A city supposedly without care is grieving as it is slowly trying to come back to life. Though the French Quarter is a theatre of light, New Orleans is still empty, ruined, dark and desolate.  Not only in its environment.  From within its people.

Suicides are on the rise.  One man who gave his name as David to the WaPo put it this way:

“I’ve been thinking the last couple days the best thing to do is die.”

The man, speaking on a dull monotone, was slumped in a chair inside the steamy convention center here, waiting to see a doctor. He didn’t want to come to the makeshift hospital, but a friend insisted.

“I’d hardly had a drink in years,” said the man. “Right after the hurricane hit, I just started drinking. If I stop drinking, the pain becomes so great it’s unbearable.”

The emotional impact of Katrina on its population has gone far beyond what American mental health experts have ever seen.
Many of you have probably never seen a dead body, except at funerals.  

But what if you’ve seen several in the water?

Or heard the pounding of your neighbors’ fists against roofs that are trapping them against the rising waters?

Or seen horrific events that the news cameras never broadcast over CNN?

You’re still decompressing from the shock to your heart and mind.

People like David, a sixtyish “fragile…artiste” walk the desolate streets, their eyes filling with tears.  In grocery stores and in other public places, they suddenly begin weeping and crying.  It’s not unlike, I have read, the weeping and grief experienced by Germans after they lost the Second World War, and the artillery guns and nightly bombing finally stopped. Policemen lucky enough to receive or afford counseling confess that they are fighting more with their wives and girlfriends and yelling at and disciplining their kids for the smallest thing too often.  The pain is sometimes too much for them to bear.  Many are resorting to drink and drugs.  And worse:

In the extreme cases — and there have been many — they have hanged themselves, overdosed and put guns to their heads. The number of suicides in neighboring Jefferson Parish is more than double what it was in the fall of 2004. In the first days of the crisis, coroner Robert Treuting saw five suicides in three days. In the two months since, there have been 11, compared with five a year ago. Two police officers have taken their lives, and at least one more has attempted suicide.

Orleans Parish coroner Frank Minyard said he does not have statistics for the city, because many deaths — including nine by gunshot — remain a mystery. He knows of at least one woman who killed herself recently. New Orleans emergency personnel have responded to at least six suicides and nearly two dozen suicide attempts since Katrina.

Experts believe the psychological toll will grow far worse with few mental or medical facilities and organizations available to help New Orleanians.

And there are stories like this one, written by columnist Chris Rose of the Times-Picayune.

She had a nice house in Old Metairie, a nice car, a great job, a good man who loved her and a wedding date in October.

A good life.

He was from Atlanta and had moved here to be with her because she is a New Orleans girl and New Orleans girls never live anywhere else and even if they do, they always come back.

That’s just the way it is.

For the hurricane, they fled to Atlanta. His city. His people.

Meantime, her house was destroyed, her car was destroyed and within days, she was laid off from her job. And, of course, the wedding here in New Orleans was canceled.

When all settled down, he wanted to stay in Atlanta. But she is a New Orleans girl and you know the rest. Equanimity courses through our blood as much as platelets and nitrogen — it is part of our DNA — so she was determined to return, rebuild, recover.

So they moved back here.

A few weeks ago, they moved into my neighborhood. She arrived first. That afternoon, she came over and joined the group that sits on my stoop every night solving the world’s problems.

I introduced her around to the local gang and welcomed her back to the neighborhood; she had been a neighbor many years ago.

Like many Post-Katrina First Timers, she was a wreck on that first night. Didn’t say much. Just sat there. Not the girl I used to know. But then, who is?


And so their new life began on my block. They were one of us now, the survivors, the determined, the hopeful, the building blocks of the New City. Members of the tribe.

They settled in. I used to see them walking in the park and reading the paper on their front porch and occasionally they sat on my stoop, and life went on.

But I guess things were not going so well. She was always pretty grim — not the girl I used to know — but he seemed jolly enough and we would talk in the ‘Hey, how ya doin’?’ kind of way.

Turns out, he couldn’t stand it here. And, truthfully, if you weren’t from here, didn’t have a history here, didn’t have roux in your blood and a stake in it all: Would you want to be here?

I wouldn’t.

But she is a New Orleans girl. To hell with no house, no car, no job, no prospects. This is where she belonged. And her mama lives here. End of discussion.

He moved back to Atlanta. She stayed. He came back. Try again. Work it out. Whatever it takes.

A few nights ago, they drank wine and in some sort of stupid Romeo and Juliet moment, decided that they would kill themselves because all hope was lost and living here amongst the garbage and the rot and the politics and the profound sense of failure was sucking the marrow out of their bones.

Not even love could overcome. Here, in the smoking ruins of Pompeii, sometimes it’s hard to see the light.

She told friends later that she didn’t really think they would do it. Said they got caught in the moment and let the bad stuff crawl all over their minds. The darkness can be so damn dark and they weren’t thinking straight. But she didn’t think they were really going to do it.

But he did. Right then, right there.

So he’s dead, and a family in Atlanta has lost a son, a brother, a friend. Another notch in Katrina’s belt.

My stoop is empty these nights. None of us really knows what to say anymore.

This is the next cycle. Suicide. All the doctors, psychologists and mental health experts tell us the same thing: This is what happens next in a phenomenon like this. But has there ever been a phenomenon like this?

Where are we now in our descent through Dante’s nine circles of hell?

God help us.

The most open, joyous, free-wheeling, celebratory city in the country is broken, hurting, down on its knees. Failing. Begging for help.

Somebody turn this movie off; I don’t want to watch it anymore. I want a slow news day. I want a no news day.

A friend of mine who used to live here said on the phone from Philadelphia the other day: “I don’t know how you guys can even get out of bed in the morning.”

Well, obviously, some of us don’t.

But we have to try. We have to fight this thing until there is no fight left. This cannot be the way we go out, by our own hands.

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