January 18, 2006
Bye bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee
but the levee was dry
Ok, the lines don't really make any sense, but it's the kind of tune you find yourself humming these days, weeks, months after Hurricane Katrina. A semi-literate pop anthem, a requiem by Mozart, a good book, the Good Book -- any one of them can contain the slightest nuance that you had never before noticed but now connects with you in a meaningful way. Pathos and irony are twin punch lines in the cosmic joke that everyone here gets.
It's human nature to want to connect. In grade school we learned from textbooks that we are "social beings." Experience would prove this out as we learned to link with friends, plug into pop culture, tune in and turn on to the kaleidoscope of our culture as we looked for signs that we were not alone. That's why a song is better when heard on the radio or a film more engaging when seen in a theater -- because we are sharing the experience.
These days the desire to connect runs deeply among New Orleanians who were flung far and wide in an exodus of Biblical proportion only to discover themselves isolated from others by the communication blackout that immediately followed the storm. (Note to nation: cell phones have limited utility during a disaster.) Many have returned to the city after not seeing friends and family for weeks or months.
Exploded, imploded, scattered, gathered. People are reconnecting. To each other. To something other. Something big, something vast, something beyond themselves.
You connect with the strangest things. You see messages in the way dried mud cracks, or the way a waterline skirts down the front of a row of houses. You stitch together stories from the piles of debris or extract humor out of a series of abandoned refrigerators. You gain hope in the way people gather in certain spots -- bus stops and checkout lines. You watch the faces on televised town hall meetings as citizens line up before a microphone to make clear their hopes, wants and needs. Even local talk radio has been engineered into a kind of therapy, where listeners phone in to vent by the megawatt.
And everybody's a listener. Everyone listens to stories that others have to tell. Have to tell.
Compelled to tell, over and again: How high the water rose. Who stayed. Who left. Who made out OK. Who's back. Who's gone forever.....
"Be a tourist in your own hometown." A few months ago it meant something other than it does now. Back then, before the waning days of August, it was used as a slogan to get locals to spend their money in downtown hotels, restaurants and stores. These days, everyone's a tourist, looking at a changed city with fresh eyes. They connect the dots between what was, what is and what can be. They re-thread the lines of familiarity, tighten the knots that bind. Some are finding new ways to envision the city.
This spring, Tulane, Xavier, Dillard and Loyola universities are partnering in an interesting way. Xavier and Dillard, two historically black colleges, were dealt a harder blow from Katrina than their partners, and the co-op is a means to allow Xavier and Dillard students to use Tulane and Loyola facilities while their campuses are being restored. But anyone can see there's more going on than that. There's an opportunity here for students from different schools, different races, different cultural backgrounds to connect in ways they would not otherwise have. And who knows what might come of it?
If you come to New Orleans, prepare for the unexpected. The entire town reads like a page of hypertext, where any link can connect you to something you haven't seen or thought of before. In late November, the mayor announced that New Orleans had joined the ranks of only a handful of American cities that have free, wireless access to the Internet. This in a city in which a hundred neighborhoods were still without power. It's comical, and heart-wrenching and astonishing. The wheel of karma has hit a pothole and the world has changed. History is being made as we breathe.
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 firstname.lastname@example.org