With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
Subscribe and Save up to 45%
At the gym, climbing a staircase that goes nowhere, I watched a commentator on CNN mourn the death of New Orleans. Perhaps the city will be rebuilt, he said, but it will never be the same. And for the first time since Hurricane Katrina had crashed into the Gulf Coast, I felt not only mounting grief and anger but also a pang of regret, because I’d seen many great cities in my life, but I’d never seen New Orleans.
I remember a conversation I had a couple of years ago with a friend who told me New Orleans was one of the most hauntingly beautiful cities in America: vivid, earthy, sultry. Don’t miss it, he said. It’s unforgettable. And now, instead of picture-postcard memories of a romantic weekend in New Orleans, all I have is a postcard from hell: shameful, sickening images of people stranded with no food or water, waiting day after interminable day for a sign that they haven’t been left to die.
I wonder, though: If I had visited New Orleans back when I had the chance, how far would I have ventured from my comfortable hotel? How much would I have seen of a city in which one in four people lived in poverty in rotting tenements and shotgun shacks; a city in which health clinics were understaffed and crime was endemic and the public schools were among the worst in the country? Entranced by the exotic street scene in the French Quarter, by the unforgettable music and unforgettable food, what would I have seen of the New Orleans where poor black people struggled every day to find high ground amid the rising waters of their lives?
I’ve read that government officials spent two years working on an evacuation plan for New Orleans — a plan that didn’t address how to evacuate the more than one hundred thousand people too poor to own a car. Everyone rightly condemns the sniper who fired at a rescue helicopter, but what about those in authority who botched the rescue effort from the start? What crimes are they guilty of? Let’s ask those who lived in the low-lying areas that were the first to flood, left to fend for themselves as their more affluent neighbors fled to safety.
When I was a newspaper reporter in the 1960s, I frequently wrote about race and poverty. I interviewed scholars. I spent time in poor black neighborhoods talking with teachers and social workers and advocates for welfare rights. But I wasn’t black, and I wasn’t poor. Later, after I started The Sun, I lived for many years from hand to mouth. But I had two college degrees and marketable skills, had I chosen to market them. I may have been broke, but I never felt trapped in poverty, or a part of a permanent underclass. So what can someone like me really know about being black and poor in America — about the way racism crushes a man like a monstrous wave, and poverty, like a razor wind, strips him to the bone?
Am I a compassionate person? I try to be. Do I believe in racial equality? Of course I do. I’m the editor of The Sun. I live in a progressive co-housing community with some of the most socially conscious people I’ve ever known. But out of thirty-three households, there isn’t one black person among us. Fourteen people are on the staff of The Sun — all of us white.
The twenty thousand people trapped in the New Orleans Superdome have finally been evacuated. But how many people will die around the world today of hunger and malnutrition? Twenty thousand. And tomorrow? Twenty thousand. And the day after tomorrow? Twenty thousand.
Josh Billings: “Remember the poor; it costs nothing.”
The poor stay poor. The rich get richer. This is the land of the free, and you’d better be brave. And when God blesses America, make sure you’re standing toward the front of the line, not way back in the barrios of New Mexico, or in a high-rise housing project in Chicago, or packed twenty to a room in a migrant shack in North Carolina. Make sure God spells your name right. Make sure you get a receipt.
Thousands of people have died horrible deaths. Does life go on? Life goes on. And one day the floodwaters will carry the rest of us away, too: black and white, rich and poor. Soon enough, we’ll all be standing on the rooftops of our lives, calling to God to save us, surrounded by the crumbling levees we knew would never last. Soon enough, we’ll all be gliding down the watery boulevards of New Orleans, swimming under the elegant balconies, darting in and out of the rusting streetcars, greeting old departed friends who’ve saved a seat for us at the crowded tables of Café du Monde.
Yesterday I overheard a man say that every one gets worked up momentarily about a disaster of this magnitude; then, a few weeks later, we forget the whole thing. I wanted to object, but I knew it was true. Last December, all I could think about were the 250,000 people who’d been killed in the South Asia tsunami. Now I can’t recall the last time they crossed my mind.
“We can’t forget,” my friend C. said. “Forgetting what happened to the people of New Orleans will exact too high a price. We can’t just send off a check, and cry again over the images, and pretend there’s nothing left for us to do.”
Last night I came across some lines I’d scribbled down after the tsunami. They’re the words of a Muslim cleric in Sri Lanka: “Some of those who went to their morning prayers on that day did not pray in the afternoon. This is the lesson for everyone. . . . Yesterday is gone; tomorrow is doubtful. We have only the present moment to do good works, to love each other, and to praise God.”
It was a line from a Sun brochure that inspired me to subscribe. In his story of how he started The Sun, Sy Safransky writes, “Better to be a pilgrim without a destination . . . than to cross the wrong threshold every day.”
After reading that, I decided to quit my job and travel to Sri Lanka to help rebuild areas destroyed by the tsunami. While I was preparing for the trip, however, Katrina struck, and I chose to help in New Orleans instead. Using the last of my vacation time before I quit, I spent a week and a half in St. Bernard Parish, one of the hardest-hit areas.
In his Notebook, Safransky writes that he hopes not to forget Katrina, yet as a human being, he says, he inevitably will. What would change this? What would help us all to remember the misfortune of others? All the pictures and news reports in the world won’t do it. I could show you the photographs I took of the piles of sticks that used to be homes, the cars propped up against houses, the spray-painted x’s that indicated a building had been searched and dead bodies had been found within. But a picture doesn’t show the miles of other homes just like the one in the photograph. It doesn’t put the smell in your nostrils, or let you experience the eerie silence.
The way not to forget these events is to take a week, or a day, and make them a part of your own memories.
What exactly was the point of Sy Safransky’s Notebook this month [October 2005]? His journal is usually a pity party of one sort or another, but to devote an entire page to woe-is-me navel-gazing and hand-wringing over the devastation from Hurricane Katrina and the unequal state of affairs in this country does nothing to remedy any of the horrors or wrongs he laments. Is he surprised at the level of poverty in the U.S.? Does he subscribe to the notion that self-castigation somehow relieves the pain of a harsh reality? If he is so aggrieved by the inequity and hardship, let him go out and do something about it. Stepping outside of his socially conscious, progressive, majority-white community might be a start.
It’s easy to be an armchair überliberal. Out in the confusion and hubbub of the world, people of different races are living flush up against one another, doing what they can to build bridges of understanding and create small spaces of kindness in their daily lives. Black people don’t need Safransky’s tears. They are people like any other, good and bad. Safransky should live among them, treat them the way he does his privileged, progressive friends, and tamp up his bleeding heart.
I recently picked up the October issue, and I appreciated Sy Safransky’s frank and fresh discussion of race and class in his Notebook. I am a black Haitian immigrant and the principal of an urban charter school in Boston with a predominantly white staff. I photocopied Safransky’s piece and showed it around. It sparked some great conversations among the staff about race, poverty, and our work.
I just got the December 2005 issue of The Sun, and I didn’t enjoy T.K.’s lame letter in Correspondence finding fault with Sy Safransky’s Notebook. Phrases such as “pity party,” “navel-gazing,” “hand-wringing,” and “bleeding heart” register nothing but negativity with me. T.K. can take his (or her) navel-gazing, pity-partying, bleeding-heart whining and shove it.
I also cannot tolerate people who are unwilling to publish their names with their letters. It stinks of cowardice.