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Washed Away

People are dying because there is no water — no water in America!
—Rep. Elijah Cummings

I can't imagine New Orleans without Shirley.

Shirley Washington and her family lived in New Orleans East in the 9th Ward in a handsome two-story house made of brick with plenty of room for company. Over the years, I had made many visits, and she cooked — gumbo, jambalaya — and told me stories about the city and about family that her first cousin — my mother — hadn’t. When I asked Shirley why she didn’t follow people out to L.A., she laughed. “Oooh no, you all got earthquakes out in California,” she said. There was never any L.A. to New Orleans folk, or San Francisco or San Diego, just California. I pointed out that she had to endure dangerous hurricanes much more regularly than I had to endure dangerous earthquakes, an observation she waved off like a mosquito. “They’re not bad,” she said. “They don’t really come up in the Gulf that far. If it gets to raining you just stay inside and wait till it passes, that’s all.” This time the hurricane didn’t pass New Orleans without doing its best to bury it. And Shirley, who had always hunkered down in her house during storms in the 70 years she’s been there, finally left. Unlike lots of people in the 9th Ward, she had the means to evacuate, going first to Baton Rouge and ending up in Little Rock. She doesn’t know where she’s going next, but she’s told my mother that she’s never going back to New Orleans. Back home. “That’s it for Shirley,” my mother said with a sad finality.

My mother was close with Shirley. They grew up together on and around Roman Street in the 7th Ward, the most intensely Creole part of town. In 1954 my mother left to get married and settle in L.A., like many of her relatives who were uprooting themselves year by year, lured slowly but steadily West by jobs, houses and the fantastic rumor of no Jim Crow. Shirley was one of the few in my mother’s family who stayed. I saw photos of her when I was a kid, this New Orleans cousin in sepia and black and white, a somber-faced girl of about 7 dressed in Sunday clothes, with hair curling to her shoulders and a deeply weary air that seemed to me terribly Southern. I knew nothing of New Orleans, not geographically anyway, and Shirley helped me place it, put it somewhere. She was the muse of a past I didn’t quite know, could really only guess at — my mother, preoccupied with her increased freedom and the advent of shopping malls, wasn’t much help in that regard. When I was younger and people asked where I was from, I’d say Los Angeles, and quickly add, but my family’s from New Orleans. I have people there. I finally met Shirley on my first trip to New Orleans in 1984, when I was 22. She was short and coffee-colored, with glasses and long dark hair that didn’t look much different from her photos. She was happy to see me, but hardly overwhelmed. I was Gloria’s daughter, the family she already knew; it was as if we had been neighbors all along, albeit neighbors living 2,000 miles apart. About a month ago, my husband and I received an invitation to attend her big 50th wedding anniversary celebration. It was supposed to be last weekend. Like so many things outside the act of survival, that too will have to wait.

Like I said, I can’t imagine New Orleans without Shirley in it. But then, I couldn’t have possibly imagined the New Orleans I’m seeing now — a wretched, wrung-out city of poverty, hovering disease, abandonment and rage. This has been noted already and will be noted hence, but virtually all of the thousands of faces bearing the misery, wandering the highways, lingering on streets and cramming into buses going nowhere, are black. Not Creole, historically the lighter-skinned and more fortunate class of coloreds in New Orleans and Louisiana, but black — African black, dusky Sudanese and Ethiopian and Nigerian black. If anybody in this country still doubted the correlation of skin color and economic circumstance, the grim state of good-times New Orleans has put those doubts to rest; the wrath of nature has flushed out the truth that we all refused to see and now it lies unsubmerged, gasping for breath, rotting and stinking in the sun and humidity along with everything else. The parallels between the Crescent City’s dispossessed and African refugees fleeing any number of disasters on any number of occasions — bare feet, hollow eyes, stricken looks, carrying nearly naked babies — are sharp and unmistakable. It’s official: black America is a foreign country. Being Creole, I knew the color-coded truth of New Orleans all too well, had seen the projects in town that looked like they’d been decaying since the Civil War, alarmingly dilapidated structures that made Jordan Downs and Imperial Courts here look like resorts. I loved New Orleans, but instantly got the difference between it and L.A.; I knew why Shirley stayed, and why so many others, including my mother, did not. For black people of all colors, it was a place that was unquestionably home but also a place that shut them out. The shutting out was always only a matter of degree.

 

 


Shirley and the few other friends and family I know there were lucky. They almost surely lost everything but they didn’t die, didn’t have to fight rising water or suffer the indignity of the animal-like conditions of the Superdome or of staying anywhere in the waste of New Orleans left in Katrina’s aftermath. But there were still harrowing stories, bare escapes. Shirley’s older son, Ed, had insisted on staying at his parents’ house and riding out the storm. Shirley begged him to leave; he refused. From the road, in the midst of her own flight, she called him and said that if he wasn’t going to leave, at least take the boat out of the garage. He did and it saved his life. He eventually made it to higher ground and, remarkably, hitchhiked to safety, a town called La Place.

Another younger cousin, Michael, of the generation born and raised here in Los Angeles like me, was working in New Orleans when Katrina was churning its way ashore; he works for the production company responsible for Wheel of Fortune, and they were taping. He and the rest of the crew managed to get to Houston by bus, though it took a trying 22 hours to go 300 miles. An elderly cousin, Helen, lives in a nursing home in New Orleans; my mother doesn’t yet know if she evacuated. My mother’s childhood friend Carisse did, though her house is down the block from Lake Pontchartrain and almost certainly gone, too. My cousin Edra, Michael’s mother who lives in San Pedro, spent several days on the phone attempting to check the whereabouts of the whole New Orleans contingent, which is not simply our family but an entire network of in-laws, friends and relatives of those friends, people who looked after you when you were young. Family in the South is everything, and hardly limited to blood ties. Creoles are especially clannish and mindful of New Orleans traditions, which is why they re-created them here with restaurants and social clubs and Mardi Gras events; the co-founder of the annual Louisiana to Los Angeles festival — LALA — was my Uncle Leon. Only last month my father’s family gathered for our annual reunion in Kenneth Hahn Park off La Cienega; there atop a hill, in the breeze and benevolent sun, we toasted New Orleans with a traditional second-line dance, waving fancy umbrellas, handkerchiefs, napkins, brightly colored beads. We pored over a massive family tree drawn meticulously on cardboard, pieced together and laid across two large picnic tables; as we do every year we studied connections, haggled over their accuracy like money, passed around little-seen pictures somebody brought. This is as much back-home as many of us get, the remnants of ritual that stand in for real experience and the larger meaning of a complex place that is getting smaller before our eyes. It may be gone altogether.

For all the dogged coverage of the Katrina aftermath, I sometimes have the feeling that I am more or less alone in my distress over New Orleans. The callousness of the federal government is, at this point, almost beyond comment. That it would let days crawl by without intervention, that it would instead hold press conferences in which bureaucrats talked endlessly to each other rather than about people most in need was shocking even to cynics like me. Making the nonresponse more irresponsible was that as they talked, conditions in New Orleans got worse. Every hour CNN reported more death in the streets, more looting and lawlessness, more loss of hope. This was no 9/11, a single event that could be replayed on tape and studied from all angles, but a disaster unfolding in real time, seeping into American living rooms just as the foul water that breached the levees was seeping into New Orleans, with no definitive end in sight.

But it was a human disaster that mostly involved humans the government establishment cares little about anyway, except in relation to swing-vote support of various Republican policies. I could just imagine Bush and his advisers huddling daily and then hourly, calculating exactly how many Negroes could die before they needed to appear concerned and the non-Negro population started getting pissed off enough to affect poll numbers. Certainly this is why Bush kept lurching from one bizarre position to another — first condemning the thugs and declaring New Orleans would rebuild into something bigger and better (I very nearly expected him to say that Americans wouldn’t rest until they brought democracy to New Orleans), next encouraging us to buy less gas, next admitting, in a much smaller voice, that perhaps the government had not acted swiftly enough. He seemed drunk, not with drink but with ignorance; minus the usual simple messages about Iraq and Social Security, he totally lost equilibrium. I felt not contempt for Bush this time, but sorrow for us all: The truth that we are morally sinking as a nation hit me like never before.

 

I started trying last Tuesday to catch up with Shirley in Little Rock; I wanted to find out, among other things, what she took with her. She had been excited in recent months about possibly unearthing evidence of a family connection to a famous writer of last century; she wanted me, a writer and journalist as well as her cousin, to know the story so far. It all came down to a single thing her grandmother gave her as a child, something she said she’d kept in the family ever since, through countless moves and bouts of bad weather. In one of several past conversations about her project, the talk turned to hurricanes, and I asked what she would take with her if, by some outside chance, she ever had to clear out of New Orleans in a hurry. Photographs, she said... and that heirloom.

Turns out she didn’t take it. I got her on the phone a week ago and she confessed that, although she’d put it in a briefcase near the front door, it didn’t make it out. My heart dropped a notch; here was something else about New Orleans I’d have to be forever satisfied just hearing about.

“Funny what you think about when you go,” said Shirley, sounding much more tired than grieved. She’d thought of relocating in Little Rock but has changed her mind and is coming out here, probably to stay. She’s got a son in Santa Clarita and “he’s the only one of us who’s got a house,” she said. Earthquakes or no, this is where she’s heading. This is where family is now.

My mother has also spoken to Shirley but of course didn’t ask her about the anniversary party — the occasion of Shirley being 50 years married, of raising a family and making a life in a city she never thought she’d leave, has already been marked. My mother talks about Shirley’s loss — of money spent on caterers and such, of her disappointment.

“Poor New Orleans,” my mother ends up saying, with more sentiment than I’ve ever heard her express about the place she left some 50 years ago, but obviously kept close to her heart.

I know what she means. Here in the splendid desert of my native town, free from violent storms and the infamous strictures of New Orleans’ past, I am more homeless than she’ll ever know.

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