In 2007, two years after Katrina’s waters receded, I went to New Orleans with a group of you all, at Scout’s behest, to gut a house and contribute, in however small a way, to the rebuilding of the city.
As we drove from the airport I asked about the signs, spray-painted on the front of houses and buildings. The FEMA X denoting that a structure had been checked. It had been two years since the storm. When would they come down?
Now I look around my neighborhood, at the signs in the windows made by children I used to see every day on the walk to school: STAY SAFE! THANK YOU DELIVERY DRIVERS! WE CAN DO THIS. WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER.
Kick papered our front door with origami flowers last week.
I wonder how long we’ll leave ours up.
People have always used disasters for their own ends. It’s such a well-known phenomenon it has a name, it’s a field of study, but even so, every time, the monstrousness of it takes my breath away: Let us hope for a neighborhood, a city, a nation, a way of life to be wiped from the earth so that we may start over in the way that WE believe it should be done.
We, almost always being white, rich, over-educated, privileged, and sure that despite all of colonial history this time civilizing the alien continent will surely work.
Katrina was a good thing, it let us kick out the poors and build some charter schools and bypass all the usual bureaucratic infighting about finances and government and just make things right. CLEAN UP THE CITY, is a thing we scream like we’re in a Batman comic, as if we can amputate in one swing of the cleaver. It sounds so easy, and so we wish, for something big enough to force all the changes at once.
Well, it’s here now.
The schools are shut down. The streets are silent. The stadiums echo. We walk six feet away from each other, videoconference, talk about what must be done instead of what could or should be.
Millions of people are unemployed. Millions. Thousands more are dying in hospital hallways while newspaper pundits I won’t validate with a link write from their mansions about how this will teach us all to be more self-sufficient, a full dinner plate reminding him of the value of suffering.
Bust some unions, probably. Cut some taxes. That seems to be how it goes. Certainly no one in charge has any ideas about rebuilding that might stir us to collective action; we have been socially distancing for decades.
I am so angry at everyone who wanted this, and is doing nothing, now it’s here.
The animating feature of the 2016 election was performative spite, we have known this since the day after, when it was declared that America elected an amoral madman to teach liberals a lesson. You had to have your moment of telling us fuck you, of saying to every feminist woman, every non-white person, anyone whose identity you were forced to consider for 20 seconds, hahahahaha owned. You had to “take your country back,” you had to “make America great again,” you had to feel like you were important, like you mattered still. You had to shake your foam finger at an immigrant, a poor woman needing birth control, you just had to WIN.
You just wanted to smash something. Well, you smashed something. Look around you. Look at the signs on the doors. Look at the fear in the eyes of everyone you care about and know that THIS IS WHAT IT MEANS TO DO WHAT YOU SAID YOU WERE GOING TO DO.
My daughter, white and middle class and non-disabled, neurotypical as far as we know, does her homework at our dining room table. I guide her through writing exercises designed by her teacher, sign her up for Zoom meetings for PE and Spanish and art. Her father arranges videoconferences with her friends; they do craft projects together, each in front of their own small screens.
She sleeps soundly. She takes it in stride that she doesn’t go ice skating anymore, that we can’t go to the zoo, that we shout across the alley instead of running over to play. She doesn’t worry about the world; though any mention of sickness for her father or me — a sniffle, a twinge of back pain — elicits immediate attention.
We do a lot of craft projects. We plan a large garden. We watch a lot of movies.
Late Friday night the governor declared that school would stay closed, that kindergarten was, effectively, over. I haven’t told her yet. I will, tonight. I expect her blithe acceptance and need to wait until I can meet it with the same.
This is not a Katrina. Her building stands, albeit empty, the windows unbroken. She can walk past it and around it. There is crime scene tape, around the playground equipment, but at least here no one has died.
Her summer camp will be cancelled next, I think, no swimming lessons or songs or getting up each morning eager to get on the bus and have fun. The college students I mentor, they may not go back until spring and I worry about their futures much more than my own. Businesses declare they’re staying open, then close. Every day we cut another piece of ourselves away.
We are lucky. The roof over our head will hold. Groceries come to the door. But no one who was cheering on a clean slate a year, two years, five years ago has proposed what on God’s green earth we should do with this one, now we seem to have it.
We’re putting pictures of rainbows in the windows. Thank you, nurses and doctors. Thank you, firefighters. Maybe, years from now, they’ll still be there, faded, reminding us of whatever lesson we decide by then we’ve learned.