Wednesday, November 23, 2005

room 219 revisited

Douglass's St. Claude Avenue door was bent from being pried open and the glass was out of it so I went in. I forgot my camera and my flashlight, but remembered the Louisville Slugger I keep by my bed for "protection." These are lawless times. (I remember once Peanut asking me what I'd do if some thugs busted open my door and I said I'd repel them with my baseball bat and he laughed so hard he had to put his head down on the desk. He said Ms. Plesh, you'd be killed. I guess those were lawless times too.) Anyway, that's what I brought with me. Tim's wooden little league Louisville Slugger.
The first thing inside, in the foyer, I saw garbage cans and push brooms and cleaning supplies and for a minute I believed it was the powers that be finally taking care of things, cleaning my school, but then reallized it was from the military men who had stayed there right after the storm, the Oregon National Guard. They'd left it. The glass-enclosed office area seemed unscathed and none of the glass was broken. I thought for sure that if the reports were correct, that the "bad" ones stayed at Douglass like someone who had been there told me, that the first thing they'd have done would have been to bust up the place where those in authority worked. But no.
The green terrazo steps to the second floor (my route every morning after checking in, the staircase that ended in my hall where once some kid caught a poster on fire that the French teacher ripped down and stomped out, the third fire that day) were dusty but not broken, which is what I'd feared. I don't know why I assumed they'd be broken. On the second floor, nothing seemed out of place, except that all the classroom doors were wide open, even the math teacher's. Except, strangely, mine were closed. I had my key so went to the primary door, turned the key, and when I went to open it discovered that the knob was still gone! And I laughed out loud, thinking about how it had gone missing a few weeks before school let out last May, and how I'd written in this blog the continuing saga of the door. So I went to the other door, the secondary door, now the primary door, with the translucent blue paper still on it. The bottom half had holes kicked in it.
But inside, to my wonder and relief, the room was fine. There were about ten desks in the room, in rows (that made me laugh too), and most of them were good new plastic desks taken from another classroom, not the funky wooden ones I loved so much. My teacher desk, such as it was, was not there. (I found it later in the hall, stacked with other teachers' desks. All that was in it was a part of my manuscript about Auschwitz that I'd brought to school, thinking one day I'd share it with the students; half a bag of potato chips I'd left; and a new, still unwrapped roll of the necessary duct tape.) The room was swept. A giant collage of my students' photographs that a girl from Mandeville High School had made for me several years ago was face down on the floor, but I think that was an accident. My Brittanica Encyclopedia set was stacked on the file cabinet. All the books and magazines I'd had on the windowsill were gone, but I found them in the cabinets. The boxes I had on top of the cabinet -- my 16 years of Shakespeare information and paraphenalia, the box of essays I'd been collecting forever, my box of loose poems and cd's of poets reading -- were missing. But given the respectfully kept state of the classroom, I presume the boxes are stashed in a bookroom somewhere. The bookrooms were all wide open.
Here's the thing that blew my mind though. All the chalkboards (three huge walls of chalkboards) were clean except for two things: the Stafford poem I'd left on the board before the end ("For My Young Friends Who Are Afraid"), the one that shows in the Times-Picayune photograph, was still up there, and there was a three line address for the 1/162nd Division of the Oregon National Guard. A funny thing is that the silly "word wall" the program administrator had put up on the chalkboard (she had to put it up because I wouldn't. It was too silly and I refused.) was torn down and crumpled in the corner. In fact, the room seemed sober and somewhat stark, just the way I like it. There was no sign of 9th grade in that room. It felt once again like a studio for writers and a space for intellectual pursuits. I know that was inadvertent on the part of the National Guard, but it felt to me like my room was restored to me.
Elsewhere in the school things were mainly the same. The walls still needed painting and plastering. The doors still needed fixing. One of the stepped lecture rooms had apparently been used for meetings because there was a big map of New Orleans, consisting of six or eight quadrant maps taped together, attached to the back wall. St. Bernard Parish was outlined in black marker. In another room, a science classroom, there were stuffed animals in each of the desks and I thought, God, what kind of macabre prankery is this, and I was a little afraid to go into the room. But on the chalkboard was a note from the Guardsmen. It said they'd brought these stuffed animals for the children, knowing that they'd be staying in a school, but that all the children had already evacuated and so they were leaving them for someone to pass along to the children, wherever they were.
I went back about a week later and the door was boarded up.


Sunday, November 06, 2005


The hurricane aged us fast. It ended people's ways prematurely. Families didn't get a chance to come and go naturally. Habits, ongoing ways of being, plans set into motion, the hurricane pushed regular time aside, regular progression, and made its own time. What would Einstein call this?
I wish I could remember being light-hearted and happy, feeling attractive, being fun and flirtatious. I've gotten so old-hearted lately. I've lost my mirth. And I don't know how to retrieve it. Is innocence and joy ruined? It cannot be, especially given the fact that not only did I survive but everything I own is safe and sound and dry. I'm one of the relatively few people still intact and I think it's my job to give my intact backbone to those who lost the material things that held them up. It's selfish of me to stay in the sadness. I have to help. Wallowing in sadness is not helping anyone. It's short-sighted of me. I have to rise out of this. I have to get my power back. I have to because I'm wasting myself. I'm not meant to languish. So how do I do that? How do I pull my power together? One way is to not complain another single time about not having gas service. No more complaining. No more feeling sorry for myself. I have to give my power. However, before I do this I have to try to say what I saw on Friday when Tim and I drove around. The houses in the 9th ward. The water and wind, how the wind tore the trees out, how the water rose and floated boats and cars and anything else that could temporarily be lighter than the water and then moved it, dropping things, discarding things. Then the water with its black film on top stayed for weeks, soaking everything, melting the wood, melting the floors, letting the poison grow up the walls that had remained dry. At the levee break the water roiled and tore the ground up like jets had dropped bombs. It gutted the earth where it flowed.
I met a guy this morning named Wayne who lived on Canal Street and had to leave his house in a boat. He told me that after the hurricane, when he was on the street, he could hear his footsteps and he could hear himself breathing. The silent city. That's what the rest of New Orleans has become, a silent, gray, overwhelmed, dead city. I feel its anguish. It is incongruous to be light and happy in the quarter.
The front door of Douglass, which was made of glass, was broken in and I want to, if I dare, go inside. Maybe that's exactly the thing I ought to do, and go to my room and see the reality and maybe then I can accept the complete truth, which is that Douglass is dead. I need to tie this up, put an end to it, get closure, so I can get on with my life. Because that's exactly what I'm not doing, getting on with things. I'm stuck. I'm physically okay, strapping even, and it's time to roll out of my depression and get my life back. I just heard a guy behind me say, "I lost everything," and now I realize what that means, with those miles and miles and miles of houses ruined and their doors opening and closing in the breeze, people's homes opened to anything or anyone who would enter. But there's nothing to get, nothing to see, just flood-soaked, melted nothing that used to be something.
There are no schools open in New Orleans. I've been counting on there being schools in January but will there be any students? It seems less and less likely that New Orleans will return. My head is scrambled and full. I have to slow down and sink into my heart and pay attention. But it seems like I've beaten to death the point that my students are all gone, that Douglass High School is no more, that 80% of the city flooded and most of that will not come back out of the muck, that the levees are still leaking. That at the end of November my health insurance will be $5000 deductible. My feelings burst out occasionally, and I usually have tears just under the surface, but I haven't felt and understood at the same time yet. I haven't put anything together. The feelings I'm having are not spurred by realizations but from gut-level things, like empathy and compassion. I feel but I can't connect it to anything except the vague and obvious. I need poetry now perhaps. Or something. I need to connect with the reality of what is occurring in the spirit. New Orleans is where I was born. I love New Orleans. It is my home. I guess that seems foolishly obvious but it's a big deal to be able to name one's home and to feel at home there. And when I came to teach at Douglass I felt like I was really finally doing something to keep my city alive and viable. And then Katrina came and took out what I came here to help do. I absolutely must go to Douglass and see for myself. See what's real. And then I can proceed in that new light.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

sea change

From my journal, eight weeks after the storm.

Sunday. I had two dreams in which I was naked and not embarrassed.
A NY Times article today (10/23) said 30,000-50,000 houses may have to be demolished.
Several of the neighbors are outside cleaning up the curbs. It's nice. Chava and David are home and there's jazz coming from their house. It's a beautiful, cool morning. Gail is chuckling with an old man walking by. The old man is talking about the house he built himself in Gentilly that got destroyed. It's hard enough for me, who lost nothing but a job and a school. But to imagine everything gone? My writings, my cello my piano? My city?
A guy just emerged from a car wearing a styrofoam pith helmet, a Hawaiian print shirt, flip flops, and shorts, and his legs are tanned. He went to the car in front of him and reached in and hugged the driver and said, Haaay Honey. And they've been talking ever since, right in the middle of the street. And we've got a new guy in the neighborhood temporarily.
I feel something like hope this morning.
Everyone outside is friendly and working, walking to the newspaper box, sweeping. Life here is going on. The #5 bus just rolled down Royal. Empty, but rolling. I just cleaned my truck on the inside. Someone stole George's hose so I can't wash the outside.
I feel good, actually good, practically normal, like I've had a pleasant Sunday and life is proceeding and all is as it should be. And all that is exactly true. I did have a pleasant Sunday and life is proceeding and all is as it should be. This might be the first day I've recognized that this is my life, just as it is, since Katrina. I am grateful. And Tim is home which makes me feel more connected and real. The anchor. Like Penny. I let myself stay still and love him rather than run around as was more my wont.
I'm thinking about that Sunday morning we left and how very different the house is now. The place was a mess with clothes strewn across the bed (including the periwinkle princess dress) and some cut lemons, an empty wine box, and half a pot of coffee and the grinds. Stuff like that. Newspapers. The first time I came back I just gawked and watered my plants. I'd brought clorox and gloves and bags and vinegar to clean the refrigerator and I left all that piled, along with all my other damned crap, on the table. All I really did that day was say hello again to my house and connect myself back to New Orleans. One of the other times I came in I cleaned. I threw away a bunch of things, including my whole damned coffee maker, and I cleaned the counter. The chaos of that Sunday morning we left is not discernible in this house anymore. That hurricane really changed me. I am disgusted by meat. I cannot bear to leave any food on the counter. I wash the dishes all the time. Or rather, every day, which is all the time to me. I've collected a pickup truck load of stuff for the Bridge House. I bought a new broom. I feel the strong need to only have that which I have a need or desire to be conscious of and then to be conscious of it. I don't want any forgotten obscure niches of treasures that mean so little to me I don't even remember their existence. I want to put all my rocks and sticks and bones out on a shelf so I can look at them. I don't want things that don't matter to me taking up my space. Space, physical reminiscences, these are precious now. A lot of people lost everything, everything, everything they owned. Every single thing. Knowing about the state of their houses makes me crazy to keep my stuff clean and together, and I don't want meaningless stuff around me. The world has changed. I have changed. I have had a sea change.

It's almost nine weeks since the storm and I'm writing the last few pages of this notebook that I've been keeping since 28 August. It's Thursday and I still have not gotten "cleaned up' and gone out to find a job. But it's hard to get cleaned up when it's so cold and there's no hot water. And it's strange because on the surface things seem to be moving along in new Orleans, but I sense that things are not really moving along.
Dammit. Two gas company guys were just here (they were driving down the street and I flagged them down) and they said I have a LOCK on my meter. Other people in the neighborhood have gas because they turned it on themselves but I have A LOCK on mine so I cannot do that, and now the gas men have noted that so I don't think it's a good idea to apply the bolt cutters to it. They said we have to wait until the water is pumped out of the gas lines then someone would come unlock the meter and turn me on. Meanwhile, I think I should just sit here on the stoop and wait for the gas men to come by again.

Friday. Yesterday was a pretty lost day. Today the FEMA guy came to "inspect" me. And Tim and I took a ride so I could see, for the first time, the 9th ward where all my students lived. And we saw Lakeview. Where the levee broke in Lakeview the ground is torn up like it had been bombed or like something came and dug new roads. Houses are in the street, whole houses. Windows and doors of all the houses are open and rags of curtains are fluttering in the breeze going through the houses. Oily water lines range from halfway up the piers to to roof eaves. There is unbelievable destruction. I'm stricken. I cannot articulate what I've seen.
It's time to begin anew, and starting a new notebook is a good way to start, especially now that I've seen New Orleans. 80% flooded and I now understand what that means. It's not an inconvenience or a bump in the road. 80% of the city was catastrophically affected. I cannot imagine much of that or actually any of that rising again. Still, I cannot make words. Things like what I saw happen in other places, not in New Orleans. They happen in Pakistan and Indonesia, but not here.

Saturday. My knees hurt and my teeth hurt and I'm achey. I feel funny. I think I'm ill. I'm going to have to get busy on this getting a job business. A few schools are opening in November. It's going to be hard going back, in a way, but on the other hand everything has changed and I will not again have the experience of Frederick Douglass High School. I was there at its end. It's amazing to me to see how things happen. I never knew when I was thinking about leaving Mandeville High that this would be the story. I thought I'd go in and participate in the change, not sing its swan song. But I don't think change (not much change) was in the cards for Douglass, even had there not been Katrina. This might be the best thing that could have befallen those children, even though their lives and families are scattered and lost. But their lives were going nowhere, and I say that not forgetting that they loved their lives. But it's all they knew and most of them would never have gathered the wherewithal to change, much less get out. Yesterday showed me the darkness of Katrina, so I'm glad I had the chance to see the light of Katrina first, so that could settle in my head.
The Times-Picayune's obituary page has no more pictures of young black men who died of gunshot wounds.

refrigerator city

From my journal, seven weeks after the storm:

I feel lost and I'm so sad. I can't shake it. Every time I go out in my truck and see the city, the people, feel the city, I cry. Hard crying. I'm stuck in some sorrow that I can't free myself from. And I know I'm not alone. I see it in a lot of faces around me, that same spooked sad look in the eyes. The only laughter I hear is drunken and hysterical. What are we going to do? I picked George up from the airport yesterday and now he's next door cleaning his refrigerator. When I took him to Sav A Center earlier he smelled like refrigerator. What a crazy phenomenon that is, for a person to reek of refrigerator. That refrigerator smell on his skin made me nauseous and until just now, when I fixed a gin and tonic, I felt sick.
I also feel very intense and, strangely, closer to being real than usual. Maybe because my feelings aren't in my control right now. I'm not "fine." In New Orleans I've been able somehow to feel like I belonged to something. It's my home. I was born at Baptist Hospital. It has always felt to me that I was okay here, that it didn't judge me. And now the city is filled with out-of-towners who are touristing but that's not their purpose for being here. They're workers. They're putting the city back together. They're getting paid to be here. They don't have that awe going on. They are more in awe of their own work. They're not here because they love New Orleans, they're here because they work and they undoubtedly have pride in their work and so they take some credit for the continuing living of this city and they walk around New Orleans like New Orleans is in a coma. And they don't bother whispering.

Friday. George called first thing this morning to say he couldn't get the smell out of his refrigerator so he paid Tony at the corner twenty bucks to take it out and put it on the street and we went to Sears and bought new refrigerators. Mine cost $449. We had to take a number at the Sears refrigerator department to get waited on, there were that many people buying refrigerators.There was a guy I'd met at Molly's the other day who gave me his number and said he'd help us retrieve our refrigerators, so after we made our purchases we called him, but we couldn't reach him, so the Sears men put both of our new Kenmores in the back of my little Nissan pickup truck, tied a little pink twine around them, and I DROVE them home myself. I had to move slowly and not make any sharp movements so I took Causeway to Airline Highway -- was very nervous going up and down overpasses and that traffic circle -- then continued down Tulane Avenue. It was the worst damage from the storm I'd seen. Every building on the entire avenue was flooded and busted up. Tulane Avenue is dead. I took an illegal left on Claiborne and cruised onto Marigny Street and parked in front of our house. A stranger driving the wrong way on Marigny stopped and asked if we needed help getting the refrigerators out, and so we paid him and Tony $30 each to bring our machines in, and it is now up and humming. Oh, and Robert's Grocery parking lot is now being used as a staging area for dump trucks. Robert's got almost completely destroyed by looters. Ravished by viciousness.

Saturday. Bonnie and I began a list of Katrina-related images and terms: mountains of trees, duct-taped refrigerators, superdome, convention center, grocery carts on overpasses, boats, national guardsmen, garbage, FEMA, MRE's, face masks, ghosts, blue roofs, boarded windows, spray-painted warnings to looters, commandeering, mosquitoes, flies, animal rescue and crow bars, torn open 25 pound bags of dog and cat food on the sidewalks, the x sign, the Saints. Someone wrote in to a discussion forum that she was looking for MRE wrappers. I smell a costume coming on.
George boiled a big pot of water on his barbecue grill for me so I took a good bath, and did the whole grooming thing. I feel like a woman again. It's the first hot bath I've had in a week. Bonnie says she thinks the reality of the hurricane is coming on us, like maybe we're getting over the shock and it's settling in. Maybe that's what the heaviness is. Too much has happened. It's impossible to process things that happen so fast. But maybe the processing is occurring finally. I've been like in a daze. I spoke with Linda, my student from last year who was so influential to me as a teacher, and she gave me the skinny on everyone. Most of the people we had in common are in either Houston, Dallas, or Atlanta. She's in California. She wants to come home.
Tim is coming home tonight!!!!! His presence will give me perspective. I really wonder what has changed in me. How has New Orleans changed? How has life changed?

Friday, November 04, 2005

home to stay

From my journal, 6 weeks after the storm:

Saturday. I'm sittong on the stoop. The new sights and sounds of New Orleans is of front loaders, backhoes, bobcats, 18 wheel dump trucks. The bobcat scrapes the street and dumps the load into the front loader, and when its bucket is full it raises the load (like it's emphatically praying to the heavens) and drops it into the dump truck which sits, idling, at the corner of Royal and Marigny. There are today four dump trucks lined up, idling and waiting. The front loader is beautiful in the graceful way the arm raises and lowers. Machines are beautiful. These machines are from Florida. The men are all wearing white nylon or plastic suits over their clothes and heavy work boots and orange reflective vests and white hardhats and white cups over their mouths and noses. There's the constant roar of diesel engines and the beeping the machines make when they back up, and the sound of the metal buckets banging against the dump trucks, and the bobcat's bucket scraping the concrete street. A neighbor just came by with a flea-bitten dog on a leash and he took the defunct bike off the curb that I'd put out there, and told me he stood in a free food line on Canal Street that was for the workers, not the locals, and he said they were cooking steaks as big as dogs and he pointed to his dog. Then he told me he was using his FEMA money for weed.
Now the trucks are gone and it's strangely silent. Since they left I think I've heard two sounds -- a car passing on Royal and a woman around the corner greeting a long lost somebody. I'm in a cleaning frenzy. I took four bags of trash out of the back plus several large things, like a lawn mower and that bike and some other things I can definitely live without. I de-potted my plants. Almost all of them are dead but I created a plant hospital anyway, just in case. It's sad about my cedar tree especially. That has been my Christmas tree since I've lived here. Next door a man is on the roof, hammering, and a woman is standing on the ground giving him instructions. The flocks of pigeons are beautiful today. I love the way they move. They fly like girls, breast first.
Sunset, on the stoop again, mosquitoes. I think it's my job now to be outsidde, to show people that our city is habitable. Just like it was at Douglass, just to exist and show up and be myself. But it's a vacant city. A ghost town. I don't understsnd why people didn't flock home. It was a really lonely day. It's like the Twilight Zone. And I feel achey and my sinuses hurt. I raked and swept the whole street and sidewalk on my block this morning and I guess the dust got me. I guess there's a reason those people wear those masks.

Tuesday. The refrigerator is OUT. I've been terrified that I would go crazy in the night and open it. I've been adding more duct tape every day, just in case. But now it's gone. I have three ice chests, one of which is leaking. I bought some pork chops to barbecue but really don't know if I can stomach meat anymore, considering what Mark the butcher said about how there were things living in my refrigerator so big I could put them on a hook and go fishing with them. The idea that the seeds of those creatures are IN THE MEAT AT ALL TIMES. God. And we eat that. Are the creatures in us?

Thursday. I have the cats back home with me now so the house is almost comlete. Orange is behind the stove. My turntable is going crazy and ruining my Gordon Lightfoot album. That will not do. I couldn't park in my usual place because of the workers across the street. Which makes me SO HAPPY! People. Glad to have people. I keep looking around, drinking my life outside back into me. Everything looks brand new to me. But I also feel sick. Nauseous. Every little exertion shows my limbs to be sore. And I'm having a hard time breathing. It's mental. Leaving Dave's was hard to do. Besides the fact that we became like a family, leaving there with the cats also marks the end of a very safe period. As long as my stuff and my cats were there I felt like I had that safe haven and someone to take care of me to which I could retreat. But now I'm really altogether back, and alone. And it's scary being alone around here right now.