At certain points along Magazine Street, I found stylish and trendy stores filled with rugs, antiques, clothing, and eateries for the well heeled. This was the "beautiful facade". Some of the grand Louisiana homes added to this illusion. Then I would look around the corner at the street behind and sometimes see houses still in ruin. In the next instant - a Bentley convertible with 4 guys was cruising down the street in all their ostentatious glory followed by a beat up sedan. There is something about the senses experiencing so much, most of it visual in content and eclectic that is uniquely New Orleanian. The decrepit and the beautiful stand side by side. The quirky and disruptive mingle amongst the stately and elegant. It was odd to see so many Mercedes Benz's and Cadillac Esplanades and really what seemed to me outrageous ostentatiousness in the midst of an area that has suffered so much devastation.
I could perceive as I walked through the streets, the lingering suffering and horror of the trauma of what happened during and after Katrina, as well as this "other-worldly" self-absorption by the wealthy white New Orleanians. And it did to me feel (?) I am struggling to find the words - racially oriented - self-absorption. That perhaps even before the storm, the poorer (and not always African Americans) yet it seems to me, that the outer class distinction or wealth distinction I witnessed today (and on other occasions) has been the difference between the predominately African American population and the Caucasian population.
You know, from day one there has been a difference in my experiences that seems to be "outwardly" racially oriented. It is the African American New Orleanians who have and continue to touch my heart so deeply.
Note: 3/12/07 I was reflecting for a few days after I wrote this why I would write about racial orientations. And it occurred to me that it was because I am in an area of the country where racism is still a part of the societal code. However subtle. Or in other cases - not. I have been picking up on energies - forms of consciousness that have to do with racism and it pains me that people can still be this way. As humans we are "99%" genetically the same. Our skin color plays such an insignificant role in who we are as humans. Yet still in the consciousness' of some human beings there is hatred and dislike and all manner of darkness in relation to "skin color".
The African American New Orleanians have been the most "real", the most "vibrant", the most "open", the most "present" human beings that I have ever encountered. I have found these native New Orleaninans to be the first to smile and greet me in the streets. Thy are usually the first to let me into traffic, the first to speak with me in line, and the first to have a conversation with me.
My heart feels delighted when I am in the presence of these native New Orleanians. I am an outsider. I am from MA not New Orleans. I talk differently, look different and my car has license plates from another state. It doesn't matter, I am accepted and greeted warmly.
My experience of the Caucasian population of New Orleans has been for 90% of the time, the exact opposite. My experience has been that the Caucasian New Orleanians and tourists, that I have met or passed in the streets have been like most Caucasian Americans I have met in my travels - self-absorbed, guarded, seemingly on the ready to shield their eyes so that they do not have to make eye contact, and quick to put up their masks when they do! Of course MA still takes the award for the most "grim" faced Caucasian population in the country!
I also want to mention I am not naive, (well perhaps I am somewhat naive, but not totally naive!) I have been to parts of the city where I can feel my skin crawl. Where there is violence. Where there are drugs, alcoholism, psychosis, inflated egos and family secrets that harm children. There are those who have looked at me menacingly (it is rare) - mostly when I see people look at me as I travel through their neighborhoods, through their very visible suffering and pain; I see the locals look at the state plates on my car, look back at me and I perceive that I see in their eyes, that they know I am here to help. I also see others look at me with anger and I wonder who has come before me and exploited or hurt them in their pain. For you must understand, that well meaning and well intentioned people come here and take "tours" in tour buses through the neighborhoods. And whilst you may hold in your heart that it may bring donated funds to the neighborhood and this is true, the other side of this truth is to imagine what it feels like to have your suffering "part of a tour".
I feel humbled and honoured when I meet with New Orleanians who have suffered so much, many who are still suffering, and they share their sufferings with me. A woman was sharing with me the other day about her fear to use the stove in her FEMA trailer as she is afraid the trailer will burn to the ground, so she cannot cook 'at home' and must eat out; it was an obvious ongoing hardship for her; the eating out, as well as the fear of staying in an environment that was so unstable. Another woman shared with me how she came back to help her brother who had been shot, how she has taken on the responsibility for helping him, taking classes to learn how to help him with his colostomy bag, as well as working long hours. What I have to offer is my "being with" anyone I meet in the moment and when these people whom I meet are able to 'see' me and to know that I am "with" them, that I seek to be present to their suffering, to "see" them in their suffering, then in that moment, my life has meaning. The people of New Orleans and LA I have met have been through so much and continue to endure through incredible hardships and suffering, in which many who are reading this blog cannot begin to imagine.
I found when traveling to Metairie, (for I have been blessed with a car and enough money to afford some organic greens/staples foods at the Whole Foods Market – the only place in town and the country - where you I am guaranteed to meet rude, rich, seemingly 'entitled' Caucasian people!) (and the only place where I have gotten some serious attitude from African Americans and Caucasians alike who have to work there and endure the customers and how they treat them!) that there is a difference to me in the "visible signs of destruction" is less and the people are much more affluent.
There are still some FEMA trailers scattered around, mostly by the canals, buttheir suffering is nothing like the visible desolation of traveling through the Lower Ninth Ward, Chalmette, Lakeview, East Orleans, and St. Bernard's Parish (as a few examples).
And the thought occurred to me more than once as I have driven through the more affluent areas of New Orleans and its suburbs, that it is so easy to slip into the illusion of safety and comfort, to be rude and self absorbed with each other when most – to all - of your needs are met. It is also so easy when you are in an area that has less visible devestation to forget, to feel safe - and to forget others who continue to live in horrible conditions. It's only a part of being human isn't it? To want to have a "mental or emotional" rest from all the suffering around you that you are powerless to change even if you wanted to?
There is something about the experience of suffering that can bring the arrogant and haughty back to their hearts – in those moments their humanity shines through. Unfortunately, as I have seen throughout the passage of my lifetime, these moments are more of a rarity than the norm.
Peace and love