Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Remembering Katrina Part III: Reprise

Written on August 31, 2005, with some recent editing for clarity --

These are random thoughts, feelings.

My dearest friend of 40 years, and her family, live in Gulfport, and there's no way of knowing for sure whether they're alive or not. She's a life-long resident and a minister. I change my mind every second about whether she left or stayed, lived or died. The emotional roller coaster is text-book. I feel desperate and crazed.

If I'm feeling crazed, here at home, safe, dry, fed, watered, well, and with all the support in the world, can I begin to comprehend something of the desperation they and all the dear souls in New Orleans and on the Coast must be feeling?

I can't express my shame and rage that this is occurring in my country. Past the grief and shock of the natural disaster is the utter shame at the boggling incompetence in response to the chaos in New Orleans and on what was the Coast. I can't. I stammer. I find it hard to breathe. Sometimes I feel such rage and frustration that I think my chest will burst.

At last I hear somebody REAL on TV. CNN's Jack Cafferty said something like ". . . and the elephant in the living room that nobody's willing to talk about, the race and class factor going on here." I could weep for relief that the Glad-wrapped whiteout is finally beginning to break down. That it took a -- what, what do you call this? Disaster? -- an obliteration of this size to reach the flinty little hearts of the corporate newsfaces absolutely appalls me, but I'll force myself to find the good news: At least something real is being reported now.

I heard our new national Director of Homeland Security first thing this morning give a press conference on how September is "preparedness month." The mind congeals. I laugh for the first time in days. It's not a happy laugh.

My questions are simply without end. I imagine Europe looking on. I imagine a world led for decades to believe that the mighty USA could never fail, now watching, live, in real-time, a display of incompetence and callousness of surely unprecedented dimensions. I’m in shock. I, too, grew up thinking the USA is the most technically competent, together nation in the world, the nation everybody else calls on for help, and I grew up on the idea that Americans are the most generous people on earth. There’s a breakdown here. The old known world is shattered. I don’t recognize this one. I can’t process what I’m seeing and hearing.

This morning I opened one of the survivor link-up sites. I had posted two search messages there, one for each of my friends. The site format limited what I could say to listing the names and locations, and a drop-down menu of "alive," "dead," "missing," and "unknown." I had chosen "unknown." I opened the site this morning, dully, numb and despairing, and clicked on my post for Jane, expecting what I've found for two days: no news. But someone has changed "unknown" to "alive." I feel something shift inside. My heart ca-thunks. I am clinging to this, using every power of faith I can muster to believe it. Believe. Believe.

Memories of the Coast at Gulfport. [I went to junior college in Long Beach, just down the way, for two years.]

The beach where caskets lie like pill boxes now is the beach I walked on almost every day for two years. I remember the sounds of the surf, the smell at low tide, the lovely pale sunrises, the creamy sand, tranquil and silent. Girls in senior whites around a bonfire. My then best friend could watch the sea like no one else I've ever known. She seemed to meld with it, finding in it a consolation for wounds that no one else could know. I learned something about that in my two years there, about the need to find consolation.

My favorite teacher and I crossing 90, heading back to campus from a walk on the beach when a dog darted across in front of us. I knew it would be hit. It was. Afterward, I told her so, to which she said, “Did you will it to happen?” Outraged. It took a while to get her point. I hear its shreik.

The very first time I ever got drunk in my life was on that beach, the first week of my freshman year. A pack of Keesler AFB men had come to hunt us, bringing booze and inner tubes whose holes were covered with rubber on one side to serve as floating coolers. They had tied ropes to the tubes and floated them out into the seawater to chill the gin and Southern Comfort, vodka, bourbon, rum, and coke. And to keep it from prying eyes, I guess. Who knew not to drink in the hot sun? Who knew not to mix the liquors? Who knew how much to drink? Certainly, not I.

There are women alive now who may remember dunking me in ice-cold water in the tub until I was sober enough to take the carefully meted-out hazing that the upper class dispensed, especially at such times. After all, it was an act of idiocy that could have cost my parents the tuition and me my education.

Walking west on Hwy 90, along the upper embankment, my feet crunching acorns from the live oaks, my hands swatting at mosquitoes, past the little Catholic church on Sunday morning to Little Man's, the tiny cafe where we hid out to escape mandatory church attendance. We wore only what we had to wear to pass the check-out: heels, hose, underwear, and a trench coat. That’s it. Breakfast and coffee punctuated with frequent glances, fervent prayers that no housemothers would show up on this day.

The damp chill of a wintry Coast morning. A wet doggy smell, a low tide smell.


Springtime. Gardenias and orange blossoms in the air.

The sound and feel of the sand on the pavement under my feet, in my dorm room, the feel of it in my swimsuit, my crotch, my ears. Ubiquitous.

Now I see coffins upended, freight cars on their sides right on the waterline. North of where the highway was, there’s nothing except more horror.

I sit wondering at the white men who are right this minute making decisions that will seal the fate of thousands of my countrymen and women, and, like every other American, I imagine, I’m wondering where I'll be when my fate depends on their wisdom and, dare I say it, compassion. I have a better sense now where I'll be. I hate them.

Governor Good Hair, will you house queer refugees in your astrodome?

I watch the white boys lie, and lie, and lie. I hear the black people screaming, crying. How much shame is enough to atone for this? Is there enough?

I just heard that Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert thinks it's a waste of good money to rebuild the Big Easy. What does that mean?

What. Can. That. Possibly. Mean.