New Orleans: The Context of Our Lives Has Vanished

Yesterday, we toasted our city over dry rub ribs at the Rendezvous in downtown Memphis.  What a powerful moment that was. Out of our element, my husband and I continued with our traditions, together with a few others who had also fled New Orleans; eating, drinking, realizing that our way of life can no longer exist. Some folks were close friends, others acquaintances. As we plan our next moves, both physically and mentally, we all feel the loss of what we had. People all together on the crammed highways of a few days ago are spreading out over wide areas, driving to the Northeast, flying to California, reconnecting with their families wherever they can.

We are alive. We’re grateful that we’re safe and healthy and even comfortable, when so many people aren’t. But what we have lost is not just our belongings: houses, or furniture, or cars, or clothes. It is our environment, our community, our culture. It is our network of friends, our parties, our creative environment. We are chefs, photographers, artists, actors, musicians, builders. We work hard, we do physical labor. Instead we now must think. Think about who we are and what we have left. And what we have left are our talents and our abilities.

The culture of New Orleans cannot be recreated. It was not built; rather, it evolved.

The dark romance of our city, now seen under a bright spotlight, appears ugly. Destitute refugees.  Murderers, looters. Some of them must have been Mardi Gras Indians, costume makers, jazz musicians, folk artists, parade dancers, Creole cooks. I watch how they are destroying everything left around them and I am deeply angered. I think about the “real rain that will come and wash the scum off the streets.” But those streets would not have existed as they did without them.

The context of our lives has vanished. In spite of the fact that I had a successful new business and we were nearing the completion on our home renovation, I feel somewhat freed. No worries about meeting payroll or paying the phone bill right now. It is as if I just graduated from school again, with the world wide open. My husband is free of the daily frustrations of his job and the miserable summer heat of the city (he worked outside), but he misses his routine terribly.

As a result, our thoughts are often running in opposite directions. I suggest packing the truck and becoming nomads for a few years; he asks my parents if there’s any work he can do on the house while we’re here. We always knew that somehow New Orleans was a perfect compromise for us. He woke up early and led a regimented life, working for a company that renovated houses, restoring the architectural beauty of the city. I slept late and worked late, running a restaurant that offered customers spicy food and tropical drinks in a sultry atmosphere. Wherever we go now we will feel like animals whose natural habitat has been destroyed as we try to survive in what can only be a soulless environment by comparison.

It is excruciating to watch the suffering in New Orleans right now. I know how incredibly hot it is there; I have been a victim of violent crime there and I understand the intense fear that people are feeling. It was hard to make the decision to leave town; evacuating is inconvenient and a lot of work and storm predictions are just that; they cannot give a totally accurate picture of the future. We had the means to leave, so we did. I know people in New Orleans who have never left the parish (county). I suppose that when they were told to evacuate, they might as well have been told to go to the moon.

It is so unfair that we (whoever that is) have allowed such a large group of people to believe that the government is their best resource, not just in times of crisis, but in their daily lives. I am not a wealthy person. But I am a self-reliant person. I was never led to believe that once I moved into adulthood, there would be anyone taking care of me but myself. The ever-increasing personal, and now family, obligations that I have are very difficult to maintain at times, but if I falter, I know that I have no one else to blame. I have to pick myself up and move on. Now that our family has been struck with catastrophe, we do not have the ability to care for ourselves completely. But we have the advantage of a mindset that tells us that what we receive from others at this point is charity and not owed. It does not instill resentment in us.

This disaster was bound to happen.  New Orleans has been called “the city that care forgot,” and things that aren’t cared for exist very tenuously. Unlike any other place in the South, New Orleans neighborhoods were rich and poor, black and white, local-born and migrant. A homogeneous area might have existed for a block or two, but no more. I would not by any means call it a city of racial harmony. But it was a city of shared culture. No one was free from the fear of crime; everyone celebrated Mardi Gras together in the streets. Now we have all been separated, with those having the means fleeing the storm and those without forced to remain. The scales have been tipped, and the chaos that appears to have been so unpredictable and shocking to the rest of the country seemed inevitable to me.


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