Soul of the Lost City
I just talked to a friend, a filmmaker, who lives in New Orleans' French Quarter. She stayed in her house through Hurricane Katrina and got out last Tuesday with a gun, and her car, in dire straits. Injured from battling the storm, and with only the clothes on her back, she got a first-class plane ticket, all that was available, from Baton Rouge, to stay with friends in New York.
When she walked to her seat, she was asked repeatedly to show her ticket: Apparently, airline personnel couldn't believe a woman in black jeans with bruises on her arms was one of their elite passengers. "I know I looked like a heroin addict," she said. "But still."
My husband and I, who are also refugees from New Orleans, just called a woman who had posted a six-week sublet apartment on Craig's List. Since we have no home we can return to, we thought we'd stay in New York, where we were when the storm hit. "We are from New Orleans," my husband explained to the woman. "We need a place to stay--could we look at yours?"
"Well, I hope you don't expect a discount," was her rapid-fire response. "And how come you have a New York area code?"
"We were expecting to pay. There isn't any 504 area code," my husband replied. "We had to get a new number."
I decided I would rather be homeless than have her for a landlady. Refugees are sensitive. I know. I am one. And they swing quickly from one mood to another. I know. I do. Sometimes they are thinking: how can I ever make another decision in this world, when all those I have made up until this point have led me to this circumstance? At the same time, they have to make thousands of decisions, constant decisions: where to go, how to get what we need, how to stay alive.
All day, every day, here in the third place I've lived in a week, we get dispatches: a librarian and a poet we know, sweet people, got out of town after the flood by stealing a car and a boat. They'd become petty criminals, desperate to survive.
"It was like the War of the Worlds, getting out," our friend Donna said. She had left in a convoy with friends, going north. "The gas stations were closed down, no rest stops: people were wandering in the bushes, filth and excrement everywhere. Where we could stop, people were very silent, sitting on top of their cars in north Mississippi in the middle of the night. Hundreds, staring out, realizing they'd evacuated, but had no place to go. They were the ones who left. Their lives, even their relatives, perhaps, abandoned, things getting worse."
Her husband had been away, hiking in the Cascades. When he returned on Wednesday, and found his wife, he was full of plans for the new life they'd have to forge--the bank where he works would take him on in Little Rock, they could live in Arkansas. He was ready to act. "He didn't get it," she said. "He didn't get what we'd been through. I burst into tears. I have to weep. I can't move on."
I had a dream the night that I realized New Orleans, the city where I live, was being destroyed. The night the levees broke. I saw myself on the white bed in the hotel room I was living in in Manhattan. I saw, beside me, on the floor, against the wall, a woman holding a man who was stretched and broken, bluish, I thought, dying.
"You are the broken person," my friend said. "You are the one who is stretched, and a little torn."
I was having a hard time believing that. Or I didn't want to admit it. But it is something I have to understand: That to be lucky is never only that. And also: I am not so lucky. None of us are. For some of our neighbors are suffering, and they are us. We don't like to believe that; we spend much of our lives erecting barriers to that fact, too many, but they are us.
A week ago, when I was shopping with my daughter, buying supplies for her first week at college, if someone had told me what would be true in one week, I would have thought them mad: In seven days, you will have no home you can return to, and potentially, no possessions. In seven days, your city, your friends, your neighbors, will report they had to take up arms to steal to survive. Or beg. Your daughter's crowd from high school--lovely New Orleans girls in a photo on my daughter's new dorm dresser at a New England college--will be among the dispossessed, the missing, the rumored dead.
There are so many things to say, but this is the small thing that comes through right now, and is a kind of news to me, the kind of news you always knew, but usually didn't have to face: There are two impulses in every life and in mine: The instinct to save myself and the instinct to help my brother.
If I had stayed through the storm, as many in my neighborhood did, if I had been faced with the things they were faced with, would I have made sure we had a gun, would I have stolen, or looted to keep myself alive? That answer is yes. Would I have stopped for stranded people I didn't know, begging for their families, on my way out of town? To that, I do not know how I would have answered before the storm. Probably not. The answer now is yes, if my own life was not in jeopardy.
When I lived in New Orleans, the now-lost city, in my house with the handsome double-galleried porch, poor people came to the door trying to sell something I didn't need or to beg. Sometimes I was compassionate, and sometimes I was scared and wary, and without generosity.
And now, in the third place I have lived in a week, dependent as I have become upon the kindness of strangers, or prey to the suspicions of strangers, I feel the same two impulses: To return to the region I lived in and truly loved, and do whatever I can, which is risky and would be very, very hard, as there is very little room at any inn or home; and to stay in the North where I have many friends, perhaps to go to the countryside where I've been offered places to stay, which would be soothing, and a place to recoup. And an act of self-preservation, self-nurturing. I will probably do both, in time. I know I will.
During the German occupation of Paris, the great memoirist Anais Nin took a houseboat and stayed on the river, aloof from the fray. During the American Civil War, Walt Whitman went into the hospitals and nursed the wounded. "It's too much for me to volunteer. I am in no shape to volunteer. I've been through trauma myself. " So said my friend who stayed through the storm and watched her beloved streets collapse into anarchy. Policemen whom she knew well collapsed from such chaos and so much loss. So said my friend who was almost ordered off a plane because she looked a little scruffy.
I am frayed and torn, and there are certain things I find unbearable: The self-preservation and wariness of some native New Yorkers, the coldness of some Yankees toward the plight of my city. "What did you expect?" they say, "The city was below sea level. Aren't you people down there realistic?"
To them I feel like saying, so is Venice below sea level, so are many of the cities of the Netherlands. And would you say the same to the people who are dispossessed when the catastrophic earthquake on the Pacific Coast that everyone has predicted for the past 50 years finally happens? Or would you have said it to those who survived the Great Chicago fire? "It's your own fault? I hope you don't expect a discount!"
And also, I would ask: Was it unrealistic to build a city when a new country needed a great port at the mouth of its greatest river? Was it absurd for New Orleans and its region to provide the rest of the nation with so much of what it needed to survive--oil, gas, transportation, seafood, and sugar, and give Americans their only, and great, native art? Should we have kept it all for ourselves?
To the kind New Yorkers who have offered me everything in the world, who have been through many hardships in the last few years themselves, I would say: Your recent tragedies have opened your hearts and keep them open. There is really no point in living without an open heart. But I understand the struggle to keep the heart open. Especially in hard times. Survival is a wall. Compassion is a door.
So for right now, I am all the figures in my dream, at once: the woman on the raft, on the white bed, safe, and the one against the wall, doing the soothing, wanting to do it, and also the broken man in her arms, torn between two needs: to help and to help myself, and needing to be full of grief.
The Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva said that the soul is the capacity to feel. That means it is the capacity to feel pain.
So I say to the nation: Keep the door open. New Orleans has given you another gift--the invitation, the insistence, that you don't close it again. She was your soul. You would do well to keep it. A sage said, "If I am not for myself, who am I?" this is true. "If I am for myself only, what am I?" This is also true. "If not now, when?"