The Crescent City has No Right Angles

I intended for this to be a poem about the paradoxical city of New Orleans, particularly post-Katrina. I should have written it last summer when my memories and emotions were fresh. But since I didn't write it then, all the unique imagery seems to have faded from my memory. So instead of writing a poem here, I'll just jot down some notes and thoughts. Maybe it will all come back to me someday.

NThe idea to write this non-poem came to me in the summer of 2008 as I reflected on my ten days volunteering to rebuild New Orleans a month or two earlier. Both literal and metaphorical, the title popped into my mind as I flashed back to a room in an old house near the Superdome. Hanging drywall with a young guy from San Diego named Billy, it was impossible for us to line up each piece of sheetrock whenever we finished a corner. We always ended up with a major triangular gap. There were no straight lines between the front corners and the back corners; between the ceiling corners and the floor corners. This building, probably typical of New Orleans homes, was like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.

Maybe it was because the house was really old. Or maybe New Orleans just doesn't enforce building codes. It could have been partly a result of the humid climate and flood after flood. It was probably all that and a lot more.

Unlike your house and probably every building you've ever been in, this house had no right angles. That's the literal part of the title.

New Orleans is a complicated city. The local government is corrupt in so many ways, I don't know where to start. Not that I really know anything about it, anyway. It probably has something to do with the city's poverty, because people who live in poverty generally seem not-so-inclined to hold their government accountable for their actions. There is a lot of wealth in New Orleans, but there is much more poverty. While it's nice to believe the old feel-good adage 'Knowledge equals power,' anyone with half a brain can see that knowledge has nothing to do with power. Money equals power.

Now years after the city was leveled, the American people think New Orleans is back to its old normal self because Bourbon Street is kicking hard and the Saints are back in the Superdome. But New Orleans is far from back.

Back in 2005, you heard all about the Lower Ninth Ward. As a white person, you probably think it's a dangerous neighborhood, where you will surely be the victim of some kind of crime if you're crazy enough to enter it. Well, there is no Lower Ninth Ward. North of Claiborne, the Lower Ninth Ward looks like a freaking wildlife reserve with porches. That's all there is--porches--and ten feet of weeds on almost every empty lot. Only a few houses remain on each block, and that's only because they haven't been demolished yet. There are some FEMA trailers here and there, and a few residents have rebuilt, but mostly the Lower Ninth Ward is a vast wasteland.

But the "Disaster Tour" buses roll through the empty neighborhood about once every hour. Silhouettes snap pictures of nothingness and roll film from behind the tinted bus windows. The news has brainwashed them so horribly into believing the Lower Ninth Ward is a war zone, they wouldn't dare get out of the bus, even though they can clearly see that there is no one and nothing there.

No one seems to care in New Orleans. Even the people who have been displaced and legitimately screwed over don't seem to care. Is it because they are just used to being screwed over?

Most of the volunteers at Common Ground Relief were from either California or New York City, with a handful from various other states (like me). There were even a few foreign volunteers. But only one of the 30-50 volunteers was a New Orleans resident, and she wasn't even a native of New Orleans. The only people who really seem to care about New Orleans are people who have no real reason to care about New Orleans.

As I walked west out of New Orleans, I desperately wanted to feel sympathy for the people living in the tent city below Interstate 10, at Canal and Claiborne. But I think sympathy and empathy eluded me because these people could choose to make their lives a lot easier simply by volunteering with Common Ground or any of the other relief groups throughout the city. Just by volunteering, they would have a roof to sleep under, a shower every day, three good meals each day, etc. But they don't do it.

I don't know what to make of New Orleans. Whenever I think I know something for sure about how New Orleans operates, I find something that contradicts my new revelation. I want to hug New Orleans, but I also want to kick New Orleans in the ass. I want to help bring New Orleans back, but I also think it's time for the people of New Orleans to start bringing their city back.

However you may interpret the intricacies of the city of New Orleans, you are probably correct. But you're always wrong, too, because the Crescent City has no right angles.

The End

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