Friday, August 29, 2008

Day 25: Venturing Out on the Gulf Coast

August 8: New Orleans to Algiers to Ocean Springs and a FEMA Trailer

Soundtrack: Local Radio; Blues film

After this tour, you’ll have a better understanding of events pre- and post- Katrina and the “REBIRTH OF NEW ORLEANS!”
Gray Line 2006 Sightseeing Tours Brochure: New for 2006 - Hurricane Katrina Tour

I got up early to do laps in the pool and catch up with the Joads on Route 66. Like Steinbeck, the spectacle of he little girl running a gauntlet of racist harridans in this very city had frozen my own backwards trek through the South. I had stopped reading Travels With Charley and taken up the more distant history of the Depression and the California Dream. But where Steinbeck found his odyssey flagging in the face of an America he could not stomach on the brink of the Civil Rights Revolt, I was about to plunge into the aftermath of the disaster that was Hurricane Katrina.
In the safe haven of the Quarter the familiar funk and squalor of New Orleans was like I never left, though it had been twenty years since my last Mardi Gras. On my own at 717 St. Peter Street in the nineteen seventies, I had welcomed the experiences of poverty and racial tension as thoroughly as my new tastes for gumbo and raw oysters. I got my first job in New Orleans by the sheer luck of being at the unemployment office on the day State Senator Gillis Long hired the first six girls referred to update his mailing list for Christmas. All of the others were African American and lived in the projects. Their everyday conversations and concerns were an education in real life for me, sheltered as I had been in the all-white suburbs of Houston. My handwriting was fine enough that I stayed through December addressing the cheap black and white family photograph cards Mr. Long sent out to constituents, (saving taxpayer money, I presume). Sometimes I made a little extra money playing music on Bourbon Street.
My birthday a week before Christmas was also payday. I decided to celebrate by playing harmonica on Bourbon Street and donating the proceeds to Pacifica Radio in Houston, where my sister and I had begun to produce a little jazz show. When the police hassled me at my “spot” on the Marie Jean steps by the Club 500, I managed to get myself arrested, wrestled to the ground by my hair, and dragged off, literally kicking and screaming, to Central Lockup. The senator had me bailed out within hours, but then fired me for being associated with a “commie organization.” The paranoia that hung heavy in the air of the “city without care” was never lost on me. After Katrina, there were allegations that the deferred maintenance of levees on the last bend of the Mississippi was a racist plot to wash poor African Americans out of the landscape. Wouldn’t put it past the kind of government that blew billions for defense but not one cent for upkeep.
Dry at last poolside and homesick for Steinbeck’s “bright and terrible desert,” I wrapped a towel around me and went to check on Glenn, who had finished off last night’s leftover wine and was ready to bike it across the Mississippi on the ferry. He had found one of the few secure free parking spaces in the Quarter and I let the HHR stay up an elevator in the Monteleone garage after checking out of the room. The borrowed van stayed legally right where it was and Glenn took out the bicycles. As the sun hit the sidewalks, so did we.
In Algiers Glenn knew some people who ran a cafe in an old 2-story house and we had a fritatta for brunch, my first. The place was named for the owner’s Aunt Leni whose recipes they used and it had an open, sunny feel to it. We talked over the trip I was taking and he reminded me that I should also be reading Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon.
We pedaled on through the charming district to the Blaine Kern Warehouse, where the stuff of Mardi Gras dreams was stored: a hodgepodge of cartoon characters and giant heads of floats and Wizard of Oz sets. Algiers had largely been spared by the hurricane and the community was thriving, with many people buying and restoring old buildings. We rode the ferry back, posing for pictures as the boat neared the New Orleans shore near Jackson Square.
As soon as I had redeemed the HHR, an interesting process by which the car rode an elevator down and crossed the street to the valet area, I drove up behind the van where the bicycles had been stowed away. We pulled out east toward Ocean Springs, a town where Glenn had lived for many years, hard hit by the hurricane. Our route took us by neighborhoods where most of the houses had been flooded and were now useless because all their wiring was ruined by rising waters. Piles of debris sat outside at the curbs and many trailers provided by relief funds were parked in the drives.
At Glenn Miller’s, volunteers had pulled off most of the interior walls on the first floor to get rid of mold and he had his own FEMA trailer in the back. The cute cottage with wood siding painted pale green was slowly being stripped to the studs and the art books and sketches he had managed to save were stored on the porch and in the garage on higher ground. We walked over to the library where he went to check his e-mail but I wasn’t allowed access to a computer because I didn’t live in Ocean Springs. We got a copy of Blue Highways and a dvd of Song of the Thin Man to check out on his card.
That night we drank wine out of a box in the well-equipped but cramped FEMA trailer and watched a blues documentary by Ntozake Shange, the author of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuff. As Frank Lloyd Wright would have said, Glenn Miller was “battered, but still in the ring,” maybe hitting the communion wine a little heavier than usual, but still trying to get his home back together. I could sympathize totally: I had sometimes finished a whole bottle Chardonnay in one evening and other members of the suicide grief group reported the same reaction. Some had given up and moved on, but Glenn decided to hand in there; I admired his tenacity.
There was an addition upstairs in the house that had escaped flood damage; it was a serviceable room, with lights and working plumbing and relief supplies like tuna and granola bars in the cupboards. One of Glenn’s friends had been staying before the hurricane. I climbed the outside deck stairs to read myself to sleep with Blue Highways.

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