Now, with no natives or locals around the usually busiest parts of New Orleans, the idea that I was an exile in my own city began to weigh heavily. The horrific smells of death, the edgy occupiers, and now the sight of bodies, probably from the Lakeview neighborhood, that had floated down Canal Street toward our encampment made September 7, 2005, among my life’s worst days. A friend from ABC News suggested: “Nick you need to document your feelings about all this … just tape yourself.”
It hadn’t occurred to me to become the subject. I am used to listening to and recording others’ stories, putting them in archives and on the radio. Still, telling my own tale to myselfas a matter of record and reliefgot me on the road Uptown to see the condition of my house. Along the way, more bodies, collapsed warehouse walls, the gift shop of the D-Day Museum looted, trash and dead animals, as well as an incoherent older man pushing a shopping cart of his life’s possessions (I gave him water as we attempted to converse). Another man hiding off Tchoupitoulas Street, near the levee Uptown, was guarding his family’s ramshackle apartment, walking their tiny prized dog, and carrying washing and drinking water from a swimming pool at a nearby mansion. I just narrated as I wentlooking over my shoulder.
This perhaps foolish quest homeward grew frightening with nearby gunfire and passing armored-carloads of soldiers. I thought I might be shot as a looter by troops or attacked by looters who wanted my car, water, and food. This was the harrowing trip that made it onto the radio program This American LifeIra Glass, the producer, convinced me to allow it on air. Documenting myself, I didn’t know my mind or emotions through much of it, but I felt that my angst and the audio was one way to help people across the country gain understanding through one small storya tiny part of arguably the largest natural and cultural disaster in American history.
Near my house it was again terrifyingly quiet. Every gate creak and step on shattered glass of the rubble-filled streets seemed magnified. The neighborhood was a silent rotting salad of downed trees and plants, a tangle of power lines and jumble of trash, flies, and mosquitoes. The house itselfone we’d moved into just two months beforehad only one window broken by hurricane gales. The hatch on the roof had blown open and there was water in the attic. The refrigerator was already molding, filling the familiar space with nauseating smell. I realized that while things were materially intact at the house, the social order of family and neighborhood around it had profoundly disappeared.
After a few hours hastily packing valuables and necessitiesthe baby stroller, clothes, family pictures, my three-year-old’s favorite Cat in the Hat videoI was tired and hot, since the power was off and there was no air conditioning or running water. I’d left the bathtubs full, thinking we’d return and need water to drink, wash, and flush with. Exhausted and dirty after two days in the city, I took a pleasantly cool bath, found clean clothes, and closed up the place.
Driving by night back to my new home in the media encampment, I ran into clusters of troops manning impromptu roadblocks in the darkness. The late-arriving National Guard now outnumbered the remaining 10,000 citizens about five to one; they knew neither the city nor the mission, and were clearly nervous. We were hardly all criminalsmuch of the less-obvious looting was for food and waterand we now know that many of the problems that were initially reported were, in fact, urban myths. I was stopped several times by young men about the age of my studentsone with a flashlight, the other with a machine gun in my face. After the initial interrogation, when they realized I was harmless, they would invariably ask me directions for their patrol. If I was an exile in my home city, they were lost occupiers.
I am writing this just after All Saints Dayan important ritual occasion in dominantly Catholic south Louisiana. It’s part of the inheritance of colonizers and settlers from France and Spain in the 18th century, later joined by Irish and Italian immigrants, among others, in the 19th and 20th. New Orleans is home to the highest per-capita population in America of black Catholics, descended from the antebellum gens de couleur livre (free people of color) as well as French- or Creole-speaking enslaved people.
This time of year has long been my favoritecool and sunny, not too many tourists, the cemeteries full of life as saints, souls, and family ancestors are recalled by re-painting the vaulted tombs, cleaning the graves, leaving immortelle wreaths (artificial flowers of wax and crepe paper), and attending candlelit services that bless the departed. But this year the cemeteries, usually bustling with the living, are empty.
As we now contemplate our return to live and work in New Orleans in the new year, the word-of-mouth and more official news is mixed. Some is uplifting: brass bands are out marching, followed by small crowds of second-liners; universities are re-opening, retaining more of their students than expected; the water is drinkable. Then the bad: houses may be torn down by the thousands; Memorial Hospital (where my kids were born) may not reopen; endless squabbles over power and priorities; the city has no tax base and is laying off 3,000 of the very workers who could help fix the place.
The New Orleans I knew lives in memory. That may be oddly appropriate for a city that has, for better or worse, long preserved and even obsessed on the past in its architecture, post-colonial lifestyles, and social relations. The New Orleans I hope for is in the imagination of all those willing to return to rebuild the intangible cultural community as much as the damaged cityscape, to demand coastal restoration and Cat 5 levees, neighborhoods restored by the many skilled artisans in the city, a WPA-scale approach to quality reconstruction. As for the New Orleans of today … we are all still exiles from the Land of Dreams.
Nick Spitzer C’72 is creator of Public Radio International’s American Routes, a weekly music and culture program produced in the French Quarter until August 28, 2005. Recently the Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Tulane, Spitzer teaches folklore and cultural conservation at the University of New Orleans.
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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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FEATURE: Exit from the Land of Dreams By Nick Spitzer