Ghosts of the Lower Ninth

January 25, 2009

Ghosts

I sat in Atlanta International Airport at dawn in early 2008, waiting for my flight to New Orleans. I felt like I was going to another country, nervous, bag full of electronics and tools, no idea what I’d find when I got off the plane. A friend said things are always different there than you expect. All I really know is she’ll be there when I land and in ten days I’ll leave.

I remember staying up all night days after Hurricane Katrina hit, listening to interviews of survivors and relief workers posted on Indybay, writing an article for Fault Lines about the grassroots response. I imagined ways to get down there but I couldn’t work it out. For two and a half years after I was unable to connect a good reason with a good time.

Everything there is complicated, even just being there. Ultimately I decided there’s value enough in seeing it, the expansive underbelly of inhumanity, of this country, of this government, of capitalism. It should be hard, it should be complicated, it should hurt to go there. It’s still raw. It’s the realest place on the map.

***

Driving into the city from the airport, the white superdome spread out in front of us. We got lost and ended up on a bridge over the river. I later found out it was the one the police blocked after the hurricane, sending everyone who tried to escape the chaos on foot back to New Orleans at gunpoint.

Bare foundations, fire-gutted houses, boarded-up buildings, mountains of debris. Two and a half years later. It’s hard to tell how much is just New Orleans and how much is from Katrina. We passed a grocery store and Kathryn told me a lot of people died there after the Coast Guard dropped them off and never came back.

We’re staying in St. Roch, in a shotgun some friends bought a few years ago. It had been abandoned for a little while, then squatted. They’ve been slowly rebuilding it from the inside out. On their street people hang out on porches and listen to blues. A lot of houses have ‘TFW’ spray-painted on them: Toxic Flood Water. At first I thought it might be a ubiquitous tag. Turns out it is: Katrina Was Here. Police cars blow by, sirens wailing. I heard helicopters every day.

We sat in the dark drinking beer with Randy on what was left of his stoop in the Lower Ninth Ward. A woman appeared, asked us for change. No one had any. ‘That’s how it is nowadays here in Nawlins,’ Randy said later in his Louisiana drawl. ‘People ask you for a dollar and when you pull it out they see you got money and they want it all. You gotst ta’ use your head. People are hongry.’

Most houses on his block are still empty. Most have the big X with numbers and letters around it scrawled next to the door, the code relief workers used to show which houses had been checked and how many bodies they’d found inside. A lot of people now have tattoos of that X.

Just being there, seeing even a little bit of it, makes it real in a way newspaper articles and TV news clips can’t. The fear, the trauma, the death, the loss. The total utter neglect and abandonment. Left for dead.

***

One afternoon Eric, the guy we stayed with, went to pick up a bike from someone in the Marigny. He said goodbye, the door shut, and before he could start riding he heard footsteps pound up behind him. ‘Give me all your fucking money!’ one masked guy yelled at him. Eric hesitated. The other pulled out a gun.

Eric backed up against a car and froze. Suddenly, through the hole in the mask, he saw a mouth break into a smile. Then it laughed. ‘Oh shit, we fuckin scared you! We’re just playin! But you sure was scared!’

They were just kids, maybe 15, running around with a toy gun. All Eric could do was laugh too. One of them tried to give him dap, like they were friends now. Then they walked off, still laughing about it.

When we got home later that evening Eric was still a little shaky. Giggly, a little manic.

‘I should have fucking punched that kid in the face after they told me it was a joke,’ he said excitedly after telling us what’d happened. ‘Knocked him out, taught him a fucking lesson. This shit’s no joke. They can’t just run around doing that shit to people. They think just cause I’m white I’m not going to do anything?  I should have broken that fucker’s nose. See if he thinks it’s funny then.’

I asked Eric if he thought he’d have reacted like this before living in New Orleans. He said no.

***

A scarred wooden table, eaves extended, in an old kitchen with unfinished floors and water-stained ancient paint chipping off the walls. Angry dogs barking outside. Loose windowpanes rattle when the wind blows or when a car drives by, bass rumbling. The small hole in the wall makes it as cold inside as out.

Facial tattoos and three-piece suits. Junky single speeds tied up with rusty chains. Accordions. Banjos. Violins. Drinking all night in 24-hour bars and then riding home in a pack, leashed dog running alongside.

An abandoned house on every block. Boarded-up schools whose marquees still say ‘CLASSES RESUME 8-15-05.’ Slack power lines. Black folks on porches. Narrow streets like minefields. Little kids with guns. Parades every week.

Entire city blocks reduced to empty fields. Stairs to nowhere. Collapsing walls, smashed roofs, piles of rubble. Silence. Dead neighborhoods.

A sick city. Tents under the freeway. Projects sealed up with barbed wire. Forced diaspora. At gunpoint. Military police patrolling the streets. History slowly sinking into the river.

This must be the saddest city, the most tragic. It makes true everything I think about pleasure and pain, about how a lot of one creates the potential for as much of the other. People are so consistently and systematically fucked over – and have been for hundreds of years – that there’s nothing to do but celebrate. Celebrate whatever you have, whatever you want, whatever you lost.

This city is for real – what it is, what it was, what it will never be and what it will always be. The magnitude of helpless hopelessness it evokes in me is impossible to describe.

Nothing here is simple, or the only simple thing is the anger, the injustice. It’s all so big it makes me lose faith in everything. After the hurricane everyone said this is their chance to get rid of the black folks, to tear down the projects, destroy the neighborhoods, and keep them from coming back. Everyone knew what was going to happen, every step of the way, and no one’s been able to stop any of it.

***

It’s also the most magical city, the most singular.

I went back again last summer. BBQ sandwiches in the sweaty sticky sunny summer afternoon, beer under the giant live oaks in City Park, dodging potholes and stopping for rumbling freight trains, human statues on Bourbon Street and kids with bottle caps glued to their shoes tap dancing on Decatur, everyone hustling the drunk tourists, everyone scraping to get by, hurricane-twisted wharves and collapsed roofs and peeling paint, rebuilding and rebuilding and rebuilding and warding off chaos just enough so the walls don’t fall down. Survive all day and celebrate surviving all night.

We met an old man who’d grown up in the Lower Ninth Ward who said their culture is about a way of life and this way of life has nothing to do with money – ‘If money was what we wanted, do you think we’d still be here?’ he asked us. The brass bands and neighborhood parades are therapy, he said.

New Orleans, a living, breathing, crumbling monument to struggle and spirit, to endurance and the recognition of humanity. It’s raw in its brutality, its violence and poverty and heat and depravity, and this rawness is honest. It corrodes illusion (if you leave the French Quarter at least). This is how it is and you can’t look away.

People there want to get by and have fun doing it and this simplicity, this directness and lack of pretense, is what makes it unlike anywhere else in this country of image and advertisement, smoke and mirrors. It looks and feels like Mexico or Costa Rica or India where more people share in the common pursuit of life itself and recognize this commonality in each other, waving at strangers and stopping to chat with neighbors.

***

A half-mile or so from the old man’s house was where the Industrial Canal broke during Katrina and a barge poured in with all the water. I knew the destruction was extreme there, but I didn’t understand that there was nothing left: what used to be a neighborhood now looks like a park, block after block of grass and weeds with the occasional bits of foundation poking through like long-forgotten gravestones.

New Orleans is haunted, haunted by the ghosts of abused slaves, murdered kids, and flattened neighborhoods. Even the houses have ghosts, footprints left behind to remind us of a resilient history and heritage that won’t just disappear.

Requiem 1

Requiem 2

Requiem 3

Requiem 4

Requiem 5

Requiem 6

Requiem 7

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