Sunday, November 18, 2007

Holding back the tears

For two days, my graduate students and I toured New Orleans most devastated neighborhoods by van, stopping to pick our way through rubble and talk to survivors and volunteers struggling to rebuild. It took eight hours to see only part of the flood zone, which in total is seven times as large as Manhattan.

JRMC8350 aims to teach graduate students the essential skills of health and medical journalism, but it also requires them to probe connections between health and wealth in every article they write. In New Orleans, this exercise felt like a dental pick touching a nerve.

The trick is not to cry if you're the professor, busy demonstrating reporter-like behavior for people who'll be your colleagues for years to come.

It was late morning on the first day when we stopped in the Lower 9th Ward, where literally thousands of working class homes -- many in the same African American families for generations -- had been shoved from their foundations and crushed when the levees broke. The rubble had been hauled off and the irrepressible growth of Joe Pye weed and goldenrod and tall grass had masked the pilings, foundation slabs and cement steps that remained. If you didn't want to think about the losses suffered here, you could convince yourself that these were vacant lots like any other.

One lot, however, demanded our attention. It was neatly mowed to the property lines and shurbs were pruned. Little imagination was needed to envision a barking dog behind the chain link fence that still stood, shushed by an owner sitting on the porch. Now there was no porch, no house. Just concrete steps and a child's whirligig, motionless.

This was a raw wound dressed by lawnmower and lopping shears. Someone lacked the resources to heal the wound and rebuild the house, but could not walk away. At least one student wept at this mute testimony to grief and persistence.

But not the professor, who had roles to model.

We wrapped up our tour the following afternoon, talking with New Orleans Times-Picayune reporters and editors who shared the newspaper's Pulitzer Prize for its storm coverage. Veteran medical and public health reporter John Pope, who arranged the visit, asked the grad students to talk about the first-person piece each planned to write. "What's your story about?" he asked.

We went around the table, and when it was time for writing coach Kimberly Davis to speak, she said "For me, the story is about the people who aren't here." And then it hit me: huge swatches of New Orleans are as silent as the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. In Holy Cross and Lakeview and other parts of New Orleans where buildings still stand, there are streets without voices, barking dogs, TV chatter, or the ringing of phones.

The realization made tears inch down my cheeks, there in the third floor conference room at the Times-Pic. But I did not cry.

Later that afternoon, I did. I encountered a scrawny black man in a Navy watch cap on steps leading into Jackson Square, and as I brushed past he said "Can you help me? I just got out of the hospital and I need to get my medicine." He waved in front of me what looked to be a completed prescription form, white and yellow copies torn off a pad and still gummed together.

For all I know, he was panhandling with the same line long before Katrina hit. Or he might have been freshly discharged from the hospital. It was impossible to tell. But I was prepared to give the man the benefit of the doubt after all we'd seen, and so I gave him a bill that was probably larger than what he expected.

And I walked away, sat down on a bench, and bawled. We had all seen so much sadness in this proud and wounded city. And yet...and yet...we have seen people determined to stay on and endure, if not prevail.


Amber Roessner said...

I still can't get the image of that house out of my mind. I truly believe that it will be with me until the day I die. Since returning home, I still struggle with putting this whole experience into words. But, for what it's worth, I'm glad that you let the tears out. As a matter of fact, I'm glad I did too.

Jenni said...

Go ahead and cry. I think if you don't let the things you write about touch you emotionally, then your stories will lack the richness that empathy brings. We are humans first.

Tabitha said...

This is a touching entry and truly captures what we saw in New Orleans. I had to hold back tears just to read it.

Christy Fricks said...

It is good to hear your thoughts on all of this, to know I'm not the only one struggling with how to make meaning out of everything we saw.