One night in New Orleans we stayed out past four-thirty am. I don't know what time it was because I didn't have a watch, and wouldn't have cared to look at it anyway. All I know is when we finally shut the curtains of our hotel room it was against the rising sun, and people were still walking the streets. New Orleans definitely is one of those cities that does not sleep. The bars on Bourbon don't ever close, or at least they didn't before this past week, and it was crowded enough to feel nearly safe everywhere we walked that very early Sunday morning.
Until it was time to leave properly, and retire to bed.
We walked the few blocks back to our hotel, the three of us, because we'd sent Virtigo home early. She was wiped out and exhausted from all the alcohol and dancing we'd done since probably noon the previous day.
The streets were still filled with people, but the crowd had changed. These were no tourist revelers. This was gangs. Can't say they were all black, though it seemed a majority. I remember having the lopsided thought about how many guns we were passing on the street that night. I imagined us suffering--without fear because I was much too drunk to feel something so rational and intelligent as fear--at the least a mugging, at the worst a challenge of a more serious sort. Perhaps bullets would rip through our backs, stray or othewise.
There were some police on horseback about, woefully outnumbered, but they seemed to keep things in check. They were even talking to some of the gangsters, friendly and low and relaxed. I saw one black kid, he looked about sixteen, reach out to pat the neck of one officer's horse. Significant amounts of alcohol notwithstanding, some of my lack of fear was that the crowd was so quiet and business-like.
So later, when I had full range of my faculties back for the short duration between hangover and the first beer of the day, I realized that the police sure as hell hadn't had things in check. It was the gangs themselves, or the leaders of the gangs, who maintained a firm hold on the neck scruffs of their own dogs. I remembered the tension, the whites of eyes, and the lidded, challenging gazes. We berated ourselves for sending Virtigo home alone.
But she, like us, had been virtually ignored. The animosity was directed inward. I doubt they would view themselves as one group, but seen collectively by an outsider like myself they were a single unit, more in common than they probably could ever see, truly separated only by arcane tattooes and ambiguous loyalties. It was the haves and have-nots all over again, repeated ceaselessly through history like sex and love and war will forever be.
And now New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is embroiled in this disaster, a catastrophic Tsunami on our own shores, and what many people are doing is fighting. The guns aren't for show anymore. They thought they weren't among the priviledged before, but they didn't know the half of it. Surviving a gang initiation or struggling through college or maintaining some crappy job suddenly means nothing by comparison. I thought of the people I met there, the uber-friendly bellhops who flirted and told me I looked hot when I was alone and respectfully told us the best resturaunt to go to when I was with my husband (I appreciated both as compliments, by the way), cute local college kids who scoffed at Bourbon Street tourist antics, but bought Virtigo and me beers anyway, the hot chic that flirted with my husband. They are reduced to survival, the lot of them, and survival ain't pretty.
It's difficult to imagine the city with sweet-smelling flowers on balconies and beautiful, eerie raised graveyards, and jazz pouring out onto the streets as anything other than what it was, despite the pictures. New Orleans--the city below sea level, the city that thought it could walk on water--is now destroyed, gone. And it's passed natural disaster by for man-made war. It's no longer just flooded with lake and sea, but the blood of victims, hurricane and otherwise.
Once someone has gone to the animalistic lengths of shooting at a rescue helicopter or riddling a police officer with holes or robbing a deserted store or raping a ten year old, can they live among us again? Maybe the National Guard directive of "shoot to kill if you see a looter" should be considered more pragmatic than shocking.
I think the most frightening part of it all is that we see ourselves in those pictures. We are all one day away from mere survival; one horrific, windy, wet day away from utter devestation, just like we are separated by a blink of time and fate from a life revolving around a rabid, tormented struggle to survive. It could be you sitting up on a roof, near death in the brutal heat, or me who grabbed the 9mm and an extra clip from our safe.
I can't help but wonder, once reduced to our beastial, feral instincts, can we rise again? Will New Orleans rise again?