The bottle is already in place, standing stoically on an end table beside her chair as I step into the room. I can tell that the bottle and its brethren have seen heavy duty in the six weeks since the storm. She takes a seat alongside the bottle, pouring a tall tumbler for herself. She does not offer any to me. I am not certain whether I would accept it if she did. The room is dim and stuffy. Her paintings peer down at us from every angle, sallow portraits of aching people, or perhaps that is merely the mood I am imposing upon them.
She talks about the storm, about the fear and the heat and the sounds and smells and not-quite-sights she took in from her vantage point overlooking Magazine Street. She talks about wind and rain and standing water. She talks about people passing by and the uniforms they wore both official and unofficial and how those uniforms were little help in deciding who might be friend and who might be foe.
She talks about Vera.
Vera, who became the most iconic and ironic non-face of the storm. Vera, who died because too many people could not see her in life but who was seen by millions in death. Vera, whose tomb was both a passionate prayer and a confirmation that prayer itself was futile. Vera, who was her neighbor.
She says she did not know Vera well but saw her around the neighborhood. They said hello to each other in passing. She knew Vera well enough to recognize who she was when she saw her lying dead in the street.
She says there were National Guardsmen stationed a few blocks up Jackson. She went to them, told them about Vera, asked if she could be taken somewhere, given a decent burial. She says she received some vague assurances and little else.
She takes a sip from the tumbler and stares quietly for a moment. She looks as weary as any person I have ever seen. Her eyes are cold, stony. Her face is drawn, expressing no discernable emotion because there is none that can convey what is going on behind those eyes. She looks not broken but tired. Battered. Hollow. Tired.
She says the neighbors who stayed realized that if anything was to be done for Vera it would fall upon them to do it. They acted not only out of sympathy for their fallen neighbor, not only to restore some dignity to a life laid bare, but also out of grim necessity. A body left in the Southern sun for days becomes an issue for all those around it. She says it was evident that no one with the credentials or capacity to deal with Vera was going to do so. And so they built a mausoleum out of the stone and brick strewn about the neighborhood, created a private cemetery on the corner of Magazine and Jackson, placed poor Vera inside as tenderly as the situation allowed. She painted an epitaph that may not have been the eulogy Vera deserved but was at least a signpost the world required: “HERE LIES VERA. GOD HELP US.” And then they went home.
She drinks again from the tumbler and stares at nothing and everything. Vera is gone now, off to St. Gabriel’s and the crematorium. The pile of bricks remains, bereft of function now, just another heap of rubble in a city abounding with the same. Magazine Street is returning to life, bleary-eyed homecomers lining up for pizzas and coffee and t-shirts emblazoned with slogans of protest. She sees them pass Jackson and Magazine in somber silence and ignorant chatter, each as noisy as the other.
Vera is gone. But she is still here. And the city is still here. And the bottle is still here. And the paint and canvas are still here. And the bricks are still here. And she is still here. She is still here. But not the she that was here before.
Not yet become what he would be, the prophet punchline provocateur, voice and shame of a generation, scapegoat savant and savior. For now still a Hot New Talent and an Angry Young Man recruited to spread the word and speak the lines and maybe lend a touch of that ever ineffable street cred to the mission.
Boiling before the cameras, the sad clown to his left dutifully playing his part, parroting the heartfelt nothings of Red Cross copywriters. When his time at last arrives bursting out, ejaculating anger, unable to tamp down the fury any longer. The venom flowing forth not with the telltale volume and violence of the attention addict but with the frigid fury of the justified.
The sad clown frozen in the klieg lights, struggling to maintain his mask of grim sobriety in the face of his increasingly evident terror. Fueled by the toxic slurry of apocalyptic images and imbecilic commentary scrolling across the nation’s televisions, sounding his yawp with a focused righteousness born of an all-too familiar impotence, calling to task those who would damn his family with pity, defame them with empty judgment, condemn them for a litany of crimes that man and god and nature had in fact committed against them.
“I hate the way they portray us in the media. If you see a black family it says they are looting. If you see a white family it says they are looking for food. And, you know, it’s been five days because most of the people are black.”
His body fairly blazing with indignation, speaking a piece that demanded to be heard on a stage that bristled against broadcasting it. Raking the scourge across his own back, owning up to a hypocrisy and a cowardice that barely merited those honorifics.
“And even for me to complain about it, I would be a hypocrite because I’ve tried to turn away from the TV because it’s too hard to watch. I’ve even been shopping before even giving a donation.”
The stunned sad clown a picture of pitiable professionalism, returning to his script and scrambling to reestablish the scrubbed, comforting horror intended to effect nothing more nor less noble than an opening of hearts and purse strings and perhaps inspiring the folks at home to indulge in an extra prayer or nightcap before bed.
He not having it, punctuating the sad clown’s well-intentioned appellation with an epitaph so blunt so honest so blessedly ugly that the sad clown’s jaw dropped at once, the sturdy veneer finally shattered as the cameras cut to a second sad clown blanching in the spontaneous spotlight.
“George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
The bluntness resonant, repeatable, remembered, necessary even if reductive – for who had ever seen evidence of that particular potentate truly caring about anyone of any color creed or catastrophe – but ultimately less important than his overlooked preamble, the blistering excoriation of business as unthinkably usual.
The set jaw, the searing eyes staring out unblinkingly into the lights and cameras and action of Hollywood, defiantly into the living rooms of America and helplessly tragically mournfully into the soul of a drowning desperate city, the unexpected uncensored undeterred avenger seeking justice with the only tools at hand.
We’re in the city a few days after and we’re pleasantly surprised to see it doesn’t look all that bad. We take a walk to survey the damage. Myra says it doesn’t look much worse than it did after Lily. Yes, there is water, yes, a lot of trees are down, but everything looks salvageable. We stroll up Magazine Street, under the overpass where four years ago we watched a whole family – mother, father and four little children – in identical Spider-Man costumes marching to the Fat Tuesday festivities in the Quarter. Now the overpass is wet and wind-buffed, but it is still standing. The city is still standing.
We push on up Magazine, stepping over a fallen magnolia branch here and there. The pastel-painted shotgun shacks lining the side streets are smeared with mud, shingles torn asunder, but it is not as bad as they said on the news. It seems silly now, to think that we so recently believed all the dire declarations spilling out of the mouths of panicky anchors with their vaguely Midwestern non-accents. We laugh to think how we quavered before Ted Koppel, Brian Williams, Shepard Smith – what were they really but glorified tourists? The Yankees never really understood how this city lived. Why should we have trusted them to tell us it was dead?
As we slosh along there is more water, sometimes lapping at our ankles, but still it is not so bad, not so bad. Moving west, crossing Antonine, Magazine Street seems to shrink. Yes, it is getting smaller, narrowing down until it resembles the main street on that island where we stayed in Honduras, a street wide enough for only one car at a time to pass, but that didn’t matter because everyone on the island drove a moped or a golf cart. Here, though, there are no vehicles of any kind. There are no people either. We don’t think much of it. The people are all in the Superdome, aren’t they?
The sun starts to drop a little in the sky. We decide it’s time to head back. Even though we aren’t sure we can trust the reports of rampaging marauders patrolling the streets after dark, it isn’t something we want to take a chance on. The hike back seems harder somehow, the water not getting any deeper but not getting any shallower either, much more water than we saw on the way out. The street stays narrow, low-slung storefronts looming over us, threatening to squeeze themselves into a blind alley. And the sun sinking faster than we’ve ever seen it, the dark galloping up behind us with astonishing speed.
We spot a tavern with lights on, Dixieland jazz blaring from within. We rush to the door but find it locked. We bang on the windows, call for help, but no one responds. Through the frosted glass we can see silhouettes, dark figures leaning back to empty tall bottles into open gullets, pool cues cocked and released with lazy grace, swirling skirts and bended knees. It’s exactly where we want to be.
But we are locked outside, growing cold in the wet and the dark.
And somewhere in the night we hear whispers.
Section 1 is based on an interview I conducted six weeks after Katrina with a resident of New Orleans’ Uptown neighborhood who stayed in the city throughout the storm. It was intended to be part of a publisher’s compilation of Katrina stories from eyewitnesses, but after a week of surveying the devastation of my former home I had something of an emotional collapse and never submitted the tapes I’d recorded. (This is also when I knew for sure that I would never have what it takes to become a genuine journalist.) For years I’ve felt guilty about that. I think of this piece as some manner of penance, but it doesn’t assuage my guilt over leaving the original assignment unfinished.
Section 2 is, of course, based on Kanye West’s powerful extemporaneous diatribe during the Concert for Hurricane Relief benefit concert on September 2, 2005. Here is the video if you want to refresh your memory.
Section 3 is adapted from a dream I had in the final days of August 2005.