The Dull Days of Hurricane Katrina

If you’re looking for high drama, sensational Hurricane Katrina stories are easy to find. But for many of us, reality was less exciting This diary is not to diminish the pain of those who suffered real trauma, but gives a daily account of what it was like for me and my 70-year-old mom.

Sunday, August 28

I took the only precautions I ever take for hurricanes: moved in all the patio furniture and nailed a board across my front screen door. Walking toward Mom’s house past the row of 100-year-old, wooden frame houses, I see that more people than usual are fleeing town. Don and Karen, perennial throwers of the hurricane party, are already in their car.

“Hey Don,” I say, “Where we gonna get our finger food and drinks for the hurricane?”

“Forget about us,” says Don. “They say it’s a category 5. Good luck!”

“Good luck, y’all, too.”

Mom’s house, a corner double, has a cracked window on the street side. Flailing around on the ladder, I patch it with cardboard and duct tape. Then we nail a few ill-fitting boards on windows.

“You think it’ll keep the debris out?” asks Mom. “Hell,” I say, “The way we got it up, we’re probably just providing our own debris.” We laugh at ourselves and go in for coffee. Mom comforts her two dogs. They are beginning to feel some anxiety. I plunk a few batteries down on the table. “That’s all I’ve got.” “That’s OK, honey,” says Mom. “I’ve got everything we need.”

About 5 p.m., Valerie, a Spanish teacher from the Canary Islands, comes over. She doesn’t want to stay alone. Of course, she can stay here for the night, and the storm will be over by early afternoon. But she begins to panic. I drive her just before curfew to the Superdome pickup site. Other citizens are at the pickup site, but no signs or officials. No one seems to know what’s going on, but Valerie chooses to stay there. I get home ten minutes after curfew.

As the night falls, I sit on the porch reading Jane Eyre and watching the storm blow in. Gusts of wind and sprays of mist become more frequent. I know somewhere houses will be ravaged and lives may be lost, and yet the thrill of the storm strikes some deep aesthetic register and I cannot help but love it.

Monday, August 29

Daybreak comes with heavy wind and rain, and the storm makes slow work of our neighbor Antonia’s shed. “There goes another piece,” Mom keeps saying. Antonia’s siding begins to peel like shavings off a pencil. Mom and I watch from the kitchen. She makes us some coffee and fries up a little something to eat as we watch and listen to everything outside.

The storm recedes in the early afternoon The neighborhood looks good, just a few shingles missing here and there. My car sits unscratched. I take note of damages in my house: awnings blown away, balcony screen door mangled, a breach with a bit of water damage inside. Katrina was not so bad. My neighbor, Johnny, calls from Oklahoma and I tell him all is fine. Another neighbor, Willie, calls more desperate. He and Charlene went to Baptist Hospital for shelter at the last minute, leaving Petunia the pot-bellied pig in the house. “Petunia’s fine,” I say. “No water.”

About an hour later, we lose all phone communication and, oddly, there is no rain but about an inch of water in the street. Then two inches. Then four. I move my car to the sidewalk, where it will be about 8 inches higher. Stacy and her thirteen-year-old stepson, Raymond, check out the water, too, but we are all innocent of alarm and I go back to Mom’s.

A few hours later it is too late to move my car. The water is only mid-wheel but the street corners on either side are too deep. Dan, Vicky, and a handful of twenty-somethings splash by with their two dogs. We exchange a joke, a laugh, and half-baked theories on where the water is coming from and when it will go down. I go back to Mom’s and eat yesterday’s mashed potatoes and a boiled egg.

Tuesday, August 30

The water is still slowly rising. It’s about three feet in front of Mom’s house, but her house is four feet off the ground. We hear of a breach in the 17th Street Canal levee. We’re unsure of the full implications.

I trudge through the waters to survey the neighborhood. About two or three families are still on each block, each saying to “come over if you run out of water.” A neighbor occasionally comes by in a skiff or canoe, taking the dogs to City Park or the Orleans Avenue neutral ground, where there are patches of dry land. When you walk toward Delgado Community College it gets shallower. Delgado (the main building) is dry, and fire and police have moved in. Neighbors mull around the Delgado lawn as a kind of central point and sleep in the halls if necessary. In the days after the storm, in fact, I would become friends with many neighbors I’d seen for the last couple of years but never took the time to meet. Mel, the music industry engineer who’d drive back to L.A. right now if he could get to his car in the high-rise parking lot at the foot of Veterans Highway, just on the other side of the 17th Street Canal in Jefferson Parish. Henry, the biker-type, single parent of twin girls, presently sharing his porch with the girls and another neighbor.

Mom and I go back to my house. My fridge and sofa are now bobbing like ice cubes among my books and records and Rachael’s toys and stuffed animals. We return to Mom’s and at dusk the water seems to have crested but we are unsure. It is about six inches from entry into Mom’s house. We’d better take the dogs to a neighbor’s second-story, stone porch, high above any floodwaters. We float flashlights, water, towels, radio, and necessities in the plastic sandbox Mom keeps for little Albert, and go down the block. The dogs half-swim; we half-carry them. The water carries a palpable smell of gasoline now. Bugs, and we suspect red ants, populate the surface.

We settle in on the stone porch. Linda, the owner, has evacuated. Despite the mosquitoes and other, less recognizable, bugs, we don’t feel desperate enough to break in. Mom and I notice the beautiful star-filled sky, an impossible sight in a city electrified with light. The staccato chop of helicopters interrupts the stillness at regular intervals.

A twentyish neighbor arrives in the dark at the house next door with a canoe clipped from the City Park boat dock. He offers to take us anywhere and asks if we want to come into his house. “No, we’re OK for now,” says Mom. “We’ll see tomorrow.”

Wednesday, August 31

We wade home at daybreak and I notice something in the window. “Look, Mom. My cardboard patch is still up on the window.” I am absurdly proud. “Ain’t that something,” Mom says.

The house no longer has gas or running water. We have about four days of food and drinking water left. We can dump water from outside or from the bathtub we filled Sunday night to flush the toilet if necessary. Still I am not worried about us. We can move about the area, and neighbors and firemen periodically come by in boats. I am worried about my daughter, who evacuated with her mom to Houston. Communication has been cut off since before the floodwaters came. She will be wondering day and night if her Dad is dead.

I walk down to Delgado. Everyone has their watermarks. Some say the water is rising, some say it’s going down. At Delgado, the firemen are pulling up stakes to relocate. They will take in boats anyone who wants to get out. I return to Mom’s, and Mom wants to know what I think.

“They said bodies only, no luggage, and yesterday they wouldn’t say where they were going. I’m going to take my daypack and walk down. If they say for sure they’re going to Metairie or Baton Rouge or Lafayette, and not the Superdome or Convention Center, if they let me take my pack, I’m going out to find Rachael. Any ambiguity, I’m coming back.”

“I’m staying here with the dogs,” says Mom. “But I’ll walk you down.”

When my little boat reaches the 17th St Canal at the foot of Veterans, the view in one direction, the Orleans side, shows an open sea with boats zigzagging around the occasional rooftop jutting up. Turning toward Jefferson Parish, it is totally dry land, bicyclers, people walking their dogs, emergency vehicles moving in and out of a staging area.

I walk through the staging area, bypassing the buses and planning to hitchhike out.  I look up at the high-rise parking garage at the foot of Veterans. Just this morning, Mel had damned all boats to hell and said he’d wait until he could walk the railroad trestle to Veterans and get his own car. If only he knew that the boats were going directly there.

Then I saw him. Mel himself, jaunting through the staging area. Some information must have trickled through the chain. He sets out for Los Angeles and I hop in for a ride to Houston. Another mid-city resident, Eddie, hops in the back seat with a near-empty bottle of tequila. But either the storm or the tequila is too much for him. The anticlimax of escape becomes more heavy and dull with each sip, and he gets out in Lake Charles, determined to go back and look for his girlfriend and her child, somewhere in New Orleans East.

“Jesus, Mel,” I say. “One black sock, one white sock, my Mom’s yard slippers, and nothing to change into.”

Mel is fiddling with the CD player.

“Mel, my feet stink. I mean, really stink.”

“I know,” says Mel. “Look. Texas state line. Damn. 890 miles to other side of Texas. I’ll stay in San Antonio tonight.”

“You want to stay with us tonight in Houston, assuming I can find them?”

“No. I’ll make it to San Antonio.”

Thursday, September 1

In Houston, I find incredible generosity everywhere I go and incredible distortion every time I turn on the television. Media coverage of the hurricane well displays the magnitude of the disaster but completely misrepresents the demeanor of the vast majority of New Orleanians on the street. To create the desired image of a “City in Chaos,” the media took the one sliver of the city that was most violent before, during, and after the storm, piled on a few rumors, and presented that as the norm, a city ubiquitous with racially-tinged violence. What was left out was what was going on in most of the city, in neighborhoods like mine: black and white kids canoeing down the street together to see if anyone needed help, families sharing food and water on porches, incredibly resourceful people helping strangers, people taking their dogs to the dry patches to swap stories and rumors about when the water will go down, who’s going to leave and who’s going to stay.

Epilogue: Sunday, September 4

I had not heard from Mom, so Saturday I went back from Houston with an inflatable raft to see if I could cross the three concentric parish (county) line roadblocks and get her and the dogs. I had negotiated a way past the first roadblock and into St. Charles parish when news came that Mom was discovered 150 miles west in Opelousas at a campground with Uncle Al and Paula (and 7 dogs, 2 cats, and a rabbit). Rescue mission aborted. Checked on Mary’s property in Covington and visited Mom at the campground. Uncle Al was happier than I’d ever seen him, with his raggedy folding chairs and his supply tent set up and his truck full of toilet paper and junk food, freed from all the aggravation of modern conveniences. Paula and Mom were equally adaptable and happy to stay there for as long as it takes. Now I’m back in Houston and planning a trip to Austin, where some old friends have their eyes on a couple of used cars for me.

Hippies

Log line for my new novel, Hippies (about 1/3 finished and slow going):

Struggling with the contradictions of the 1960s counterculture, a coterie of hippies discovers an LSD-spinoff drug that triggers past life regressions and leads to a dramatic climax.

Unlike Mr. Robert’s Bones, which was equally suited to young adult or adult audiences, this one is more for adult readers. (E.g., high school teachers and parents of teens might be troubled that I show no particular interest in condemning the behaviors that make up the furniture of the late 60s scene: the ample use of hallucinogenics and other drugs, the disregard of traditional sexual norms, the anti-war thread that can quickly morph into an anti-government thread, etc.)

Resurrected

Review of Resurrected by S. M. Schmitz

“Paranormal romance” is not my normal genre, so I’m not qualified to advise voracious readers of that genre. Coming at it from the outside, though, I was pleasantly surprised by Resurrected. It did build a mood of romantic melancholia, with attractive young lovers beset by obstacles, which I presume is the standard furniture of the genre, but was also nicely filled with descriptive subtlety and philosophical nuance.

Attention the detail makes things memorable from the outset, from the arrangement of freckles on Lottie’s back to the simple but haunting image of the coffin – “a smooth, blue rectangle with silver bars running along the sides” (11). The plot arc of lovers trying to thwart the blocking figures and unite is conventional enough, but the manner in which Schmitz builds suspense gives rise to philosophical observations. In a perfectly contextualized musing on the problem of evil, Dietrich opines: “It wasn’t that people tended to defer to authority as much as people have an ability to turn off this moral code they only think defines them” (188). The idea that “moralism” is “an ambiguous and fluid concept” (189), whether you agree with it or not, is an intriguing part of the novel’s dynamic. It is a tribute to how far Schmitz stretches the genre that I’m still not sure whether I’m comfortable with the moral implications of some of the novel’s scenes.

Moral knots aside, the novel does well at recreating the psychological haze of one in trauma or the twists and turns and little tricks the mind plays on itself while under pressure. The characters have their own little neuroses and defensive mechanisms accumulated over years. Dietrich must revisit his habit of “judging too quickly, assuming people were so one-dimensional” (132), as well as his long-cultivated if unconscious “belief that a person had to be perfect in order to be loved” (123). Lottie’s struggle to “decide who I am” (154) might sound like a clichéd phrase from the self-help bookshelf, but Schmitz deploys it into a context that makes it much more interesting, psychologically and philosophically. As the present conflict flushes out those hidden psychological mechanisms, the symbolic value of “resurrection” acquires more and more meanings, like ripples from a pebble dropped.

This psychological realism we get through the reflections and remembrances inside of these characters makes the flashes of wit and absurd humor, which might otherwise break the double mood of romantic longing and physical threat, quite natural. From grim jests as a response to tragedy (“I don’t think Hallmark makes a card for that,” 10) to Louisiana cookouts where the protagonists are “stuffed with barbecued meats from every mammal on the planet” (201), the humor fits in effortlessly, even if some of the male bonding humor falls flat.

Overall, if you’re absolutely averse to the conventions of romance, this may not be the book for you. If you’re accustomed to other genres – “literary fiction” or “action” or “paranormal/sci fi” – and willing to give romance a try, this seems to me an excellent choice with a wide appeal.

The End of All Politics

In The End of Racial Politics, I talked about how imagining racial harmony and racial equality today means shedding racial politics in all its forms – liberal, conservative, or other.  I’d like to extend that as far as it will go: Politics is dead. I don’t mean the government won’t continue its administrative function, but I mean something more along the lines of Nietzsche’s “God is dead” proclamation. Nietzsche knew that religious structures were not about to disappear, but he also could see that God was no longer a credible anchor of human belief structures. In the same way, for those who would step back from the everyday administration of government and re-envision a better society, politics is no longer a credible tool.  Best to throw it away.

It wasn’t always this way. In the 1960s and 70s, the hippie-based anti-Establishment movement was arguably more about lifestyle choices than political choices – “dropping out” of the Establishment culture of war, money, and machines, and testing new creative freedoms through sexuality, drugs, what to think, say, and wear, how to set up alternative living arrangements – but it was still able to use a liberal politics to advance things like racial and gender harmony and to open up things that had been closed. But sometime during the 1980s, “identity politics” reached critical mass in liberal academia, and the long slow death of politics as a tool of social liberation set in. We have now reached a point where politics on the left and right are equally about defining and defending your demographic turf and not about bringing people together. Whether Jon Stewart (whom I generally agree with) on the left or Rush Limbaugh (whom I don’t) on the right, it’s about proving how right you are and how wrong the other side is: us versus them. And the whole vocabulary of racial and gender politics, left and right, has taken on that us versus them mentality. Both sides have become expert at drawing lines in the sand, both now put an equal premium on stifling dissent, and both have long given up the mission of getting people to celebrate each other across the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and political preferences. It’s suddenly a long way back to the revolutionary sentiment of 1969, captured by Jeffrey Shurtleff’s stage suggestion to the crowd at Woodstock that the hippie revolution was different from other revolutions “in that we have no enemies.”

Without politics, all we have is the human heart and human imagination. We need a movement outside the scope of the political spectrum that starts with those two capacities. We need to “drop out” of politics, “turn on” the heart and imagination, and “tune in” to each other.When you go out into the street today, forget everything you learned about politics, especially if you went to college. Forget about how you’ve been trained into this or that posture of political belligerence. Start relating to each other, regardless of racial, gender, and other divides, with just the human heart and human imagination. Without politics, we might just rediscover the redemptive power of imagining ourselves into the other’s shoes. We might find that it was just those political superstructures, left and right, that each in their own way had us insisting upon differences that prevented us from doing so. Maybe the Age of Aquarius is still dawning. But we have to cast off the entire political spectrum like a snakeskin to get there.

Wearing black and whispering

Here’s another excerpt of Mr. Robert’s Bones, which starts another 5-day free run at Amazon on July 30.  (If anyone wants a review copy, I’ll send a pdf now and a free hard copy once the review is up on Amazon.)

xxx

The penthouse office at the foot of Canal Street was spacious, well-lit, with plate glass windows on every side. The south view overlooked the Mississippi River Bridge, to the east stood the historic jumble of buildings that made up the French Quarter, to the west the high rises of the Central Business District, and to the north the long view to Mid City.

Into this well-ordered space, where people worked energetically at their desks and cubicles, strode an imposing figure – fortyish, handsome and severe. He ran his large fingers over the dark hair flowing back from his receding hairline like liquid coal, with bits of silver on the side, as if some of the coal had been burnt to ash. It must have been an optical illusion of the glass-filtered sunlight, but the gel, or whatever it was in his hair, pulling it back into a short, tight ponytail, seemed to slick back not only the hair but the face, slanting the corners of the eyes up slightly and adding, by design or otherwise, intensity to the otherwise easy command of his gaze.

“Hi, Mr. Rex,” peeped a young woman at one of the desks, a salutation Mr. Rex acknowledged with the faintest nod of his head and without breaking stride.

“Mr. Rex,” said a bald man, “The rezoning uptown didn’t go through.”

“We don’t need the rezoning any more,” said Rex. “We’ve got the councilman.”

Still continuing with unbroken stride, Mr. Rex approached the door to an inner sanctum within the spacious glass chamber. A plaque graced the door:

REX ENTERPRISES
MR. TYLER REX
PRESIDENT

Rex opened the door and entered a waiting area before the executive office proper. A distinguished businessman with the air of second-in-command sat on a couch by a coffee table holding a neat stack of five or six magazines. Mr. Rex slowed his pace.

“What’s the progress on St. Peter Street, Cutter?”

“No go, Mr. Rex. The Finneys won’t sell.”

Rex gave Cutter a contemptuous look. “The Finneys need money. We need the property.”

“But Mr. Rex …”

“Admit no obstacles, Cutter. Tell the Finneys I’ll give them 80% of the assessment value today. Next week it’s 50%.”

“Yes, Mr. Rex.” Cutter bowed and motioned to leave but stopped at a gesture from Rex.

“And Cutter. Call Mr. Abadie. I believe he’s the assessor for the third district. Set us up for lunch tomorrow, say one o’clock at Galatoire’s.” Cutter nodded and left.

Mr. Rex gazed out of his great glass cube toward the north. Had his almost superhuman knack for finding and using all of the pressure points of power been accompanied by a superhuman kind of vision, he might have seen about three miles in that direction another house in the neighborhood that concerns us so deeply. It was a sangria red house that stretched way back, two-storied but long and flat, with no sense of verticality about it. At the front of this house was a large dining room; not just a dining room but a commercial dining room; not just a commercial dining room but the one presided over by Francis and Lorene Serio. Francis had been a bit shifty and aimless back in the 60s, but when his Uncle Anthony died in an arson attack on a gay bar in 1973, Francis took over the Serio family’s bar and grill, married his old high school sweetheart, Lorene, which caught her as much by surprise as anyone, and ran a responsible business. So respectable was the new Francis Serio that he tried not to work the faux marble counter in his U-shirt overly often, in acknowledgment that his body was toward the hairy end of the Homo sapiens spectrum and discerning customers might consider the wife-beater attire unhygienic.

We must assume that the extended rear part of the house was the family estate, with noisy kids and dogs and stray spinsters from the home country upstairs wearing black and whispering mysteriously over rosary beads. The front room, though, spilled effortlessly onto a broad, solid patio, with what looked like a second story above it — enough space for a crawl-in attic or a colony of Lilliputians, but not enough to accommodate anyone of boisterous Serio blood.

As the staff inside called out orders, wiped tables, or generally pretended to be busy amidst the pop and smell of frying bacon, William Jensen, Ph.D., sat on the patio between a concrete column and a crepe myrtle, sipping a cool one with his old friend, Allen. On this afternoon, the sunlight passed through the leaves of a pecan tree and filtered onto the patio in single smoky rays, as if distilled in the passing. Meanwhile, Jensen and Allen, in the grand hierarchy of male bonding rituals from the NFL chest bump to the riotous road trip to the barbecue cook-off, took their humble place with a clink of their longneck beer bottles.

“William Jensen Einstein,” grinned Allen, fair-haired and wiry, shaking his head in mock-incredulity. “Back in the little leagues.”

“Just scouting for the majors, Allen.”

“Will, you ain’t missed nothing. Nothing ever changes here. Mayberry RFD.”

Jensen eyed two cops coming onto the patio. “And here comes Sheriff Taylor and Barney Fife.”

One of the cops, Jarvis, had the bearing of authority. He was shorter than average, but bursting out of his uniform with his weightlifter’s body. To this peculiar specimen of traditional masculinity, the tall, broad-shouldered partner seemed subservient.

“Back in the third district, eh Will,” queried Jarvis in a blue-collar, longshoreman accent. It wasn’t exactly a question, but Will Jensen was well-bred enough to take it as such and answer.

“Sure thing, Jarvis, back from the riotous college life to the land of law and order.”

Jarvis sent his partner to Serio’s counter inside with an imperative, “Get us two coffee and chicory,” and turned back to Will.

“Yeah, you right. Third district crime down 10% this year. No thanks to that knucklehead police chief Mayor Guste put in.”

Jensen thoughtfully laid a finger against his long nose and smiled almost imperceptibly before answering.

“But the papers say Mr. Guste is a man of principle.”

It was enough to start Jarvis’s blood into a gentle percolation.

“Mr. Guste needs somebody to knock him upside his knucklehead.”

Jensen, smiling more broadly: “Now, now, Jarvis. We don’t want you driving back up the crime rate.”

The joke brought Jarvis’s dander back down and he laughed as his partner returned with the coffees.

“Ok, y’all don’t drink and drive,” said Jarvis by way of peroration.

But Jensen couldn’t quite let go.

“Jarvis, this is New Orleans. The last great refuge of the drunken driver.”

As if remembering something important, Jarvis turned back and put his rough, puffy face close to Jensen’s smooth face, staring at, or through, the persona of its surface, returning Jensen’s wry gaze without wavering.

“Be careful, Will,” he said, suddenly grave in demeanor. “I’m not kidding.” Then he wheeled abruptly and walked back to the squad car.

The End of Racial Politics

In writing Mr. Robert’s Bones, in which a racially mixed neighborhood in New Orleans struggles to find its identity, I found that the best way to deal with race was to take politics off the table. From my liberal brothers and sisters, I figured I’m damned either way. If (as a white writer) I don’t include black voices struggling with the issue, I’m marginalizing or silencing the black community. If I do include black characters who engage the issue, I’m appropriating the African-American voice.  Damned either way by today’s stock liberals, I’d fare no better with a conservative politics of race, since the whole hidden strand of the novel is to find and exorcise the demonic center of the “good old days” mythology that holds up the status quo. So I figured I’d have to jettison racial politics (in all current forms) and approach the issue armed not with political weapons but with only the human heart and human imagination. Having kids play some of the protagonist parts helped, as kids have the heart and have the imagination but haven’t yet been trained into this or that posture of political belligerence.

I may or may not have failed in this regard — time will tell as readers read and weigh in — but it might be time for society at large to try some imagination-based movement outside of the normal political arena, as politics on both sides seem better equipped to draw lines in the sand than to get people of all colors, shapes, and sizes to celebrate each other without regard to those lines.

Medieval Blues

I stumbled upon the following lyrics by Medieval jongleur, Rutebeuf, circa 1200s. The blues haven’t changed much in 800 years. This could be Leadbelly or Lightning Hopkins.

With my right eye, once my best,
I can’t see the street ahead …
I can’t earn a living,
I enjoy no pleasures,
That’s my trouble.
I don’t know if my vices are to blame;
Now I’m becoming sober and wise,
After the fact …
I discovered too late
That I was falling into a trap…
Now my wife has had a child;
My horse has broken his leg
On a fence,
Now my nurse is asking for money,
She’s taking everything I’ve got
For the child’s keep,
Otherwise he’ll come back home to yell…

Translated from French in Joseph and Frances Gies, Life in a Medieval Village