Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Moon Over Bourbon Street

I've been thinking about New Orleans, and about the Gulf Coast as a whole, constantly over the past few days, but haven't been quite sure what to say. Anything I can say about the current disaster would seem so trite, so meaningless in the face of all the death and destruction. My own musings over the bombings in my beloved London seem selfish in comparison - London has laready recovered, but will New Orleans ever be the same again?
The Big Easy has always held a special place in my heart. I went there for the first time at 8, a desert-raised kid new to the South, and was instantly enchanted by the place. The gorgeous old wooden buildings with their elaborate shutters in the French Quarter, the cemetary, the huge and amazing houses of the Garden District, the palaces of Metarie...it's one of the loveliest cities in the world. And it's almost completely gone.
A little anecdote that I think captures the spirit of the city...when I first arrived there I had never met a single black person (embarrasing to admit, huh?). I remember wandering around staring at all the jazz performers in the public squares and street corners (I'd never heard jazz before either...now THAT was a revelation). At one point an old guy who was playing the trumpet noticed little 8-year-old me standing there with a wide-eyed stare drinking it all in. He beckoned me over, and so I slipped away from my mother and went running up to him. He bent down and said something like "where are you from, honey?" and I said "I'm from Scotland!" in my best little very non-Southern accent. I don't remember what else the guy said to me, but I remember him pretending to find a gold-covered chocolate coin behind my ear and handing it to me with a whispered "don't tell your Mom!". By the time my Mom found me I was standing on tiptoe giving the old man a kiss and asking him all kinds of nosy questions about what he was wearing and why his band played on the street and what did they do if it rained? I remember the guy grinning at my mother as she tried to extract me, apologising for my "bothering" him, telling her I was no bother, and patting me on the butt as I left with a "you get along with your Mom now" and a wink.
What really stuck out for me was how nice to me everyone was. Even at that age I knew that black people in the South had plenty of reasons to hate white people, and every justification for resenting the presence of annoyingly precocious little white kids who ask nosy questions and interrupt people when they're trying to work, and yet everywhere I went people went out of their way to be kind to me. I've been thinking about that trip as I watch the news reports about the aftermath of the hurricane. People have known for years that something like this could happen. It's not like the weaknesses of the levee system were a huge surprise. Why didn't anyone take the actions necessary to protect the city? Why wasn't there an evacuation plan beyond "get in your car and drive north"? People in New Orleans are POOR. 25% of the city lives before the poverty line. Why didn't someone take preventative action to protect those people?
The deep-seated racism of this country never fails to amaze me. If New Orleans wasn't 67% black, would this have been allowed to happen? If Savannah was in danger does anyone really think that preventative measures wouldn't have been in place? And what the hell is the deal with all those TV presenters who keep talking about "looting"? Newsflash, assholes - if a person in a disaster zone breaks into a store to get food, water and diapers, that's not looting, it's survival. Notice that no-one accuses any of the white people in the same circumstances of looting. If anyone had any remaining doubts about how deeply racism is entrenched in this country, this situation should make it cyrstal clear. What in the hell is wrong with this country? What will it take to remove the poison of bigotry from American society?
Now there's talk about not rebuilding the city, or about redeveloping the land (condo city here we come). Has everyone gone mad? New Orleans is a historic treasure, and it's utterly irreplaceable. The city has contributed far more to American culture than it has ever gotten back (look at the musical history alone). It's about time that the rest of the country gave something back, and I don't mean drunk frat and sorority kids on spring break. We owe it to the people who lived there to give them their homes back. This is the richest country in the world - can we really not provide decent distaster relief and adequate redevelopment and restoration funds?

Addendum - last time I went to NOLA was about 6 years ago. I went to one of my favourite restaurants in the world, a little hole in the wall called "Mother's" which has been there forever. The staff is all old (not a one under 50 that I've ever seen), they serve a simple menu of jambalaya and red beans and rice and buttermilk biscuits, and it's absolutely perfect. Last time I was there there was a waitress in her sixties who stood there telling me stories about old New Orleans amd twining one of my curls around her finger while waiting for my biscuits to be ready. She reminded me of my grandmother, same shape, same kindness, same enthusiasm for life. I'll bet she didn't have the money to get out of the city in time, or probably even a car to go in. I hope she's OK. I hope her kids and grandkids are OK. Every penny-pinching bureaucrat who allowed this to happen should be ashamed of him/herself. How fucked up do you have to be not to care what happens to your fellow citizens just because they're poor, or have different skin? I hope that the people who let this happen are haunted by the ghosts of every person who died as a result of their selfishness. What will it take to make people develop some basic compassion?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That's a great story. Waiting for more. »