What Gulf Coast Congressman Gene Taylor wanted the Easter Bunny to bring him.
South Mississippi Living 4/07

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Like Walking Through Glue

Like Walking Through Glue

Before leaving San Jose, CA, to drive four days to go home to the Katrina-ravaged region of my birth, one brother told me that there was no way he could prepare me for what I would experience once I arrived in my hometown of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Located on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, “the Bay” as we locals call it, is a tiny beach town.

As I drove from the Bay area of California to “The Bay” of my birth, I thought of all the HBO and CNN documentaries I had watched. I replayed the innumerable conversations I had had with my family over the last 20 months. As I crossed the state line of Mississippi. I took a deep breath.

No words can completely describe, no news videos can completely reveal, and no documentaries can reflect the totality of the devastation remaining in post-Katrina land.

Boy, was my brother ever right.

For over two decades, my verbal and written communication skills have been one of my greatest assets. Yet, I find myself at a loss for articulating accurately the difficulty of life’s daily activities. The best I’ve come up with is that many of life’s routine activities is like walking through glue . . . for miles on end.

Tiny Mississippi Gulf Coast towns comprised Katrina’s ground zero: Pearlington, Waveland, Pass Christian, and Bay St. Louis, my hometown among them. For just over two months, I’ve been back in “The Bay”.

After graduating from high school 30 years ago, I haven’t spent this kind of time in my home town. I went to college and through the years acquired a broad, deep, and expansive experience—a pleasurable luxury for someone from a small town, particularly Mississippi.

I’ve lived in Nashville, Tenn., Northern Virginia, and San Jose, CA. I’ve worked on both coasts from the nation’s capitol in Washington, DC, to the capitol of Silicon Valley. I've worked as a management auditor for the Tennessee legislature and the city of San Francisco. I've worked in high tech Corporate America.

Lastly, but most prominently since leaving the Bay, I've been politically active professionally and as a volunteer on the local, state, and national levels with a number of progressive issues and organizations.

With all of this, you might think I was prepared for the world I was about to re-enter. But I wasn’t.

Soon after having arrived in the Bay, I drove from one side of the Gulf Coast to the other along the 40-mile beach stretching from Waveland to Biloxi, Mississippi.

The next day I drove 60 miles west to New Orleans and went through the many devastated neighborhoods such as the 9th Ward and Lakeview, two ends of the economic spectrum in New Orleans.

We do LOVE to eat, LOVE to dance, and LOVE to have a good time! Seafood gumbo, shrimp po-boys, fried fish. We’re known for our great cooking, fantastic music, and our ability to enjoy life. Our spirits are lively and energetic accompanied by a heaping dose of sunny optimism. Enjoying life is our gift to the world, kind of a cultural specialty.

Indeed, whether New Orleans or the 40 miles of beach towns that dotted Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, Katrina’s devastation was decisive physically, financially, and emotionally. The huricane’s merciless destruction brutalized everything in its path. What is barely known to those living outside of here is that life’s simplest tasks remain unbelievably cumbersome.

To illustrate the point, let’s take going to the grocery store as an example.

Before the storm, my mom and the rest of the seniors living in our neighborhood could frequent four or five grocery stores within a matter of minutes from home.

Today, the only big grocery available is Wal-Mart. That’s right. Wal-Mart. Heck, a few years back, I protested with the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council in front of Wal-Mart in Gilroy, California, a town just south of San Jose where I have been living for about five years! Wal-Mart has a terrible reputation for coming into an area and putting out of business all the local mom and pop stores, providing low-wage, no benefit jobs to its employees whose incomes are so low that they turn to the government to pick up the tab on health care costs.

The AFL-CIO calls this the Wal-Mart Tax.

So I look for an alternative to handing money over to a corporation that fails to honor the well-being of the family members in its employ. The nearest alternative is in Long Beach, Miss. Great! We can go a few miles down Highway 90 where the Bay Bridge crosses over 2 miles of water and . . . oh.

The bridge is out. I don’t mean as in needing a bit of repair and is unavailable for a few hours or maybe a day or two. I mean that Katrina blew away the Bay bridge.

On May 17, 2007, some 20 months after Katrina crumbled it into the Gulf of Mexico, two of the bridge’s four lanes are scheduled to open. Click here to peek at the work in progress via camera. To say there will be dancing in the streets is an understatement.

Back to grocery shopping. The point is to get to the other side of the water because that is where the alternative to Wal-Mart is. In December 2006, several federal and state agencies began to provide ferry service across the bay to alleviate some of the transportation challenges caused by the bridge’s destruction. The ferry was just a mile or so from the bridge along Beach Boulevard.

The ferry was somewhere on the other side of the water. Lots of cars waiting to get on it. I remembered what happened the first time I came down for the sheer adventure of experiencing the ferry. An adventure was what I got.

I waited about 30 minutes for the ferry. Once it arrived, most politely and delightfully, the ferry employees directed the cars onto the ferry. As soon as we were settled, the captain announced that something was wrong with the motor, it would be one to one-and-a-half hours to repair, and we would have to get off the ferry. Those delightfully polite ferry employees directed our vehicles off the boat. Wow, an hour and a half to repair it.

The Bay St. Louis Ferry.
Ana Maria's sweet little red Miata!

As I look at the line of cars remembering the last time I tried to cross the water via the ferry, I changed my mind. I decided to go the only other route available to get to the other side of the two miles of water. It was another kind of adventure.

I drove west 3 miles, 8 miles north, 10 miles east then south 7 miles to get to a point that was simply a few miles on the other side of that 2 mile bridge that would have taken two shakes to drive over.

This adventure took a total of 30 minutes. That means that at least a total 60 minutes in travel time would be added to my shopping.

With this amount of time in pre-Katrina days, I’d have already been to the store, checked out, loaded up my car, and home unloading what I’d bought. But in post-Katrina life, we’ve not yet made it to the store. And folks, that’s just to get to a full service grocery store that isn't Wal-Mart.

Geeze, Louise! As committed as I am to economic justice, I cannot in good conscience say a word to anyone about shopping elsewhere. A number of the people that I'm visiting range in age from late 70's to mid-80's. And those that are far younger are too exhausted from trying to put their lives back together to expend another hour just to avoid handing their money to Wal-Mart.

Before Katrina hit, Winn-Dixie was only 3 blocks away from our neighborhood.

So guess who's making groceries* at Wal-Mart? Heaven help us all!
* “Making groceries” is a New Orleanian phrase meaning to go to the grocery, to go grocery shopping. ;)

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1 comment:

Rose from California said...

Your story made it real for me. I thank God that you have survived to travel through all the glue to get the groceries across the bay!