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August 29, 2006

one year later

new orleans one year ago

A year ago I had just moved into my apartment in Downtown LA. It was a happy, auspicious move for me, but in many ways (most?) I was completely freaked-the-fuck out. I had just left a high-stress (but lucrative) gig under generally annoying circumstances, and I had also just moved to a new city where I knew few people and certainly didn't have the socio-professional network I was leaving back on the East Coast. The oft-touted attractions of LA - the beaches, the mountains, the industry - are of limited interest to me, and my new neighborhood was tripping me out as well, our spacious loft situated in a zone that is not so much post-apocalyptic as it is post-virtual, the streets seemingly stocked by some invisible programmer with quasi-autonomous non-player-characters from a game I barely understood and less wanted to play. There was piss everywhere and our building was full of very nice folks who claimed I'd soon be feeding on a uniquely downtown nutrient that they shorthanded as "the energy," but that I quickly came to believe was an essence distilled from the suffering of downtown's largely black and male homeless population. It seemed completely crazy to live here, but I do/did, so I very understandably came (by various associative and commutative properties) to think of myself as completely crazy as well.

Being primed by the peculiar mental state I was this time last year, it didn't take much for me to see Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath as a world ending sign. It seemed at first the stuff of myth, and then when nothing happened except suffering piled on suffering it made myth seem beside the point, if for no other reason than there is no book in any testament where the exile or death of large numbers of black people portends anything in particular. That kind of thing is just business as usual, a heckuva job.

I had somehow contrived to get to the west coast before the truck with all my furniture and comfort infrastructure, so my girlfriend and I spent the first few weeks of our new existence living like mildly discomfited squatters, sleeping on a too-small futon, not enough underwear, eating the same take-out over and over. (The grub choices downtown after dark are fairly constrained.) We in no way imagined that our situation bore any relationship to what the displaced survivors of the hurricane were going through, but we did wonder if some new regime had somehow been instituted, some line in history crossed where diminishment and deprivation would increasingly be the norm. What if there is an earthquake we wondered? A dirty bomb in a truck? What if it happens before my books and my telescope and my tools get here? Before I can imagine taping the windows up and putting towels under the door and making a brave face forthe Lady and saying, well. At least we can catch up on our reading. We had the feeling that something like the loss of an entire city must by definition permanently re-order the basic facts of life for everyone, and the feeling felt incontrovertible for a few weeks, inevitable, world historical. And then the truck arrived. The first thing I did was break out my drill so I could build a flight of vaguely cubist stairs to get us up to our loft bed as easily as possible. I moved the good TV so that I could watch it while I was working. When I was done all I could think was that the stairs look nice and that it really is true that there is no meaningful outrage to be had among the comfortable.

Before the arrival of the truck we obsessively followed the coverage of the disaster on a busted TV that had been left in the loft by the previous occupant. It served up pictures and sound, but they were fucked-up pictures and sound, the images and audio distorted as if fighting the grip of some powerful electromagnet, perhaps a tractor beam. I didn't think to take a picture of the images of Katrina as processed by that TV, but I did record an image of James Blake playing Andre Agassi in last year's US Open. We aren't even tennis fans and the tv's funny flicker gave me a headache, but we rooted for Blake all the way anyway, structuring our evenings around the matches. Watching the Open offered us a kind of useful normal, an easy counterbalance to the other images that were still streaming from the screen all day long. We weren't even disappointed when Blake finally lost, made no half jokes about him letting the race down. Instead, we mentally thanked him for all those well-layed matches. There's always next year, we said.

james blake playing andre agassi at the 2005 us open

Next year is here now. Looking back my introduction to LA I am amazed that I stayed here, think: you were kind of out of your head. But what else was there to do in September of 2005 besides go a little off? The moment seemed to call for it, and the subsequent return to a livable middle suggests the simultaneous advent of both real relief and of complete retreat. Slavoj Zizek has a line about utopia where he says (and I'm paraphrasing) that utopias can't be pre-imagined, that the impulse towards utopia is something that strikes you like lightening when you find yourself at a life-or-death juncture, which is to say, precisely when the choice before you is a new world or death. I imagine that thousands of people likely had that lightening strike moment in New Orleans last year, that for the vast majority it came too late to do them any good. You couldn't count the possibilities that drowned after the levees broke, but how many are being pieced together day by day in isolation, away from the television, fragile and portentous? Sitting in my loft the way I still do, watching the various feeds, would I know a utopia if I met one? I want to say "probably not" because I'm negative that way, but really: it's impossible to say. It's only been a year, and you can't tell anything in a year.

Posted by ebogjonson in brain maintenance, city of angels, new orleans, on August 29, 2006 3:53 PM