Monday, December 28, 2009

The First Time

The first time I went down to New Orleans, it was with a common purpose. I travelled down like thousands of others wanting do something concrete, with my own hands, to add a tiny smidgen of relief. It was 2006, and a year, to the week, after Hurricane Katrina. I went down with Al, my husband and comrade, driving from New York, for what we figured would be a week's worth of something physical. Maybe so many people wanted to "get physical" because they [we] were so angry. A new way to give meaning to "if I had a hammer." Because Al is asthmatic, we couldn't sign on with Habitat for Humanity

This is Al. you'll have to tilt your head to the
left, I'm afraid. Can't figure out how to
rotate my pics yet. They came un-done once
uploaded. Beginning blogger, what can I say?

to do house gutting which would put us in contact with vast amounts of mold, dust and unnamed harmful substances. We perused our options on the web. We found an easygoing, come-on-give-us-what you-can little organization called Emergency Communities. We liked what we read. Come chop onions, serve the residents up glop, serve the house gutting Habitat people, bring your own tools, massage tables, hands, songs...They were the next generation hippies? Myself from the Baby Boomer Generation, they sounded like our people. We took our time getting down there, as we wanted to explore some of the South. We stopped in at Lexington, Va, visited the tomb of Stonewall Jackson, a dark tall monument in the local graveyard -- I always go to the gravesites of famous people. Something always...happens -- and checked in on in one of the houses he'd lived in briefly. I asked the guide, who I guessed was retired, and a volunteer, whether Jackson -- who was a widower by then -- had slept with his house slave. Something about the situation there... Him alone, a woman devoted to his care...I would have been surprised if things were otherwise. Mr. Volunteer Guide grew taciturn and hustled us out of the tour so fast. We strolled through a Fiddler's Convention in Galax, Va. If you go, don't bother with the competition performances. The performers seem so nervous to be on stage and not in the comfort of their front porches, They stand stiffly, seem to want to close their eyes to avoid seeing the hundreds of people in folding chairs in front of them, and saw, or painfully plunk their way through three minutes of music they've...rehearsed. You don't want to witness rehearsed fiddling. Go instead to the trailers, where the musicians live and jam, at night. You'll find the same people you saw in the afternoon, but they're alive. They stand around in the light spilling out of the trailers, or prop up a flashlight and in small pick up bands fiddle, strum, sing their hearts out. Requests? Salty Dog! I shouted. It was glorious! From there we drove down to Birmingham and visited the Civil Rights Museum, listened as the congregation of the 16th Street Baptist Church, where the four African American girls had been killed by a bomb nearly fifty years prior, just a block from the Museum, belted forth its Sunday Gospel. Though a latecomer beckoned us inside, we wavered. I should say, Al wavered. I would have dashed through the doors. But Al said, no, we're not meant to be there. Al, a student -- in the depest sense -- of American history knows the story of the Civil Rights movement in complete detail. As full recall as though he'd been present at each march and act of civil disobedience, sit in and strike. Al isn't a tourist or voyeur when it comes to living history. I didn't question his judgement. We stayed outside, as the church doors closed.

Picture of church was intended for this spot. How DO you put a second pic up
with blogger? It's a small, red brick church, on the corner, with a white steeple. It's pretty but normally, you wouldn't look twice.

We drove on, stopping in Montgomery, Ala for the night. Snapped a pic of a really beautiful monument outside the office of the SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) -- and I'll get that up too, once I've mastered the system -- and then headed for lunch at this famous diner/restaurant in Mobile -- lot of b&w photos of previous owners, you know the format. Then headed due West on Rte 90 right on the edge of the Gulf through Missippipi, where out to the left we saw nothing but white sand where dozens of gambling resorts had once stood. We detoured around Bay St. Louie where the bridge was still down a year later, and on the sixth day drove into New Orleans.

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