Sunday, October 09, 2005

The Grey Lady returns to NOLA

Just when I was ready to move on to something else, a glance at a NY Times Magazine piece, Wading Toward Home, hooks me.

The police had said that gangs of young black men were looting and killing their way across the city, and the news had reached the men inside the forts. These men also had another informational disadvantage: working TV sets. Over and over and over again, they replayed the same few horrifying scenes from the Superdome, the convention center and a shop in downtown New Orleans. If the images were to be reduced to a sentence in the minds of Uptown New Orleans, that sentence would be: Crazy black people with automatic weapons are out hunting white people, and there's no bag limit! "The perspective you are getting from me," one of Fort Huger's foot soldiers said, as he walked around the living room with an M-16, "is the perspective of the guy who is getting disinformation and reacting accordingly." He spoke, for those few days, for much of the city, including the mayor and the police chief.

No emotion is as absurd as fear when it is proved to be unjustified. I was aware of this; I was also aware that it is better to be absurdly alive than absurdly dead. I broke into the family duck-hunting closet, loaded a shotgun with birdshot and headed out into the city. Running around with a 12-gauge filled with birdshot was, in the eyes of the local militia, little better than running around with a slingshot - or one of those guns that, when you shoot them, spit out a tiny flag. Over the next few days, I checked hundreds of houses and found that none had been broken into. The story about the Children's Hospital turned out to be just that, a story. The glass door to the Rite Aid on St. Charles near Broadway - where my paternal grandfather collapsed and died in 1979 - was shattered, but the only section disturbed was the shelf stocking the Wild Turkey. The Ace Hardware store on Oak Street was supposed to have had its front wall pulled off by a forklift, but it appeared to be, like most stores and all houses, perfectly intact. Of all the stores in town, none looked so well preserved as the bookshops. No one loots literature.

Oddly, the only rumor that contained even a grain of truth was the looting of Perlis. The window of the Uptown clothing store was shattered. But the alligator belts hung from their carousel, and the shirts with miniature crawfish emblazoned on their breasts lay stacked as neatly as they had been before Katrina churned up the gulf. On the floor was a ripped brown paper sack with two pairs of jeans inside: the thief lacked both ambition and conviction.
The old houses were also safe. There wasn't a house in the Garden District, or Uptown, that could not have been easily entered; there wasn't a house in either area that didn't have food and water to keep a family of five alive for a week; and there was hardly a house in either place that had been violated in any way. And the grocery stores! I spent some time inside a Whole Foods choosing from the selection of PowerBars. The door was open, the shelves groaned with untouched bottles of water and food. Downtown, 25,000 people spent the previous four days without food and water when a few miles away - and it's a lovely stroll - entire grocery stores, doors ajar, were untouched. From the moment the crisis downtown began, there had been a clear path, requiring maybe an hour's walk, to food, water and shelter. And no one, not a single person, it seemed, took it.

Here, in the most familial city in America, the people turned out to know even less of one another than they did of the ground on which they stood. Downtown, into which the people too poor to get themselves out of town had been shamefully herded by local authorities, I found the mirror image of the hysteria uptown. Inside the Superdome and the convention center, rumors started that the police chief, the mayor and the national media passed along: of 200 people murdered, of countless rapes, of hundreds of armed black gang members on the loose. (Weeks later, The Times Picayune wrote that just two people were found killed and there had been no reports of rape. The murder rate in the city the week after Katrina hit was unchanged.) There, two poor people told me that the flood wasn't caused by nature but by man: the government was trying to kill poor people. (Another reason it may never have occurred to the poor to make their way into the homes and grocery stores of the rich is that they assumed the whole point of this event was for the rich to get a clean shot at the poor.) In their view, the whole thing, beginning with the levee break and ending with the cramming of thousands of innocent people into what they were sure were death chambers with murderers and rapists, was a setup.
Michael Lewis, it seems, is a homeboy from New Orleans that happens also to be a contributing editor to the Times. This is a registration site, but free for the taking. One of the few places I have had the patience to register, and worth the effort. The cookie they put into my PC must be state of the art, because whenever I link - even from another site - the top of the page says "welcome [profile name]". [Later: Access to this story now costs unless you are a Times Select subscriber. I don't have time to read fifty dollars worth a year from the Times, but I still recommend the story for anyone intersted. As I write this (August, 2007) two years have passed and it still makes me mad to read about the way these people were neglected and maligned.]


By the time I was 9, I could ride my bike to the houses of both sets of grandparents. My mother's parents lived six blocks away; my father's parents, the far-flung ones, lived about a mile away. I didn't think it was at all odd that so much of my family was so near at hand: one friend of mine had all four of her grandparents next door, two on one side, two on the other. At the time, this struck me as normal.

Looks like my afternoon is cut out for me...after I get the after-church meal, desserts, visits and naps out of the way.

Review: Great read! Both informative and entertaining. You don't get to be a Times editor by mistake; Michael Lewis is a pro. His description of New Orleans brings to mind Savannah and its characters as depicted in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Print, read and pass it on.

1 comment:

Hoots said...

Forgot to post a link.
Wading Toward Home
Sorry about that. It's fixed now. What, five or six hours later?