I sat with my stuff at my feet in the waiting area by the gate at Chicago O’Hare, waiting to board a plane for the second leg of my flight home to Louisiana. I had claimed a prime seat in the row nearest the jetway, and I had my headphones on, when a tall, thin African-American man in an airline uniform walked up to the counter and picked up the microphone.
Time to board? I lifted my headphones off to listen. “Ladies and gentlemen, we will be boarding this flight in a few moments. But first, just for you – this Christmas carol,” the man said in a rich tenor. And he sang:
I’ll be home for Christmas
You can count on me
I don’t cry in public. I just don’t. But I had a hard time with it. I watched people from the other waiting areas, passersby, start to gather around. I was born and raised in central Louisiana, a four hour drive from New Orleans. We were the farthest away, of anyone in the family: everyone else was closer to where my family was based, in New Orleans, Donaldsonville, Metairie. Now I was going back. For the first time in two years. The first time After Everything Happened.
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents on the tree
I shopped well. Not only had I acquired presents for nearly everyone, they were all flat enough to fit into my suitcase. None of the family I was bringing them to had lost everything. I looked around the waiting area and wondered who was going back to their family home for the first time since Everything Happened.
The plane ride was smooth and I landed and was received with love by my brother, my aunt, my cousins. And after some visiting my brother and I got into his car and drove to the site of the 17th Street Canal levee break. The neighborhood that was flooded was mostly single story homes, with a water line above the doorways of most of the houses. The people there, they lost everything. There was debris everywhere. A drowned car that had gotten washed onto the median. (They call it the neutral ground, there. But now I call Coke “soda” and I am in that moment a stranger to my family.) Red X’s were painted beside the door of each house. The initials of the search crew. The number of bodies found.
Christmas eve will find me
Where the love light gleams
There are FEMA trailers here and there. That’s what everyone calls them: FEMA trailers. They’re plain white travel trailers, most of them. Small. You could pull them behind a car or truck. They have one window and one door. I can’t imagine fitting a family of any decent size into one. Some lots have more than one, and I have heard at least one story of a family that has the parents and one child living in one trailer, and three other children living in a second. Because one trailer just isn’t big enough. But it is a roof and walls, electricity, and running water.
The trailer parks full of them are the strangest thing of all. Because they’re all identical, the same unyielding white. You could get lost in them, never find your own trailer in the sea of them all. You could drown in the impersonal sameness.
The Times-Picayune reports that there is much political wrangling over sites for more trailers. The mayor released a list, but council members objected and he has been forced to step back as they claim he did not live up to an agreement to allow them input on the selection process. One council member, who wasn’t named, tried to reject every single proposed site within his district. There are rows and rows of the FEMA trailers sitting at staging grounds, waiting to be deployed, sited, hooked up with electricity and water. Only then are the keys turned over to the new occupants.
There are many who are still sleeping in tents and cars, and waiting for their trailers. Waiting for their homes. Waiting for a sense of normalcy that seems elusive. Everything here, every conversation, every thought, is divided into Before and After.
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams
All this strikes me so deeply it’s hard to find words. I am struck with a deep and pervasive sadness. Not only that. A sense of shame. Shame, to witness all this and yet feel so helpless and powerless. These are my people. Living in homes with blue tarps on the roof. Living in trailers, living in cars and tents, sifting the shards of Before and clinging to whatever is left them in this time of After. And we will never, never, never, never, ever get Before back.
Only in our dreams.