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While We Were Sleeping

My 11-year-old daughter Giselle’s reaction to the disaster in New Orleans was a selfish one, but understandable. “So, I’ll never be able to visit again?”

I shrugged, and said, “No, you’ll see New Orleans again.”

“But when?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied with so little conviction she looked me in the eyes with anger.

“We’re never going back!”

I didn’t want to lie to her. I wanted to be optimistic that we’d soon visit our relatives, stay in a nice hotel in the French Quarter, and have crawfish and pralines. But for the most part, the brutal truth is that there is no there there.

New Orleans is about family for me and most natives of the city, but something has happened that I never thought I’d see: My family, which has always been defined by and bound to the city as though they share the same circulatory system, has given up on the Big Easy.

My cousin Ellen, the former city councilwoman of the 9th Ward, and now the first city clerk, is the lone holdout of my extended family. She’s pretty damned steely about everything, as are most of the women in my family, but she did sound resigned when she mentioned the reality of life in New Orleans: “Everybody is gone. I’m the last one here.”

Our cousins Jude and Michael are in Atlanta. Ellen’s mother is in England, and beautiful and irrepressible Aunt Barbara and her children and grandchildren have relocated to North Carolina. For some, this forced exile is temporary, but Tony, the cousin who was my eyes and ears on the ground during and after Katrina, is now vowing never to return.

So there it is, the inescapable fact that New Orleans is forever changed, and our family’s presence there, which goes back more than 150 years, has come undone. Our old country has been abandoned for higher ground.

Those of us who have been directly or indirectly affected by Katrina — we must number in the millions — want to hope for the best, that something miraculous will be done. But our intrepid leader doesn’t exactly inspire confidence when it comes to miracles, and I think even those of us who aren’t the praying kind might want to pray for divine intervention.

It takes a monumental optimism to believe that President Bush is capable of the enlightened self-interest needed to rebuild New Orleans and the greater region. He made promises, but almost instantly those promises bounced about and evaporated like drops of water on a hot frying pan. You think he’d realize what’s riding on the rebuilding of New Orleans. Even if he ignored the vast amount of products that comes through the Port of New Orleans, there’s the energy industry to think of, a natural concern for our single-minded leader. I guess no one has spelled it out to him: He needs to move the reconstruction of New Orleans to the top of his agenda; otherwise, he’ll go down in history as the president who lost a great American city. That alone should be motivation for him to use whatever political capital he’s got left to make New Orleans his shining, dry city on the hill. It’s astonishing that the president and Congress don’t see the consequences of their nearsightedness. Every day that New Orleans remains a battered shell of itself is another day that the world sees us as a power in decline. If withdrawing troops from Iraq will show us as weak, what does it mean that we are unwilling or unable to rebuild one of our major cities?

Grover Norquist’s notion of starving the beast so you can drown it in a tub comes to fruition. The poisonous notions that the individual is worth more than the many, and that taxation is tyranny, have left us bereft of the will to act collectively. These right-wing ideologues hate the idea of government so much that they would rather watch New Orleans rot than use the powers of the state to accomplish something that is manifestly good. I guess I’m being naive in expecting anything more from this administration than a complete lack of generosity and common sense, but one does need hope, no matter how foolish.

Once the trash is hauled away and the wreckage of so many lives disappears, I’m sure Giselle will have her wish and we’ll end up at a nice hotel in the French Quarter. Then we’ll see the reconfigured New Orleans, a much smaller, much whiter shadow of itself. But it won’t be home. It’ll never be home again.

Until then, Giselle, all I can offer is poetry, as New Orleans comes haply on the verge.


The Rites for Cousin Vit
By GWENDOLYN BROOKS

Carried her unprotesting out the door
Kicked back the casket-stand. But it can’t hold her,
That stuff and satin aiming to enfold her,
The lid’s contrition nor the bolts before.
Oh oh. Too much. Too much. Even now, surmise,
She rises in sunshine. There she goes
Back to the bars she knew and the repose
In love-rooms and the things in people’s eyes.
Too vital and too squeaking. Must emerge.
Even now, she does the snake-hips with a hiss,
Slaps the bad wine across her shantung, talks
Of pregnancy, guitars and bridgework, walks
In parks or alleys, comes haply on the verge
Of happiness, haply hysterics. Is.

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