Monday, March 31, 2008

Ruminations of debris

I'm still picking up trash.

--and for you wags who grew up "cruising" the discos of the late 70's, that's not what I'm talking about.

What I mean is, I'm still picking up plastic bags and various paper wrappers along the streets of Vista Park, the tree-shaded neighborhood of New Orleans flooded by the London Avenue Canal breach in 2005.

When I first saw my house several weeks after Hurricane Katrina, the street, sidewalk, driveway and lawn were covered with about one-half inch of dirt, the dark sediment left by flood water that rushed in and left slowly. And there was all sorts of trash about as well. Things that floated or were washed from who-knows-where to end up on my quiet street.

Odd things, like a pink Care Bear doll and a DVD of the movie "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids." Curious, I picked up the silver disk, washed it off and kept it. I still have it and it works just fine.

Other things, like plastic wrapping from military MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) and plastic water bottles were obviously post-storm debris. In those early days I had no trash can so I just made a pile of the trash I found and trash I generated--as if putting trash in a specific pile amounted to a hill of beans back then.

Months later when the family returned and we settled into the FEMA Travel Trailer, trash along our once-idyllic street filled the gutters like leaves in autumn. All around us, houses were being gutted, unceremoniously disemboweled and the entrails piled along the right-of-way. All manner of refuse found its way up and down the street. Old magazines, bottles of nail polish, cancelled checks, flattened boxes that used to hold macaroni dinners…

For months, the activity was non-stop, as was the litter. Bobcats with solid-rubber tires rumbled to and fro like large, slow sugar ants, scooping trash and rumbling off to find more. Demolition crews took their turn, too, taking out six houses in the immediate area of our government-issued temporary home.

The one constant was the trash. At some point I decided that the Bobcats and demo crews were only going to pick up most of the trash. Large debris was not a problem; furniture and 2x4's all got scooped up and carried away. But the small stuff, whether paper or glass or plastic, seemed to escape the claw of the backhoe and the bucket of the Bobcat. Small stuff that could blow down the street, or be carried by rainwater toward the catch basin, evaded capture and congregated in the gutters of the neighborhood. And so I began to make trash sweeps of the street.

Right away I noticed a disturbing trend. A lot of the trash I was picking up was of the drink bottle and fast-food variety. This is trash not left over from somebody's destroyed dwelling, but trash brought in and dropped by the workers themselves. Lots of water bottles and coke cans. Lots of Burger King wrappers and Styrofoam plates.

It struck me as completely contrary. Grateful as I was for the government-funded clean-up crews, the volunteer house gutting teams, and the contract workers rebuilding the houses, it made me angry that they would consider my neighborhood suitable for dumping their trash. I fantasized about seeing such a person one day, catching him or her in the act of tossing an empty plastic water bottle to the side of the road. I imagined the confrontation, the righteous ire of my admonitions, the stumbling regret of the accused…

But it only happened in my head as I zigzagged up and down the street picking up trash.

After many months, the trash seems to be under control. Perhaps it's because the daily traffic of workers in the neighborhood has abated somewhat since late last year. Or perhaps it is because the street looks cleaner to the casual observer, which inspires him or her to not act as if our neighborhood is just a giant dump.

Whichever, I am grateful. I am still picking up trash, but it is mostly paper and plastic wrapping from someone's new appliances that was probably pulled from a proper trash pile by the wind. Most of the trash I gather now is not the remains of Vista Park's past, but its effort to forge a future.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Not there

We like to think we can control time. We schedule everything down to the minute, with alarm clocks and watches and cell phones that prompt us with beeps to move on to the next task. We pride ourselves with being able to calculate the precise moment when the apparent path of the sun crosses over the equator and signals that time of year we designate as Spring.

And when it suits us, we change time, going forward and backward an hour as the mood strikes us. We call this Daylight Savings Time, as if we can bank the extra hour and as if we can control time.

We control nothing.

Time rampages forward as it damn well pleases. As if we could build a wall or an embankment to stop or slow, or funnel time to a place we'd find more useful or pleasing. But time is unstoppable, unchangeable.

We recently set our clocks forward in this annual ritual. On the Friday prior, I had left the FEMA Travel Trailer in dawn's early light. But on Monday, I emerged from our boxy abode to the darkness of my still recovering neighborhood. All around me was illuminated by the yellow glow of the trailer porch light. A little beyond was visible under the glare of street lights.

Now that my house is gone, and the houses that used to stand on either side of my house, and several other houses through the immediate area, I can see much more of Vista Park than I could see before the flooding. Which is to say, I can see farther because there is much less to see in this part of New Orleans.

The house is gone, but a little strip of walkway remains. The nice folks who installed the Emergency Housing Unit here made sure to line up the trailer steps with the walkway, so it almost looks like it belongs there. But this concrete walk goes about 12 feet, and then ends. At nothing.

Sometimes I look down as I walk this path. I look down and imagine that Katrina never happened, that the floodwalls are still standing, that our blond brick house is still there. I focus on the concrete walk and shut out the recent images of my city, instead pretending that the past was present, allowing my mind to trip momentarily into the images of what used to be.

But inevitably, I reach the end of that walkway, and the house is not there, the daydream bursts and the reality of the situation floods back in. I look up, and I look around at the empty lots, at the mix of repaired and empty houses around me.

Yes, we made the dawn come later and delayed nightfall, but who are we really fooling?
Time rushes forward and sweeps us along with it. We control nothing.

The sooner we figure that out, the better.