I went to New Orleans to be saved. During the summer the days were getting brighter and every flaw in my life became incredibly vivid. Nothing in me felt real except a loud emptiness. When I saw New Orleans fall apart it was my chance to join a cause that was undeniably good. The poor were fighting against nature and losing. They were innocent and could cure my guilt but that shallow reason for going left me helpless against their hunger and desperation. I was an emotional carpetbagger, a Northerner going south to re-create himself.
I packed food and medicine and flew to Baton Rouge. At baggage claim, people glanced around anxiously and tightened their grip on their bags. A black family camped near the wall, using their coats as blankets. A Southern woman turned to me and said, “It’s awful what happened in New Orleans.” She leaned in. “Many of them were already homeless.” Her face searched mine for agreement. It troubled me and I pulled my dreadlocks back. It’s a nervous tic. They are four feet long and heavy—their weight anchors me to blackness. I’m light-skinned, nearly her complexion but black enough, I hoped, to be safe among people driven mad with hunger.
In New Orleans I met Reverend Willie Walker. A friend had given me his name and number and we’d talked on the phone before I left New York. He was raised in New Orleans and had been rescuing people since the flood. We met in a parking lot. He hopped out of a Mustang and said, “Get ready, dude. It’s crazy in there. You won’t believe what you’ll see.” Immediately I thought: Player. He had the easy confidence and busy eyes of the best hustlers. Later I would find how wrong I was. We put on rubber boots and he strapped a gun to his waist, and we wandered into the flooded streets.
I stood knee-deep in dark water. A boat sped into the shallows near me. Inside the boat, a rescue worker named Tim hovered over a skeletal black man curled in a fetal position. A bloody defibrillator wire coiled out of his chest. Tim fanned the man’s face with his hat. “Hang on, ya hear? We’re gonna get you out.” He looked around. “Can we get him to shade? He’s cooking.” We pulled him under a tree and yelled for help.
A van drove up and we hoisted the man in. After it left, I saw him in my mind: old, voiceless, begging with his eyes for help. Around me, men packed equipment and pushed boats into the water. Many of them had swallowed what they saw, but the shock of it never left their faces. I looked up. Ahead of me lay a city silenced by water.
I joined a rescue mission, and as we pushed off, reporters splashed through the murky water onto the boat. Cameras were focused, notebooks held like poker cards. Downtown New Orleans was a wide shimmering mirror, reflecting sky and buildings. A web of power lines drifted in the tide. Cars roofs were hazy squares under the water. The captain cut the engine and drifted up to a home where a family stood. “The federal cowboys are coming. We wanna get you out before they take you by force.”
She agreed and tugged at her son to come inside, when the reporters hollered at her to wait. She held up her hands. “Please don’t take pictures. I don’t look decent.” They aimed the lens at her. She crossed her arms over herself. “Please.”
The cameras clicked and clicked. She stopped asking and pressed her mouth into a grim line. They would not give her the dignity she asked for because degradation sells papers. The most valuable thing she had was her tragedy.
Would those photos haunt her? Would she be reminded of her helplessness? Before coming to New Orleans I was surrounded by images of myself that scared me. During the summer my own reflection scared me. I saw a man whose ex-girlfriend would not take his calls, whose family was broken by pride and silence, whose mother was dying from overwork while he wrote poetry. I thought the time and money and sweat I gave to the poor would return an image of me as a decent man. It would be my reward. Instead I saw how small a part of their burden I could carry.
Later we passed some families on the road. I pulled over and handed them diapers, water, and toothbrushes, then drove them to the military post to search for their husbands. I saw the mothers quickly wiping their tears away so the children would not be scared, but the children knew. Their faces were made gaunt by knowledge that only the old should have, that nothing we own can be kept. They saw me looking at them in the rearview mirror and turned away.
We shuttled families until dusk. I went to a crowd to offer rides. A woman asked me how long I’d grown my dreads. “Ten years,” I said. She said they were beautiful and held them like ropes that could pull her out of the chaos.
“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.