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Stateside With Rosalea: My Mardi Non-Gras

Stateside With Rosalea Barker

My Mardi Non-Gras

I came away from my Tuesday in New Orleans thinking that the Crescent City’s new motto must be “if at all”. That pretty much sums up the sense of abject resignation I felt coming from the few people I spoke to there before the moon moved into my 13th house and I became the Sow of Despond, the vast chasm between my ears incapable of turning out even the roughest of silk purses, let alone allowing me to pick up the phone and speak to the folks I’d been planning to call to do a follow-up on this story in Scoop last year:

So I’ll cheat and just comment on the media reports I saw and heard there. First up, a Monday night trailer for a CNN show Larry King was going to air on Wednesday. He’d been in town interviewing Brad Pitt, whose new initiative Make it Right was front-page news in the Times-Picayune the next morning. Not to mention the art critic’s take on it on page A11, announcing that driving tours of Pitt’s pink installation in the Lower 9th Ward would begin that day. Dutifully, I went to the website looking for the publicist’s contact, but there was nothing, and I caught the bus going in the wrong direction when I went looking for the actual site. Read about it here: and you’ll know as much about it as I do. Or you could buy a book about real people:

Outside the brick cafe that’s featured on the front page of this Time slideshow from early September, 2005, I got talking to a food service worker who’d been trapped by the floodwaters where she lived, though “this part of town didn’t get flooded,” she said, adding that she thought that was strange. Her story was nothing compared to what some of her co-workers suffered, she said. A neighbor had a boat and would bring food and water for everyone until they had to leave, towed by another boat that had a motor to a bridge they could walk out of town on. She lost everything and doesn’t live in New Orleans any more, travelling miles to get to work.

“This part of town” is pretty much the business district, with high-rise office buildings and hospitals giving way to City Hall, a state office building—now boarded up and surrounded by a tent city of homeless people that is about to be bulldozed out of existence. Across the street, the wind has folded up a banner announcing that the library has free wi-fi into a sign that seems to indicate the President has been impeached and thrown in jail. “Free W” it says.

Inside the library, I pay $3 to sign up for Internet access so I can get my email and, while waiting for a computer to come free, I take some photos of an internet kiosk donated by the 3M Corporation, post-K. It looks very useful, but the librarian tells me that it really needed to be in the areas that had been hardest hit and those areas had no power for a very long time. Besides, the kiosk was programmed with information as at October 2005, didn’t get installed until February 2006, and 3M’s generosity didn’t run to providing free updates, so it suffers badly from link-rot.

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One of the African-American women waiting at the table next to me is carefully looking through the Times-Picayune list of voters who will be purged from the Orleans Parish voter rolls and talking to her friend about the presidential primaries. She bemoans her son saying he doesn’t bother voting. “I told him, ‘It doesn’t take no time. You just go down there and push a little button and go about your business.’ We go there early in the morning so nothing gets in our way.” Her friend says she’s going to vote for Obama, and the first woman says she’d like to see a Clinton-Obama ticket, whichever way around: a woman and a black. “Hillary conducted herself well” when Bill Clinton was being impeached, she adds.

After getting the phone number of a local lawyer I want to interview, I call him up only to get an answering machine, which I think means he must have already left on the vacation he said he was going on around this time. I’d checked up on his blog while at the library as well and discovered that a reporter from the New York Times had already been in contact with him and that he’d told her he didn’t have a story to tell, so I decide instead to go and look at the Lower Ninth Ward but head in the wrong direction. By now, I’m so far inside my own narrative of what New Orleans is about that when the bus stops beside a huge brick building and nearly everyone gets off, I think it must be a church providing social services. It’s a Wal-Mart. Same diff, I suppose.

Back in town, I start walking through the French Quarter back to where I’m staying and call into a liquor-cum-souvenir-cum-convenience store. The woman behind the counter says the only things looted from the store during the aftermath of the hurricane were water and food. She was without income for months, couldn’t use her bank accounts—not even in California where she went to be with family after the Army forced her out of her lightly damaged home. Everyone got into huge debt, she tells me, because they couldn’t access the money that was rightfully theirs. On the way across the continent, wherever they stopped, people who saw their Louisiana license plates would reach into their wallet without a word and slip them a few dollars. “The government did nothing,” she adds, “and they’re still doing nothing as you can tell by all the empty shops on this street.”

Before leaving for Houston the next morning, I watch some local cable television of New Orleans Planning Commission meetings. One man, a car dealer, is making his case for building a new housing project in East New Orleans. People who already live in the area have put in a number of objections but he says the project is so nice that even the people who work for him would like to live there. Another man is seeking approval to subdivide some lakefront land into 14 lots. His original plan had been for 18 but they were too small for the city’s guidelines. At the last minute, someone arrives to make an objection, saying that three of the lots aren’t even on land the developer owns.

Then, on a national radio network, I catch the tail end of an interview Al Sharpton is conducting with John Conyers, the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Conyers is saying that as the first black chair of that committee he has far greater responsibilities than impeaching a president or vice-president in the last 11 months of their tenure. “It’s more important to concentrate on the neo-fascists,” Conyers says, seeming to refer to practices such as voter caging, where registered voters are struck off the rolls if mail is returned to the sender, and other actions designed to turn people away from polling places without allowing them to vote.

I leave New Orleans under the impression that the 2008 presidential election will be very nasty indeed, and the months between now and then could well mark the end of the few remaining shreds of cohesiveness the Democratic Party has managed to cling onto for the past seven years. Like the 3M kiosk, it looks nice on the outside and is well-intentioned, but its internal links have rotted, making it irrelevant to the people who most need an alternative to a world where corporations and political operatives can profit by denying them access to what is rightfully theirs.



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