Friday, February 1, 2008

Bus Station Heartbreak

The Bus Station
Baton Rouge, a week after Katrina

It took a full day to get my friend out on a bus.
I wish a TV camera had been there to record the scene. Hundreds of shocked, weary people stood patiently in lines. These were people that we of the middle class seldom see. The old, the maimed, the hugely fat, the emaciated, the junkies, the single mothers with three kids, the young gangsta wannabees no longer trying to look cool or tough..
The noise, with stressed out moms yelling at screaming stressed-out kids.
A few had brand new luggage, most had their belongings in garbage bags.
My buddy, James L, a former demon motorcycle racer and kind, gentle soul was moved to reach out, comforting kids and moms. After an hour or so, we looked at each other in the eye, and I said “you feel it too”. We both teared up. We both knew what I meant. In one little bus station in one small city, the human tragedy was almost overwhelming.
These were people who had little, but they at least once had a place. They once had an old and rich culture. They had family. Now it all was gone, and they were headed to an unknown future in a place they didn’t know.
To me it felt disturbing, but strangely familiar. Then it hit me. I had seen this scene at train stations in India, Indonesia, third-world countries. But this was America, these were Americans! This was the third-world America that few outsiders seldom see, and don’t want to know about.
The images stuck with me, and occupied my thoughts as I tried to sort it all out. Then, the overwhelming reality struck me…… Most of these people are never going back.
Landlords, if they rebuild, will not rebuild places these people can afford.
The city fathers will not be anxious to rebuild public housing, create new project housing, or rebuild affordable housing.
Third-world New Orleans was poor, but rich in tradition and culture. It gave us jazz, the first uniquely American music. It gave us a unique American culture. It gave us the soul of the French Quarter. Now it is broken apart and scattered all over our country.
I fear that the highest and best part of these people will be left behind.
Wherever they scatter, they will group together for the comfort of each other, and the comfort of their unique family oriented culture. A very few will turn or return to a violent, drug ridden life. Those people will gather the headlines and the suspicions wherever they go.
New Orleans will rebuild and rebound, but not for most of these people, who created the soul of the city.
The city fathers, the Old Guard, the politicians, the investors , will relish an opportunity to “clean up the place” as it is rebuilt. The money will go where it makes money. It won’t be used to create an opportunity for the 60-some per cent of the New Orleans population who were poor. Many will say “that’s a good thing, it will put them to work”. Indeed, the FEMA money will create an opportunity for some to return and work, ….if they can find a place to live.
Most of the people I saw in that bus station simply cannot work.
They have lost themselves.
What will happen to them?

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