A story about America

A few days ago, one of my little sister’s college friends posted a remarkable note on facebook. It was his story of being evacuated from New Orleans in August of last year, ahead of Hurricane Gustav. I felt I should share the essay, because it says some powerful things about this country. The author is Tulane freshman Art Ostrowski, and I thank him for letting me re-post this.

My Hurricane Gustav Evacuation Story (which will explain some of my beliefs about America and life in general)
Art Ostrowski
Tuesday, March 10, 2009 at 11:04pm

I don’t know how I feel about blogs. But this is something that I experienced that I would like other people to know about. I’ll try to be as objective as possible, but I’m human.

It was late August in New Orleans. This means a heavy, low down heat that intensifies the smells and feelings. For me, it was just the turning of a page; I had just finished kayaking down the Mississippi River and was ready to begin college.

The first days of college went as they should and like many of yours did. But somehow news arrived through that haze of alcohol and big Jersey hair- a hurricane was fast approaching. In a city poised to “celebrate” the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on Friday, August 29, the populace buzzed with new reports and evacuation plans.

My school, Tulane University, required that all students leave campus by noon on Saturday August 30. So we did. Flights back to Long Island. Roadtrips to Florida. Or the University shelter in Jackson, Mississippi.

Let me explain something about my mental state at this time. I had just spent three weeks alone on the Mississippi River and was still not fully adjusted to civilization. For me, this hurricane was something to be experienced, not ran away from.

Amid the dusty oaks of an abandoned campus, I caught the streetcar downtown and found myself in the French Quarter, walking towards Jackson Square. I passed the afternoon hanging out with the stars of New Orleans’ homeless population: Mama Rose, a sweet old Gnostic, an old drunk guy, and Porkchop, an elderly black man with a velvet voice.

Amid our conversation and bottle passing, the New Orleans Homeless Task Force attempted to evacuate us, first gently and then with some prodding.

“If you don’t leave now, you’ll be headed to Angola,” said the officer.
“Angola? What’s that?” I asked, with images of a beach resort coming to mind.
“The Louisiana State Prison.”

As the southern sun headed towards the downtown skyscrapers, I bid Ma’ Rose and Porkchop goodbye. Climbing up the levee, I took in the view of the Mississippi River; its churning waters smiling that same old gritty smile. As I lit up a joint, thoughts came to mind of cycles. I paddled and swam in water that I flushed in Chicago. That same water was twisting in front of my eyes, and in a couple of days, it will be flung against the city in a hurricane that promised to be stronger than Katrina.

Descending into the French Quarter, I found that things had changed. Army groups patrolled the streets, helicopters flew overhead, and the last remaining SUVs, fully loaded, were heading out of the quarter. Scenes came to mind of a certain South American country after a revolution.

But this is New Orleans, and as I turned another corner, Bourbon Street, with its ever present supply of people and parties did not disappoint. It was Southern Decadence, a gay festival…( and yes I have issues with that name). I’ve been to many types of parties in my life, but a hurricane party may top them all. In some aspects, it was as if the world was ending, and this was the last party anyone could ever have. The apocalyptic scene was completed by large white vans with loudspeakers proclaiming, “YOU FAGGOTS CAUSED HURRICANE KATRINA, AND NOW YOUR CAUSING ANOTHER HURRICANE. YOU WILL BURN IN HELL”

I awoke the next morning at 11 AM. Martial law began at noon. This was an odd concept for me: if you are on the streets after 12 PM, you WILL be arrested.

A friend had left my bags at the front desk of the Marriot. I trotted towards the downtown area, and paused in a French Quarter intersection. What’s that on the ground? Someone had left me a present!

And as I picked up the bag of ganja, I pondered what the fuck was going on here. But the best was yet to come. There are 3 Marriott hotels in New Orleans. Needless to say, on the third try, my hangovered, out of breath fat ass burst into the hotel and retrieved my belongings.

The remaining people in the city were being herded to Union Station, a rusting, mildewed structure on the west end of downtown. For this hurricane, no one was allowed to stay in the city, lest a national embarrassment like the Superdome or Convention Center happen again.

Buses pulled in and out of the station. Between me and the buses lay a long line of black people, the proud residents of places like the Lower 9th Ward, New Orleans East, and Central City. I took a window seat on the bus, looking out at a near-abandoned city.

This was the city’s evacuation. From the looks of it, 95% of the people were black. No one would tell us where we were going. We simply rode, the clouds swirling about, the wind already whipping the palms.

Later in the day, we arrived at a military base somewhere in the pine country of Louisiana. Everyone had to get off buses and get on new buses. I can’t quite explain in words what this was like. There were more people and more chaos than I had ever seen, I needed a break and began to paint on a canvas I had brought with me.

The Army supplied packaged meals. However, it became apparent that many of the people were illiterate as they began to pour the water that said “DO NOT DRINK” into their dehydrated potatoes. Sidenote: the pre-Katrina New Orleans Public Education System was ranked worse than the Congo… yes, that Congo.

I tried to help as best as I could, but eventually got herded onto a bus. Next to me sat Sandra, an older black woman who you could just tell gives amazing hugs and could cook up a storm. As we rode through the night (again not knowing where we were going) we shared a blanket, and she adopted me into her family.

We arrived in the early morning at Calhoun Community College in Decatur, Alabama. The shelter was to be in the gymnasium. As Sandra and her husband Paul put it- “we were sleeping on the rack.”

As everyone was getting settled, an overweight weight man took hold of a microphone. “Welcome, Welcome”, he began as he proceeded to tell us how this is the Bible Belt and that what we do in New Orleans we can’t do here and how Bourbon Street is great and we love to go down there but this is “Christian Country.”

Sandra mentioned to me that whenever anyone mentions New Orleans, all people think is “Tiitty, Titty, Titty, Boobie, boobie, boobie.” I couldn’t help but collapse into my cot laughing as she shook the appropriate body parts to emphasize her point.

Soldiers with machine guns drawn constantly guarded us. Caution tape was strung up around the gymnasium- we weren’t allowed to cross it. If you wanted to go to the local gas station , a string of police cars watched your every move. It was an all-white community college and some of the passing sorority girls mentioned to me in passing “my yoga class is cancelled because of y’all.”

I quickly made friends in the shelter. I passed a lot of the time painting (and incidentally made it into the local newspaper). Being in a shelter isn’t that bad- most of the time, people are just hanging out. I met some of the most amazing people usually, I would end up pretending to be a gorilla or buffalo or alligator as hordes of kids jumped on my back. One of the cutest things I have ever seen was a little barefoot toddler trying to use monopoly money in a vending machine, straightening it out on the corner of the machine after it wouldn’t work.

An old man from Lake Charles, Louisiana, told me how to get to a forest. Some days, I slipped off behind that caution tape line and explored. Nearby, I found an old cemetery where I could clear my mind and sketch. I examined the graves and three of them had anagrams. For example, Mary Lou Higgins: 1898- 1988.

In between eating greasy ass southern food and shooting the shit with people, I became very close to many in the shelter. It pained me greatly to see those M16s pointed at my friends faces, to see a caution tape line dividing them from normal society, and to see the fear in the eyes of the white college students.

I found some cardboard and with my painting supplies, created a sign that said, CAUTION CAUTION CAUTION. What are you scared of?

I held this up as the students drove past us, bewildered at the sight.

Additionally, I called the president of Calhoun Community College and talked to her, asking her why the guns, why the caution tape was necessary. “Well,” she began “with the umm type of people… that we have at this shelter, it is necessary to take some precautions.” Well I’ve heard talk like this before and I know what it means and, and, and…..

Sometimes it seems so hopeless.

The news was on constantly. The horrible news. We watched as water from the canals danced along the tops of the New Orleans floodwalls. Below the impending devastation were the houses and lives of many people who I sat beside. I don’t know I can use any more words to describe this.

The hurricane passed, and we waited for the time to go home. And we waited for the time to go home. And we….

I had been in the shelter for five days when my cell phone got stolen. Among the people in the shelter were drug addicts and sly little kids. I tried to contain my feelings; I had just experienced so much emotion. While this was a relatively minor occurrence, the floodwalls of my face struggled to hold the industrial canal of emotion piling up in my soul.

It was time to go. Leaving the shelter was an experience in itself. I feel stupid saying this, but I felt like a celebrity. People took pictures. It felt good, and I was glad I was able to show love in what was such a difficult situation.

I began the long hitchhiking trek through the South. A retired old man who likes to camp, a former rodeo cowboy, a builder of subdivisions with a difficult teenage daughter. To hitchhike is to be a therapist. People aren’t afraid to show their most intimate of feelings.

Bob picked me up in a semi that was hauling logs. His story was as follows: His girlfriend left him with a child that Bob raised until he was 5 years old. Then the woman came back and demanded a DNA test which showed that the child wasn’t Bob’s. That child is 15 years old now. “I miss him and think about him everyday.”

Tears still come to my face.

I slept that night on the side of the highway. A soft breeze tickled the September tallgrass that I lay beside, and the midsouth midnight traffic lulled me to sleep.

Arising the next morning, I got picked up by two guys and their dog from Birmingham, Alabama. Well they were businessmen, of the nontypical variety. They took me on some business deals in the shadier sections of Birmingham. After a heart wrenching escape from some flashing blue lights, we got some decent Mexican food. I slept at their apartment that night. (Regrettably, I forgot my journal there… if anyone is from Alabama, please help me find it!)

I hadn’t even put my thumb out when an old white beater pulled over. A man with less teeth than fingers and the heaviest foot I have ever seen. We drove faster than I have ever driven in my life. This man told me that he had thirty two tickets. THIRTY TWO TICKETS!

He dropped me off in Tuscaloosa, which was ironic because my college was playing University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. I waited for a while, and a middle aged trucker lady brought me out to eat, which was very nice.

But I still couldn’t get a ride, and since it was Saturday, I was wondering if I would get back in time for my classes on Monday. A large semi pulled over and I climbed on up.

“Hi, I’m Art! What’s your name?”
“Jesus”

Which is how I got a ride with Jesus to New Orleans (notice not hay zoos, but jesus).

Jesus was an attractive young Mexican, a former professional soccer player for Acapulco (I think?). But he loved Janis Joplin. As we rolled South through the dense pine and red soil, “Bobby McGee” blasted on the radio. Notice that “Bobby McGee” is about hitchhiking to New Orleans.

Jesus ended up giving me that Janis Joplin CD, and inspired me to visit Mexico over my break. I arrived at my dorm later that night, the arching Live Oaks welcoming me to my university in the deep south of America.

***

Another story about America, this time by Mischa.

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