Sunday, September 18, 2005

We Is Po'

If I had a spacecraft with a transport beam, and I zipped around the United States and the rest of the world, abducting random individuals for a few minutes out of their daily lives to survey them on their ideas of what life is like in the city of New Orleans, and I took all of those images and created a composite city, it would be assembled from banana trees, riverboats, live oaks, horse-drawn carriages, trolleys and ancient brick buildings festooned with flowering tropical vines.

It would be populated with jazz saxophonists, voodoo queens, gourmet chefs, Southern belles, artists and sultry Creole mamas, all sprawled out on a giant, fern-encrusted wrought-iron balcony, drinking exotic beverages, and tossing leftover jambalaya to the pet alligators on the patio. Those not feeding the alligators would be dancing, carousing, and throwing Mardi Gras beads to inebriated people in the street below.

But the truth is, the daily life of the average New Orleanian is not resplendent with gourmet food, zydeco music, and spontaneous street festivals. It is filled with the daily grind, and we ain't talking Starbucks.

If I abducted those aforementioned people, and also surveyed them regarding what images come to their mind when they think of poverty in America, no doubt they would name rural Mississippi, Appalachia, the Cabrini Green projects in Chicago, or the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation.

But, with the American psyche so flash-blinded by New Orleans' reputation for food and fun, I suspect that none of those people surveyed would mention New Orleans when I asked them, "What place in America comes to mind first, when you think of poverty?"

But I have news for them.

New Orleans, my friends, is po'.

Exactly what, you may ask -- and rightly so, if you are not from the South -- is "po'?"

Well...okay...I'll take a stab at that.

"Po'" is like "poor," only with less money.

New Orleans struggles with a highly skewed economy based on trade and tourism -- a fair representation of wealthy and upper-middle-class citizens, a surprisingly small middle class, countless minimum-wage workers, a vast number of senior citizens surviving off their pensions, and, overall, considering that we are in the United States of America, a teeming sea of incredibly impoverished humanity.

New Orleans is a city of commerce, shipping and international trade, of dazzling hotels, stunning mansions, spectacular restaurants, and tourist attractions ranging from fun and funky to downright scandalous. Each of these industries employs a variety of human beings, ranging from CEOs and stockbrokers to cabdrivers, bartenders, cooks, hotel maids, musicians, clerks, waiters, barristas, dishwashers, and more waiters.

There are a whole lot more waiters, hotel maids, cabbies and clerks than there are millionaire restaurateurs and shipping magnates.

And there are just as many unemployed and unemployable as there are minimum-wage workers.

In New Orleans, a great many people wait for busses to go to work. Unlike the residents of some other large cities, where taking the bus is sometimes an option for the environmentally conscious and for those who do not wish to pay exorbitant parking fees, most New Orleanians who wait for the bus find themselves wanting for wheels, not by choice, but by lack of sufficient employment even to have the option of independent transportation.

These people do not live in the mansions strung out along St. Charles Avenue for the tourists to admire from their seats on the gently swaying trolleys. They live outside the peripheral vision of the tourist, in shabby shotgun houses, bleak Section 8 apartments, and dilapidated public housing dating to the Great Depression.

Unlike the images portrayed on the news about Hurricane Katrina in the first few days of horror, New Orleans is not overrun with criminals. Like any other large city, New Orleans has its share of crime and gangs, a small but lawless percentage of the city's population. Just as in the Los Angeles riots, when disaster happens, it is the gangs and criminals, not the humble citizens, who take over the streets, shoot at the cops and set cars on fire.

It's true that while the police department tries to maintain a thin blue line around the perimeter of the French Quarter, senior citizens and single moms cringe behind their doors at night a few blocks away, in fear of the gangs who rule the neighborhoods within walking distance of Bourbon Street.

But there are far more senior citizens and single moms than there are gangbangers.

In a clever marketing burlesque, the Grayline tour busses and the deliriously cheerful walking-tour guides carefully display those parts of New Orleans they wish the tourists to see, while discreetly drawing a veil of silence over the undesirable bits, much in the same manner that a girl with spectacular breasts and a formidable fanny might show off her cleavage while wearing a slimming black skirt.

Point a neon sign at the good stuff, and hope nobody looks at the rest.

Hurricane Katrina has ripped that veil of illusion right off the city of New Orleans, showing all the world the sad, stark truth which truly makes New Orleans the City that Care Forgot.

Evacuation was ordered, but no coherent plan was in place for the enormous chunk of New Orleanians who exist without their own means of transportation: the underclass, the elderly, the disabled, the sick, and the animals all suffered together in one vast, steaming toilet, waiting and hoping for the busses to come.

Saddest of all, the law-abiding po' folks of New Orleans suffered from the actions of the same criminals they have always feared. And it is the majority of New Orleans' poor -- not the gangs -- which give New Orleans its color, its flavor, and its indominateable spirit.

Out of poverty came the jazz, blues and mambo music for which the city is famous. Out of poverty came Mardi Gras, an opportunity for everyone, regardless of class and wealth, to be king or queen for a day. And out of poverty came New Orleans' famous food. Gumbo is not a rich man's meal. It is humble food prepared with the spice of life.

Baton Rouge, where I have spent most of my adult life, is where many native New Orleanians choose to land in their flight from the warped economy of New Orleans and the glue trap of Southern decadence. Long-time New Orleans expatriates who live in Baton Rouge are often either the black sheep of the upper class or the more ambitious offspring of the non-wealthy, who can find an affordable college education at LSU or Southern University and who can seek refuge in Baton Rouge's somewhat lower cost of living and its broader economy. Baton Rouge is only 90 miles from home, so family is accessible, but it's far enough away to have a life of your own.

And now my adopted home is rapidly filling with the expatriated residents of my home town: black and white, rich and poor, and the animals that were lucky enough to get out. Most came in on busses. Many will go out on busses.

But for now, we all live together. Most Baton Rougeans have opened their hearts, homes and wallets to those displaced by Katrina.

A few harbor the groundless fear of an insurgence of crime and lawlessness. In fact, since the storm, crime has not increased in Baton Rouge, but traffic accidents have skyrocketed, so almost everyone gripes about the population doubling overnight and causing hellacious traffic problems.

But for the most part, the citizens of my adopted home have been gracious hosts to the citizens of my hometown. And the citizens of my hometown, I hope, will infect Baton Rouge with the unsinkable, defiant and jubilant spirit that defines New Orleans -- the spirit that makes music to defy poverty, the spirit that motivates people to rebuild homes and businesses in spite of meteorological temper tantrums.

New Orleanians have always believed in miracles, in luck, and in the impossible.

New Orleanians believe that, one day, the Saints will win the Superbowl.

Perhaps that is why so many fled to the Superdome when they had no way out of the city.

The Superdome is much more than a mere football stadium. To New Orleanians, it is the cathedral of optimism. The poor of New Orleans fled to the Dome to escape the wrath of Katrina just as the poor of medieval times fled to the cathedrals of Europe when Nature or invading barbarians threatened life and limb. When death is at the door, you don't just run to safety. You want a miracle.

At the emergency anmal shelter the other day, I ran into a young African-American woman who had escaped from New Orleans with her dog, her purse and some water and personal belongings in a backpack. She tried to get on one bus, then another, but she couldn't bring the dog. So she started walking.

She walked through New Orleans, meandered through the suburban cities of Metairie and Kenner, and picked her way along the elevated highway to LaPlace.

Somewhere along the way, she found a family on their way to Baton Rouge. They gladly took her, and her dog, the rest of the way.

Tired, filthy, and hungry, she checked her dog into the emergency animal shelter before she checked herself into a Red Cross shelter.

I asked her what kept her going. She said, "You just have to believe you're gonna survive."

She told me she lived in downtown New Orleans, was a prep worker in a kitchen at a major downtown New Orleans hotel, and doesn't have a car because she had been saving her money to go to cooking school so she could have a shot at being a chef.

She earned a little over eight dollars an hour and lived in a tough neighborhood, where she feared the gangs and tried to look out for the old folks in nearby apartments.

She loves her dog. She is now looking for a hotel job in Baton Rouge, an apartment where she can have her dog, and is hoping that she can put her life back together here.

Tears rolled down her face when she told me she feared she would never return to her home in New Orleans. But she said, "You just gotta believe."

People in other parts of America, in other places in the world, ask, "why? Why would she want to go back?"

Perhaps, simply, because it is home.

And that's all that really matters.



At 6:42 PM, Anonymous Kathleen said...

I loved what you wrote. I live in the California desert, but my grandparents are buried in Metairie Cemetery, my mom went to Sacred Heart and my dad went to Warren Easton. Last year Anne Rice wrote about New Orleans to try to make others understand, you did just as fine a job. Thank you.

At 11:46 AM, Blogger Dez Crawford said...

I tried to email you back directly, Kathleen, but couldn't linkto your addy. Hope you read this. I'm deeply honored by what you said. Thank you.


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