Schadenfreude, What it Means to be Home
As New Orleans falls from the front page into oblivion, brave souls have returned and are trying to live their lives. This is not the sexy, salacious looters-running-out-of-Wal-Mart-with-liquor-bottles news that Anderson Cooper, Bill O’Reilly, or other members of the national media misreported at an alarming level, rather this is back page news.
The Germans have the word “schadenfreude” for the palpable delight the anchors displayed while wallowing in New Orleans’ misery. Webster’s Dictionary defines this omnipresent sadism as “glee at another’s misfortune.” Alas, this is not the first time that this abhorrent behavior was diagnosed. Ironically, in their bloodlust, the national media has missed the germane elements of the post-Katrina story: the everyday lives of those that returned are relevant and intriguing.
Aside from harangues on FOX or CNN, what has life been like here in the battered Big Easy? Literally, it stinks. A fetid aroma cloaks the city, as refrigerators sit idly on the sidewalks throughout the city. Every shape and size stand silently still, full of pre-Katrina items as testimonials to the weeks New Orleans was without power. Rather than attempt the Herculean task of removing maggots from the cracks and crevices of the refrigerators, most New Orleanians chose to bind them with duct tape and move them to the street. With garbage sitting in front of most houses due to the lack of regular trash removal, the refrigerators are only one element in the cleanup of New Orleans. There are gigantic debris piles of sheetrock and furniture on almost every street. Jennifer Medina in a New York Times article estimates there are 22 million tons of garbage, and “It is more trash than any American city produces in a year. It is enough to fill the Empire State Building 40 times over. It will take at least 3.5 million truckloads to haul it away.” To approximate how many people visit for Mardi Gras, city officials weigh the garbage, and on a good Mardi Gras, a 1000 tons are collected. Ergo, Katrina left enough trash for 20,000 Mardi Gras.
Rotten food and garbage is only one element of the putrid odors that assault the olfactory senses. When entering areas where the flooding was over 4 feet, which is a significant portion of the city, a miasma of death now resides. The aura of death leaves an awful stench. This is due, in large part, to the fact that water sat for weeks, killing all vegetation and leaving a filthy ring throughout the city. The ring has the feel of a dirty drained bathtub. This ring of reminder is everywhere; it is the line of death, everything above is alive and well and everything below is dead, choked and drowned in Katrina’s waters. Often times, the ring is accompanied by a boat stranded on the side of the road. The boats—used for saving lives—now sit in a pedestrian fashion, evoking a memory of New Orleans’ brief imitation of Venice. These are daily reminders of just how high the waters rose, and they force the citizens to relive the experience ad nauseam.
Most citizens long for normalcy, but it will be quite some time before the city returns to normal. In fact, the most basic services and tasks are hard to complete. Merely getting groceries requires finding a supermarket that is open, as many have not reopened—due to flooding, looting, wind damage or lack of employees. Once an open store has been found, then the task of getting there before it closes at seven in the evening begins. Those souls lucky enough to make a successful dash from work to the store are greeted by a wait to checkout that is like bread lines in the old U.S.S.R. For those brave enough to return, patience is an essential requirement in all facets of life.
Before doing almost anything or going anywhere, a myriad of questions must be answered: Is the place open, was it flooded, then, if it did survive the storm, what time does it close? New Orleans, a city renowned for 24/7 laissez faire lifestyle, now closes early under the enforcement of a 2 am curfew. This is just one change from the way things were. Most stores close by dusk, and bars are forced to shut down early. Those violating curfew are ticketed or arrested by NOPD or the National Guard, who still patrol the streets armed with M-16s. The unlucky few who have been arrested are detained in a makeshift jail at the Greyhound station. Hoping to conduct more business, French Quarter bars had to encourage their City Councilwoman, Jackie Clarkson, to force NOPD to extend the curfew from midnight to 2 am. After some protest by Mayor Nagin, the city relented, as he did not want to upset the miniscule tax base that he has left.
The curfew has a profound impact on the music scene, a quintessential part of life in New Orleans. Most clubs have not reopened, and, with that, most musicians have not returned. It makes for dreadfully dull Saturday nights, something the city just is not used to. The clubs that reopened are thriving due to the limited choices of nightlife, packed with both locals and emergency personnel.
Recently in Uptown, on an unseasonably steamy night at the Le Bon Temps Roule, the Soul Rebels Brass Band provided a chance to hear old New Orleans, the time before Katrina. The band, however, had other ideas, as they began their set with a funeral dirge, leaving a somber ambiance in the packed back bar; it was for those—the band included—that had lost so much. The crowd rocked back and forth to the mournful horns. One cannot go far nowadays in the city and not be confronted with America’s worst natural disaster. The scar tissue is everywhere. Amid the teary eyes, people hugged and grabbed total strangers welcoming each other home. Not missing a beat, the band seized on the crowd’s emotion and launched into the upbeat number, “I’ll Fly Away.” With the change in tempo, the crowd’s spirits were buoyed. As the gospel standard proclaims, “Just a few more weary days and then, / I'll fly away / To a land where joy shall never end, / To a land where joy shall never end, / I'll fly away. I'll fly away, O Glory, / When I die, Hallelujah, bye and bye, / I'll fly away.”
Apropos, the song is about hope and promise, two things that New Orleans needs most. In this moment, the city was back. Although nothing shall ever be the same in New Orleans again, there are glimpses, mere flashes, where the city emerges from the pain and sorrow that Katrina has wrought. One only hopes for more of this.