Sunday, January 06, 2008

Strange day, and clarifying

I had another day to get my bearings, yesterday, and so I did. I’ve been sticking to the streetcar line and the Quarter since I got here; reading the prep work Courtney gave me in coffee shops, exploring well-traveled areas, having fun. I’ve been needing to go back to the disaster zone, and see it again for myself.

I took the streetcar down to the Quarter; the tracks run right past this house, but the closest place I can catch it is four blocks away, at the current end of the St. Charles line. Got off at Canal, and walked. Lunch was gumbo from a café in the French Market; it was a huge bowl of muddy-looking seafood and veggie soup, over rice. Slightly spicy; very good.

I walked all the way through the Quarter and rented a bicycle. As soon as I turned right on St. Claude, I saw signs of the storm, in peeled paint, broken windows, and school marquees reading “Welcome Back 2005.” Before I went even a block, I was out of the bustling, intact French Quarter and into an unrecovered neighborhood.

I rode all the way into the Lower 9th, using the less imposing of the two possible bridges to get there. I had my camera, but I didn't take pictures; I felt very conspicuous, and uneasy stopping. Courtney had told me to stick to the main drag, but I'd never intended to strictly follow that advice. I rode up some side streets, a block or two farther than Claiborne. They looked exactly as they did when I was here nine months ago. I could look down a street and see no signs of anybody. There were lots of areas still deserted, overgrown; piles of debris everywhere, broken houses standing as they had since the storm. On one block, there were two men outside working, with heavy equipment; one moving trash, the other earth. There was a house in the middle of another block, freshly painted a festive Day-Glo green with purple trim, family names proudly displayed above the door. (It reminded me of what Latino families do at home.) On either side of it stood trembling houses with overgrown yards, and no signs of life.

I saw a stand of godawful hideous pink tents, and rode over to investigate. I’d read about them on the web; it’s this Brangelina project. There stood a rickety, makeshift observation tower; I locked the bike to a stop sign and climbed up. 150 house-shaped tents, three blocks or so all the way to the levee, and farther on either side of me. It's designed to be a sustainable-development project; I can't argue with the basic idea, as I do believe in it. But the tents were a color a friend once described as "Silence=Death pink." They seemed unfittingly gaudy. Acrophobia told me to get the hell back down. I did, and noticed a "driving tour" set up around it. (There were people around; I wouldn't have stopped, had I been alone.) Let alone the pink; it just felt so creepy, freaky, wrong. This may be a bulldozed and blown away section of the neighborhood—but the whole time I was in the Lower 9th, I felt like I was staring at the grave of a community. I could almost see the silence. Driving—or biking—around and gawking felt profoundly disrespectful and wrong.

If you come here, I implore you—take the stories home, and tell them. Use the time that you have spent here. Don’t just look, and go on with your lives.

On Tennessee St., I rode past a FEMA trailer with posters, clippings, and a giant white board: memorials of Robert Green’s mother and granddaughter who died in the storm. I'd read about them in the NOLA paper online. (The child's name was Shanai Green, called “NaiNai”; she was 3. Robert had lost his grip on her, and she slipped off a roof and drowned.) I read the memorials, stood there for awhile. Muttered to myself that I needed to talk to people. It’s what I came here to do, and I’m anxious to do the work, not just watch.

I got back on the bike, and immediately rode past a man sitting quietly in a chair next to the trailer. I hadn't even seen him.

I circled in the street twice, wanting to go back and apologize, but I lost my nerve. I felt so guilty about not seeing/talking to him, and being a disaster tourist, that I thought for awhile about calling a priest friend and confessing. (Not just telling him how weird it was; I wrote that in an e-mail when I got home. I felt like I needed to honest-to-God confess my own complete inability even to see another human being.) It was that intense; that piercing.

I rode back across the bridge, not chased by any trucks this time, and returned the bike. I’d been out just under two hours. The clerk asked if I’d been around the Quarter; I mumbled a vague reply.

As soon as I did that, and was walking through the Quarter again, it felt as if the experience I'd just had in the Lower 9th had happened to somebody else. In a different world.

I walked back through the Quarter to Jackson Square and the river. I stuck my fingers in the Mississippi, for Paul and Orthodox Mimi, for whom today is Theophany. (Paul celebrates Epiphany, too.) My hand came out slightly sticky. I did something vaguely like praying; watched the water for awhile. I walked back through the park and listened to musicians, relaxing. Mindful of being back before dark, I walked back to Canal St., and caught the streetcar home.

I don't feel as guilty anymore, but awkward. I know I'm not here to stare at people's pain, but to bring these stories home—but yesterday I was a disaster tourist, through and through. I felt so white, so privileged, so innocent. I’ve never been through that kind of hell. I’ve never been forced to leave my home, without the means to return. I’ve never returned to a place that still looks, sounds, and feels like a nuclear wasteland. Meanwhile I'm thanking God that I've been here before, know what I'm getting into, and know I can approach the people I'm interviewing with respect, that's not complicated by my jaw clattering quite so noisily on the floor.

I’m also feeling fatalistic—in a way I hesitate to share, since I’m working in solidarity with the people here. I don't know how that's ever going to be a neighborhood, again. I’ll be thrilled, if and when I’m proven wrong.

I want very much to talk about this; I need people to process with, even before I start working with actual human beings. Yesterday, my usual suspects were otherwise occupied: taking the GOE, sleeping off a sickness, working hard on a project, doing other stuff. I’m feeling really alone with what I’m witnessing. I can mention it to Courtney tomorrow; we’re supposed to talk anyway, and I know she wants to support me. I chose not to interrupt her writing. Mainly, I need to get past my guilt. I’m not a New Orleanian. I wasn’t here. I couldn’t have changed the culture, erased classism/racism, kept the levees intact, made a safe place to come home to. And though I looked for all the world like a tourist yesterday, I don’t intend to be. I’m here to gather people’s stories, to get them out beyond this city in such a way that people pay attention to themselves and their own surroundings, and don’t let this social devastation happen anywhere else, again.

Not sure what today will bring, other than church—which by now is a spiritual need. I was up several times in the night with a cranky digestive system—whose mood has barely improved. I think it’ll be a day to lie low, read, research, catch up with myself. This trip is less intense than the last, so far—although it’s longer, and once I’m really immersed in my project I’ll think I was nuts for saying that. This city is haunting, just the same.


Grandmère Mimi said...

Oh, Kirstin, what writing! You told the story, and you told it well.

...the whole time I was in the Lower 9th, I felt like I was staring at the grave of a community.

And you were, Kirstin. You were.

People need to see. People need to hear the story. You are doing your part.

Kirstin said...

Mimi, thank you. So much.

FranIAm said...

As someone who had been to New Orleans a number of times before Katrina, but not at all after, I selfishly say... I need your story, your words.

That is really not the point - the point is that the story must be told and retold, with different sets of eyes and different hearts.

And the work that you will do there matters greatly at many levels.

So as always, I wish you peace and blessings and I look forward to more updates.

Kirstin said...

Thank you so much, Fran. It's good to know that people need what I'm doing.


juniper68 said...

thank you. thank you. thank you.

God Junkie said...

All I can say is WOW. Your witness is powerful and we are all blessed by your writing and experiences.

Kirstin said...

Thank you so much, y'sll. It's good to know this is helpful.

Suzer said...

Thank you, Kirstin. I've never been to NO, but am getting to "know" it through voices like yours. I look forward to more of your observations, and to hearing the stories of those you interview. Your witness, and theirs, is much needed.

Mother Laura said...

Yes, indeed, Kirstin. Thank you and I'm praying. And remember I am always here by phone or email if you want to process it more individually than blogging....

Ann said...

You are witnessing our burning bush- the voice of god speaking out of the wreckage --- Moses was not much of a talker so God sent him Aaron - you are the Aaron for those who cannot speak. Barefoot and laughing through the tears - on holy ground. Prayers and blessings surround you.

Kirstin said...

Thank you.

Suzer, if you can come here, do.

Laura--I might call you. Thanks for the offer.

Ann--wow. Thank you so much for that. I feel I'm only doing what somebody has to. Thank you so much, for this image.

New Orleans News Ladder said...

Hey Kristin! Try going down into the Marigny to the Flora Cafe or Mimi's, both at the corner of Royal & Franklin, downstream from where I suspect you rented your bike (Michael's?). Actually, there is also Sound Cafe' around the corner at Chartres & Port. Very comfortable and local to the bone. You will meet friends at any of these locations, particularly Sound Cafe'. Ask the Street Car driver where to transfer to the Car that goes along the river all the way to the Mint at the French Market, then you can walk a short ways up Frenchman Street {killer music every night}, right on Chartres and on downstream to Port. NOCCA Performing Arts High School is two blocks past Sound Cafe...and there is a 24 hour full grocery/deli on the next corner over on Royal~Mardis Gras Zone. All have wifi. You can walk it during the day. This was my neighborhood until the Storm + six days of the flood before escaping over the bridge in a pick-up truck with dog Flora (named for the cafe'), guitar, back pack, water, dog food and bicycle. Living still, on the long road home.
When you traverse the City, especially on foot, you can take short-cuts through the axles of the wheels so to speak. Look at your map, how the streets wrap around the river, then you can see the "center" of the "wheels" and go for those. The may streets get into pretty woogie angles but that can be fun too. You might try the Magazine bus too. Forget Left/Right, North/South in your are in a city where the sun rises and sets on the west bank. There are no straight lines in New Orleans. However, Elysian Fields is lined up exactly North/South with the North Star, from the river all the way to Lake Ponchartrain.
Brad Pitt's project, "Make It Right" is building real homes for real survivors who really want to return to their home, New Orleans. It is a NO BS operation, seeded with over $5,000,000 of his own money. Angelina does not have anything to do officially with that project. She is however quite busy, with her own (30,000 acre) elephant sanctuary in her son, Maddox's, home town and of course traveling the world for the UN. They do live in the city and ride their kids around on bicycles on the weekend, even try to go to McDonald's in a mini van. What I am getting at is, I went to see the "pink boxes", at night, and had a pretty gratifying experience. All those pink boxes are gone now. The scaffolding went to Mardi Gras parade infrastructure. The pink fabric is being incorporated into handbags for further fund-raising. The solar cells that lit the installation at night will be incorporated in the many different designs of the houses to be built, chosen by the returning survivors. Everything is recycled. Of all the dozens of folks in New Orleans I have talked to about the "Make It Right" project not one person ever once referred to the Pitt~Jolee family as "Branjolee". They deserve as much gratitude for their efforts as you or all the others who have blessed our city with the kindness of strangers.
I so enjoyed your post and really thank you for getting into New Orleans in such an intimate way. Yeah, it hurts because you are real.
When you look at us, please see longer victims. That will make it easier to sit down for a visit...survivor to survivor.
Thank you,
editor / NO News Ladder

Kirstin said...

Hi Bruce,

Yes, it was Michael's. Thanks for the tips!

I'll take your point about survivors to heart.

Episcopollyanna said...

Wow, Kirstin, I'm so behind. I had no idea you were down there! *smacks head*

Just reading and catching up with your posts, which are amazing. A friend of mine who's in law school went to NO in the summer of '06 for a volunteer legal aid internship. I know the experience changed her life.

Well, God bless and I'm glad I got caught up with you. Keeping you all in my prayers. ((hugs))

Jane R said...

Thank you, Kirstin. This is not an original thought of mine: witness is a form of resistance. So is lament, for that matter.

And you will be a much better actor for having listened and looked and pondered. It would be much more dangerous if you barged in and acted without having first listened and learned.

Thank you for taking time to write to us in the midst of it all. Blessings to you -- and to the city.

FranIAm said...

What great comments! What great work!

I loved what Ann said in her comment.

God bless you in this work Kirstin.

Don't feel like you have to answer every comment that I enter. I just want to stop by and offer my almost daily support to you sister!