Tuesday, August 29, 2006

NO(LA) Man's Land

Over the past four years, Mr. Reads and I have been fortunate enough to live within a day's driving distance of our families, and we've recently returned from the biannual Trip Home To Louisiana. We go visit other times, of course, and more often, but the stars don't align often enough to allow me, my husband, and our dog an extended visit to both sets of parents. But this trip was different than others in that it reminded me of a year ago, when I made the same trip, sans husband and pup. When a year ago, I evacuated back to my new home, families in tow.

My father-in-law mentioned a recent news segment he saw in which a viewer wrote in and complained about the constant attention paid to New Orleans in the Post-Katrina World. This viewer argued that there was other news to be shared, and the reporter, in New Orleans at the time, gestured to the devastated Ninth Ward behind him and said, paraphrased, that while Katrina was year-old news to the World At Large, it was still today's news in New Orleans.

How to explain what New Orleans is like to those who don't see it? And how do our family and friends, who see it every single day, explain it to us? We're not tourists when we visit home; we stay at the parents' houses, we go to the grocery stores and restaurants we've always gone to, if they're open. In short, we *return home*. And my beautiful home, my beloved New Orleans, is broken.

Imagine, if you will, the following landscape: a suburban neighborhood, blue television lights flickering in windows, dogs barking in yards, white trailers parked on front lawns or in driveways, with blue television lights flickering, the house across the street abandoned to nature and smashed through by fallen pine trees. Or, imagine this: driving down a street with signs of life, people walking, businesses open and booming, and a boarded up storefront that still reads, "LOOTERS WILL BE SHOT." Or perhaps this: entire neighborhoods gone, nothing left but scraps of wood and trash. Or even this: driving on the elevated interstate, reading the word "HELP" written across a rooftop.

Katrina's one-year anniversary is today, yes, and while it may be old news to some, the people in New Orleans would beg to disagree.

Everything has changed since August 28th, 2005, and Nothing has changed since August 29th, 2005. Homes are still abandoned, families are still uprooted, military presence is still seen. There's work to be done, so much work, but with 50% of New Orleans not returned, there is little workforce to do it. Fast food restaurants hire at $10+/an hour, with several hundred dollar signing bonuses. There's work to be done, but with the price of available housing, few whose homes were lost can afford to live there. The levees aren't fixed, the people aren't healed, the houses aren't rebuilt, and the height of The 2006 Hurricane Season has arrived.

Earlier this year, I read my beloved Greg Rucka's novelization of Batman's No Man's Land, and all I could think about while reading it was New Orleans. Not even necessarily the destruction of Gotham, but rather the sheer isolation of a great American City declared Off-Limits by The Powers That Be. The despair, the hopelessness of the citizens. The sheer helplessness when imagining reconstruction. The people brought together, by desperation, by hope, by criminal or lawful suggestions. And I imagined all of the Reads' family members and friends who *stayed behind*, not because they refused to evacuate, or couldn't, but because, as members of law enforcement or medical professions or companies' essential personnel, they had to be there, in the thick of it, and they Reported Back.

Some people complain that there is too much Post-Katrina New Orleans in the news today. I say to you that there is not enough, now or then. No one's talking about it, yet everyone can't stop talking about it. Even me. Especially me.

After 9/11, Marvel presented an image of Spider-Man, staring out over New York, in utter despair over the devastation before him. That poignant image has stuck with me not because I'm a comic book fan, but because it was a real reaction from a fictional character. Some may Cry Foul over my comparison of a national tragedy to comic books or their novelizations, and I would ask why. Is it because fiction can never be true to life? Or is it because fiction, in all of its forms, is entirely too true to life as we know it? Can we possibly understand what New Orleans is like without being there? We've read about it. We've seen the news, the recollections. We probably donated money or blood or goods or services to the Relief Effort, even though We Weren't There. Because we empathized. Because we read, we therefore understood.

It bothers me that some people believe fiction is trivial. That comparisons to books, or poetry, or film, could never explain the sheer horror of New Orleans in 2005, and the continuing struggle in 2006. But what is fiction but pain and fear and hope expressed in words? What is poetry but, as Ms. Marianne Moore tells us, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them"? What is film but the visual image of our very selves reflected back at us?

Elizabeth Bishop, beautifully grotesque Bishop, said it best, and said it thirty years before Katrina ever hit. "The art of losing's not too hard to master, though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster." Sometimes the writing of it is worse than the experiencing of it, because we have to relive it with every word, with every pause, with every comma and period and italicized word. And worse still, we have to *explain*. Sometimes there are no words.

Sometimes there are no words, but here are some, in a vain attempt to explain how even though I no longer live in New Orleans, my life has changed, irrevocably, since August 29th, 2005.

That image of Spider-Man reveals not the superhero who couldn't stop the tragedy, but rather the man, broken by the destruction of his home. Gotham is saved in No Man's Land not by Batman, but by Bruce Wayne and his manipulation of Lex Luthor. And likewise, New Orleans will be saved by people, too. Perhaps what the comic books remind us of is a simple fact: there is no one swooping down to save the day. We have to Save The Day ourselves. And that, indeed, is the much harder route. But as characters are inevitably painted from life, there are heroes out there, struggling, fighting the good fight, and proving to us that the day Can Be Saved, and a city, all the cities devastated by this national tragedy Can Be Rebuilt, one brick, one board, one levee at a time.

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