Guest Columnist #85 - Shelley an open letter

Dear Slug and Lettuce Readers,

   This is Shelley from New Orleans. I put have been putting together Chainbreaker Bicycle Zine from there for the last few years, and I wanted to write to ya’ll about this hurricane and about what is going on with my city. It is hard to know where to begin, so I guess I will begin with the beginning.
   I have lived in New Orleans for the better part of the last 10 years, and can say that not a day has gone by that I have not thought or even said out loud how much I love my city. And now, the terrible thing we residents have speculated about every hurricane season finally happened, the “perfect” hurricane hit. The Friday before the storm, I read the paper over coffee and saw that this little storm was coming up through the gulf towards the Florida panhandle, no big deal. That night, my mom called from Indiana and said there was a hurricane coming our way. She does that a lot so I didn’t think much of it till my neighbors called later and said they had reserved some rooms in Jackson Mississippi for them and any of us from my place (lovingly called “the compound”), a group of 8 homes with a shared yard. Still I didn’t think much of it, even into the next day that we all spent cleaning the yard of potential flying objects, putting plants inside, boarding up my and the neighbors windows in a great communal effort, all the while listening to the news of this storm worsening. We all planned to meet down the road at midnight, so with a few hours left, I cleaned and swept my house, still wondering if the evacuation was necessary. We have been through this so many times, and every time, we are back at home in a few days, out a bunch of money spent on an unneeded and unplanned vacation. So I cleaned and thought, wondered and doubted, until when a jar of green tea fell from my shelf from the kitchen all on its own. When I heard the crash from my front room, my stomach dropped deep. For the first time, the feeling of danger crept in and I thought,” Get it together Shelley, this I real.” So I put three photos, my Buddha statue, my journal, a bag of pet food and a few pairs of unders in my bag. Then, with a few hours left until we were to leave, I painted my toenails red, and lay on my small, dog eaten couch and listened to my two favorite tapes, Drive like Jehu and  Dead Moon front to back. At midnight, I grabbed the bag, my dog, my cat, walked out the house, kissed my front door goodbye and went with Daniel and his two dogs to meet up with the others, making us 13 people  (including 2 kids and one pregnant woman and one guy on a 3 day vacation from Los Angeles) and 8  dogs. We got in 5 cars and at two in the morning started driving towards Jackson Mississippi. At about 6 am we heard that the hurricane had made category 5 and was still headed straight for the city. It is hard to write that. The only time I feel real stress in me is when I think about all those moments leading up to now, to the raising wind speeds, to the reports of an unprecedented mandatory evacuation of the city of  New Orleans ,to evacuating again to Memphis when we heard the storm would still be a category three when it hit Jackson, to the moment we sat in the park getting ready to all meet Kristen for food and drinks and we heard the worst news yet, that the breach in the levy had gotten so big that plans to repair it had been abandoned. That was the worst of all. When I heard that I sobbed, I sobbed and sobbed.
   For those of you who don’t know me or others from New Orleans, there are few places that inspire the type of devotion to a city like New Orleans does. New Orleans is where I built my family, my community, the place that I had “grown up” and made a home of my own. I know that city, I know the people the neighborhoods, the houses, the smells, the progression of the blooming of the most beautiful plants in the world (gardenias, night blooming jasmine, sweet olive, crepe myrtles, hibiscus, ginger, banana trees!). The idea of that place slowly filling with water, like a slowly sinking ship, or like a painful cancer like death, it just broke my heart and there was nothing we could do but watch the water rise (and become more toxic) and to watch our community, 100,000 of which don’t have transportation, poor people, already disenfranchised and forgotten people, sinking into the city, as the lake and river poured in. The news can’t report on those people, because the government has never chosen to recognize them. The news implies that these people were stupid not to leave, or that we, as a city, were stupid to use or limited resources trying to fix our public schools instead for preparing for a disaster. Even as I write this there’s some asshole ranting on the radio about how these poor New Orleanians should have had the foresight to not have children if they don’t have the means to care for them or evacuate them from a city in case of a disaster like this. It is too much; it is just to fucking much.
   After the news of the levy we decided to have a meeting, well, to have beers really, and to decide what to do next. It became clear to us that because we probably had lost everything, that staying together was essential. So we decided to stay together and get a house in Lafayette because it was as close to home as we could imagine and at the very least, we could help our people as much as we could from there. Still, the next day many of us left, to Colorado, to New Mexico, to Chicago and California and Montana, vowing to make some money and meet up again after a month. The last 5 of us drove back to Lafayette, overjoyed to hear Cajun accents, to see the bayous and swamps, and within two days we were donated a small amazing Cajun cabin out in Catahoula Louisiana to work out of. We volunteered at a rest stop where the people of St. Martin’s parish had put together a help station, with 100’s of pounds of red beans and rice, a dump truck full of clothing, toiletries, baby changing stations and hugs and love for people just coming off the busses from the superdome. Those people were in a state I had never seen, with stories, I assure you, you cannot imagine. Really. I don’t know if the people were just broken down so far that they didn’t know what else to do or say, but they were so happy, so kind, just totally overjoyed and thankful to be given some fresh clothes, the first meal they had had in days, some water and affection. They had no idea where they were going, they had nothing. Yesterday we worked at the Cajun Dome here, serving lunch to evacuees and the people there were frustrated. Nobody has received any help from FEMA, they have no idea what to do or how long they will be there. But they have beds, medical and counseling aid, they have clothing and free phones to make calls with. But this is all local aid, with some help from the Red Cross. It is difficult to comfort them, but it is good to see my people together and I even ran into neighbors and even some weirdoes whose bikes I have been fixing in the French quarter for the last 5 years. The people from Lafayette and from South Louisiana have been amazing. Just listening to people form the country here in tears on the radio explaining how FEMA shut down their efforts to save people, a group of guys who took their own boats into St. Bernard Parish to help evacuate people in the projects there that were heartbroken and in tears because  they were forced to stop. The people here want to help so badly and they are working day and night to do it.
   I am sorry I am going on and on. There are still more stories to tell, and this is nothing compared to stories of other friends who stole cars to escape or got picked off of roof by helicopters. We were lucky, privileged. The reason though that I am writing this, is to say that I am trying to keep hope for our city. There is a lot of talk about leaving New Orleans forever, or just fencing the city off and leaving it to die. But the people who I know who love the city as much as I do are not giving up. Abram (from New Mouth from the Dirty South) and Rachel are working to keep their community alive from the Astrodome in Texas. Jamie (also from New Mouth) is keeping people in contact through a website from Boston. I have been getting amazing lists of people who are alive and well from Joe Tuba in New York that have helped ease my mind. But for all you other folks, and there are so so many of you, who have lived in or visited New Orleans, please, think of us and don’t give up! There are a lot of memories of the music, the food and the French quarter that people have been nostalgic for that I have heard on the radio, but think back to our city beyond what tourists see to what makes it special. It is the COMMUNITY, the people, the culture, the dilapidated buildings, the constant reminder of the precariousness of life that drives people to celebrate both life and death. All these government jerks are now walking into our water filled city and say, “It is like a third world country here! We can’t believe this is happening un America.” Hello! It has always been this way! I want to be the voice of the city nobody knew! We all need to be. As Daniel said as we sit here listening to the radio, “I haven’t heard the city’s name this much in my entire life.” That is why I am writing this to you all because we have always been the forgotten city, the forgotten state, with schools full of peeling lead paint and mold, with more people living under the poverty level than any coastal American could imagine. So many of our people didn’t have the means to leave this city and now people are blaming them for staying and for looting houses and corporations for food and water to survive. This is our city and we have always had desperate people who have barely been able to get by and who have only succeeded in doing so in relying on each other instead of the damn government through community, neighborhood pride, and churches that check on and care for our elderly. We have had music and art and the love of celebration. Remember the musicians that come from our city (and remember how many that I won’t list here that extend beyond the punk community) - Impractical Cockpit, the Foreheads, the Fairies, Dirty Charlie, Frozen Head, Beasthead, Panorama Brass Band, more more!). Remember the zines (Emergency, Nosedive, Full Gallop, Crude Noise, I hate this part of Texas, Sweet Olive, Chihuahua and Pitbull, Chainbreaker, more more!) and the books and publishers, the art and the special aesthetic of New Orleans. Lots of us lost our instruments, art supplies, zine masters, and all of the equipment that have been recording musicians coming through our city. It may be awhile, but all of these creations will be back, either out of New Orleans or from other communities helping to support our evacuees.
   For now, this will help: Ethan Clark of Chihuahua and Pitbull Zine is organizing a New Orleans zine comp if anyone want to help, write him at New Olreans Zine Project P.O Box 2413 Asheville NC 28802. The New Orleans Bookfaire was to happen in October, Kyle and Jenny from Hot Iron Press were organizing this. Maybe we could do it still? Somewhere? The Neighborhood Story Project organized by Abram and Rachel have hopes to return. To keep up with them, check  HYPERLINK "http://blogs.chron.com/exile/" http://blogs.chron.com/exile/. If you want to keep up with our community and neighborhoods of New Orleans, check out the website Jamie put together NewOrleansNetwork.org., we’ll all be checking in there. There are so many more groups and friends to mention, Nowe Miasto, Plan B, the Iron Rail, but this is too much already. Just please, don’t forget about us ya’ll! Find us, talk to us, comfort us, feed us and keep us together! This is a temporary diaspora. We’ll be back!

Thanks! If anyone needs anything or is looking for anyone, you can contact me at 318 Clinton Street, Lafayette La 70501.

love, shelley