Muddy Waters

Notes of an emotional carpetbagger: A Northerner goes to New Orleans to re-create himself

"We're a beautiful people," I said.

"We are," she said weakly.

"We are," I repeated, "but we can't see it unless we have money. Money is soap in America. It don't matter where you come from, you can be Brown, Yellow, Black. Money will wash you white." A ring of people gathered around me. "Why do you think no one came for you? Your life is not valued."

Their faces glowed. The woman stroked my dreads.

"Go on man," someone yelled. "Spit it."

"If they don't value your life, then don't value their lives. This is the latest battle in a war that began on the slave ships. They threw people overboard—they drowned them back then and they're drowning you now. Don't let them kill you." I was panting. My hands pounded the air as if it were a wall. Reverend Willie called from the van. I stopped and pulled away from the circle.

It was a long ride back. The rage that escaped in my rant still burned in my throat. I saw them again and again, asking me for food and water. Reverend Willie drove us to his church. We sloshed through brown water and entered the building. The floors were rotten. Slabs of the ceiling had fallen on the pews. When we sat, we began to argue about God, or at least I argued. "Just put your faith in God, " he kept saying. "Don't doubt Him." I did more than doubt. I sat on the steps and twisted my dreadlocks around my wrists like chains and yanked and yanked. I wanted to be free of caring for people I could not help.

The next day, we went on our last rescue mission. Five men abandoned their flooded homes and came with us. One of them sat with me in the boat. "Thank you for talkin' sense into me," he said. "When you hear about all that craziness at the Superdome it seemed safer to stay." He kept looking around at the city, as if seeing it for the first time. The more he saw the quieter he got. I asked him what's lost of New Orleans that may never come back. He turned, wiped his face, and closed his eyes.

"I'm sorry," he said. He walked to the end of the boat and wept as we drove through the ruined city. I sensed what he lost but it was too immense to fully feel. Numbness had settled into me. It prevented feeling from getting in the way of action.

After four days, I returned to Baton Rouge airport to catch a flight to New York. When I first arrived I'd seen a small chapel room in the terminal. Now I saw it again and like the first time avoided it and went to the bar, the restaurant, and the arcade. I walked around in blind exhaustion and saw the chapel again and this time opened the door.

In the back was a dimly lit area with pews. I sat down and held my face in my hands. In my mind I saw them again, women who carried children too weak to walk. Men who asked for help I could not give. I saw pain flooding their eyes and leaned over and pressed my palms to my face. My chest heaved and all the water I saw and waded through came streaming down my fingers.

Nicholas Powers is a freelance journalist and adjunct lecturer at Center for Worker Education.

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