X-Signs and Obits
Simon and company’s attention to detail, adding a literal t-shirt thread here or there, to put the story together with accuracy and small, almost subconsciously assimilated cues, was very apparent in Episode 3 of HBO’s Treme. And sometimes, it’s the little things that grab ya.
Sonny and Annie, playing on Jackson Square, right in front of my favorite people watching lamp post at Chartres and Pirate’s Alley, are joined by an accordion player. Not just any accordion player, by the way. That was Sunpie Barnes, one of the best to ever squeeze air through pleats, and also a force in our community in so many ways. Sunpie was wearing a tshirt over a long sleeved shirt. The long sleeves were skull and crossbones, the tshirt was an orange “X-sign” on black. If memory serves, the date on the tshirt X-sign was 9/23, but I could be wrong.
Meanwhile, over in Gentilly, Albert searches the obits. His buddy notices and asks if he’s looking for anyone specifically. Albert answers in the negative and his buddy remarks offhandedly that the obit section is a lot bigger since the storm.
So what’s the big deal? Again, they got it right and they did it in quiet soul wrenching ways.
For those of you who weren’t here, the X-sign was and remains ubiquitous. Painted on every single structure in the city, noting which agency had been there, what date, what they found or didn’t. I still find myself reading them as I pass by, always hoping for a zero on the bottom, meaning no one found dead there. I’ve seen some with ones and twos. One in the Lower 9 had a zero with a note: “Possible body.”
There’s currently a tshirt with that sign for sale on CafePress. I’ve seen people with X-signs tattooed on their bodies. I’ve seen art inspired by X-signs. And yeah, folks, they’re still on homes all over the city. Some have painted over them, others have left them, almost like a badge. Here at my house, they got sloppy, no X, but the other info is there. Some days I want to paint it over. Some days I feel like putting a frame around it and gussying it up.
Ya know, that is almost a month after the storm hit, and they found a cat here. For anyone who thinks that Albert’s finding his Wild Man’s body THREE months later is a stretch of the imagination, I’m here to tell ya that it happened. A lot. Sweep after intense sweep and bodies were still found months and months later. Unless you actually saw the scope of the devastation, with houses on top of each other and cars on top of that, you might doubt the plausibility of that story line. I’m gonna have to watch that episode on the On Demand channel so I can pause it as Albert heads into the Wild Man’s house. I want to see if there’s a zero in the mark.
The X-sign on Sunpie’s tshirt in the very beginning was a warning to me in its own little way. Uh oh. Somebody dead. Somebody gonna get found. In a building. In a kitchen. Oh. Under a boat.
Hey, wait, you mentioned the obits! Yeah, I did but poor Wild Man Jesse hadn’t made it into them yet.
The post-Katrina death toll was extraordinary. Studies were done showing that the number of suicides and heart attacks per capita in New Orleans was beyond the pale.
Just put yourself in LaDonna’s shoes for a minute. Husband and kids in Baton Rouge, roofer being a flake, brother missing, Mama AIN’T leaving, brother-in-law judge is condescending and not returning phone calls, lawyer is working on it but still can’t find the brother, husband is dealing with the insurance people, the “good hands” people who are giving them the run around and she kisses him and says, “See ya Sunday.” And she didn’t even have a funeral to plan. Many did. This was the pattern of life for many many people after the storm, a pattern that pulled apart what was left of their emotional strength. (For those of you unfamiliar with our geography, Baton Rouge isn’t that far away, depending on whether you break the speed limit or not, you can get there in a hour and a half easily. But not after Katrina. It could sometimes take people twice that or more to get to Baton Rouge if it was rush hour and they were trying to get back to the rented place in Baton Rouge after checking on the house they were still paying a mortgage on in New Orleans.)
At the three month mark, the obits were full of the names of people just found in the debris of their homes, people who had finally been identified, claimed and released to family from the coroner’s office, and the suicides and heart attacks and stress related death people who passed last week. The Obits were a grisly read, but they were regularly searched by people like me who still didn’t know where neighbors were.
As late as six months later, March of 2006, I had been sitting on a levee on the Westbank. When I came back I wrote this:
A woman came up to us with some binoculars. . . . We started talking with her. She lives on Powder Street here on Algiers Point, a street that we delivered lots of food and water to in early September. There was an entire family that hadn’t evacuated and they had nothing. One of the women we met up there was an elderly woman, about 83 as I recall. She was one of the women who needed her medication refilled and was part of the surreal tea party under the Army tent at Blaine Kern’s as she waited with the others for a ride to West Jefferson. Her hair was black, her makeup severe, her laugh raucous and wonderful. I can’t find my notebook (been searching all morning, her name is in there), but I think her name was Joy Boudreaux, a very common surname here in New Orleans. She told me that she had been born on Powder Street and had lived on Powder Street her entire life. She was a fascinating woman. She died this week. Evidently she had other ailments, as her list of prescriptions could attest to, but her heart gave out.
The woman we were talking with was probably in her late 50’s, also lived on Powder Street. She said she had a circle of girlfriends that consisted of 12 women. They’d known each other for years. Five of them have died since the storm, of heart attacks from stress. Four others had moved out of New Orleans because of their jobs. She just shook her head, still not believing her personal human loss.
~Katrina Refrigerator Blog originally written 3/26/2006~
There are still many people missing, just flat out unaccounted for, some by choice no doubt, others just gone, bulldozed under, grown over. There are still others who were never identified or claimed.
There were about fourteen things I could have written about this week’s episode, it was so rich. But it was the X-signs and the obits that kept coming back to me as I went to sleep at night.