Monday, September 05, 2005

It may be only symbolic, but historic St. Louis Cathedral came through without harm ...

Bourbon Street and the Old French Quarter withstood all that Katrina could hurl. That may mean that the Convent, too, withstood the rising waters. But that may be asking too much. It was miles away from the higher ground of downtown or Canal Street.

I find myself recalling that my parents talked about Uptown (the wealthier district), Downtown (Creole section) and BackaTown, the district of the poorest of the poor. I suspect that it was BackaTown that suffered the greatest losses. Having said that, I can't remember enough about those dinner table conversations to speak with any authority. Touro (not sure of the spelling) is the place of the home that I can vaguely remember as being our last before coming West; a small bungalow on an unpaved street. I know that what passed as sidewalks -- over the length of a city block -- were actually two long wooden planks set side by side and end to end to walk on every summer to avoid the mud from the daily summer rains. Those boards were dragged in by the neighbors and chopped up and burned in wood stoves for heating and cooking in winter, then replaced by the city the following summer. Sounds an awful lot like BackaTown to me, right? But then my proud Creole folks always referred to their neighborhood as Downtown.

I can remember (from my visit to N.O. as a teenager) that cigarettes were sold to anyone (children included) at a penny-a-piece from broken-sealed packages, and that anyone could purchase a drink who could stand at a bar. I remember seeing my Aunt send one of the kids to the store with a pitcher to buy a bright red drink called, "Jumbo" to go with the shrimp jambalaya. Sounds an awful lot like BackaTown to me.

Can remember when the Good Friday hurricane of 1927 struck, and resulted in my parents picking up what little they could salvage and joining my grandfather in Oakland, California. Mother arrived with 3 little girls and little else on a Southern Pacific train with Dad following a couple of months later to join us. We lived with my maternal grandfather, Papa George, Aunt Vivian, Uncle Lloyd, Aunt Louise, and Uncle Frederick, in a tiny 3 bedroom home surrounded by open fields in East Oakland until my father could find work and rent a small cottage nearby.

Small wonder that Katrina has reached her tentacles out to find me even this far away on the Pacific Coast. The tears flow as if it all happened yesterday. My need to fulfill my role as family savior in the way that Papa George did is driving me into a frenzy! I'm really less moved by the plight of my extended family members who are now most likely comfortably listed among the power elite than of those who are far more like me (at the time). My own experience as a "refugee" -- folk from BackaTown whom we've seen desparately cutting their way through rooftops and suffering family separations and dislocations in unknown places -- without Papa Georges and Aunt Vivians to step up to provide aid and sustenance.

Many of my relatives lived closer to the French Quarter on paved streets -- in wooden homes that all appeared flush against the sidewalks with two or three steps to climb to reach gates that led to inner courtyard gardens. The Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home was located on such a street -- but that area had lately been bi-sected by a major highway that cut into that community -- Claiborne Street, maybe? Most now live Uptown and quite possibly evacuated early in their SUVs along with the rest of the "haves." After all, that's the position we've all been striving to achieve in the world, and few can be faulted for having earned the right to the good life by hard work and due diligence. The Charbonnet would surely have done that.

Our extended family is now scattered all over the South; Texas, Florida, St. Louis, with a number evacuated safely to Baton Rouge. Many of us had already settled over many years in both Northern and Southern California. I've reached no one directly, but have learned from local relatives who have received word from some survivors, that most are accounted for.

I'm left with this emotional connection to those who've been left behind. I'm left with memories of little girl Betty now resurfacing fullblown -- of lying in a small bed on sodden clammy warm blankets -- raised high on orange crates in a small bedroom by frightened young parents -- with water lapping all around. Of shrieking winds and deafening thunder. Of wondering why God was punishing everybody on this Good Friday? Who had sinned so badly? I have these firmly-etched images of my father (the builder) hammering together a flimsy plywood boat with which to ferry people around town to what higher ground there was -- and my sister, Marjorie, being allowed to sit in the back of the uncaulked boat bailing out the water with a pot as it rose around their feet. I was too young to help much, but did get to bail when needed and no one else was around. Even at that age I can remember feeling the importance of being small -- because we took up less space and more people could be saved because we were. I suppose this may have been the first time that I felt the awesome power of one human being to effect lives, even the power of one very little girl.

Went to bed last night in my comfortable apartment -- alone -- with all those square feet lying empty when they might be serving the greatest need of all by being made available to others. Was reluctant to list my empty rooms on Craig's List indiscriminately to strangers when it might be needed for my own displaced kinfolk. That brought on a sense of guilt since it's quite possible that I won't be able to locate anyone ... and... . Perhaps there needs be a limit placed on just how long one should wait before acting on behalf of anyone needing to be housed.

I'm receiving calls from caring friends with offers of blankets, personal items, diapers, money, they'd like to give -- but want to wait until families have been brought into the Bay Area and are within reach. No one wants to burden a broken Red Cross system with gifts that their volunteers can't process and therefore would become lost to those who need the help so desparately.

It's impossible not to wonder whether or not many of those floating bodies are less fortunate members of my own family -- there are so many of us to account for... .

Even more important -- they may be all of us -- surrogates whose only sin was that they were too poor, too young, too old, too sick, or too black and therefore relegated again to "the back of life's bus!"

There but for the grace of God ...

But then I'm an atheist, remember?

(Photo: Dorian Reid's "Lion with Rainbow")

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