Baton Rouge If something has to be named to be known, what are those of us who are New Orleanians now?
Evacuees? Yes, but only some of us were evacuated by others. Others had the ways and means to evacuate on their own. Evacuees is a picture of huddled and abused masses in front of public buildings that made a mockery of a government more concerned about the buildings than those in sheltered there. I hardly see myself as an evacuee in the same sense as my brothers and sisters being stuck by the storm and then torn from the city, uprooted like ancient oaks and then plopped by helicopters and planes into alien spaces in Arizona, Utah, or wherever as a lost and foreign culture and people.
Survivors? Well, yes, but somehow that is also not a term that rolls easily off my mouth. We were standing in nature’s way and easily brushed aside in the arrogance of our lives. Survivors does not seem to cover that experience.
Refugees? Yes, that seems to work, because we are now a people in the diaspora looking for homes. We have become the American Somalians. A poor, dispossessed people shunned by others from an area marked by anarchy and chaos. Yes, this does describe much of us.
Exiles? Perhaps that does fit.
We left home and now in all likelihood many of us no longer have homes. We watch the last stragglers of our neighbors being forcibly evicted from their own homes. We read of house-to-house searches where doors are kicked in for thorough inspections, and a code of “x’s” and “o’s” which indicate not the love and kisses of our dreams but whether or not the search had been performed and dead or living were found. The stories never include reports of soldiers then carefully relocking and securing the homes. We live as exiles without dignity or respect expected simply to thank and praise a government for yet more insensitivity. A house, maybe my house, could have survived all of this over the last two weeks and then still be left open to the elements to strangers to looters, and allowed to simply sit for another month or more when we might be allowed to make our way back home to recover any remaining possessions.
We read Speaker Hastert’s comments on not wasting the money to rebuild New Orleans. We read Congressman Baker’s benediction to this apocalypse and his blasphemy of God and his work — what gall do these right wing bigots have to believe they could possibly speak to or divine God’s purpose somehow in this disaster. We read of the New Orleans business community in exile here in Baton Rouge trying to figure out how soon they can open hotels and throw Mardi Gras beads — visionaries to the end it seems providing the incredible lack of leadership that has been their hallmark in New Orleans for decades and continuing to cheerlead the race to the bottom.
Today we even read Joel Garreau’s view in the Washington Post, that essentially this is just the way things are. Some cities die. Some cities live. New Orleans took its chances and came up short.
His view is troubling to me, because there is just enough truth in it to be disturbing. The French Quarter can become a faux neighborhood, a historical representation, kind of a cross between Williamsburg and Disneyland-on-the-River. He argues that the real city, the city of neighborhoods, people, families, traditions, gumbo, creole patois, shotgun houses, snoballs and poorboys, will not be rebuilt. Clearly, that is the view of many in power, as much as the rest of us are fighting against that rising tide as well.
In this future we are absolutely exiles. We are forced as a people to wander the country without a way to ever truly go home. We are forced to come to grips with the fact that even if we have a few sticks and bricks still standing in New Orleans, we will be forever forced to struggle without ever again finding home.
I’m now in Baton Rouge thankfully. Ileana Gomez and Zach Nauth had a small house in Spanishtown, a small residential neighborhood in the heart of downtown Baton Rouge established in 1805. Zach used to run Local 100’s office in Baton Rouge and now soldiers on for the International based in Chicago. Ile was a sweetheart. I left her a message saying if she had room could she get us off of the commute between Lafayette and Baton Rouge. I knew that if she didn’t, she would know people. Ile has the kind of open personality and effervescence that connects with people across the board. Skills that may have been natural to her but have now been honed by years as a bartender and even more as a teacher. You know you are not immune from that desperate feeling, when the highlight of Friday was a message from her on my cell that we would have a place to sleep when I landed late Friday night at the Baton Rouge airport. A futon in her backroom is now home, and it’s a special place for now.
Saturday I greeted the dawn running through the small business district of Baton Rouge through the greenmarket as it organized its wares on the street over to the River’s batture. Running along the River I came to the Centroplex — this city’s convention center, where Local 100 represented members for years. Blue port-a-toilets were everywhere and the New Orleans exiles and refugees were starting to stir and lineup for breakfast. We were lucky to be sheltered in the bosom of friends, rather than by an uncaring state.
This morning I ran the other way along Capitol Lake discovering the Arsenal and Indian Mound on the grounds that had been unknown to me despite being in the shadow of the capitol. Running along the small lake on a footpath lined with benches one comes around to one building after another fashioned in recent years to hold state government. Coming back and running up the hill one looks down to see the statue of Huey P. Long, the legendary Louisiana governor, and up the steps to see his message to the legislators within to make sure that every bill speaks to a better humanity for generations to come.
New Orleanians are now refugees and exiles barred from home, perhaps forever in no small way because we have not been able to produce enough Huey P’s to make sure that we protected people and the special places of our country as our first priority and legacy, rather than our last.
I have lost touch with myself. I can no longer balance the depression on one hand and the rage on the other. Today, I am no longer a reliable and realistic voice. Maybe tomorrow, but certainly not today.
Huey P. Long, legendary Louisiana governor