During a street fair last weekend, the streets in my neighborhood were blocked. Some kid was huddling under this umbrella and parked in the middle of the street. He sat there for hours. I assumed he was mentally ill. Over the weekend I watched him paint dozens of umbrellas.
Now that, belatedly, the horror of the destruction of New Orleans is beginning to sink into me, I look back on this in a different way. The spiral he painted on this umbrella looks like a hurricane, and sitting in the bright sunlight as if he were taking shelter from a catastrophe strikes me as horribly prescient.
I don't understand what is happening in America, but all around me people are talking more about oil prices than the eradication of a major American city and the transformation of hundreds of thousands of people into refugees. Even inside myself, it feels like I'm dreaming and someone is trying to wake me. It has taken me days to begin to digest the horror of this. I know dozens of people in New Orleans, and have spent some of the best times of my life in that city. For some reason it is extremely difficult to accept that every bed I ever slept in there is now several feet underwater and buried under tons of sludge and debris. I cannot even allow myself to consider that my friends in that city are anything but okay. As yet there is no way to know.
I don't know what to say or do about it. I can barely begun to contemplate what is happening at this very moment to the half a million people who called that city home. It's like the whole world is spinning.
All the death, and the wailing, the evacuations and people huddled in tents - it seems so ordinary to me. The people who survive can all go elsewhere. But the city itself...
New Orleans was a cherished treasure in my personal history. And although each city is unique, New Orleans has always occupied a unique place in our collective national history as well. It's probably hard for Americans to grasp that New Orleans has also been a treasure for other peoples as well. I would imagine the French are devastated - their attachment to this beautiful city, once the glittering gateway to all of North America, is older than their United States is. And the Brazilians, bound to America via New Orleans via a common Carneval culture, are probably more distraught than the majority of Americans...
If I want to trace my own connections, the city I grew up in - in rural Iowa - was a ghost town by the time I got there, but its very existence, like that of so many other of America's greatest cities, was due to the river traffic along the MIssissippi. It dried up when the trans-continental railroad was completed, adn the river traffic dried up.
I remember crying the first time I saw that river, one of the greatest on the planet. Today it is pouring through broken levees over the beautiful city.
For me and so many others, the very words - N'awlins, Nouvelle Orleans - are inseparable from memories of celebration. I have personal stories of New Orleans celebration so scandalous that I hesitate to even include them here, lest this whole eulogy be diverted.
I live a few blocks from the World Trade Center, and I've been given plenty of time to meditate on the erasure of a landmark. It was pretty and filled the sky. When it was gone it LITERALLY filled like a building-shaped hole in the sky. It still does.
I can't for th life of me explain why it took so many days to notice. But the erasure of New Orleans is like a hole in the universe. At the moment it feels like nothing could ever fill it.