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My recent week-and-a-half working in Africa actually made me feel better about coming home last Monday, since it is much, much scarier in Capetown than in New Orleans. I had previously not thought that possible.
I suppose it goes to show how self-centric we here have become, dealing with life on a day-to-day basis unimaginable in this country before Katrina. But seeing the rampant poverty of much of the population of South Africa, and feeling a new kinship with them as victims, my heart truly broke. There I was, home again, witnessing yet another people whose existence is being personally threatened by the economic and moral fallout from the evil storms of government, past and present.
Here in the United States of America the current regime is also defective and things remain in chaos, but at least there are no huge enclaves of starving people living in cardboard boxes. We have cardboard trailers, complements of FEMA. With a new storm season only weeks away.
At home, my partner Faun is physically better, though the work stress is making her unsettled. She is an attorney, you see, and has many clients among the population of the flooded Ninth Ward, most of whose family members had been living in their great-great-grandmothers' houses for a century or more, without ever completing the required succession on the estates, and transferring the title of the property to the next generation and new owner.
You may recall that we in this City live under Napoleonic Code, rather than standard American civil law. This makes these "successions" involving property transfers a great deal more complex, and people avoid them if at all possible.
Now after seven months, the Federal government is finally offering to give some dislocated residents money, Washington willing to buy their destroyed houses and return the land to the marshes from which it came. Except that the Feds cannot pay out the money, because there is no clear title to the property with the succession still open. Great-great-grandchildren never thought they would leave their family homes, and that paying a lawyer money to tell them they owned the family house in which they had each lived for decades was a waste.
That unresolved paperwork now often leaves the literal dozens of heirs entitled to a portion of a single estate screaming to resolve the issue, desperate to untangle the legal mess and access the buyout cash, raising their collective voices all the more frantically because none of them now have a house to live in.
They will tell you the house floated off its foundation and is now parked on top of three cars half a mile away. There is another unidentified house on their property. And thus, the legal situation reflects the physical: bedlam.
Faun literally has dozens of these cases, all active. That fact does not make her life easier.
We still have to drive the better part of an hour for food -- which I knew I would need to do today, and so filled my gas tank yesterday -- as there are only three supermarkets open in the whole parish. The third came back just last week. The neighborhood mom-&-pop stores of various sorts are only about 10 percent returned, if that. We all rejoiced on the reopening of a Walgreen's drug store not too far away last week. Who would have predicted such aesthetics?
So, today, an hour ago at noon, I am in the Marigny Community Café – our section of town is the Faubourg Marigny -- a valiant little neighborhood joint which reopened within two weeks of the storm, for lunch. We all try to reward the businesses that have come back as much as we can. Besides, it's a treat to get a meal somebody else has cooked these days.
However, this time I notice that the cashier is wearing thick rubber gloves, up to her elbows. I am about to ask why when the gent in front of me, an elderly black man, pays for his purchase with bills that are so dark as to be almost totally obscured.
I gawk, mouth open.
His money is covered in mold. The cashier, undaunted, scrapes off a swath of the growth to make sure of the denomination before she puts it in a metal box by the side of the register.
She sees me staring and nods. "It's still money," she says, "folks gotta eat, ya know." And she gives the gent his change in standard, clean bills.
It seems most of the people in the poorer neighborhoods didn't believe in banks, and those who are returning are spending their first moments back home anxiously uncovering their hidden stashes of cash from flooded, and often water-relocated, houses.
This gentle man turns around to tell me he is gutting his home by himself, "Family ain't never comin' back, they just said the hell with it, but me I'm too old to go nowheres else. Already planned to die here anyway, before this damned storm. Got me a cemetery plot out in a nice place near City Park. Cain't let that go, you know. Already paid for."
We talk. He seems to want to tell the story, as happens so often now. He is trying to start over, but has received no money or help at all from the government yet. He is lost to them, he thinks, and has just his own savings, small as that is. But he is having a hard time living on the $760 he had hidden in his walls. He had not thought to recover the money before he fled. "Was scared, me. Caught a ride with a neighbor to Hammond, just up the road. I was so sure of myself. I'd be back home in just a few days. I was OK. Now this is all I got left."
He showed me the roll of blackened bills. "Had it behind the 'frigerator. Now ain't that the damnedest thing? If that fridge hadn't been stinkin' so bad wit' dat rotten food, they'da found my money for sure. Them looters took everything else, but I got me my money." After over a year in the damp, the paper bills had undergone a rather horrible transformation, the black fuzz a quarter-inch thick on the outside, and he had been unable to convince supermarkets and national chains to accept it.
Like many of the locally-owned places, the Marigny Café does. There are no out-of-town executive committees to decide store policies in this hidden corner of a remote City. Just two brothers in the small rear office.
So the store has a separate cashbox just for "mold money."
As I pay for my meal, the cashier tells me she took in quite a lot of the stuff last weekend. "We had a good shrimp special," she says, so much so that she had to wear a face mask to keep from getting contaminated and sick. Indeed. Today in much less traffic, her gloves are already black, and there are smudges on the countertop.
"But, even though lookin' at that money makes you sad," she tells me, locking the box again, "at the same time it gives you some hope for the Marigny, knowin' how many more people are back. Even if we know they havin' to deal with one more trial after t'other."
I pay and walk the three blocks home, thinking about the lesson that came gratis with my meal, again wondering at the currency of the storm, and how it has come to this.
Instead of happily documenting the billions that are being siphoned through politicians' pockets in the name of humanitarian aid for Katrina victims, the Treasury Department should be required to track these tiny bits of cash, and lawmakers be made witness to how solemnly each contaminated dollar is spent.
To see life sustained, by money from behind the 'fridge.
© Jim Gabour
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