The View from the Other Side – by Meghann McCracken

by Angeliska on August 28, 2015

My friend Meghann wrote this essay about her life in New Orleans over the past ten years since Katrina. Her words moved me so much, and spoke to my heart in such a powerful way about experiences that are often so difficult to express. I wanted what she wrote to be read by more people, so I asked her if I could post it here, in hopes of possibly being able to share these truths with a wider audience. I also wanted to share this recollection that she enclosed along with this piece:

…I remember your amazing apartment, and that New Orleans I stumbled into all those years ago of ramshackle romance and courtyards full of old medicine bottles. It seems to hardly exist anymore. I also distinctly remembered coming back to the city right after the storm and that you were one of the first people we saw. You were standing amidst the rubble of your home. The roof was caved in. It was so surreal and terrifying. You said, “Welcome to Bosnia.” That was seared into my memory but had been sort of buried, like a lot of that time after the storm. The reaction of a lot of people here is to not want to acknowledge this anniversary, but, as painful and exhausting as it can be, and as easy as it can be to distract and anesthetize ourselves, I think we humans need to mark time, in celebration and in grief.

The View from the Other Side – by Meghann McCracken

There is a stretch of levee on the upriver side along the Industrial Canal that separates the upper and lower Ninth Wards in New Orleans. No one said upper Ninth until after the storm. Colloquially, the spot of land at the end of this piece of levee is referred to as The End of the World. It has never been clear to me whether this is public land or not.The other day, while looking at a Google map of the neighborhood for an altogether different purpose, to my amusement I noticed that it was on the map, as the very clipped: End of World. I didn’t go up there much until after the storm. Back then, the only people you would see were fishing or squatting, maybe walking their dogs off leash. These days you can find joggers and newbie twenty-somethings in ironic, nineties regalia dragging their visiting parents along and looking at them like, See isn’t this great?, while the parents cock their heads a little and try to understand why (possibly) trespassing on a barely maintained sliver of industrial, river access has lured their newly-minted bachelor of arts away from them. Back then it was just the place where Sneaky Pete took his mottled hound, Spartan.

We bought our house ten days before the storm in The Sliver by the River, another geographical term you didn’t hear before Katrina. The Sliver refers to the narrow strip of settlement that hugs the Mississippi River within the city of New Orleans. It is among some of the oldest architecture in the city, and on the highest ground. A few weeks before the storm hit, we sat in sticky, late July heat at our mousy, mustachioed, insurance agent’s office in the suburb of Metairie as he showed us the flood maps of New Orleans. They clearly indicated the entire city filled up with water, like a bowl, with the exception of a few ridges and rims, one of which was where our new house was. It was as if we had been taken into an unassuming, wood-paneled, office and shown a mystical oracle of exactly what would happen just weeks later. We were the lucky ones in the twenty percent of the city that did not flood. Sometimes in that awful year or so after the storm I would guiltily wish we had flooded, just so we could have taken the insurance check and resettled ourselves back out west where we were from. We had a lot of options other people did not, but because we had bought that house, we had little choice but to come back as soon as they would let us in and deal with living in a decimated relic of a city.

In the fall of 2005, I was finally going to Graduate School. I had just bought my first house with a man I knew I wanted to spend my life with. It was to be the start of my real, adult life. The first weekend after classes started at UNO, the city was evacuated. Once the campus reopened in the spring of 2006, however, I found I couldn’t handle driving through flood-ravaged parts of the city to get there. The drive up Elysian Fields Avenue, from the Mississippi River to the campus at Lake Pontchartrain, was like descending through rings of Italianate hell. The further I moved from The Sliver by the River, the more bizarre, ornate and gruesome was the damage to what had once been suburban neighborhoods. Even in the populated, unflooded parts of the city, we had curfews and the National Guard, frequent blackouts, MRE’s. Out there, by the lake, it was dissected dioramas of peoples’ lives, all waterlogged and left for dead. I was one of the lucky ones, but somehow I couldn’t distance myself from other peoples’ suffering. As I drove deeper into the devastation, my breathing would become shallow, and I would start to hover somewhere outside of myself. I quickly realized that if I were going to make it through that time, I would have to make my world very small. The Sliver by the River became all that existed. But then the world kept shrinking and shrinking until I stopped wanting to leave my house altogether. I went to work. Night was less scary than day. I drank a lot. A lot lot. I started to create elaborate bargaining rituals with invisible gods in order to keep the panic attacks at bay. I had to suck on cough drops constantly to ground myself in my body so that I knew I was still there. Writing would have helped, but I didn’t have the perspective yet to broach the storm. Trying to write about anything else just felt like an exercise in distraction. I needed a project and, luckily, Luke asked me to marry him.

By surviving a long period apart and then reuniting, by going through the process of buying a home together, by living through that year after Katrina, we were already married. But now we were going to plan a huge event, which is just the sort of focused and organized endeavor my itchy, obsessive mind needed. The wedding got me through the end of 2007 and up through the big day in the spring of 2008. The anticipation and joy lit me from inside out and everyone I crossed paths with seemed to see it. Luke’s sisters gave him an antique diamond ring that had belonged to his grandmother and is more delicate and exquisite than anything I ever imagined I would get to call my own. The anxiety was still there, haunting the edges of my life, but the excitement of the big day left fewer drafty corners in my days for the terror to seep into.

There are still stories about the staked, roasted, pig’s head making its way at the front of a procession from Truck Farm to the French Quarter in the final hours of wedding revelry. We had the service and reception in the back yard at Truck Farm, a beautifully ramshackle commune cum recording studio that takes up about half a city block off of St. Claude Avenue in the Ninth Ward. A fine rain fell, and a chorus of frogs who had taken up residence in the abandoned pool across the way began to sing as we said our vows before hundreds of invitees and crashers, alike. The wedding was an answer to the question that our friends and family from other places always asked us, that we sometimes asked ourselves, and now more than ever after the storm: Why do you guys live there? This is why. This glorious, magical, rag-tag evening, with these gorgeous, banged-up people. This is what lured your children away.

It took a few months, but the luster and glow of the wedding eventually fizzled out and a wet wind blew through my rafters again. The fear took over. I would literally run from my car to the house when I got home. I would crawl under my covers and shake while Luke was away at a gig or working. I took pills, Xanax, Ativan. We got a dog, Lola. It was she who made us regulars at The End of the World. More often than not, though, we’d just walk up to the end of our block on Gallier Street and slip between the levee walls, take off the leash, and walk along the broken concrete, burnt up piers and wild bramble and flotsam and jetsam that used to be our riverfront. The plans to redevelop the river in the upper Ninth were already in place before the storm, but it took years to get them back on track again. It wasn’t until 2010 that the city started to enforce the trespassing rules at the future site of Crescent Park. Our trips to The End of World became more frequent then.

Luke got some health coverage through the Musician’s Clinic, and it extended to me as his wife. I had some minor medical grievance, some sort of contusion or carbuncle that was concerning me, and I went to the clinic’s offices at University Hospital. During that post-storm period there was an alarming spike in the suicide rate, so they had everyone take these mental health-screening tests no matter what they were being seen for. I rated my emotional state pretty honestly, circling somewhat arbitrary fives and sixes out of ten. I definitely didn’t expect my questionnaire to be flagged. They told me little bump or lump was nothing to worry about, but that I should consider talking to a mental health professional about my psychological state. This would be my first foray to a therapist since my sophomore year of college in Santa Cruz back in 1996 when the therapist I had just began seeing asked me if I thought my boyfriend, Archie, was good for me, and I left the appointment on the back of his motorcycle, probably without a helmet.

I was taking the post-storm devastation a little harder than most of my friends and co-workers. I spent most of my time in the world of bar and restaurant people who love to eat, drink and be merry, and all I could see was the suffering, the danger, the hopelessness. I was embarrassed about how badly I was doing psychologically, and how much I felt traumatized by the storm. After all, we were fine, right? High and dry. So many people we knew had lost everything. So many others desperately wanted to come back, but couldn’t. What was my problem? Therapy would help me learn that there is only a finite amount of trauma a person can take in her life before it manifests as a psychological problem like Panic Disorder. And, if that was the case, then it all started to make a little more sense. The year when I was in fifth grade and my family went from being cloistered Jehovah’s Witnesses to paranoid tweakers on the run already had me most of the way there; Katrina sent me right over the edge.

When you walk to the end of North Rampart Street to get to the entrance to The End of the World, on your right is the sprawling, decommissioned Naval base that is now mostly a place where people shoot Denzel Washington movies, but is also a proving ground for really ambitious taggers. At one point we heard that Disney was considering putting a cruise ship terminal in there, but that possibility seems to have passed. On the left is some industrial warehouse where people who are very patient with all of us trespassers work. You step onto the gravel and keep walking over the railroad tracks. I always pause a little at the spot where, one summer recently passed, some poor guy laid himself in front of the train. HazMat did a really bad job cleaning up and for weeks Lola would go crazy at that spot, until she didn’t anymore. After the tracks you walk around the chain link fence and from there it is just a grassy mountain up to the top of the levee. You can run straight up or take the more gradient walking path a yard or so down. If you are following your dog and if she is puppy, and she is Lola, you are running straight up. If it is seven years later, and she is older, she might have the patience to take the path with you. When you get to the top of the hill, there is the Industrial Canal straight ahead, and, on the other side, Holy Cross, a subsection of the Lower Ninth Ward that spans from St. Claude to the River and from the canal about a mile up to the Parish Line.

When we were evacuated in Cajun country, just two hours away, the news kept saying, “The Ninth Ward is under water.” There were several days we did not know if our new home, and our community (of the last ten years for Luke, five years for me) was gone. The Lower Ninth was a distinction people used then, but this epic difference in the way parts of the ward fared made “upper” a necessary new distinction. It was all one neighborhood until the Canal was dredged in the early 1920’s, forever making the lower part of the ward extremely vulnerable to levee failings. The first time we drove over the bridge to the Lower Ninth after the storm you couldn’t get very far in most of the neighborhood. Houses, cars, and boats were erect, toppled, and stacked like a giant maze of dominoes. Eventually they bulldozed through the debris to reveal where the roads had been. In Holy Cross the water had been high, but homes weren’t ripped from their foundations like they were further from the river. We knew one woman who had a beautiful historic home on an idyllic patch of land right on the levee and was rebuilding it herself, slowly. Wiring. Drywall. Starting all over when the copper miners got to her pipes and wires, living in it all the while. We had a good mutual friend who would come to town regularly, and we would go with him to Holy Cross to check on her. Over the ensuing few years we’d take a pilgrimage to the Lower Ninth Ward a couple times a year when we had visitors, monitoring the painfully slow progress. I couldn’t imagine the courage it took to live among so much destruction and blight. Never would I have imagined that ten years after the storm, Luke and I would be packing up our home in upper Ninth, the house where I gave birth to our now two year old son during a lightning storm and a meteor shower, and would be moving to Holy Cross ourselves. The writing was on the wall when the paintings were on the chain link fence.

When you get to the top of the levee that leads to The End of the World, if you look straight ahead you see Holy Cross. If you turn to the left, you see St. Claude Avenue fenced off and leading to the drawbridge that leads to the Lower Ninth Ward. If you look to the right you see the Mississippi River. If you are like most people, you start walking toward the right. The Canal is lined with rocks and trees and wildlife, sometimes there is the odd alligator. In the wintertime, white pelicans migrate in flocks to the canal. In the fragile first trimester of my pregnancy, I would walk Lola up there most evenings and wait to see the white pelicans. My monkey mind trying to make order out of the unbearable randomness of reproduction latched onto the pelicans as a sign that the baby would stick, and come out healthy and fine. Walking. Meditation. Being able to take this distance from my own mind and observe it. The awareness that the thing that I fear most (that I will lose my mind) is a thing that has never happened, and so, most likely, never will. These are the skills I learned after the stint in therapy that led me to the place where I felt mentally and emotionally healthy enough to bring another person into the world. The Canal leads to what people are referring to when they say The End of the World. It is the point of jagged little cliff where the Canal meets the River. In the cooler half of the year, the water is lower and a little beach appears, with thick, unforgiving, river-bottom silt acting as sand and prehistoric-looking trees that spend half their lives half-submerged standing in for palm trees. From the beach you get a beautiful view of downtown New Orleans, the French Quarter, the Mississippi River Bridge. You can’t help but feel like you have the best kept secret in town. One day Luke and I were up there, toddling along with Arlo toward The End of the World when we saw several mediocre paintings of the barely abstracted female form hanging from the chain link fence way down at the end. Some out of town kids from either Brooklyn or Austin, or both, were having an art show. I was amused, somewhat curious. I turned to Luke, who was snarling. To him, these were the real trespassers.One could argue that we were just an earlier wave of these kids that have changed the neighborhood. We were a little tougher and scrappier, had fewer options, more substance abuse issues, more of us died. We got a lot less writing and painting done. Our bands were rowdier and a lot further from making it. We had our shit way less together, but, maybe, maybe had a little more respect for what we found here? We didn’t have any presumption or hope of really changing things. We matched the beautiful mess that was here. Maybe our parents didn’t do such a good job. They definitely didn’t give us seed money to start non-profits or bistros.

Ten years in a house is when things really start to fall apart. Especially if we’re talking about a hundred year old house. Whatever work the last people did to get you to buy it starts to decompose a little. New problems emerge. Your appliances start to break. New people move in around you and do expensive renovations and all of a sudden you are the crappy house on the block. You can take out a home equity loan, but that payment is going to be a little steep, or, perhaps, you can start looking around at what is for sale out there…Then, maybe, a doctor from one of the coasts buys the house next door to you for twice what the last person paid.You start to wonder what’s going to happen to your property taxes, but you also wonder how much your house might go for… All of a sudden all the airbnb’s on your block with all their coming and going and gawking become a little more annoying. As do all the tourists spilling out into the street at the brunch spot at the end of your block. When did you stop going there? When was it that you realized that all this wasn’t for you anymore, but for these people riding by on the bike tour…?

Walking up the levee in Holy Cross is a lot less of an ordeal than it is at The End of the World. (And certainly less of an ordeal than the arch of stairs at the manicured and patrolled new Crescent Park along the river in the upper Ninth Ward). It is an un-intimidating green space that most people could walk up without losing their breath. Clearly it’s a levee that leaves us a little more vulnerable over here. And, I’m not sure if it was a therapist or real estate agent who told me this but, at a certain point you just have to decide if you can live with uncertainty, buy some surprisingly inexpensive, federally subsidized, flood insurance, and move on. When you get to the top of the levee, though, there are benches along the path, encouraging contemplation, reflection, staying a while. People of all ages say “Hello.” Dogs roam free alongside their people. Men walk back with buckets of fish. No tourists. More walking and talking, less headphones and jogging. The young, hip people look like a little more like they could take a punch. It feels like ten years ago. It feels like a community, not something on display. Maybe that’s all in jeopardy because of more people like us showing up –a white couple with a little blonde kid. Or maybe that Canal, which dooms the neighborhood to flooding, also protects it from the encroachment of the French Quarter and its tourism money siren’s song… At least for now, when you sit down on the bench, it is so quiet. And the view is astounding.

navypainting
Painting by Peter Orr, 2011

One comment

thank you for sharing this with us.

by jen on September 10, 2015 at 10:03 pm. #

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