Everyone Is Not Whole
And there’s one thing more, I miss the one I care for
More than I miss New Orleans.
In 2006, six months after The Storm, I returned to New Orleans elated, thankful, hopeful. The city would rebuild with competence, focus and priorities, with the top one being our very own peculiarities. I’d never understood why many consider civilization an either-or proposition. You can’t have Mardi Gras this year, you have to focus on gutting buildings and fixing roads. Work or play, rebuild or relax, make roads or floats, learn the three Rs or music and art. Why not all of it in equal measure? Surely, after our blunders to date, we could regroup, put everyone’s heads together and make the city whole again. After Mardi Gras.
Oh, we all had the same inspiration, didn’t we? Except for two important details: the definitions of Everyone and Whole. Everyone was not home. Well into 2006, Everyone was still fighting contractor, employer, school, FEMA, bank, insurance company, spouse, family and own self much less in tune with their neighborhood association or rebuilding plan du jour. Everyone Uptown despised Everyone Downtown distrusted Everyone Uptown. New arrivals looking for money, headlines or purpose were making their way into Everyone. When all was shattered and chaotic like this, what the hell was Whole? As New Orleans was before August 29th 2005, with all of its charms and flaws, this mess waiting to happen all over again? Or a place with its geographic and political pitfalls truly understood and surpassed, Category 5 levees that would make the Dutch weep, all of our people home and culture intact? Was Whole same, better, worse, different? Was Whole possible or even desirable?
As for a New New Orleans that was disciplined and relaxed at once, the city is not three centuries of immoderation for nothing. New Orleanians take everything seriously. New Orleanians take nothing seriously. (For your convenience, the entire human condition made manifest in one town on the southern shores of North America.) Never let it be said that they didn’t try and are still not working hard to rebuild their homes and neighborhoods on their own, despite the aid that has still not come. But, they are who they are and will do things their own way and in their own time. And so it turned out that, when New Orleans met the criminally-mismanaged Road Home housing recovery program and the yet-incoming hordes of those for whom rebuilding is a lucrative business proposition, a socio-political experiment, a graduate thesis to prove, an artistic jaunt, a charity event, a romantic social-media escapade, anything but doing something right and for the right reasons, the disaster started all over again.
In late 2010, I lay tired and defeated on the floor of a friend’s Columbus apartment. John Kasich had just been elected governor of Ohio, my husband and I were to pick up and move again for work and what was this country now? (Some of my favorite) words that Dambala wrote back in 2007 had come true and thrashed about in my head: “Times is hard … New Orleans is sinking in a cesspool of inaction and incompetence … It’s not just New Orleans that is dying … I think it’s America in general. We are just the cynosure of the descent … the most photogenic example.” Here I was, in America five years after The Storm, twenty years after Kuwait, unable to get away from upheaval not caused by me, now an integral part of it. Enough. The latest installment of the Oxford American’s Southern Music Issue beckoned; it was dedicated to Alabama and offered 176 pages of literary solace.
The magazine fell open to a Dan Baum article entitled “To Be Continued …” complete with a picture of the Original Big 7 brass band. Hot tears immediately stung my eyes. (I cry on command now. The side effects of PKSD may include tear-duct incontinence, cable-news Tourette’s and hurricane-season flashbacks.) What was this doing in a publication with Ala-fraking-bama all over its front, back and innards and, wait a minute, why was it in the back of this bus with the ads? I figured out that, to OA’s credit, it was their way of honoring the subject of the article – Brandon Franklin of the TBC brass band, a very young, talented and lesser-known Southern musician who was shot to death earlier in the year. I read the article. I had to read it. I read it three times that evening.
Baum’s piece has unfortunately not been published online (you may buy it here if you wish), but in short, it details his post-Katrina interactions with O. Perry Walker High School’s band, its director Wilbert Rawlins, Jr., the tremendous but ill-fated Brandon Franklin and some other keepers of the flame, and how much the future of New Orleans and its children depends on protecting the music through education and public support. This is all well and good, but something about placing such an article in a specialty publication consumed by music wonks bugged me. Chalk it up to my allergy to people talking about how New Orleans needs saved because it has a unique culture of bohemian artistes and colored minstrels, tucked away in that taboo, voodoo corner of the American shelf that ought not to be cleared in order to satisfy the rest of the nation’s occasional desire to live a little. I, too, am very guilty of the “we need, America needs New Orleans” argument, but it stops here. People need help and we give it, whether or not they are the same or different from us, whether or not they are deemed better or worse than us, whether or not they are exciting musicians or boring office workers, whether or not it makes us sleep better at night and offers us salvation. Or, that’s the theory.
I kept returning to something Mr. Wilbert said early on in the article:
“Teaching the kid to play the horn is the easy part. These kids have been hearing this music their whole lives and you’ve just got to let it out. The harder part is that you have to reprogram them. You’ve got to teach them to be productive citizens, to show up on time, to be part of something bigger than they are … This is the alternative to all that gangbanging and drugs and bullshit. Band is a full-time job! You go to school all day, and you’ve got to maintain a 2.5 average, because this is something you love. Then you’ve got practice till long about seven ‘o’ clock. And you’ve been holding yourself” – he squared his shoulders with his arms up in blowing position – “got to keep it right. So you’re tired. You can’t be hanging on no street corners.”
Band, then, was to Wilbert about something even more important than saving New Orleans culture; it was about saving New Orleans lives.
I am fully aware that Dan Baum wrote a book called “Nine Lives” but I wonder how many get it. Again, band cannot be the only way to save New Orleans lives, whether these children are musically-inclined or not. As mentioned earlier, a restored, working society is not an either-or problem. For instance, the success of its schools does not have to be a choice between academic and artistic achievement. Reading, writing, mathematics and science can show these kids what they can be, but only their culture can show them who they are. The children of New Orleans need it all to survive, offered to them by teachers and parents who care.
So, I also think about whether we have it in us to help those who have no talent whatsoever, just because they are, people, fellow humans in need who may have nothing to give us in return. It is this lack of basic civility we now suffer that makes me worry about the future of America, much more so than our increasing anti-intellectualism or failing math and science classrooms. It is our general and increasing “I’ve got mine” mistrust and mistreatment of one another. When we treat our own as other, we only fail ourselves. And if we are like this with our own, how do we treat the rest of the world?
Everyone is not Whole.
Season Two, I welcome you.