Inside New Orleans
I did some conference stuff today (finished my scouring of the convention hall – three boxes going home! – and a great conversation with the Syracuse University representative about their Ph.D. program), but I mostly wanted to talk about New Orleans and the experience I’ve had here. Everyone I’ve met has been so friendly, but the disaster of Hurricane Katrina is still very much a real entity. The shuttle bus driver on Friday was telling one of the other librarians that the company he worked for lost 20 older buses that just got demolished in the lot because they didn’t have drivers to get them. All the drivers that were in the city were given a bus, told to load up their families and their belongings, and then directed to hospitals and nursing homes around the city to pick up passengers. Our driver said that it was a grueling drive that his children still have nightmares about – I gather that several of the elderly passengers died on the bus en route to their Georgia destination just because the drive was over 8 hours.
I’ve also been seeing a recurring ad on the local channels of an older woman talking about she, like many other women, was raped at a school during the hurricane and encouraging the women living with this experience to come forward and seek help from one of the many rape crisis centers in the city. Another shuttle bus driver, when asked by one of the passengers what the most startling difference in the city was post-Katrina, responded the lack of stray dogs. He said that when it was too hot out, the dogs would put their paws up on the doors of the buses and often the drivers would let them hop on to cool down and then let them off at the next stop. Canal Street, he claimed, used to have tens if not dozens of stray dogs traveling up and down it prior to the hurricane. Of course many of these animals drowned, but he said most of them were shot by the police and National Guard to help prevent the spread of disease because they were eating the human bodies that had perished during the storm since their normal sources of food were gone.
Pretty much downtown things look normal, but then you happen upon a shell of a building with broken windows and no roof. (The picture is from a building directly across the side street from the Sheraton.) Up on my floor of the hotel, you can glance down at the city and see, even on Canal Street, all the rooftops with no roofs, or piles of debris (little bits of blue tarp can be seen everywhere). Six months later, and the people who owned these buildings have not returned. I could be projecting, but beneath the friendliness and gratitude of the tourism workers (and so many people have said in that Louisiana drawl, “We love librarians, baby!”), people’s eyes look shadowed and you know that they have only begun to deal with the true aftermath and trauma of this storm.
I think what it comes down to, is that so many people think of New Orleans the way the Demco booth depicts it – that jazz playing, mardi gras celebrating town, but I really have such a warm feeling about the complexities of this city. Complexities that I have only begun to touch on. I was scheduled to meet Elizabeth Kahn, librarian for the McMain School, at 5 pm in front of the hotel and I have to say that men in New Orleans seem to really appreciate a well-dressed woman. I had gotten spiffed up in my new Talbots sundress with matching pink shrug and little kitten mules and I got a “You are CUTE, darlin’, really CUTE” and a “Baby, you look seriously fine – love it when a woman looks good” from two very old men (why is it okay when an older man says something like this, and sexual harassment when it comes from a younger one?) and I have to say I really felt bolstered to know I looked nice.
Elizabeth was right on time in her rental car (hers was having work done) and she is SO nice – she is chock full of energy and talks with her hands, which I appreciate, being a chronic hand talker myself. She took me to various areas of the city that were affected by the storm, and I have to say, as prepared as I was by all the city coverage, it really is not the same as seeing it yourself. I commented that I think the people who have managed to gut their houses and clean up the yards must be totally depressed to see nothing but abandoned houses with scrubby landscaping and broken windows on all sides of them. This house was just a few doors down from the in-renovation house of a teacher friend of Elizabeth’s and we both thought that the message spray painted on the side of the building to be just heart wrenching.
She took me to see the main levee that had been broken through and that was being repaired with two huge cranes. There were these two cars in the parking lot with a boat thrown on top of them from the marina near by (there are cars everywhere silted over and abandoned, some of them still sitting in the middle of the road where the water pushed them, that still need to be picked up and disposed of by the city). Where I was standing had been a favorite restaurant of Elizabeth and her husband, but you wouldn’t even have known a building was there except for the two stairs and little railing that led up to…well, nothing.
We went to a “New Orleans” style restaurant picked by Elizabeth, which had delicious food and neat murals and chandeliers everywhere. The owner’s original restaurant was next door with the plywood still up on the windows and had rented this space to another business, but figured it would be easier to open up using this place, which looked really nice and fun. We had the waitress take our picture, and while a little blurry, I think you can tell we were enjoying talking to each other!
Elizabeth was a tireless tour guide and, being a New Orleans native, she has such a wonderful sense of history of the area – it was really neat to hear her point out a school and mention that a relative had graduated from there. We saw her school, the McMain School, (pictured) which is a neat Art Deco building and drove around Tulane University and the Garden District and gaped at all the stunning architecture. I can’t believe how so much of the city is still out of commission. There was no electricity at several of the stoplights, so the people just have informal rules about who gets to go first, the streetcar still wasn’t coming out all the way down St. Charles Street, and they still aren’t getting magazines or catalogs in their mail. I am such a magazine junkie that this seemed totally cruel to me – how can you not get your magazines?!
But she, like everyone here, really seemed to believe in her city and celebrated every restaurant reopening or building renovation like a mini-Christmas. Elizabeth is actually moving to a new school that is beginning (and will be serving an underserved population) and she actually just finished some interesting training in California offered by the foundation begun by Bill Gates, since her new school will give every child a laptop through his foundation’s largesse. I think it sounds really exciting and if anyone can do it, she can will all that energy and drive! I can’t wait to follow her career and I offered to continue to partner with her if her new school needs items as well – I’m sure the LAB has fundraising ideas to implement!