Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Self Absorbed in New Orleans

I was riding in a car with a man I had never met, in a place I had never been to learn some things I didn’t know. For me, that was a righteous setting for my introduction to post Katrina New Orleans. The story is so complicated and interconnected among so many things that are deeply human and passionate that it will have to come out in bits and pieces.

Before my wife and I were married, a lot of people joked that, “Once you get married, my brother, everything changes.” “Marriage will change your life,” I was told. It did change my life, but not in the dramatic way that all these warnings led me to believe. Having a child on the other hand, profoundly changed our lives. The practical changes are obvious. More importantly for me, has been an emotional change. Now that we have a child, my feelings about most things are more intense. I find that I don’t chuckle anymore, I laugh out loud; happiness goes straight to bliss. Rather than getting frustrated, I get infuriated. I don’t like things or people anymore, I either love them or I can’t stand them. I experience sadness in my bones and I cry. I think it is because everything I experience is somehow translated into the ever deepening love I have for my daughter. What if that were her?

The guy that was taking me around works for the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), a division of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. We were driving around in a van with HANO emblazoned on the side. At one point some women saw the van and flagged us down. They were all black women with two or three children among them. They had been sitting in the shade of a FEMA trailer which was parked in front of a destroyed house. The lady that came up to the van had her permed and dyed red hair brushed to one side. The heat, sweat and humidity had taken their toll on her hair. When she was walking over to the van I could see that the heels of her flip flops were worn through. Her skin was very dark, she was really black. Her lips and her gums were both dark. She had an array of small bumps and boils all over her face and a long scar on her cheek. She had hoop gold earrings in her ears and the gold looked like a brass plated doorknob after years of use. In one ear she had an enormous keloid that was swollen around the post of the earring so much that the earring didn’t swing freely. She was wearing a tight pink baby T-shirt. Her shirt left her midriff exposed and I could see that her stomach was big, laced with stretch marks and creeping over the super tight top of her jeans. On one of her arms she had the tattoo of a face and some words. The ink was that bluish green ink that old military vets often have. Hers was puffy and hard to see against the darkness of her skin. She looked poor.

I do not detail her appearance to make a spectacle of her. I describe it as part of my response. Obviously, I noticed what she looked like and it left an impression on me. I felt intensely sad. I am just now beginning to understand the intensity of my own emotional responses and am trying to align my behavior and actions with those responses. I wonder though, how her appearance affects institutional responses to her condition?

“How you get on section 8?” she asked.

HANO asked her if she was on section 8 before the storm. She said no. She had been living somewhere and making due before the storm but then when she came back, the place was in terrible condition and the landlord had increased the rent.

“I had to leave cause it wasn’t no decent place and then there was a fire anyway. I called the city to get on section 8 and they just telling me some silly shit.”

“If you weren’t on section 8 before the storm sweet heart, you got a better chance of winning the lottery than you do of getting on it now. All of those folks who were on it before have to be placed before we start dealing with new people.”

In the middle of HANO’s explanation the lady’s daughter ran up to her smiling. “Mama!” She must have been about two years old. She had on a pink sun dress that was dirty in the front. Her pink dress matched her pink sandals and the pink bobbles in her hair. Her hair was pulled back tight and the part in the middle was straight as an arrow. The lady picked up the little girl and cocked her on her hip.

“So I can’t get on section 8?”

“It ain’t gonna happen. I’m just being real with you. Take my card though and call me and we’ll see what we can do. We have to get you in the system first.”

“I’m homeless.”

When I listened to the lady say that she was homeless while holding her little girl on her arm I felt the sadness in my bones and struggled desperately to keep the tears back. When we were driving off, I couldn’t really speak as I was trying to get my voice under control. I was thinking about my daughter running up to me smiling, calling me Daddy and jumping into my arms. I was thinking about the significance of what I say while I'm holding her. How much of what I feel does she absorb from my body? And how much implication does she take from the meaning of my words? I don’t know, but watching this lady and her little girl was breaking my heart.



Nigerian Jelly said...

My professor, Ivy Kennelly, who also happens to be your good friend suggested I read your blog. The first article of yours I read was the blog about Disney's Frog Princess. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading all your postings, and this one about your experience in New Orleans is no different - it was moving. Thank you for shedding light on such interesting topics in a refreshing way.

Damien said...

It feels unfinished. This seems like the tip of the iceberg formed with difficulty in The Big Easy. I'm intrigued to hear more...

jillian said...

the piece that stands out most loudly to me is the seemingly everyday nature of the woman's interaction with the HANO representative. What happened just before you drive away? a courteous exchange? a defeated smile? could you tell from the woman’s eyes or tone of voice if she had asked this question before? after what may be a lifetime of disenfranchisement, where does one find the conviction necessary for the type of outrage that causes change? and does her daughter learn to fight the unjust world, or does she learn that HANO vans – driven by righteous individuals – stop through to drop off heartbreaking news and there is nothing she can do to stop it?

thank you for sharing this experience kamau.

luvlife0702 said...

you know, it's what i fight everyday: until someone can connect with someone else, they dont feel deeply what i'm trying to get them to feel. and there are lots and lots of people like you. my cousin said he hated paying property taxes until it was time for his children to go to school as if other people's children didn't matter as much as his. i think though that some folks connect when they themselves can say, 'what if that were ME?'. i wish i knew how to get folks to go there. but i suppose that's why all those charities use children in their ads because somehow pain on its own aint enough, but pain and children is what it takes. it's an interesting aspect of human psychology. i haven't experienced that though. turns out i'm much more tolerant and open and less extreme in my reactions now BECAUSE i have a child. i allow for more nuance because i feel the need to be more open and less rigid, less extreme in my reactions so that no matter who she is or grows to be, i will love her as deeply as i do now. so that "if that were her" we'd deal and be okay.