A FEW WORDS FOR NEW ORLEANS
Sunday, August 28, as Hurricane Katrina was homing in on the Gulf Coast, Megan Stiestra, a contributor to this site and fine writer besides, was reading at Chicago's Hideout as part of a benefit for the Serendipity Theatre company. Her story chronicled a writer's conference she attended in New Orleans in quasi-fictional fashion. It began with all the requisite sillinesses: a narrator's refusal to spend her time carousing with the folks she came with, her general depression, malaise, etc. But as typically seems to happen in that fair and riotous city, the narrator eventually acquieses to her friends' demands that she come out and play with them. She finds herself being followed through the streets by a marching band, and Stielstra's rendition of the story was backed onstage by a corollary of Chicago brass musicians, who played pseudo rags and generally upbeat tunes.
As the story continues on, the conference ends and narrator finds her way semiautobiographically back to Chicago -- she comes to realize that the band is rather miraculously still following her through the streets. It's a fitting metaphor to draw, I guess -- a rather easy one too, but I don't begrudge Megan the ease; New Orleans is a beautiful, infectious city, one that I once held fanciful notions of moving to, renting a room in a flophouse somewhere, and sweating my time away in anonymity. A visit there tends to stick to you, follow you where'er you head back to. Residents I always found had a specific sort of shine to them borne out of astounding graciousness in the face of their city's crushing weather, climate, and poverty.
At the Hideout, as Megan's story ended in ecstatic brass-band glee, I remember wondering if she'd intro'd the piece with mention of the hurricane, as I missed the beginning. I was somehow sure she did, but I didn't bother to ask anyone, and I quickly forgot the night entirely as the week progressed and New Orleans flooded and the lot of us got to watch the destruction complete with sensational interviews with stranded city residents on television. One thing I wondered: do these reporters load up their copters with food and water to hand out before they go in, because by Jesus they should. As N.O. mayor Ray Cagin said Thursday night in a frank and blistering plea for help, "I don't want to see anybody do anymore goddamn press conferences. Put a moratorium on press conferences. Don't do another press conference until the resources are in this city. And then come down to this city and stand with us when there are military trucks and troops that we can't even count...." He was talking specifically to federal- and state-level politicians, but the same sentiment can easily be applied to the national press, who most obviously has marshalled its forces to get there. Bring supplies with you to be disbursed.
On the other side of the coin, in a heartfelt "Love Letter to New Orleans" at the site of the New-Orleans-based lit mag Exquisite Corpse, editor Andrei Codrescu calls our time one for "straight reporting, of heartbreaking stories, of heroic rescues and superhuman efforts by good-hearted individuals and the weary but always-ready charities. It's not a time for anger, but I can't help wondering: what is going to survive of our culture? We already know who's going to pay for all this: the poor. They always do. The whole country's garbage flows down the Mississippi to them. Until now, they turned all that waste into song, they took the sins of America unto themselves. But this blues now is just too big."
And maybe it well is, but there are moments of brightness in the heroic stories, even the somehow antiheroic ones. My father told me one on Thursday about a coworker of his -- they both work for a water treatment company based in Slidell, LA, just back across Lake Pontchartrain northeast of the city -- the only employee of the company who actually lives in N.O. The 67-year-old man sent the rest of his family to stay with relatives in Arkansas. He planned to follow them out as soon as he could, but got somehow stuck in the city Tuesday on his roof with, he said, "three days worth of food and a month's worth of ammo and liquor." Last they heard from him, he was packing among the hordes hanging out on Interstate 10, awaiting a bus west to Texas. A salesman based in Slidell was dispatched to the Astrodome to look for the old boy, who according to my Pop's story swallowed his plight with a significant dose of humor and bile. Let's hope they find him.
Meanwhile, the water treatment company's plant is among the only structures left standing in Slidell, I hear, the majority of the company's clients among the ruins of the greater gulf coast and region. Hard times are ahead, but hopefully they'll pull through.
Also Thursday night my fiancee finally heard from her father's family, an Aunt and Uncle and five cousins and their wives, in Moss Point, MS, on a bayou just inland from Pascagoula. Everyone's all right, though some of their various residences are waterlogged.
For the forseeable future, THE2NDHAND's events will be small benefits for the rescuing of New Orleans and the greater region. I'll be passing a hat for a collection that will go to the Red Cross. The first such event was in Madison Saturday. Two follow in Chicago in the next two weeks, with Mickey Hess at Quimby's 10 Sept and Paul Toth 15 Sept at Hungry Brain. Please come out. See the events page for details. --TD
And the remainder of you out there, please do anything you can to ease the suffering of our southern friends.