A Modern Atlantis By MELISSA KIRK

Tuesday December 27, 2005

“New Orleans is sinking, man, and I don’t want to swim.” 

—Tragically Hip 


A good friend who used to live in New Orleans says he used to joke that the reason no hurricanes ever hit New Orleans is because the city is so cursed and haunted that even the weather is afraid.  

I was painting my living room wall as the winds died out and the waters rose in New Orleans, and with every push of the roller I thought of the people along the Gulf Coast—the people across the world—who have lost their homes; how once, they painted their walls with the same motions, and how now those walls are waterlogged, crushed to rubble, blown to bits, the hopes for them now just memories. I reminded myself, with each stroke, that someday, these walls would be gone. Either under someone else’s ownership, or just plain gone. It’s the nature of things that they eventually change form, but we don’t usually think about losing these things at the same time that we’re happy to be gaining them. A home, a lover, a job, money, things. 

Though I don’t have any ties to New Orleans except ties of affection, fantasy, and memory, the incredible tragedy of its loss breaks my heart. I started writing this as people were trapped in their homes, starving, without water, dying. I found myself doing things I always wanted to do but was afraid to: donating blood, volunteering my time. I noticed myself poised to help an old man with a cane who could barely limp out of the BART train. He carried a plastic bag with the name of a hospital on it. Ordinarily, I might steer clear of him for fear that he would want something of me, or trip and fall in front of me and I’d have to help him, with all eyes on me. This time, I found myself watching carefully to make sure he got on the elevator safely. I see the people around me more clearly, more compassionately. I don’t feel like I can stand back and watch silently, like I used to do.  

It makes me wonder what it is about this event that moves me so much. I’ve always donated money to charitable organizations when I could, I’ve gone to anti-war protests against the bombing of Afghanistan and the war in Iraq, yet I’ve always been able to go about my day, fairly undisturbed . But this time I found myself crying on the BART train in the morning, after reading the front page of the paper, unable to concentrate at work, fantasizing about traveling to the south and helping, doing something, anything but waiting while people died.  

I wonder. Is it because I actually know the place where this happened? Is it because they’re Americans? Is it because my relationship died the same week, a relationship to someone with real ties to New Orleans and that, for weeks, every headline screamed of my personal loss? Is it because I’m a new homeowner and I have an inkling of what it would feel like to lose something you’ve worked hard to make true? Or is it because I was already bereft when the waters began to rise, and saving New Orleans was something I could try to do when I could no longer save my relationship?  

New Orleans is a haunted city: haunted by poverty, racism, disparity, violence, corruption, slavery—both modern and historical—weather that drives people crazy, water, water, water. It’s a town where, literally, the dead cannot be buried lest the corpses float up in the next rainy season. It’s fitting that water would take it, in the end. I know the city will rebuild, but it will never be the same. The ruined, moss-eaten city of my romantic fantasies and of my ruined love, has been swallowed by oily, toxic, diseased water, destroyed by water, and by the same humanity that built it in the first place. A modern Atlantis. 

When I watched New Orleans drown, I couldn’t help thinking of Richmond, one of the most diverse and poorest towns in the east bay, where a year ago I was able to fulfill my childhood dream of owning a house. The people I see as I ride the bus are the people I see on the TV screen: poor, brown, wanting nothing more than to survive and be allowed to live their lives. I’m a white woman who grew up middle-class in Berkeley and went to private schools through high school. 

These people aren’t my people, yet I’m drawn to them more than to the people I grew up with, the ones with nice big houses now, raising happy white children who will always have all the food, money, clothes, and things they’ll ever need. Maybe I’m slumming, maybe it’s my privilege that allows me to carefully observe these workaday people around me, that allows me to consider taking unpaid leave from my job to help the people devastated by the hurricane when I never considered doing that for my own community, and the people around me have no such option.  

When I cry for New Orleans, and for Richmond, I’m crying for the same reason I cried in 7th grade when my schoolmate’s father was gunned down at 101 California St. in San Francisco in the first office shooting of the modern era. My mother asked me how I felt about the shooting, and I told her I felt like it was only the first of many. In New Orleans, a boy only a couple of years older than I was then, who had never driven a bus in his life, commandeered a schoolbus and drove a busload of strangers to safety when evacuation was not forthcoming. I feel like the drowning of a modern American city is just the beginning. 

America, a country where even the poorest people are richer than poor people in most other countries, has finally seen the truth that people in so-called Third World countries have known for their whole lives: that politicians’ promises will not save us, that we can only save ourselves and extend our hands to those in need around us, that a community can be buried by water in a matter of days, or bombed into oblivion, or simply murdered slowly, by the bankers and politicians, and that we, the people, are each others’ and our communities’— indeed, the planet’s—only hope for survival.