March 7, 2006

Submerged: On the day before ashes

BY MICHAEL TISSERAND The devil stood in the middle of the street, refusing to budge. “I don’t care if a car hits me,” said the devil, tightening up her face. “I’m just going to stand here.” It was Mardi Gras afternoon, and my family was turning on itself. Just two months after a difficult move from New Orleans, we’d returned to our city to see friends and celebrate our favorite holiday. Our house still hasn’t sold, so we stayed there, sleeping in our old beds, eating food from our kitchen cupboards. The house, like much of our lives, is an Aug. 29 time capsule. When we first drove back through our New Orleans neighborhood, it seemed like the past two months in Chicago — new friends, new schools, new work — was a fast dream. Maybe she’s just acting like a kid, I told myself. Maybe my 8-year-old daughter was taunting traffic on an empty street because she was physically spent from two days of eating king cake and catching beads, then waking up early on the morning of Feb. 28 to see the Zulu parade. She was also mad that she never got her devil costume just the way she wanted it. But I also wonder about how much death she’s absorbed during this half-year. The 1,300 counted victims of the flood. The 1,840 who are still missing. The thousands who are the flood’s collateral damage — including my wife’s former boss, who hung himself after the storm. Now, my daughter talks frequently about death. Last month, she wrote in a notebook that she doesn’t think dying would be so bad. Is my oldest child suffering post-traumatic stress? Meanwhile, my 4-year-old son, who dressed as a lion for Mardi Gras, has spent much of his past two months pretending to be a cat. The game can go on for hours. He doesn’t really have friends in Chicago yet, not like he does in New Orleans. So he sometimes plays the cat game by himself, curling up under a chair and pretending to sleep. He talks in a cat voice about how he misses his home in Africa. Staying with the cat voice, he bursts out crying, real tears spilling out of his eyes. Their parents aren’t quite the same, either. At one point during this Mardi Gras, my wife refused to buckle my son’s seatbelt because of things he’d just said to her. Then she told me to pull over the car, she’d walk home. I responded in words that my children still talk about hearing me use. Before the day was out, my daughter was repeating them to anyone who’d listen. Mardi Gras means “Fat Tuesday.” It’s traditionally the last day to celebrate before Ash Wednesday brings its reminders of mortality, the promise that we all shall return to dust. I’d always thought that New Orleans was a uniquely wise city for indulging such solemn foolishness. But now, after six straight months of constant reminders of mortality, what was there left to celebrate? What were we all doing here, anyway? Mardi Gras in New Orleans, 2006. It was a much-anticipated holiday, a much-debated holiday. America couldn’t decide if New Orleans should hold a Mardi Gras this year. In the last week of February, CBS News took a poll that showed 46 percent saying the party must go on, and another 46 percent saying it should wait another year. Last fall, New Orleanians in Atlanta had asked Mayor Ray Nagin how he could throw the event without them. How can a city party for 10 days when its citizens are living in trailers, living in hotels, living in gutted houses, living far away? Why should the city foot the bill to patrol parade routes when Judge Calvin Johnson was telling the national media that 4,500 prisoners might be released because there were no public defenders to protect their constitutional rights? Why should a wave of tourists — and former residents like us — come crashing down on a city and potentially overwhelm the remaining hospitals? In the days leading up to Carnival Day, many people in New Orleans loudly proclaimed that Mardi Gras must happen. That the city wouldn’t be New Orleans without it. That anyone who suggested otherwise wasn’t a true New Orleanian. This sentiment was egged on by tourism officials frantically rebuilding the city’s primary industry, and by slogans on shop signs and Southern Comfort billboards that read, “Nothing stops Mardi Gras. Nothing.” It’s the new New Orleans patriotism: Purple, gold and green ... these colors don’t run. But doubters were everywhere. One cold January afternoon in Chicago, I made my way downtown to a meeting for evacuees eager to add their voices to the state’s rebuilding efforts. After paying $20 for parking and taking the elevator to the 18th floor office of a nonprofit organization that was coordinating social services for evacuees, I followed the signs to a conference room. There, covering the walls, were posters asking questions like, “Can you make the tough choices? Our voice. Our plan. Our future.” I counted about a dozen people from New Orleans. Staffers instructed us to circumnavigate the room and make notes indicating our positions on various issues. Our notes would be compiled and, we were told, added to some list somewhere. A sample question: “If improving levees and building new ones along the coastline meant there would not be enough money to fund all the housing, transportation and other needs in your parish, would that be OK?” Each poster bore a little insignia in the corner noting that it had been printed by FEMA. Other evacuees were attaching yellow sticky notes to the posters with their responses. In hand-printed letters, one said, “What the FUCK kind of question is this?” After adding my own comments, I started talking to a man from Lakeview, who’s living in Chicago but returning frequently to work on his flooded house. I asked if he had any plans for Mardi Gras. He glared at me. “Mardi Gras?” he repeated. My question seemed to disgust him. In the weeks leading up to the Mardi Gras season, the news from New Orleans kept getting worse. It had been months since people needed rescuing from their rooftops, but bodies were still being found in the wreckage. The city’s infrastructure — everything that under girds a typical city, from the courts to the hospitals — was crumbling. The mood was darkening. The president’s State of the Union speech struck particularly hard. He still refused to share with the country the few simple facts that New Orleanians all know: What happened in those first weeks of September was the result of human failure, not a natural disaster. The federal levees gave way and our city was flooded. Like 9/11, it was an event that should cause this country to recast its priorities. But the president didn’t even mention the tragedy until a few unspecific sentences at his speech’s end. He even declined to call for a moment of silence for those who died. And then Mardi Gras. The week before we were to leave for New Orleans, I got a call from a friend. “It’s terrible,” he said of the first weekend of parades. The weather was cold, and three parades that would normally stretch out for a full day now passed by in less than an hour. In some parts of Uptown, there were few onlookers. The parades were also eerily quiet, with far fewer marching bands. The bands represent local schools; in New Orleans, most public schools are still empty. And the most noticeable change from past years: Street scenes that formerly were integrated — at least for the duration of a parade — were now all-white. Yet by the second weekend of Mardi Gras parades, momentum was starting to build. We arrived in the city late Saturday. Early the next day, we loaded a friend’s van and drove to our regular parade-watching site — the Napoleon Avenue grassy median, called the “neutral ground.” We'd packed food. We dove into a gathering crowd and put up our customized parade ladder with a painted bench for the kids. Instantly, we saw old friends who still lived here, and others who’d left the city and returned for the weekend. “How’s Chicago?” they all asked. I waved the question away, and instead begged floats for cups and stuffed animals. My wife screamed for glass beads. I lost my voice within hours. One parade ended; another began. The Krewe of Mid-City wrapped the lower portions of its water-damaged floats in blue tarp, the omnipresent bandage of New Orleans homes. “While we live, let’s live,” proclaimed the 11th float, as riders tossed plastic cups that bore the parade theme: “Rode Hard and Put Away Wet.” A sign that read “Beads = Normalcy” was tacked to a ladder. A kid jumped up and down with a picture of George Bush, upon which he’d scrawled the challenge to bead throwers to “Hit Curious George.” Some floats from this year’s Carnival were elaborate political cartoons on wheels, pulled by tractors. One pictured city and federal leaders lifting the lid off the Superdome to reveal a gumbo of citizens. Another had Bush surfing a wave over New Orleans. The crowds cheered. We tried to make up for lost time, seeing seven parades in two days. At one point, I heard the marching band from Birmingham’s Miles College warming up on Prytania Street. I walked my son over so he could see musicians with the name Miles — my son’s name — emblazoned across their uniforms. We soon found ourselves standing among members of New Orleans’ Hot 8 and the Rebirth brass bands. They were leaning on street-battered instruments, checking out the sparkling Miles band and the college’s dancers. The Hot 8 sousaphonist was shouting to the line of Miles sousaphonists that they sounded like pipe organs. We returned to the parade, and I put my Miles back on the ladder. My wife pointed to a woman who was standing across the street from us. She had one arm in a sling, and the other was raised in the air to catch beads. The blinking lights of passing floats illuminated her face. I recognized her as Tyra Treadway. Her husband was my wife’s boss. The last time we’d seen her was at his funeral. Between floats, Tyra walked across the street. Up close, we could see that her face was filled with tears. “This is my first parade,” she said. She fluttered her hand in the air and faded back into the crowd. Being caught alone in modern-day New Orleans can be a crushing experience. Your eyes start to trail the water lines that still stain houses in most neighborhoods; you stare at the same old search-and-rescue markings that you’ve seen a hundred times before, trying to find a new wrinkle to the familiar narrative about cats and dogs and bodies found or not found; you look at the splintered heap of a boat resting near the Circle Food Store on St. Bernard Avenue, where bodies once floated. The Mardi Gras season brings new scenes. On Claiborne Avenue, I passed a group of men coming out of a warehouse. They were dressed in suits and ties and had large medallions hanging around their necks on purple, gold and green ribbons. They went to the back of a Ford Explorer and extracted large bags of beads to carry into the warehouse. Inside, I could make out a float with a Raggedy Ann statue. Not too far from the warehouse, the B.W. Cooper housing project sat silently, windows shattered and doors open. Brick houses were empty, unclaimed since the storm. The water line drew around each building like a noose. The neighborhoods are still being killed off. You can follow these lines of thoughts for only so long. In New Orleans, keeping sane means drawing close to people who are part of the solution. So on Monday, I drove to Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, a strip of progressive storefronts that includes a soul-food restaurant/jobs program center called Café Reconcile, the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, and the Ashé Cultural Arts Center. Most stores were closed on the day before Fat Tuesday, but Ashé’s windows advertised something called the Mardi Gras Service Corps. The room was quiet, with stacks of literature and a half-eaten king cake on a folding table. Ashé director Carol Bebelle heard the door open and emerged to say she’d just seen off that morning’s contingent of Mardi Gras Service Corps volunteers, who were helping families clean their homes and neighborhoods. About 10 people had set out today. Sunday had 74 volunteers. We sat down on metal chairs, surrounded by pictures from New Orleans’ past, of street parades and brass bands and working men dressed in frilly tuxedos. The Corps was started to answer public doubts about this year’s holiday, Carol said: “Mardi Gras doesn’t work as well for us outside New Orleans as it does inside. The most eloquent of speakers cannot craft a response to the question, ‘Why are you having Mardi Gras in such a disaster?’” The Corps includes painters and sheetrockers, but Carol said the most useful project right now is just cleaning up. She talked about how difficult it is to come back to your home for the first time since the flood, only to find the streets looking just like they did in October. The Corps collaborates with neighborhood groups in places like Central City, Gert Town, Gentilly and the Ninth Ward, and gets funding from Tulane University, the Ford Foundation and the Patrick Taylor Foundation, among others. Volunteers come from across the country. “It’s not people who are coming to feel sorry for us,” she said. “It’s people who are rolling up their sleeves to become vulnerable to an un-neat part of life.” I told Carol, who is black, that white friends of mine say that racists are more emboldened in post-Katrina New Orleans. They’re dropping the codes and throwing around the n-word more freely, talking openly about how the city is better off now that the demographics have shifted. Even Oliver Thomas, a popular city councilman who is African American, is saying that the housing projects shouldn’t be open to people who want to come back and watch soap operas all day — as if the real problem in New Orleans is people who don't want to work. “My sense is that we’re as separate as we’ve ever been,” she said. “Maybe more so — because now we’re really separated into different places. But I think there’s also a new willingness to grapple with what separates us, maybe more so than anytime since the Civil Rights era. There’s a conversation going on now.” Carol grew up in New Orleans. For her, for everyone I know in this city, Mardi Gras is about families and neighborhoods. At 56, she remembers the day in 1967 when the all-black St. Augustine Marching 100 first joined the all-white Rex parade, marching proudly as some whites on the sidelines taunted them. This is one of those landmark years, too. “There’s plenty of greed left in this city,” she said. “But we can’t even consider the possibility that it will take over the rebuilding. If we do that, it’s over.” Mardi Gras dawned, warm and sunny. At Jackson Avenue, we joined the crowds lunging toward the floats, dodging chunks of concrete on the pocked sidewalk. Behind us, charred skeletons of burned houses were roped off by police tape; no search-and-rescue markings told the story of what had happened there, or to whom. Yet this stretch of road was as mixed as our section of Napoleon Avenue was all white. Somehow, people had found their way here. After gathering our treasures from Zulu, we walked through the once-flooded neighborhood back to our house. Along the way, the spirit drained from us. By the time we reached home, we could barely function. Yet we somehow got the devil and the lion in the car, belted the lion in, and drove toward the French Quarter. At one point, our red wagon bounced out from the trunk; I got out and threw it back in the car. Even though nobody felt like it, we pressed on until we found a parking place. Around us, a Carnival spirit seemed to have taken hold. The Zulu parade was disbanding into smaller second lines, which were strutting through the city in acts of reclamation. Gangs of Mardi Gras Indians were taking over their sections of New Orleans. One Big Chief would explain that his costume was blood-red this year, to help everyone remember. Near the Iberville housing projects, grills were propped up in the backs of trucks. Under the Claiborne Avenue overpass, there were more grills and picnics, just blocks away from rows of flooded cars that are still waiting to be removed. Looking around, I thought about how this was not an easy day for any of us. My own family had driven 16 hours to get to Mardi Gras, but had almost turned back before the final celebration began. We kept walking, pulling the devil and the lion in the wagon. The kids started tossing beads. I saw that New Orleanians were using the materials of the past six months for their costumes. There were blue-tarp suits, blue-tarp dresses, blue-tarp pants and blue-tarp shirts. Suits made from Meals Ready to Eat (MRE) boxes. Clothes made from envelopes, held together by yellow forwarded-mail stickers. Naked people were literally tied up in red tape. A man had a small tent for a hat and a sign that read, “My head is my only house.” On Bourbon Street, a chef with a food cart showed off his “Katrina Deli,” passing out menus that included “Mold Mold” as a starter, “Chicken Shit au Fema” as an entree, and “Creamed Maison du Jour” as a side. A line of blind men wearing FEMA suits announced that they were searching for the Superdome. Some costumes were elaborate — none more so than the man in a rescue basket, with a wired-up helicopter overhead. Others just donned the same white jumpsuits they’d been wearing to gut their houses, and hit the streets. In the months before Mardi Gras, some of us had wished that the city could mobilize itself in some other fashion. But attempts to establish a national Mardi Gras, a moment of silence, a display of upside-down flags of distress, all failed. Instead, New Orleanians did what they always do. They turned themselves inside out. Mardi Gras was a parade of misery, and everywhere you looked, people were laughing. We left town on March 1, Ash Wednesday. Driving north from the city, we passed other cars with new beads hanging from their mirrors. How many were people like us, whose homes are somewhere between where we’re now living and where we’re no longer living? When does an evacuee stop being an evacuee? Back in Chicago, I went to my insurance agent to transfer my automobile coverage. The woman who was handling our account saw my address and told me that her ex-husband does forensic dentistry. He’d been in New Orleans to help identify bodies. Immediately following Mardi Gras, the feds announced that they were sending dogs and bulldozers to the Lower Ninth Ward to make one last search for human remains, before large-scale demolitions start to turn some neighborhoods to powder. Death still shrouds the city and shadows our conversations. Living in a relative's attic, my own family is still piecing itself back together, still learning to make our home where we find it. And absent of federal leadership, New Orleans still has to claw for every scrap of funding it needs. Mardi Gras didn’t change any of this. But New Orleans culture is never about escapism. It’s about digging deep into your worries and then laughing, even dancing. In the weeks after the flood, a pale ash blanketed the city, making everything appear sepia-toned. The color had been drained out of New Orleans, as if it was a city in shock. Six months after the flood, New Orleans is still in shock. Its dead are still waiting to be honored. In the meantime, some of us gathered to honor the living. That, and to celebrate our future.This is the 11th and final part in a multi-part series.