→ September 2006 Contents → Column
Hell Hath No Fury
The destruction laid upon New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was a direct result of women's lib.
The historical facts speak for themselves. The French explorer Iberville first came ashore on Mardi Gras Day 1696, and promptly started querying local braves of the Houmas, Chittimacha and Choctaw tribes about a suitable place for a long-term encampment. He gave the native men mirrors and cheap trinkets, and in return generally received a great deal of contrary and confused male-bonding-style speculation. That is, until 1718, when he took the Indian medicine mens' finally-proffered advice for a permanent settlement and erected his first log structures in a suspiciously marshy-looking bend in the Mississippi River.
It was only when the rainy season set in that he discovered he had spent a goodly part of a year building in a flood plain, and would eventually need to construct levees in order to live there year-round.
Only then did he wonder why the Indians had sent him to such an obviously inappropriate place.
The problem was that manly Iberville, who could cross vast oceans with only the aid of primitive navigational gear, who could fight alligators and bears with single-shot muskets and a sword, this brave and intelligent man was not at all the most observant sort when it came to social situations.
He had never noticed the tall, striking and handsome women who were seriously and silently scowling in the shadows of the braves with whom he negotiated. The Frenchman figured les femmes indiennes to be nothing more than a close kin of what he considered as the traditional, chronically disgruntled, though rather intimidating, French wives. Said women are rumored to be one of the reasons he himself stayed onboard his ship for years at a time. He did not envy their husbands.
Iberville was wrong. Badly, sorely wrong. The tribes he had met were predominantly matriarchal, and the regal women were the chiefs. They were not happy to be ignored and denigrated. They were insulted and angered at being dismissed by the wigged and powdered white man. When the female chiefs finally instructed their subservient tribesmen to point to a future site for New Orleans, Iberville would again not discern where the giggles and repressed guffaws were originating, and who was laughing about what.
And thus was New Orleans founded on a practical joke perpetrated by scorned women.
These days the joke just ain't funny any more. The pressure of a civilization gone awry from the long-term destruction that started with wind and water, and continues with a breakdown of humanity, has ripped many a good man and woman from their tenuous holds on sanity. The City's suicide rate is through the roof, the mental health facilities almost nonexistent, and many older residents who could not physically or emotionally stand the strain of life as a refugee have literally given up and died while attempting to return.
Those who have returned and stayed bear The Weight. The Weight of Daily Living in a town with widespread destruction, a struggling infrastructure, and the constant and painful emotional wounds caused by bureaucratic bunglings of government and no-bid commerce as these forces supposedly try to help us right our lives.
We have hundreds of armed National Guardsmen roaming our streets in Humvees and a hoard of Louisiana State Police bunked in town, these to supplement a New Orleans police force that is not that much smaller than before the hurricane. These inflated numbers of law enforcement officials are here to keep a hold on a population less than a third its pre-storm size. Last month, in spite of this double-patrolling of a third of the people, we had 21 murders, as opposed to 22 in July 2005.
Which means the murder rate per thousand had tripled.
A recent weekend was a prime example of the bedlam.
On Friday, two National Guardsmen were arrested for stopping cars randomly and then stealing all the money from the drivers' wallets when they were supposedly examining their IDs.
On Saturday morning, in the destroyed Lower Ninth Ward, which is surrounded and patrolled by the same National Guard, someone drove onto a work site and brazenly stole two large-tracked bulldozers. The perpetrators had to have a flat-bed truck and take at least an hour to load the massive dozers onto their vehicle, chain them down, and drive out of the area. To compound the insult, the equipment was stolen from the construction site for a memorial dedicated to the people who died in that neighborhood last August 29-30, poor people drowned first by floodwaters and now by irony.
On Saturday night, in a more personally affective event, three men walked into Mimi's in the Marigny, two blocks from my home, pulled a gun and robbed the bar/restaurant and 10 patrons. Many of them were my neighbors: artists, carpenters, day laborers and a magician. Threatening their lives if anyone moved or spoke. This, in spite of a video surveillance system and door buzzer locks.
Other than the two National Guardsmen, there have been no arrests.
Under this sort of onslaught, it is hard not to give up. I personally have lost more acquaintances post-K than in the storm. Then I am told the story of John McCusker, read reports of his arrest, and I drop another notch into anxiety myself.
John stayed through the horror of the City's darkest days, working at documenting the worst disaster in American history and the personal agonies undergone by so many individuals.
The pictures may have emptied from his cameras into digital storage, but the images never seem to have left his mind.
He was a wonderfully talented photographer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, like me was a long-time jazz enthusiast (though he was even more proactive in the music community), was an alumnus and newspaper editor from Loyola University (where I teach), and was at the end of the day a true family man. He was a husband and father locked into the community, whose wife also worked at the paper, whose kids attended New Orleans schools, and whose home and life were totally wrecked by Katrina. There are on-line interviews with John as he described his descent into hell, the price he was paying for life under The Weight.
Then last week while all this other mayhem was roaring on, he himself dropped into the inferno. Lost it. Pulled over for erratic driving, he fought officers, then begged to be killed, and when incredibly restrained NOPD officers refused, he tried to crush them with his vehicle. They eventually tasered him into submission without endangering his life.
Just reading the reports would have broken New Orleans' collective heart, had the scarred old organ any more capacity for such a feeling.
Since then, according to reports, he has begun finding his way back from the edge, positively affected by how so many people have been touched by his story and have tried to help him, in any way they can.
And because of his trauma, more outsiders are beginning to realize what a toll The Weight continues to take every day on the stressed and pressured few who continue to try and deny the City any further slide into chaos.
John's breakdown was made all the more meaningful when one of his photos recently appeared on the cover of the Lagniappe section in the paper, the arts and entertainment section. The term "lagniappe" is part of the old New Orleans vernacular – after buying some tomatoes and greens, a regular customer at a French Market stand would always receive an extra ripe banana or two, and maybe an apple, from the fruit vendor for the buyer's continued custom. It was a way of saying "Thanks for helping me stay alive" from the seller. This giving of a "little something extra" is one of the building blocks of what was, and hopefully remains, the City's uniquely human culture.
So, what if this community was founded on a bad joke, and so what if the anniversary of Katrina is being mined by politicians and media for money and emotion like it is the punch line of yet another, even worse, gag?
In the end we've the final laugh. Because we intend to make it work.
We will, John. We will. Because we know how to take a joke, and a little lagniappe, and make something good out of it.
© Jim Gabour
Back to September 2006 Contents