NEW ORLEANS — Samuel Beckett’s frustratingly absurd play, Waiting for Godot, usually plays to small, elite, often university-centered audiences who are smugly satisfied by an evening of pondering the more obscure meanings, or meaninglessness, of life.
But for the last couple of weeks, Beckett’s signature work has been drawing huge, overflow crowds in a rip-roaring run of free, open-air performances held in some of the poorest, still-devastated neighborhoods of this city — including the Katrina-ravaged and now-notorious Lower 9th Ward.
It’s hardly an accident that the play, staged by activist-artist Paul Chan, has so deeply resonated here in the Big Easy. For the standing-room-only audiences it’s been playing to, there is, in fact, little absurd about the agonizing and unexplained wait by the main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, for the mysterious Godot. More than 500 people showed up for opening night earlier this month.
“Waiting. I can tell you about waiting,” resident Tyron Graves told a local reporter while sitting in the audience. “We waited for the Red Cross. We waited for George Bush. We waited for rescue. We waited for housing. We waited in line for FEMA vouchers.”
Today, more than two years after the Katrina catastrophe, too many here have come to live, like the hapless Vladimir and Estragon, in a state that threatens to become permanent suspended animation, waiting for something they can’t explain but nevertheless suspect will never happen. Almost half of the city’s residents have never returned. Tens of thousands of others continue to forge an existence so unimaginable that even Sam Beckett, in his most fevered moments, could never have scripted it.
Jim Amoss, editor of the courageous Times-Picayune, and his metro editor Dave Meeks, were kind enough to take me this past weekend on a minitour of the city. You can drive for blocks and blocks, and ultimately for miles and miles, and still get a sense of what postwar Berlin must have felt like.
Streets remain broken and unpaved; piles of rubble still abound in front of boarded-up, abandoned, trashed houses and cottages. Empty lots mark where family homes and businesses have been razed. When I asked Amoss, a native of N’awlins, what he thought would happen to some of these neighborhoods in the future, he said, “Nothing.” Take a glance at the garish, yellowish flood lines still visible eight or 10 feet up the walls of still-standing structures and you see the high-water mark of the entire Reagan-Bush era — now receding but leaving an awful legacy of callousness in its historic ebb. Here, there is no Marshall Plan. There’s a greater chance of one of our current candidates repeating the line “Ich bin ein Berliner” than saying he, or she, stands with the victims of Katrina. One of the most popular T-shirts selling in town reads: “FEMA Emergency Evacuation Plan: Run, Bitch, Run!”
NOT TO SAY THERE AREN’T inspiring signs of reconstruction all around. Indeed, Amoss and Meeks refused my thanks for their tour, saying that such cruises around the city were part of their regular routine, keeping track — as they do — of nearly every new, rehabbed or projected structure. Sparkling homes, newly sodded parks, relocated schools have almost miraculously sprouted and continue to grow. And reports of the city’s demise and, likewise, its supposed descent into a barbaric jungle of crime are greatly exaggerated. First ravished, then abandoned, New Orleans is now exploited for ratings by the likes of CNN’s Anderson Cooper and others who don’t flinch at using it as some sort of horrifying backdrop for scare stories lacking context.
On Saturday night, all along Bourbon Street and throughout the entire tourist-trap French Quarter — virtually unscathed by Katrina — the party-till-you-puke ethic was throbbing, as if nothing wicked had ever happened here. Shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, armed with Buds and double-strength Hurricanes, caroused and whooped through the streets, collecting their neck beads and ogling the near-nude strippers in the doorways and overhead balconies of the Little Darlings and Larry Flynt’s Hustler clubs. I begrudge no one for joining in on the booze-driven partying. I, too, grooved on the near-famous Big Al Carson as he belted out his off-color wee-hours blues at the Funky Pirate bar. And why not? Only the presence of a handful of U.S. Marines, in impeccable dress uniforms, but with eyes like gimlets as they surveyed the enticements around them, served as rude reminders that some other, crueler world might be looming around the corner or just after weekend leave expires.
The jarring contrast between the electric partying on Bourbon Street and the ghostly darkness of the Lower 9th, only a few minutes’ drive away — not to mention the spiffed-up soldiers mixed among the stumbling, sodden college students — seems like a perfect metaphor for the greater pre-election America of today.
As a people, we have developed a rather startling and alarming capacity to absorb and accept as normal the side-by-side existence of totally contradictory, totally unequal and unfair realities. Not that we necessarily lack sympathy or compassion, but rather we are too busy striving not to fall among the unfortunate to think of ways to aid them.
In that sense, I fear, we are all living in that Godot-like state of suspended animation. We blithely bump along toward a momentous election and — in our usual state of denial — we naively assume that on Election Day, things will be pretty much as they are today. We yammer about Iowa or New Hampshire or debate Rudy’s three wives or Hillary’s asinine answer about immigrant driver’s licenses as if something vital were really at stake. But that’s a little like believing that when morning comes, the music on Bourbon Street will just keep pumping right along. Instead, the chairs will be stacked, and the floors, cigarette butts and patches of vomit will be swept by crews of minimum-wage, probably immigrant and certainly invisible workers.
What will we be talking about next November, in any case? How the new levees and floodgates didn’t hold through this coming summer’s hurricane season? How the Big One finally flattened L.A.? How those Marines I saw finally got “redeployed” but, alas, only to wind up in Iran? How no one imagined that Pakistan could fall so quickly to the fundamentalists? Or that the Dow would plummet to 10,000? Or, heaven forbid, how the residents of the Lower 9th are still living in hell?
In the meantime, we follow an election in which the two leading candidates seem to morph into each other every day. We wait for something, or someone, to come along to shift the paradigm, to push us into some new era of hopefulness, to engage us with each other, to challenge and to even ask us for something — in exchange for a government, a society that can give back so much of what we all need. But we might as well be waiting for Godot.