Saturday, July 12, 2008

Reach deep to help those our nation forgot

In even the most satisfying of lives, there are regrets. Lord knows, I have my share.
I wish I'd stuck with piano lessons. I wish I'd listened to my friends before I dived into that ill-advised first marriage.
I wish I'd jumped at the chance to buy a Clarks Bridge Road lake lot for $10,000 back in 1980. And I wish I'd lived, at least for a while, in New Orleans.
My roommate at the University of Alabama was from Bay St. Louis, Miss. It's about an hour from New Orleans and when we'd visit her family, we'd inevitably end up in the Big Easy, strolling down Bourbon Street with a "cup for the street" in hand.
There were beignets and chicory coffee at the Cafe du Monde and mufellatas at the Central Grocery Store. I once had my fortune told by a doughy old woman in a dim storefront off Canal Street. She dealt a few bent and grubby playing cards and told me I'd have a long life, two daughters, two husbands and would travel the world over. Three out of four is pretty good.
New Orleans spoke to what little artist there is in my soul. I could see myself in a tiny apartment three floors above a street named something like Dauphine or Ursalines, writing free verse and running a little gallery or maybe buying a deck of cards and going into the fortune business myself. New Orleans is my road not taken.
It breaks my heart to see what's happened to New Orleans. Like anyone who's ever spent time there, I'm taking this disaster personally.
I worried about Fats Domino. I watched scenes of desperation and looting until I couldn't stomach anymore. I had nightmares of being trapped in a stuffy, stifling attic with water rising around my ankles.
I watched my president give a speech that wouldn't have taken third place in a middle school oratory contest, a dismissive frat-boy smirk on his face as he tried to explain his administration's policy of too little, too late. Quit smiling, buddy. Ain't nothing funny about this.
I wonder what's happened to the albino alligators at Audubon Park Zoo. I wonder what's happened to the ashes of Everette Maddox, the gloriously drunken poet laureate of the Carrollton District who's buried beneath a flower bed at the Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street.
We were students together at Alabama and I always meant to pour a scotch on Rette's grave the next time I was in New Orleans. Someday I will, if it's still there.
As I write this, New Orleans has degenerated to the level of a "Mad Max" movie. It's not like we didn't see this coming. Anyone with a National Geographic subscription knew what could and probably would happen if a hurricane like Katrina hit New Orleans. The first four paragraphs of the October 2004 article "The Incredible Shrinking Bayou" were eerily prophetic. Would someone please send a copy to the director of FEMA?
It's time for everyone to step up. We naively thought we could depend on our government to look after its own people on its own shores. We were so wrong.
There are plenty of charitable agencies that will use your money to help the refugees from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Pick one and figure out how much you can comfortably afford to donate. Then double that amount. Right now. Put down the paper and pick up your checkbook.
Consider it a debt of gratitude for the fresh water you drink and the dry bed you sleep in, for having children who aren't nasty and hungry and living in a stench-filled stadium, for not having to worry about alligators and crazed looters when you step out onto the street. It's the price of admission to the human race.

(Originally published Monday, September 5, 2005 in the Gainesville Times)

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