For the Good of the Gulf: UNC Law Winter/Spring Break Pro Bono Project

Friday, December 30, 2005

The Epic of N'Awlins

As best I can, I'd like to try to document our trip to New Orleans. The long-and-short of it is that I'm extremely glad we went. I hope that, somewhere down the road when Tracy has finished her own law degree (she's taking the LSAT in June), we'll be able to practice together permanently. I also hope that shortly after we begin practicing together we can turn things over to some interns, drop the kids off in a well-lit parking lot, and hop a plane to Jakarta.

We rode down to New Orleans with Lindsay and Carrie and didn't get lost this time. They both live in or around Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 4 in the car for an all-nighter drive proved infinitely better, if not infinitely more cramped, than my last trip through the deep South. We rolled into Lindsay's place at about 9 in the morning Sunday, December 17th and went straight to sleep. Waking up we looked for the Panthers game, only to realize they were playing the Saints just down the road at LSU's stadium. The empty shots of the stands gave the NFL game a real "pig with lipstick" appearance. Lindsay's parents then took us out to The Chimes, a local Cajun sports pub, which was my first introduction to Lindsay's parents and to Cajun hospitality. They paid for everything, happy to see me order whisky on the rocks on a Sunday (this is the South?), ecstatic to share two rounds of boudin balls with us, and absolutely insistent that we try the duck and sausage gumbo. Lindsay said at some point how happy she was to be back in Louisiana just because of the food. North Carolina just didn't cut it. And I had to agree. Here we were sitting at a sports bar, and the whole menu has a distinct local flair (crawfish etoufee, gumbo whatever, . We both agreed that North Carolina had pretty good barbeque, but we also agreed that meat + ketchup + liquid smoke is not the stuff that cultures are built on. Maybe it's unfair to compare NC's cuisine to New Orleans since some people insist that Louisiana has the best food in the country.

Even after the gumbo meal at the Chimes, Linday's parents were great. We sat outside around an old iron fireplace in their garden and listened to Mr. Wilkes tell us about how the loss of New Orleans affected him. He told us about how much he and his wife enjoyed going down and walking around Magazine Street (home of your art boutiques and "Make Levees Not War" t-shirts) at least once a month. He rushed inside to grab a special edition National Geographic that had nice aerial fold-out shot of all the flood damage (80% of the city) and proceeded to describe the ins and outs of the levee systems, the politics of the levee boards between Metairie and New Orleans, and the areas hit hardest by Katrina. It really hadn't hit me until then, because of exams and geographic distance, how bad the physical and emotional trauma was for people there.

Most memorable were the stories of his father, a retired military guy, who Mr. Wilkes and his brother had to force to evacuate. They brought him up to Baton Rouge with his wife just before the storm. Immediately after, his father was extremely restless to get back to the house and see the damage. He tried to get in the car and drive down to New Orleans three days in a row but was either turned arounds by his sons or the National Guard. Finally, his sons drove him down when things had cleared, and he walked around his devastated neighborhood in complete shocked disbelief. This was a guy who had a place for everything in his house: the silverware, the family pictures, the bedside slippers, etc. - and all of it had been sent through a class 4 spin cycle.

I tried to hold on to this image as Lindsay's mom began to relate how she and Lindsay's dad were huge hippies in the 60s, how she used to listen to an AM station out of Chicago all through high school, how she first heard Dylan and could not stop until she heard everything, and how she laughingly guessed exactly what my dad had listened to (John Denver, The Kingston Trio, Seals & Croft). (Lindsay told me at the end of our trip that her mom had called to report excitedly that she had found the link for WXYC on the web and was listening in.)

Towards the end of the night, after a few bottles of Cavit Pinot Noir, I had a good discussion with Lindsay's dad about whether music or film was the lowest art. Oh man, he was so passionate about music! When talking about it he would bend backwards at the hips and squint his eyes, trying to squeeze every ounce of emotion in his body into the words. I think we were both content to say that film was the lowest art.

The next day we headed down to New Orleans. We volunteered, about 2o of us, with the Pro Bono Project in New Orleans. They essentially operate as a clearinghouse for poor folks on basic legal matters - divorce, Social Security, successions, child custody, bankruptcy, etc. When people contact them they either choose to handle the matter in-house with one of their three (?) attorneys, or they farm the cases out to one of the attorneys in and around New Orleans who has registered to take such cases. These might be attorneys with big firms or just individual practitioners. Unfortunately, when the storm hit, attorneys and clients were scattered all over the place. And, as you can imagine, the storm didn't change the need for a divorce or custody of a child. What we tried to do was get in touch with the clients and attorneys who we held files for. For most, we couldn't get in touch with the attorney or the client. The numbers were disconnected or no one answered. Contacting a group of clients labeled "Homeless" became a ridiculous joke.

When we weren't working, the attorneys at the Pro Bono Project were pushing us to get out and see New Orleans. Our first impressions, working downtown, were that the city didn't seem all that bad. The Hilton had a giant poster that said "Laissez Les Bons Temps Roulez Encore" which covered many boarded up windows but most skyscrapers downtown showed no more damage than a few broken windows. I kept asking Lindsay, "So, did this area flood?" Usually the answer was, "No, it's always looked like this." (i.e., yes that garage has ALWAYS been half-caved-in, that pile of garbage is ALWAYS in the middle of the street, and that car is ALWAYS upside down.)I guess the first hint of destruction I got was when Brock (a Tulane law student that Tracy and I stayed with) drove us home for the evening through her crack-infested neighborhood only blocks from the fashionable mansions of St. Charles. Three men armed with machine guns were searching an abandoned blue sedan pulled aimlessly to the curve, some number of colored beads and a stuffed animal hanging from the rearview. I figured they were probably National Guardsmen - camo outifts, humvee, and guns being key hints. This was my first ride down a street loosely governed by martial law. Brock continued to point out the known crack houses. Later that night, Tracy and I slept beside a shotgun and case of Remington shells. Also a first.

Right now I'm thinking about Kate Boo. She's a writer for the New Yorker and spoke at a press summit that the Poverty Center put together earlier this semester. She said the F word in my car. She was talking about the way that the media covers poverty - either they paint the poor as monsters, ready to kill/rape/shoot-up whenever/wherever or as saints without sin who would no doubt discover the cure for cancer if only given a chance. I am probably going to be too sensationalist with this bit on New Orleans because sensationalism is cooler than objective truth.

It wasn't until the final day in New Orleans that we got to tour the real damage. We went down to a neighborhood right beside the levee breach on 17th Street. Houses were ripped in half. Houses were inside other houses. Cars were in trees (apparently not occurring before the hurricane). The scene was exaggerated in my mind a bit because the first three cars I came across were a circa-1959 Chevrolet sans wheels and two 1960s VW Beetles, all standing in water surrounded by flotsam and jetsam. These cars, to me, are like icons of Americana. They are sort of eternal to me, the stars of black-and-white photographs. I guess seeing them in the destruction made the devastation that much more epic - like somehow the full weight of the historical nature of this destruction was brought to bear. A group of older folks were walking down the street looking at the houses, and I heard one of them jokingly say, "I always enjoy a bit of disaster tourism."

What are some other things I don't want to forget? I liked sitting in a federal judge's chambers later that day. A judge was telling us that Pat Roberson, shortly after the flood, had declared that God had judged New Orleans for being such a sinful city. The judge quipped that, had God intended to judge the city, He would not have been so inaccurate as to leave the French Quarter (home to all the bars and bordelos) relatively unscathed. Pick your prophet.We did go out in the Quarter one night. I am happy to report that the smell of vomit will still help orient you. The only odd thing was there was no one there. We went to the (in)famous Pat O'Brien's, an infinite number of different sized beer steins hanging from the ceiling, to find ourselves the only patrons. The poor bartender was reduced to striking up a conversation with us, I guess hoping to keep us there a bit longer or encourage a bonus "friendship" tip.

What would Gilgamesh and Noah have to say about New Orleans? Would they understand the gutted houses, lake bottom with shells in the once manicured front yards, Winnie The Pooh tangled amongst broken tree limbs, VHS tape to Scott Schorr from Aunt Patty and Uncle Larry, and broken Led Zeppelin cd sticking out of the ground just obscuring the words "When the Levee Breaks"? I do not.

- Donald


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