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My New Orleans

These thoughts began as what can only be described as a rant to a friend at Harvard, and Marc Wiseman, an assistant editor at HNN, asked me to share them.

I left Mississippi in 1966, the week I graduated from college—couldn’t wait to get out of there—and moved with my young husband to New Orleans so that he could go to Tulane for graduate school. When one grows up in Mississippi, New Orleans is that romantic other country, geographically close, but culturally a lot farther away than, say, Williamsburg or Boston. I didn’t really understand that there was more to New Orleans than iron-work and French heritage and great shopping.

What I discovered was a wonderful and complicated place, perhaps the most egalitarian city in America, although, as one not widely traveled at that time, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate that. Over the nearly forty years of my life there, I have experienced friendships across race and class lines that I think are uncommon, if not impossible, in other American cities. Part of it is that we ALL eat red beans and rice and fight each other for plastic Mardi Gras beads, but part of it is that, although everybody knows your business and your place in society, this egalitarianism enables a genuine way of life that is, in most ways, totally inclusive.

When I drove away from town three weeks ago to escape the hurricane, at pretty much the last practical minute—it’s my habit never to evacuate—I thought I was leaving for a couple of days. Katrina was, after all, going to Mississippi, but I was a little afraid of the report of 200 mph winds. Although I was fully aware of the possibility of disaster for New Orleans—hasn’t everyone read the National Geographic?—it never occurred to me that it would actually happen, nor that I should have tried to find another couple of occupants for my car. So, I left with a friend and the contents of my refrigerator, since the power ALWAYS goes out for a few days when the wind blows with any velocity whatsoever.

What has unfolded over the past few weeks has been, as we say in the South, a “come to Jesus” experience for me. My husband has cancer, and finding chemotherapy for him has occupied many of our waking hours since “the flood.” Also, we have worried about what happened to our 100-year-old house, even though we were pretty sure from the outset that it hadn’t flooded.

However, WE HAVE NO PROBLEMS, compared to so many of our fellow citizens. We have a place to live comfortably and money still coming in from my university and from my husband’s TIAA/CREF retirement account. Add to that a supportive network, who, although scattered among used-to-live-in-New Orleans friends with swimming pools, or relatives with fishing camps, are keeping in touch via e-mail and phone calls.

And who did we leave behind? Those folks at the Superdome and Convention Center who, for whatever reason, didn’t or couldn’t leave town. They are not depraved looters and shooters: they are the people who peel the shrimp by hand for the shrimp remoulade at Galatoire’s; they are the people who shuck and fry oysters in little restaurants all over town. They are the people who go to St. Francis DeSales Catholic Church or the Second True Love Baptist Church on Sunday mornings and get together with their large extended families in Audubon Park afterwards for picnics and crawfish boils. They are the heart and soul of New Orleans. After forty years I find that THEY ARE MY PEOPLE, NOT "THE OTHER." I am heartsick and FURIOUS about what has happened to MY PEOPLE! They have been humiliated and dismissed and dispersed, and I lie awake at night terrified that they are never coming home. The pain of everything that has happened to all of us is almost unbearable.

And if you have ever been to New Orleans, they are your people, too. They have done some of the most personal acts one human being does for another. They have prepared your food, both elegant and simple, carried your bags at the Hilton, made up your bed at the Royal Orleans, and been gracious when you have been less than. Just like you mother!

One reason for my fury is that the first and last dollar of this tragedy will be made by Halliburton and the other pals of the Bush administration. One photograph of those ready-to-eat meals was enough to confirm my hunch that this would happen. The word “vulture” comes easily to the tongue, as well as the word “coward.” The president wouldn’t even set foot in New Orleans until it was emptied of ME AND MY PEOPLE.

My hope is that MY PEOPLE will come home. I have been asking my friends and theirs to consider donations to the New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity so we can get some houses built quick, or to the Second Harvester's Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and the Acadiana Region. These are right-there-on-the-ground "charities" and the most likely to truly help me and my people rebuild New Orleans. If you are so inclined, I would ask this of you, as well. We need all the help we can get from those of you who feel that you are our people.