Season of Miracles
On New Year’s Eve, 2006, I spent most of the evening sitting on our front porch, smoking cigarettes. I do this on the porch because, as we all know, smoking is a disgusting habit, and it stinks up the house. I smoke on just one day a year, December 31st. Then I give up smoking as my New Year’s resolution. I try to set reasonable goals for myself. While offering a chance to pride myself on being disciplined, this maneuver also allows me to indulge my sneaky attraction to this filthy pastime without becoming fatally immersed.
I have always wished I could smoke as a regular thing. It’s so damn sexy. All the busy hand work, the delicate finger poses, the flare of the match like an epiphany, illuminating the smoker’s face in an expression of focused anticipation, pursed lips, maybe a little teeth, looking downward to watch that teardrop of flame come to the crisis point and burn a red crackling line upward. Then the inspiration of smoke. It’s so alluring, this nonchalant death wish. It takes a certain amount of stupid beautiful guts and a desire to engage in dangerous ephemera. What is smoke, anyway? The coiling gray stuff that hangs in the air but is so unlike air that it stings when we breathe it. It’s not supposed to go up in there, and our noses and lungs know it. We have to force it on them for the sake of a killer style. They get used to it eventually.
The aesthetics of smoking appeal to me more than the execution. Since I always give up cigarettes after one day, my nose and lungs never get used to the smoke. Each time I take it up again a year later, I am a virgin once more, and the smoke hurts the back of my throat so much that I never inhale all the way. Sure, everyone says that, but in my case it’s true. I just drag in a mouthful of smoke, hold it for a second and then propel it all out in a fancy stream like the amateur I am.
The vision of this gray cloud trailing from my lips fascinates me for the amount of time it takes to burn through three cigarettes. When the reek in my own hair and clothing overwhelms me, not to mention the ashy taste that coats the inside of my mouth, I make my New Year’s resolution.
“I’ve just got to give these things up,” I say out loud, gesturing with butt end of my “Natural American Spirit 100% additive-free natural tobacco,” as the packaging describes it, my crime of smoking tempered by the fact that these cigarettes are practically organic. I stub it out and go inside to strip and gargle and wash my hair. Refreshed, I face the year with strong resolve. Monkey off my back.
On this New Year’s Eve, I sat in the dark and smoked and reflected on the past year, our return home after the hurricane and everything else. New Year’s Eve, if you manage not to be drunk, can be an opportune moment to take stock of things, whether you’re in the mood or not. It was a cold night, and I was dateless for the holiday. Not that I care a whole lot about New Year’s Eve. It is one of those made-up occasions, a meaningless turn of the calendar. Still I would have liked to spend it with my husband. Sean had arranged to give a concert somewhere far from New Orleans for this New Year’s Eve. He was singing songs for other people, while I had been left to entertain myself, which I did by fouling the night air with cigarette smoke and wrapping myself in a cloak of resentment.
Until this night the holidays had seemed a true season of miracles. The Saints made it into the playoffs, a cause for great joy across the land. They walked into it backwards though, losing to the Carolina Panthers in the final game. The previous game had already put them in the playoffs by means of complicated mathematics that Sean had explained to me, which I then immediately slotted into the “non-essential information” drawer in my brain. Still the Carolina game was heartrending. To begin, Payton took out the first string after six plays, a mistake in my view. Then more crucially, in the third quarter with the score tied, Jamie Martin in for Drew Brees passed short right to Devery Henderson. Panther Chris Gamble intercepted at the New Orleans eighteen and ran for a touchdown. From there the game devolved, to borrow a phrase from my father-in-law, into a “cluster fuck.” After it was over, I had to lie in a darkened room with a damp washcloth pressed to my eyelids for half an hour before Sean came to me and patted my wrist and explained the mathematics that allowed our boys into the playoffs. It was an inglorious finale to their best season in forty years. They were still the New Orleans Saints.
The team’s abysmal history has long been attributed to the fact that the Superdome was built on an old graveyard that had been deconsecrated; yet many of the remains of those interred there had not been moved to make way for this super-duper civic project. The backhoes that broke ground for the building also unearthed some old coffins. There is a story that as they set the foundation for the Saints’ new home, construction workers would stumble across the odd unclaimed skull in the dirt and toss it back and forth like a football. Man, you couldn’t beg for worse mojo. In the winter of 2000, the Saints management hired a Vodou priestess (not Sallie Ann Glassman but another well known traveler in the spirit realm, Ava Kay Jones) to undo this damage. Jones conducted a banishing ritual in the home end zone, but to no avail. The Saints continued to be a disappointment to those who loved them the most.
My own theory, arising from my belief in the power of naming, is that it was just a bad idea to name a football team, “The Saints.” All the other teams have perfect macho-sounding names, appropriate given that the job requires them to be ruthless and aggressive. They have to hunt down and kill the other team, right? Even if it’s in a playful way. So it makes sense to evoke these qualities in your football team by naming it after a bird of prey or some other fierce hunting animal, like Eagles, Falcons, Bears, or Lions. Or you might announce your football team’s strength in battle by naming it after Raiders, Vikings, or Giants. Cowboys and Patriots are also totally butch. (Even Dolphins have a quality of assertiveness.) These names send the message: “Get out of my way, or I will step on you and crush you.” But Saints, for God’s sake. This is not the right image for a football team. Saints love to suffer, die, and be buried. Their whole purpose is to take a beating, not give one to others. Saints never want to cause suffering. They want to imitate Christ by suffering themselves. Their glory comes in the afterlife. No one ever appreciates them while they’re alive. Naming your football team “The Saints” is like saying: “Please come and kill me. Cut my throat so that I may bleed slowly into the ground. Set me on fire and dance around me, while I scream in agony.”
Yet, something clicked this year for “The Bless You Boys,” as the banners around town have been calling them. The new coach could have something to do with it, but others more magically minded have suggested that all the suffering through Katrina burned off the residual karma that had been sticking to the Saints since the desecration of that graveyard beneath the Superdome. Maybe so.
Magical origins or not, it was a relief from all the aching sorrow in our city to have a winning team this year. No one was immune to the specter of hope. The optimism has overtaken even a cynic like me, although, to be honest, my husband drew me into it. Sean may have grown up to be a Yoga Man—holistic and totally dedicated to nonviolence—but at his core there beats the passionate, tribal heart of a New Orleans Saints Boy. All season, Sean was floating on air. There were some nights that he was so excited about a Saints victory, he couldn’t fall sleep. We lay in bed on one such night. I drifted downward into the soft fog before dreaming. My husband was beside me. Or rather he was beside himself.
“Hey, Connie?” His voice had the wakeful clarity of a daytime chat.
“So who is your favorite Saints player? And why?”
If someone had interrupted my reading of The Canterbury Tales in the library at Smith College over two decades ago, to tell me that I would one day participate in a serious discussion about my favorite football player, I would have spilled my grape soda from laughing so hard. Nonetheless, I found myself at home in my own bed in New Orleans, required to provide five reasons or more to support my choice. I told my husband that I liked Deuce McAllister because he looks a little bit Chinese, and because when he lies on his back in the grass while the assistant coach pulls out his hamstrings, he gazes to the sky with an expression on his sweet face that suggests he might cry real tears. Then I had to conclude that my true favorite was Michael Lewis, also known as “Beer Man” because he drove a beer truck before playing for the Saints. He is my favorite because he reminds me of my dog Lance, who looks to be part German shepherd, part border collie, and part flying reindeer. Like Lance, Michael Lewis is handsome and light on his feet. He has slender, delicate ankles, and he runs like a maniac. Plus, Lewis wears the number eighty-four on his jersey, and it just so happens that ’84 is the year that I was graduated from Smith College. So you see, it all came full circle right there.”*
Sean went off to his New Year’s Eve gig, confident that the Saints would soon conquer the world, while I tried to have a jolly holiday by attending the annual bonfire and fireworks extravaganza that happens on the Orleans Avenue neutral ground, the local term for “wide grassy median.” This New Year’s Eve celebration is special because it is completely illegal and chaotic and dangerous. There are feral children running loose. Many of them have not had their shots. I always carry a Swiss army knife with me in case one of them bites me and I have to open the wound to drain for infection.
The custom is for folks from the surrounding neighborhood to drag their now-obsolete Christmas trees to the grassy center of the avenue to make a bonfire. On a typical New Year’s Eve, there are probably a hundred trees or so, all gone stiff and dry with age, in a huge pile within a beer bottle’s throw of the houses. At the stroke before midnight, I’m not sure who gives the signal, but someone who has put himself in charge lights the pile of trees. The needly branches flame up in a giant, orange, sky-licking dragon of a fire, so hot and intense that we all have to step back from it right away. In a flick, you feel your eyeballs cooking and your lashes curling to a black singe. It’s a serious fire. Beautiful and terrible.
Then the drunks who are ambitious enough to attempt dancing hold hands and pull each other in a rough circle around the fire. No one has gotten a permit for the bonfire, and the city would never issue one. The police are there from the start. They stand politely by the side and do not arrest anyone. Every year at about twenty minutes past midnight, the fire department shows up to put out the fire. They all know about it ahead of time. It’s the same every year. The firemen give us twenty minutes of savage fire-dancing, so we can feel like we got away with something risky. Then they roll in like indulgent uncles wearing big hats to put a stop to the nonsense.
On all sides of the bonfire for a couple of blocks, there are impromptu fireworks stations. Again, these are completely illegal, with no permits, and manned by amateurs who, even when sober, would not be competent to handle explosives. The only sober people setting off the fireworks are the feral children who should not be trusted with a can opener, let alone gunpowder. As I walked among the crowd, I pulled up the collar of my coat and kept a low profile as flaming darts whizzed past my head. There was no telling where a firecracker might come from, as none of it was contained. Celebrants set off their own munitions wherever and however they liked. One guy accidentally set his friend’s sleeve on fire by shooting a Roman candle into it. No hard feelings, just New Year’s Eve hijinks. Every so often there was a shattering blow in the sky that shook the fragile wooden weatherboards of the houses around us. These were the M-80s or “cherry bombs.” Pretty name. Ugly sound. Who sells bombs to children?
For years now I have sunk deeply into this way of life, and I consider myself a New Orleanian in almost all regards. Yet, this easy, uncontrolled access to fireworks reveals a cultural divide that still disturbs my sense of order. I can’t get used to the casual disregard for law, permits or safety. One charming and frightening characteristic that makes New Orleans so distinct is its open lawlessness, and I guess we’re all supposed to just live with it. As a matter of interesting fact, the zoning administrator in the City’s Department of Safety and Permits was out there on the Orleans Avenue neutral ground, drinking a beer and enjoying the holiday bonfire.
I left the celebration when a remnant from the fireworks rained down from the sky and hit me in the forehead, leaving a bloody divot. A friend had just made a nervous joke, telling me to be careful of “falling shrapnel.” We had both laughed, but then as I wiped a Kleenex on my forehead and found blood I lost my party spirit. I went home to the haven of my porch and my smelly cigarettes.
Falling shrapnel naturally led to thoughts of Iraq. This New Year’s Eve also marked the execution of Saddam Hussein. When the judge gave the death sentence, he let Saddam Hussein know that he would be permitted to smoke cigarettes before being hanged by the neck. How thoughtful. Had Hussein given up smoking while in jail? Here again, smoking makes its presence felt as the thing we all want to do but know we shouldn’t. If the judge had given a life sentence, would the former dictator have given up cigarettes for good? Would he get in shape for the New York Marathon? Or just clean up his personal habits so as not to annoy the other prisoners? Oh, but when facing death, what the heck! Smoke away.
The other detail that leaped out from the mass of words surrounding this weirdly medieval disintegration of civility was that Saddam Hussein spent part of his final hours of life dyeing his hair. He went to the hangman’s noose with a fresh coiffure, dark and virile. When I saw the photo in the newspaper, taken moments after he died, his face turned down with eyes closed as if sleeping, framed by the folds of the white shroud, I couldn’t help but notice his neat dark hair. I tried to imagine the vanity crowding out his other thoughts, as he underwent his beauty treatment the night before. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t piece together a sense of the mind that could face his own execution for engineering the mass slaughter of human life and then fret about his hair.
Yet, when I saw his shrouded body finally, after all the blood shed over him, around him, because of him, by him, he looked like a regular dead man. Worm’s meat, after all. Not unlike the other dead men I’d seen in the newspapers. When I looked at Saddam Hussein that way, I found his touch of vanity less galling. Instead I saw it as a desperate effort to hold a shred of identity. It was his final assertion: This is who I am.
Well, that’s done with, isn’t it? Now what?
We continue to count the dead. Around the same time that Saddam Hussein was executed, we passed another important milestone in Iraq. Three thousand American soldiers killed. The soldier whose death put the count over this mark was Dustin R. Donica. He came from Spring, Texas, and he was twenty-two years old when he received wounds from small-arms fire while conducting combat operations in Baghdad. His photo appears on CNN’s website that keeps track of the dead in Iraq. His face is fair and stern. He looks like he just got his driver’s license the day before and plays running back on his high school football team. Two or three more soldiers who were killed almost immediately the following day quickly supplanted Donica’s place at the top of CNN’s list. There isn’t time enough to document these events as fully as they deserve. Rough estimates put the death toll for Iraqi soldiers in the range of 15,000. God only knows how many Iraqi civilians. A hundred thousand? More? We’ll never know, for sure.
Saddam Hussein and Dustin Donica were not the only ones dead tonight. Two days ago, Dinerral Shavers, who was a drummer with the Hot 8 Brass Band and a music teacher at L.E. Rabouin High School, died of a gunshot wound to the head. He had been driving down Dumaine Street not far from Bayou Saint John with his wife and stepchildren, when a young man ran toward the car and began firing a gun into the back window. Despite the bullet in his brain, Shavers managed to drive the car another four blocks before he collapsed, an apparent attempt to get his family out of danger. Shavers too, asserted himself at the end: This is who I am.
Three men dead tonight for lots of bad reasons. All this to dwell on, and it was just New Year’s Eve. None of our holidays would ever be simple again.
The number of people in Louisiana who died as a result of Katrina is a similarly movable number. Nearly a year after the storm, the count reached 1,464 dead. There are about a hundred more bodies in the morgue that have not been identified or claimed by families. Still more are simply reported missing. That could increase. We wait and watch. Collectively holding our breath and taking nothing for granted, we walk lightly on this damaged ground. Our gaze moves among the splinters of what we knew as our home, searching for what’s left behind, whether dead or salvageable. This process will take much longer than any of us imagined. As it goes on, the search becomes more refined because the things we’re looking for become less tangible. Although the gross work of counting the dead has been largely finished, still we look, as though sensing that something vital remains buried somewhere underneath the mess. We are still searching for our way of life.
People outside of New Orleans always ask, “How are things going down there?” At the risk of sounding churlish, I am confident that I may speak for everyone when I say we are tired of answering that question. Tired of giving the status report. Tired of being defined in terms of this catastrophic thing that happened to us. We are grateful for the care and concern, but we just want to return to regular days in our city, going about our business without serving as the poster children for disaster. Being a nationally televised victim is an energy-draining identity. We’d like to assert a new identity. Or have our old one back. We want a different story to tell.
Unfortunately, wanting doesn’t make it so.
Okay, here is the status report. We are exhausted. We boomerang between hope and despair. Suicide has gone up, and many of the doctors who might help clinically depressed people have moved out of town. Divorce, domestic violence, and murder have also increased. The National Guard had to come back last summer because five people died by gunshot in one day in one neighborhood. There is a war here. Meanwhile the cops, the prosecutors, and judiciary are at war among themselves, each blaming the other for their numerous failures to protect us from thugs.
Thousands of people living in FEMA trailers, including my parents-in-law, who want to rebuild their homes, are stalled because the money they had been promised by the federal government hasn’t come through. The levees have still not been rebuilt to their pre-Katrina strength. The Army Corp of Engineers, in the mistaken belief that it was immune to litigation, published a six-thousand-page document explaining that the levee failure resulted from the Corp’s own flawed engineering.
A few months ago the police stopped a man because he was driving erratically. One officer tapped on the driver’s window, while another officer stood behind the car. According to the reporter’s account, the man rolled down his window and said to the cop, “Just kill me! Get it over with, kill me!”
When the officer refused to comply with this request, the man put his car into a fast reverse and pinned the other officer against a car behind him. That cop tried to shoot out the man’s tires but missed. Then the man sped off down the street, driving in wild swoops from side to side, intentionally slamming into the signs on the neutral ground that advertised construction contractors. (These quickie signs have proliferated like mushrooms since the storm.) When the cops caught up with him, he ran from his car. They wrestled him to the ground. All the while he begged the police to kill him.
Later we learned this man had gotten bad news from his insurance company. He would not receive the money he needed to repair his home. Not a jury in the world would convict him. The police spokesman stated without blushing that he considered it a great credit to the officers on the scene that they did not grant the man’s wish but instead apprehended him alive.
Most of us just get along nursing a chronic low-grade depression. We gathered at the New Orleans Museum of Art for an exhibit of photographs taken during and just after the storm. We clustered in small groups along the gallery wall filled with images of homes buckled and split, swollen bodies floating face down, thick dried mud crusted over children’s toys scattered in the street. Many of these we had already seen too many times, but still we looked again and cried together in the museum. Strangers now often stand in public places, at community meetings, or sometimes in line at the grocery store and weep openly in each other’s presence. No one apologizes, and no one explains.
I met our mailman Cliff on our front step and asked how he had made out. He told me he had three days’ worth of clothing and that was it. Everything he owned had been washed out of his home in New Orleans East. He’d be moving to another city soon. I went back in the house and cried for half an hour. I didn’t even know Cliff that well.
This was an unprecedented experience, to participate in a grief larger than my personal history. The storm was still taking a toll on my cognitive skills. I couldn’t concentrate on anything, and my memory was like cheesecloth. One day as I was making up the bed, I spent a couple of long minutes staring at an object in my hand before I could remember the word “pillowcase.”
The question keeps coming up: Why would anyone want to live in a place where this can happen? I found an answer from the people who had been in New Orleans during Hurricane Betsy in 1965. A few years ago I had interviewed a group of these folks for a story commemorating the anniversary of that storm. Each one of them vowed that they would never stay behind for another hurricane. But they also said they saw no reason to live somewhere else. The thought of facing an earthquake on the West Coast, blizzards in the Northeast, or tornados in the Midwest was far more frightening because you can see a hurricane coming several days out, so you have time to prepare, while an earthquake or a tornado can attack without warning. And who needs all that snow?
“People out in California, they’re crazy to live there with the earthquakes. Those scare me. I’ll take a hurricane any day over an earthquake,” said one man who lived in Saint Bernard Parish. “You stick with the devil you know.”
The operative idea here is that there will always be some kind of devil lurking around our homes, no matter where we live. Absolute safety is an illusion. You just have to choose the threat that makes sense to you. I also think that New Orleanians hold a perverse fondness for their hurricanes. Certainly that was true in the stories I heard about Betsy, even though sixty-seven people died in that storm. There is a strange intimacy we share with these storms, probably because when they do come upon us, we live with them for several days. Then to underscore this intimacy, we give the storms a human name. By the time they’re done with us they’re practically a member of the family. Every family has someone in it that everyone else wants to leave, right?
The difference I see with Hurricane Katrina is that people here are far more prone to refer to her as “The Storm.” We don’t like to say her name. Too close, too painful. There may be a primitive fear that we will call her into being by speaking it aloud. Her name still reeks with the excruciating intimacy of death.
There have been a few things in addition to the Saints that have warmed our hearts this year in our funky, messy home. We put on a joyous Mardi Gras. One float carried a banner that read: “Hey Chirac! Buy us back!” I dressed as a mermaid. Sean was a pirate. There were a lot of water-themed costumes. The Frenchmen Street clubs have been jumping with music. There has been a shortage of bass players, and yet New Orleans musicians are performing valiantly to infuse the city with life again. The hurricane’s wind and flood had scattered the contents of bird feeders, and the following spring all over the city big, yellow, fat-faced sunflowers popped up unexpectedly in our yards. A bumper crop of babies also arrived just about nine months after Katrina. See, this is what happens when people are holed up in cheap motel rooms for weeks on end with no jobs to go to and nothing to do but play cards and watch bad news on TV. Of course, many of the New Orleans public schools that those children will eventually attend are still a national embarrassment.
Back on the plus side, weekly garbage pickup has returned. Those of you who live in regular cities, I want you to pause as you drag your trash cans out to the curb. I want you to think deeply about what it might mean for you if no one came to take away your garbage for a few months. I want you to appreciate how fortunate you are that you can count on this vital service. How lucky you are to live in a city that works. Don’t take that for granted. We don’t.
Although we enjoy more basics of civilized life than a year prior, and we are gradually seeing more houses returning to a fresh, repaired state, New Orleans still doesn’t work that well. It lurches along, trying to seem as though it works, but that is a shadow play. To be honest, New Orleans didn’t work that well before the storm, but it wasn’t quite so obvious then. We all considered the city’s general incompetence to be part of the charm. Just like those flawed levees that stood there untested for forty years and then couldn’t stand up to the job they were supposedly built for, Katrina put an intolerable strain on weaknesses that the city had been living with for a long time. So that general incompetence degraded into criminal mayhem and negligence. The municipal chaos, the murders, the suicides, the looting, the hospital closings, and the schools that lack textbooks are more than anyone can bear. And the city’s loosey goosey, lighten up, pour a cocktail, lower your expectations, attitude isn’t so adorable these days. We’re tired, and we’d like things to work, please.
The loopy optimists among us say this shattering experience will make the city even better and stronger than before. That now we have a chance to do it again and this time do it right.
I distrust the big ideas, the puffy optimism. I have more faith in New Orleans’ essential nature that has been in place long before its birth three hundred years ago. That is water, water everywhere. This element that so pervades the city ensures that its forms and structure will unravel eventually. Like the houses themselves in New Orleans, all the visionary proposals will be eaten away by slow damp rot. We do not stand on solid bedrock like New York, for example. That city, although rather dour, over-serious, and not nearly as romantic or sexy as New Orleans, does function competently, and I think the hard stone that New York stands on imbues the functioning of the city with the reliability evoked by such a solid substance. By contrast, the wet sponge that New Orleans stands on is the thing that gives our city its character of soft yielding and falling to pieces. Nothing can change that. The water at the base of New Orleans’s composition will undo any efforts to reform it into a sober, responsible city, comprised of right angles, punctual appointments, meaningful law enforcement, and zoning restrictions. Why bother fixing the rain gutters when they’re just going to fall apart again? Humidity always defeats our best plans.
That said, I’d add that those of us who will stay in New Orleans and continue to call it home are the people who are good swimmers. I don’t mean that literally, although actual swimming skills certainly can’t hurt. No, I mean the people who can engage in the formless, dissolving nature of this place without fear of drowning. As you would in a body of water, when you’re in New Orleans, you have to move in concert with these fluid shifts, surrender to the otherness of the place and meet it on its own terms. This is not your element. New Orleans is its own element with its own rules that change all the time. The only way to stay afloat is not to freak out when everything slips between your fingers. A lot of people think they can groove on the chaos and the shabby living standard, but they eventually go back to the place they came from, New York or Chicago, where the trains run on time.
My childhood in South Jersey prepared me to live in New Orleans. The house I grew up in, known locally as “the white elephant,” with a soaring cathedral ceiling, stood precisely on the boundary between land and water. The foundation rested partly on the ground and partly on pilings that suspended it over the edge of the bay. I used to press my ear to the floor on the back porch and listen for the glup-glup of the water below. We were doomed, and it showed. Each year the house tilted gently downward, a little closer to the bay as the bulkhead shifted in the muddy bottom. There wasn’t a single ninety-degree angle in our home. Marbles rolled from one side of the room to the other. Certain doors refused to remain in one place but swung on their hinges according to their pitch in relation to the house’s slide toward the water. It was like living in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Now I can see that this grand, loose-limbed house formed my guiding sense that the rightness of things has little to do with the correctness of things.
Being a good swimmer also means being able to improvise as you go. If anything saves New Orleans from its own tragedy, it might be the people who have this skill. My sliver of optimism came alive on the day I worked with the Arabi Wrecking Krewe. This volunteer group started with a bunch of musicians, some of them from a band called Bonerama. It’s an all-trombone ensemble, which I realize sounds improbable, but you’ll have to take my word for it when I say Bonerama is a wicked hot band. One of the guys had a house in Arabi, a neighborhood farther east, past the Lower Ninth Ward into Saint Bernard Parish, that was completely inundated by the flood. His friends and fellow musicians helped him gut the moldy, ruined interior of his house to get it ready for renovation. After that they started taking requests from other musicians whose houses had been damaged. Before long they had weekly assignments to help a musician somewhere clean out a house. Arabi Wrecking Krewe came into existence because its members realized that if they sat around and waited for help to show up, they’d wait an awfully long time. So they helped themselves and their “family,” other musicians.
Although the process is in a technical sense “cleaning,” in reality it’s wrecking because it requires tearing out all the interior walls and ceilings and bringing the house down to its bones. The day I volunteered with the Krewe, we worked on Al Belletto’s house, which had been sitting empty for over a year. Al is a saxophonist and clarinetist, who had played with Louis Prima and the Dukes of Dixieland, also Woody Herman in the 1950s. Nowadays, Al was not in good health and still living in Dallas where he had gone after the storm put his house under eight feet of water.
That morning, I stopped Sean as he headed out the door with his harmonium in one hand, cell phone in the other, and asked him to join me for the wrecking. Since returning home, we had done little but look after ourselves, while volunteers from all over the country were pouring into New Orleans to help with the mountain of dirty work that still lay in the path toward the city’s recovery.
“This would be good for us to do together,” I said. “I want us to do something to help, even if it’s just a little.”
“I like the idea of that,” Sean said. “But all the dust. It could be bad for my voice. I don’t want to take the risk.”
Okay. I was on my own again.
When I drove up to the house, I met Brian “Da Fiya Man.” He wore a tee shirt that said: “New Orleans Fire Department. We stayed.” Brian was the foreman on this job. He showed me the assorted sledgehammers, crowbars, and chisels I might use, and he offered me gloves, goggles, and a hazardous-materials mask with air filters on each side. In full gear I resembled some germ-phobic, outer-space freak. There was also a big cooler of lemonade. Everything one needs to wreck a house.
Soon two trombonists and an off-duty Marine joined us. More volunteers showed up, along with some of Belletto’s family, who were trying to salvage what remained of his record collection, hundreds of priceless forty-fives, along with some trophies. One bore the legend, “Carnegie Hall 1946 Swing Competition, Award for Excellence,” from Duke Ellington. Al’s niece lined up the mud-tarnished trophies on the front porch and took pictures of them.
On the first sweep through we found sheet music still glued to the floor where it had drifted down as the water receded and then baked into the floorboards as time and heat took over. I leaned down and picked at something with my fingernail. I peeled it up and found an old check Al had written to the IRS six years ago. A check that had been deposited, by the way, canceled, and returned to him for record-keeping. Al paid his debt to the federal government, but they weren’t doing much for him these days. We got the guts from Al’s house out to the curb none too soon. The Army Corp of Engineers had just announced it would stop clearing away storm debris from the streets, as it had been doing for the past year. We went to work.
The house had old plaster walls that still showed the dark mud line about six feet up from the floor. The lathing behind the plaster also had to come out to make way for the new wiring and plumbing. So I picked up the sledgehammer. I had never handled one of these before. It weighed almost as much as I do. I took my first experimental swing with it and threw myself halfway across the room. Rick, one of the trombone players, leaped out of my way. The guys handed me a smaller hammer and sent me to the kitchen at the back of house.
The kitchen had a big porcelain double sink bolted to the wall and a brick chimney left over from an earlier century when the house was heated with coal. The chipped linoleum curled up at the edges. Vines that had found a way into the house grew along the ceiling. There was an assortment of mismatched teacups and saucers in the cabinet. A little wooden plaque was still tacked to the wall. It said, “Bless this House.”
We had to wreck this house. Not sure if there would be some blessing in that. I hoped there would be. As I lingered in the old kitchen, I imagined all the meals that had been cooked here, the countless buckets of red beans and rice, the chicken cutlets with sweet corn, the pecan pies. The decades of dishes that had been washed in that great white sink. There had probably been a Formica-topped table in the middle of the room where they ate their meals. I could see the past here, almost smell it cooking.
My job was to take down the walls. I balanced the hammer in one hand and hit the wall with what I thought was a good hard smack, yet my hammer left only a shallow dent in the plaster. I hit it again two or three times before I made a hole in the wall. This was going to be harder than I anticipated, mainly because I was a little squeamish about damaging someone’s home. I knew ultimately the house gutting would benefit Al and his family, but the actual process felt like treading on a taboo. Everything in my social conditioning had taught me not to destroy things. Putting holes in walls? It was rude to say the least, not to mention a violation of something sacred, the home, the kitchen, the heart and soul of a house. Maybe if I looked at this as something like surgery . . . We had to cut to be kind. Mine would be a ruthless compassion.
I threw the hammer at the wall with more vigor. Bam! That worked. A big hole opened up. I put a few more holes in a circle and then used the flat end of the hammerhead to pry off chunks of plaster. These fell to the floor in clouds of gray dust. Soon, I was swinging at the wall again; this time I started to enjoy it a little. Bam! and Bam! again. That was satisfying. Then I gave in and started whaling on the walls. I put my back into it, lunging at the wall with my hammer, bringing it around with a swift, shoulder-height arc . . . and then smash, hit the wall. Overhead. Underhand. Then I tried a two-handed grip like Chrissie Evert’s backhand at the Wimbledon Open. Plaster rained down on my head so that my hair turned floury with dust. It trickled down inside my shirt and itched. As midday crept up on us, it became smotheringly hot in the house and inside my face mask. I had to stop every fifteen minutes or so and go outside to pull the mask away from my mouth and gulp in fresh air. I was drenched in sweat.
Even people with normal anger levels would find this work appealing. For someone with my unexpressed rage, it was a godsend. As my hammer cracked the plaster, I punched out all the things that didn’t work. The unfairness. The dishonesty. The meanness. What an exhilarating outlet for aggression. I think everyone should wreck a house at least once. It’s so healthy.
Each time I swung at the wall I could feel a ferocious wave of energy moving up from my gut, flashing across my shoulders and rippling down my arms. I forgot why I was doing this. I forgot the images of chicken cutlets from the past. Forgot that a family had lived here. Now this kitchen was an object that had to be taken down.
The guys were doing an even more ferocious job with the rest of the house. They tore at ceilings and lathing, shattered the yellow tiled bathroom. Ghostly sunlight came through the smudged windows as the masked, goggled, and gloved men moved through a fog of dust. They worked without talking. Conversation was impossible in the noise of crashing junk. The men shoveled the piles of broken wood and chunks of plaster into wheelbarrows and trundled them down the ramp on the front steps, sending the contents flying onto the growing mountain of debris at the curb. And then back for more.
We worked like this for most of the day, pausing every now and then for lemonade and smoking. The guys wore face masks to protect their lungs from the plaster dust while they worked. Then as soon as they went outside for a break, they’d pull off their masks to smoke a cigarette. This was September, so I had already kicked my habit and stuck to lemonade.
By the late afternoon, the house had been rendered nude on the inside. All the studs were exposed. I stood in the front door and could see all the way through to the back. I looked up through the attic to the roof where sunshine glinted through the holes. The house looked vulnerable but cleaner than before. It looked ready for something new.
I relinquished my hammer back to Brian “Da Fiya Man” and looked around at the others’ faces. To a man they were covered in grit and sopping wet with sweat. When they removed their goggles and masks, they wore black rings on their foreheads and cheeks. Rick won the “dirtiest shirt” contest.
Every particle of muscle in my body ached. It was a wonderful drained feeling. My body knew it had done as much as it could ever do. I would go home to a bath and a nap, but the others, who had worked even harder than I, were professional musicians. Today was a Saturday. They all had gigs tonight. They would go home, wash up, and then head out the door again to work until three in the morning. For now, Rick and Chris, another trombone player, leaned on the porch and barely said a word. They were so beat. But they looked happy, gleaming and grimy. Heroic.
Later, when I got home I curled up my creaky, worn-out body—I’m just not used to this kind of effort—in a crescent on the floor. Lance joined me by pressing his back into my belly. I wasn’t sure if I could do this again, not sure if I was as heroic as these others. Arabi Wrecking Krewe had a house-wrecking scheduled every weekend for a year, and that’s just one volunteer group, among many others. The number of houses that remained to be gutted went into the thousands. The most meaningful recovery work in this city was coming from volunteers, people who were fed up with waiting, so they put on a pair of gloves and went to work, for themselves, for other people, for whoever needed help. Many came to New Orleans from other cities, church groups being the most common. What impressed me about the Arabi Wrecking Krewe was that all those guys were locals. They had storm-related troubles of their own. Yet they were able to dig a little deeper and find the strength to do more.
My motive for volunteering with the Krewe was at least partly a sense of indebtedness. So many generous people had come to help clean things up, while I sat on my couch and ruminated on death and suffering. I had to do something to add my share, however small, to the effort. I had to get off the couch and put my body in motion. So that’s how I ended up swinging that hammer all day. I got a lot of satisfaction from it. The other benefit I received at the end of this house-wrecking was a sense of what might be possible in New Orleans if enough people show up for the city. And just dig a little deeper.
We were a depressed place, this New Orleans of mine. Most of us felt that our nerves were down to fine threads and that we couldn’t take another minute beneath the weight of loss. What I’ve learned is that, just when you think you can’t give any more, that’s when you have to give more. I didn’t know where those resources were going to come from. Still, I think that is what New Orleans was asking from us now.
While I burned down my last cigarette on the porch and wished away the smoke and this dreadful New Year’s Eve, I remembered an earlier New Year’s celebration that had been much better. It happened on September 1, 2006, actually. The exact date is not so important. It was the spirit of the time.
This day was memorable because it had given us our first real break, slight but noticeable, from the summer’s heat. Like a reprieve, a faint drying factor had taken over the atmosphere. Just a hint that our stalker August might have retreated a half step. Almost immediately doors opened around my neighborhood. People came out of their houses, unafraid, not so dependent on air conditioning. I could see them looking around with relief. Maybe we could go outside and not suffocate. It was a lovely evening for a stroll along the bayou.
I took Lance with me to a wine tasting at the new shop called Swirl that had opened on the other side of Bayou Saint John near the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse. We crossed the Magnolia Bridge close to dusk. The bayou remained motionless. The evening felt like a light silk scarf on my skin.
At Swirl there was a crowd outside on the sidewalk. Beth, one of the shop’s owners, had set up tables and chairs. They held these wine tastings every week, and it had become regular social event for the neighborhood. Some of my dog-walking buddies were there. Les waved and shouted, “Lanque!” This is a pet name he had given Lance because Lance didn’t have enough pet names. Rachel, who has a Corgi named Arlene, was co-hosting the party and had made baked ziti. Beth poured a congenial glass of cabernet.
The party filled up the block, expanding to include the other shop fronts. Music drifted over to us from the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse. They still hadn’t opened for coffee since the storm, but they were open for everything else, music, hanging out, talking. Tonight featured a fiddle duet with Tom and Darren. Tom, who lives on Moss Street near our house, was barefoot. It looked as though he had walked to this side of the bayou, about ten blocks or so, over streets and sidewalks, occasional grass and mud, without the benefit of shoes. For most of the summer, whenever I saw him, Tom lacked shoes. This appeared to be a lifestyle choice, not absentmindedness.
Tom was also the constant companion to Pickle. “That’s Pickle singular, not plural,” Tom explained of his dog, a grouchy golden retriever/chow mutt. Tom did not take Pickle around on a proper leash, but a length of electrical cord with a frayed end. Lance was afraid of Pickle and hid behind my legs at the coffeehouse. Pickle barked a sharp reprimand at Lance each time she saw him on the bayou or here or anywhere. It seemed there was nothing Lance could do to mollify Pickle. She was forever rebuking him. We couldn’t figure out what he did to get on her bad side. I believed every side of Pickle was her bad side, but that’s just me talking.
Tom said he and Darren would play a Beatles tune. Turned out to be a tune from George Harrison, the sweet one, the baby Beatle. Tom put aside his fiddle and settled his guitar in his lap. He brushed his fingertips along the strings and sang in a low, gentle voice, as if to himself, “Here Comes the Sun.”
The song floated above our heads and hung on the air like the scent of sweet olive trees.
My favorite Beatle and my favorite song. I have always been a bit embarrassed by how much I love this song, how quickly and deeply it moves me. Not awfully complex or revolutionary, this pretty song comes a hair short of mawkish. I’m embarrassed that such simple sentiment can put me under a spell. But then I guess the only sentiments worth having are the simple ones. That’s the whole point, right? That any one of us can be swept to pieces with a few well chosen words. One more item on the list of things I dread about being human.
“Happy New Year,” Rachel said and clinked her wineglass with mine.
New Year? It was a little early for Rosh Hashanah, wasn’t it? Oh, new year. I got it. Here in New Orleans we had a new New Year now. Today was September 1. We had just passed the first anniversary of Katrina without mishap. We were in a new year now, thank God. A whole new life stretched before us. Until we got to the next hurricane season. We’d worry about that when the time came. In the meanwhile . . .
“Happy New Year,” I offered back. Rachel slipped her arm around my waist and kissed my cheek.
I swirled the globe of my wineglass and breathed the fragrant wine. Didn’t all this hurricane drama begin a year ago with a wine tasting? Here I am again and glad that some things haven’t changed. I sipped the wine. Thank goodness we could still enjoy pleasures like these.
The evening was almost unbearably pleasant and simple. A palpable wave of goodwill swept through this small gathering of neighbors. Hamm and Theresa went for ice cream at the market next door. Beth came out with a new zinfandel she wanted us to try. Brianna was chasing the dogs, trying to make them take a ball from her hand. Normal things. Tom and Darren played on.
Seduced again by a pretty song, I felt a rising in my chest. A bubble of something lighter than air expanded and made me drift upward. My head floated at the top of my spine like a lotus on the surface of a pond. I smiled at everyone around me. My face couldn’t help it. They smiled back. Warm and friendly, that’s all. Here on the street where we lived.
We had no way of knowing how long this feeling would last. As I looked around, I struggled to absorb this happiness for its own sake. This evening was just a small pause from our troubles. There was so much destruction behind us, and so much work still lay ahead of us. Yet this evening was the flower that bloomed in the crack between past and future to show us that some respite from suffering was possible. None of us had manufactured the moment. It had landed on us with the same arbitrary flip of nature’s whim as when the storm had descended on us. It was a gift.
Even as this pleasure rolled over me, I couldn’t ignore the hint of its leaving. I felt I had to take it in and hold it. I wanted to eat the evening, drink the clear air, and inhale the music. If I didn’t take this into my body and allow it to sink deep inside me, I would lose it. I had to memorize this time and this feeling. I was already losing it. No, I had it. There it was, coming over me in soft waves. Contentment. Safety. Ease of mind. Peace.
Later I was almost afraid to write it, afraid the act of capture would destroy it. Or that holding too tightly would smother it. Or perhaps I would over-imagine, make too much of it, and then be disappointed.
No, I’ll do it right here, right now. I’ll say it. We’re going to be all right.