-Note: this piece was written ten years ago. I was out of town when Katrina hit, and residing in Brooklyn when Beliefnet asked me to write a piece about the disaster. At that point I did not know what had happened, and everything I wrote was based on my imagination and news reports. I returned to New Orleans on September 15, 2005.
I am a homeless man.
Last week I had a two-story home in a city called New Orleans. My wife and I left that home with our toothbrushes and a few shirts on a Thursday, expecting to return in two days. When I left, I did not know of a major hurricane heading for my city. Now it seems I won't be able to see my house again for three or four months.
This is what happened in my city today:
An old man in a chaise lounge lay dead in a grassy median as hungry babies wailed around him. Around the corner, an elderly woman lay dead in her wheelchair, covered with a blanket, and another body lay beside her wrapped in a sheet.
"I don't treat my dog like that," 47-year-old Daniel Edwards said as he pointed at the woman in the wheelchair. "I buried my dog."
In my house on Pine Street, there are some poems I'd like to have back. There are some pictures of my wife and my children I would like to see again. Looters, you are welcome to the tuna, to the television, to the jewelry, even. You are welcome certainly to the peanut butter. There are bottles of water in the laundry room. Please drink. You may find it more comfortable to sleep on the couch downstairs than upstairs in my bed, where surely it is very, very hot. There's been no power for days, no air-conditioning. Late August and early September in New Orleans, after a big storm, is not a place to be.
In the backyard, the key limes are small, but they are ripe. Please help yourself. Their juice is perfect. The Meyer lemons I don't think are quite ready, fat as they are. It's funny what you miss. I miss my lemon tree.
Two days ago, we learned our city was flooding. That night, my wife suddenly woke and remembered that she had taken the old photos and scrapbooks that were kept on the second floor downstairs. We don't know how far above or below sea level our house is, or how many feet of water will come in. After the levees broke, we were trying to understand how high the water would go, but we kept getting confused. Would the water go to the ceiling of the first floor? What happens to a hundred-year-old home that sits in water for days or weeks? We could not do the calculations and kept subtracting when we should add.
My wife and I have been waking up in the middle of the night with thoughts that we've not thought all day. She remembered the piano that I had not thought about. My mother had given it to me before she died, and my brother had helped me move it to Louisiana. I felt a certain wave of sadness, and then it crested and subsided and we let the piano go. We let the pictures of our children go. We let the old books go, and we let the new kitchen go. We let the water cover it all.
But the thought of all that water did not let me go. There is an image I've seen on the television of the water from Lake Pontchartrain floating over the broken levee into the city. It is very beautiful, that image. Peaceful water going about its business, which is to flow and seek its own level. It is powerful and terribly violent to be so peaceful.
Water is very heavy. That is something to think about. Surprisingly dense and nothing stops it very well. For a whole day we'd felt and seen the water flowing into the city, though the gentle word "flowing" hardly does water justice because water is so basic and so powerful and so necessary and we human beings are very arrogant but very weak and frail. We can't stop a common thing like water. Not easily.
So I imagined the water rising on my street, up the steps into the first floor, and lifting that old spinet my mother bought--it was for her such an important investment in culture and a different way of living than her poverty and depression--and then in my dream I saw this: my wife with a pile of photographs, beautiful images, and under one, which seemed to show water flowing in grey lines into the sky, I saw underneath this legend in black print: An image is a pump.
Then the dream seemed to shift, and I saw my mother's piano lifted up in the living room, turning delicately--water can do this, lift whatever it gets underneath, an SUV, a tractor trailer--so why not a piano? It lifted the piano as the first floor filled with black water, and the piano turned daintily, like an elephant dancing under the big top.
But none of this happened. The piano is not wet, probably. The living room is not full of dark water. It was just a dream about the house I remember and imagine--part remember, part imagine--the house I cannot live in, and won't for months and maybe not ever again.
Houses are fragile. Wind and water can take them down. And fire. And indifference and neglect, and racism and separation, the separateness we feel from others who don’t look like us, or live like us. The others for whom we are an us.
Today I know my house is dry, and so it is now the looters I fear. I fear them, but I don't condemn them. Some are criminals going about their criminal business, but others, most of them, are just me. They are just me.
If I were there, I would be them. I would thirst as they thirst, and hunger as they hunger, and I would break any door, I would enter any store or home, I would steal, I would do whatever I needed to live and to make sure those I love would live. My wife, my children: Yes, for sure, for them, I would do what I needed to do.
And I feel the same way about my city. My beloved New Orleans, which is submerged right now, and which I hope one day will rise again.
An image is a pump. An image has the power to move energy from one realm to another, from the realm of reality to the realm of imagination, from the realm of imagination to the realm of reality--from the realm of dream to the realm of fact, and sometimes back again, recycling, pumping.
So we absorb televised images of people we don't know, of people who are thirsty and sick and scared, people on rooftops who are lifted in the air by rescue helicopters and dangle there, the children too afraid to look up as their rescue basket ascends in the sky. Images of people who have lost husbands and wives, children and grandmothers. Images of men and women and children, abandoned by all of us--abandoned by "us" because they are not us: They are poor and we are not; they are black and we are not; or they are ill and we are well. They are old and we are young. Images of those abandoned because of indifference bred of separation. But images break through barriers, they flood us.
An image is a pump, from the realm of dream to the realm of fact, and then back again, turning, turning like the piano floating in a pirouette, then delicately spinning down to the ground.
That is how an image plays in the mind.
An image is a pump to turn fear into beauty, and maybe beauty into terror. My fear of losing my house to water becomes a piano spinning in the dark, and an elephant turning on its toes.
And then the water subsides and the piano settles down. But all is not well. I have an image of my house, and that is the only house I have right now, because I am a homeless man, but only one of many homeless men and homeless women. In a city that is no longer a city. And though I know that no home is permanent, it is something different when that is no longer a spiritual metaphor you read in a book, but a felt reality, when the image pump turns an abstraction into a stabbing pain in the heart.
Homelessness is something different and true, and it has been felt before by many people, felt deeply by them every day. We live in a world, and a nation, of far too many homeless people, and I have done too little about it. So I am just one of many, and not the worse off either, but still, it is my home and my image and I am entitled to it. It doesn't cost anyone anything for me to be carrying my home with me in my heart.
It is one thing to miss a house. It is another thing to miss a whole city.
There is so much room in the heart--enough room not just for my home, but for a whole city that is going under, that is overwhelmed, inundated. Right now, the city of New Orleans is an image in the hearts of those of us who love it, because the reality of the city is too terrible to bear with our eyes.
And the heart is a pump too.
I am homeless, but I am one of the lucky ones. I am not abandoned on I-10 while politicians talk and generals dither. I am not lying in the hot sun with children dying in my arms. I am not an old, sick woman. I am not poor or black; I do not live in the part of town that is underwater. I live in the high part of town. I am separated from them.
New Orleans is a town of levees and water. The levees are man-made hills of clay, artificial banks. They are separation, and privilege, and holding back, but water is the truth of our common humanity, water is our common element. We all need water and we are water, and our separateness is an illusion that thirst obliterates immediately.
The speaker of the House of Representatives (I do not even want to write his name), said New Orleans was not worth saving. I do not know what sort of person could say this at a time like this. For some people, I suppose New Orleans is a black city, a poor city, even a sinful city. For all I know, for some people New Orleans is images of Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras, though the truth is, Bourbon Street is not New Orleans; it is much more the shadow of conventioneers from Ohio and Illinois, its tawdriness reflects who they are and what they desire.
To some who do not understand what New Orleans means--what gift it has given the world, and given all of us in America--for those people who don’t know any better, New Orleans is a shadow of this country, but to me New Orleans is the heart.
And if we don’t save New Orleans, we have lost our heart completely.