through painstaking research, poring over court records and antiquated documents, breathing in the delicious air of Louisiana libraries and courthouses, I had pinpointed actual family homes and, subsequently, driven by them, year after year after year, imagining how it had been for those that had come before me.
Homes that had withstood over a century’s hardships were now, suddenly, taken down to their cornerstones. I saw people standing in what had been their front yards, wearing gloves and facemasks and looking almost lost, like something from Star Wars come down to play a bad joke on this Mississippi River city.
These people were tossing out mattresses, furniture, scraps of who they’d been. With each individual toss tearfully disappeared priceless pieces of life, becoming nothing more than ghostly memories. What I saw at that moment in a neighborhood that was nostalgically beloved to me, but which meant all to those folks who had, but a few months earlier, lived there, had become nothing more than slimy, sludge-laden wisps of nothingness.
Nothingness. Where there had been vibrant, breathing life, nothingness had taken root.
Janice’s questions haunted me. All I could think, the words ringing over and over and over in my crying brain, was that it just didn't have to stay this way. How could we even consider rebuilding of Iraq, but not New Orleans? Why were we treating The Queen like the unwanted stepchild?
Who was going to answer for this travesty?
Barely-hinged doors hung open. Gaping holes showed in rooftops where people had literally turned their faces to the heavens and begged not to drown. Cars had jagged holes in the windows. Water lines swallowed abandoned autos. Refrigerators, toys, clothing littered the roadside. Sandbagged stop signs replaced streetlights. Other stop signs hung dejectedly upside down, as if to say they really no longer wanted me to stop. “Xs” marked the entry of law officials into those structures that had once been homes filled with life . . . all now nothing more than memories of worlds lost.
How did we let this happen?
Is the future of New Orleans less important than Iraq’s future? Why would we even give a second's thought to such an unthinkable idea? Ultimate, basic questions. Even more, what was the cost of one life in Iraq against one life in New Orleans?
Why do we say “if” with New Orleans, “when” regarding Iraq?
C'mon, folks. Think about this. Really think about it. Let’s hold George Bush accountable in Jackson Square in downtown New Orleans, not releasing him until he and Congress have a plan to rebuild The Big Easy, a not easy task, and enough money to support the plan.
Put Janice and Uliana in charge, with the people of New Orleans -- all of them -- as their Congress. Then we'll see how ludicrous it is to debate this point.