Sunday, June 22, 2008

Day 473

New Orleans, La.
June 22, 2008

Dear Family and Friends,

New Orleans is a city of things uncommon. Its core is filled with orange cones and flashing yellow street lights that are the everyday signs of consistent brokenness. The longer I stay here, the more I believe back to normal is in a constant state of maybe tomorrow.

This is a move away from my honeymoon days when I neither cared nor noticed the systemic problems that may never be fixed. Or maybe I noticed the problems too much, still naive to believe that one year's time was long enough to make a difference. Now, when six days pass before a downed streetlight is removed, I shrug and say, "Only in New Orleans."

I don't blame the City's department of Public Works. In fact, I applaud their efforts. Sixty-thousand blocks are in New Orleans and all of them have been neglected for decades. Throw in Katrina, which devastated infrastructure and City staff, and New Orleans picked up more broken streetlights, massive potholes and missing street signs.

Then again, people aren't screaming from the rooftops about these daily inconveniences.

This has always been a violent city. The French sent criminals and prostitutes to populate the colony. Decades later, the Ursuline nuns came to center their spirituality. Today, in high crime neighborhoods, street signs suddenly become far less important where police staffing is low. The New Orleans Police Department lost 500 officers after the storm and the post-K attrition rate is just now starting to settle.

When people ask me whether I'm apprehensive about my safety, I used to say no. But, now, little doubts have crept in. As a 473-day veteran of New Orleans, I know now there are inherent risks while living here. These are the tiny disclaimers that everyone should hear, I suppose.

Out of my extended circle of friends, five have had their cars broken into and/or stolen, two have had their bikes stolen, one had her house broken into, one has been mugged.

One has been shot.

My friend who was shot loved the neighborhood he worked in, despite its notorious reputation for drugs and overall down-and-outness. He was AmeriCorps member and spent three weeks in the local (LSU) university's hospital. One of only four fully functioning hospitals here, by the way.

Thank whatever deity you choose that he was a college athlete. His physical strength saved his life, doctors say. He's back in Pennsylvania, and I'm hoping, not entirely spoiled on his altruistic post-college pursuit to do something bigger than himself.

Because laying floorboards and hanging drywall for poor people is a long way from where he could have been during his first year out of school. He'd joined a new community worked long for little and finally was fed up with his friend's car being stolen for the second time. When he and a friend saw the thieves, "We chased after them," he told his local news station. "I caught up with one of them and when I caught up to him he pulled out a gun and shot me twice."

Some say he was stupid to chase. His youthful gumption was courageous, I say.

It's too bad, but only $10,000 of his $90,000 in medical bills will be paid by AmeriCorps.

"It's a horrible thing that happened, but I met a lot of good people, lots of friends down there and I helped a lot of great people, so I don't regret going down," he told his local news station.

So, yes, New Orleans is a City of things uncommon. Uncommon because with all its flaws, the little heartbeat it still has left beats loudly enough for us all to want to be near it. Perhaps, those of us who aren't locals, have been drawn to its dysfunction. Every day here is unlike any other day somewhere else.

And now, during my 473rd day, I wonder whether we're working for a restoration we'll never see.

Who cares, I say. As long as we try.