Sleepless on the bus...
The Greyhound is always a trip, even if you’re not going very far. This is the furthest I’ve ever taken it. I left on Friday at 7am from Santa Barbara, was routed through Los Angeles, Phoenix, El Paso, Dallas, Houston, and Baton Rouge, before finally making it to New Orleans. Quite a journey, and I arrived rather late. From Los Angeles to Phoenix I sat next to an eight year-old boy named Miguel. Miguel’s parents, he explained, are from Mexico, making him “half Mexicano, half Americano.” Miguel wanted to make it home to Phoenix before wrestling came on. Apparently we rolled in too late for that, Miguel was upset.
From Phoenix to El Paso I slept as best I could and talked to the various people who sat beside me for a while. So many stories, so many lives. People are fascinating. By the time I changed buses in Dallas I was surrounded by the Katrina diaspora – mostly women and children headed back to the Big Easy (what a misnomer for the city now!) for the first time since they evacuated. In Houston a mother and her two sons cut in line in front of me. I said nothing. Their faces were all bright and smiley. The kids were jumping around their mother and laughing, they were so happy to be headed back home to New Orleans. The mother carried Time’s special edition book full of hurricane photos.
The bus ride from Houston to Baton Rouge was through much of the night, but I could feel the happiness and anticipation from those around me. Strangely, by the time we changed buses in Baton Rouge the mood changed. The station had that deep dirty south feel to it. Everyone was smoking, spitting, and limping. The mood was sour for some reason. Back on the bus and down the highway, down river, and down in topographical elevation we hit a powerful thunderstorm. The sky was dark grey and rumbling with thunder and the cypress swamps around us were filling up with rain. The mood picked up again on the coach.
When we stopped in New Orleans everyone poured quickly off the bus, into the giagantic station, and out toward taxis and waiting cars. During and after the storm the NOPD used parts of the station as a temporary jail. Writing in the New Standard in October of 2005, Jessica Azulay described the makeshift jail in these terms:
“At the converted Greyhound terminal, which now serves as a different kind of way station, no passengers arrive with luggage. Instead, police bring people in and book them at what used to be a ticket counter. In the back, where travelers used to board buses, police now push detainees into wire pens where they sleep on the concrete in the open air.” (http://newstandardnews.net/content/index.cfm/items/2475)
Not today. The Greyhound is back to its normal function, and it looks like many residents are using it to return to the city. Prior to Katrina neither the city, the state, nor the federal government used the station or the Greyhound lines to evacuate the poor, elderly, or automobile-less New Orleanians, many of whom ended up stranded in the Superdome and Convention center for many days surrounded by floods without food, water, and sanitary facilities. Many of these citizens were abandoned and ignored by the authorities, or else they ended up in the makeshift Greyhound prison. Now many of them are scratching up the money to make if from Houston, Baton Rouge, Atlanta, or elsewhere by bus.
I walked through the downtown in the light drizzle. It looks the same as when I was here in December. Very little has changed. Whole blocks are boarded up and empty – including many of the office towers. Construction crews can still be found all over the place gutting buildings and cleaning streets. I briefly stepped into the Holiday Inn off of Poydras Street to get out of the rain and talk to the desk clerks about temporary housing in the city. They said all the hotels were doing good business. As I pondered asking them who their “business” was – knowing that still relatively few residents have been able to return to the city, and that few can affort the going rates ($75 - $150 a night average) – a couple of National Guardsmen rounded the corner and headed out into the hotel’s parking lot. The parking lot is a virtual military base full of humvees. More Guardsmen came walking into the hotel and headed toward the elevators, toward their rooms. In another hotel down the street where I stopped to use the bathroom the only customers I could see were construction tradesmen coming down to check out, get coffee, and ask for other services.
But the residents are back in force, more so than when I was here in December! Walking through the Seventh Ward I found nearly every other house occupied. Very few looked like they had not been at least prematurely cleaned and gutted. The sidewalks are bustling with people. At a Family Dollar Store on Claiborne Avenue and Elsyian Fields dozens of residents lined up at the registers purchasing everything from ultra-thick trash bags and bleach, to chips and soda. Business is booming, at least here.
I don’t want to sound too charming of a picture. The neighborhood is still wrecked, and well coordinated government assistance is nowhere in sight, not for these folks. And I’ve yet to walk through the Lower 9th Ward again. Common Ground appears to be focusing many of their efforts there. There’s also a big protest action coming up in a few days in support of the St. Bernard Housing Project residents who are demanding their right to return. But that’s a post for later.