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New Orleans, The Gulf Coast, 2010

by Catherine Schmitt

Finalist : 2011 Nonfiction Contest
  
 

Listen to Catherine Schmitt read this essay:
 

  
New Orleans, The Gulf Coast, 2010
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I. Dimension

At first, I see the lake, and then the wetlands, splotches of green amid the blue as far as I can see through the tiny oval airplane window.

After the hurricanes, after the oil—we are late.

The first random dot stereogram was invented by Dr. Bela Julesz in 1959 as an experiment to test stereopsis, the ability to see in three dimensions. By using uniform, randomly distributed dots, Dr. Julesz eliminated the depth cues that are inherent in recognizable images.

Eric lived here for six years and has not been back since January 2005. I have never been here. Accompanying him, I will finally have the visual explanations, the streams of his stories. Trying to catch up to his memory, I strain my eyes to see.

When you diverge your eyes to ‘see’ each looks at adjacent repeats of the pattern, but the brain is fooled into believing that both eyes are still looking at exactly the same thing.

A pattern repeats:

  

Frozen
dacquiri machines
are spinning rainbows;
brass bands brumf!
brumf! in the
streets.

Outside
the French Quarter,
iron filligree rusts around
a door; boarded-up windows are spraypainted
with the hieroglyphics of
search and
rescue.

Tourists
crowd the outdoor
tables at Café du Monde.
In the market, Spells Unlimited
sells voodoo dolls of moss,
clay, and cloth.

Two
feet of water
six feet here, fifteen feet there—
people climbed to the roof, and downriver,
 the bell tower of St. Patricks, where
six people rode out
 the storm.

Through
the open windows
of the St. Charles streetcar,
faded beads drip from the oaks
that line the illumined
Garden District.

Now,
the pebbles
in the sea are made
of tar, sticky and reddish brown.
Out in the Gulf, a thick
mahogany tide
is turning.

People
stumble down
Bourbon Street at three in the
morning. People dance, Lucky Dogs roll,
the horns brumf! The
band plays on.

 

~

 

The pattern is not just copied but subtly distorted on each repeat, so the two eyes see slightly different images.

Along the veins of the bird’s foot delta in Plaquemines Parish: levees, and pumps, pumps that keep it all dry, pumps that failed. Skeletons of drowned satsuma trees, where the flood left dead cows in the branches—eyes cannot tell what eyes saw. Now, vacant lots, for sale signs, and rising above it all, stacks shimmering in the heat like a giant pipe organ, one of the largest oil refineries in America.

Subtle distortion: marsh empire of fish now fourteen feet of flood now base camp for oil cleanup.

At this point, human perception takes over and the brain concludes that the differing images arise from looking at a three dimensional object, whose form it decodes in an instant. Hence the 3D illusion occurs.

Upriver, the bathtub ring around the city gets painted over, the mold scrubbed, abandoned buildings razed and replaced. Parts of the city die, new things emerge, but still laughter—music—flies before the clouds.

Is this the background or the foreground?

 

~

 

Magic Eye® images—computerized, commercialized versions of Dr. Julesz’s stereogram—were first released by N.E. Thing Enterprises in 1991. Magic Eye books I, II, and III appeared on the New York Times bestseller list for a combined 73 weeks, with more than 20 million copies sold worldwide.

This is not a parlor game, no magic trick.
The only slight of hand is the sloppiness that killed the marshes, didn’t fix the levees, rushed the concrete, didn’t seal the well, made it all disappear with bulldozers and
CORRECTS-IT.

This is no show.

I see the illusion constructed, the math behind the projection.
He sees the changes since he’s been gone, what is missed.

 

~

  

Weeds
grow in an
empty lot of a
neighborhood that
no longer
exists.

Across
the street,
a brand-new Walgreens.
Out in the marshes, pumped
dry: Family Dollar,
Subway.

The old A & P
where he sat on the
tailgate of a truck eating crawfish
with Earl King is gone. Little
po’boy shop is
gone.

Starbucks,
American Apparel,
vintage home furnishings
on unflooded Magazine Street.
New neighbors take three-hour lunches
at the Latin Carribbean Bistro
and Tapas.

Dispersed,
the oil disappears
to reappear as a cough,
a headache, a
paycheck.

 

~

 

New Orleans, the Gulf Coast. Still drying out from the flood, oil still stains the shore. A stereogram algorithm of disaster.

 

II. Confection

A confection is an assembly of many visual events, selected from various Streams of Story, then brought together and juxtaposed on the still flatland of paper…The perfectly sensible theory of design here is that recall is enhanced by allegory, bizarre associations, punning.
                                     — Edward Tufte, Visual Explanations

 

In this city, the confection is layered like smears of oil paint that never dry in the humid air, the past the past and the present swirling together: exiled, sunken, oiled, drowned.
Our friends tell us stories, point to ghosts of floodlines. Everywhere, the makers of disaster cut, paste, construct, rearrange and manage theaters of mis-information.

 

In the French Quarter we drink daiquiris, not Hemingway’s
lime-pure concoction but the confection of 151 and frozen, colored sugar, elsewhere on the Gulf Coast called the
bushwhacker. It numbs all the senses but vision. The bars,
turned inside out, spill into the streets. The land is lower than the ocean, the river is higher than the plain. Look the wrong way, and the convex can easily become concave. Look up: a barge is moving down the Mississippi.

 

Unlike maps or photographs, confections are not direct representations of pre-existing scenes; they are arrangements of compartments and imagined scenes.

 

At noon on Frenchmen Street, we find our old friend, singer, dancer, DJ Ready Teddy Swamp Daddy, who exiled with us after being rescued during the hurricane by a van of born-again Christians who took him 1,800 miles north to be baptized and then rescued again by Eric, who picked him up at the farm, arriving like an angel with a six pack in one hand and a joint in the other. We buy Teddy a beer at the Apple Barrell; he agrees to come to our hotel room the next day  to do some recording.

 

Friday night uptown at Tipitina’s. The Soul Rebels Brass Band shouts “Don’t take my home, don’t take my home,” chanting for everyone who chose to stay, who had no choice but to stay. Three hip-shaking sistas in tight bright dresses shimmy by; they know the words to all the songs. This is a culture that cannot be uprooted, transplanted, copied. It is particular to this place, this stinking, sinking, devastating place. The music is healing, the music is affirmation, the music is joy.
We dance.

 

Descriptions of confections seem to provoke the language of miracles, as familiar elements find renewed meaning in astonishing arrangements.

 

After drinks outside at Lucy’s Retired Surfers Bar in the Central Business District, we cross Tchoupitoulas Street to a four-story brick building, once the original Community Coffee roasting factory, now home to the Dude and Bootsy, an oral surgeon, who used her medical I.D. to get past the roadblocks in the flood. They have a parrot, cats, a dog, two kitchens, two bars, and a hot tub on the roof where Eric once did some tile work. On the walls hang colorful paintings on salvaged pieces of hurricane-damaged homes. The disaster has become a part of them. They walk around amazed to still be here.

 

We go  to the Garden District to visit Bill, Eric’s old friend and former employer, who set him up in run-down mansions with a gun for protection, walls to sheetrock, and floors to tile during the day. At night, all night, playing music in the clubs and bars, Eric lived this confection. This confection almost killed him.  Bill saved his life by buying him a one-way ticket home.
I thank him.

 

All the particular, real details combine to form a coherent picture of the imagined.

 

In the French Market, I buy voodoo dolls for gifts from a woman named Linda Conley. Her label is “Spells Unlimited.” They are inexpensive and unique. I try hard to match the spirit of each doll with the spirit of the recipient. The voodoo doll I will keep for myself is the Warrior. “He will cut through the forest, I must see the trees.” I’m still still squinting, giving myself a headache trying to see.

 

III. Correction

It is estimated that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill released over 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.This event is unique in its magnitude in volume and area but also in its location. The spill released the oil, and the response included the addition of dispersants, at almost a mile depth. This part of the open ocean is subject to strong and variable ocean currents that can transport oil, dispersants, and tar balls to remote locations, sensitive and valuable ecosystem areas, areas of large commercial and recreational use, and close to highly populated coastal areas. 
                                 — Gulf Coast Long-Term Recovery Plan

 

Traveling east on I-10 across Lake Ponchartrain and St. Bernard Parish into Mississippi, the confection dissolves into white space, like sugar in water, as if moving from three dimensions to two. Eric’s guitar is silent in his reddish-brown hands. No one dances. The Dude told us not to leave New Orleans. “Why do you want to go to Florida? You should stay here!” he warned.

 

Some in the affected population are already exhibiting early signs of developing substance abuse and dependence, psychiatric disorders, suicidal risk, and familial breakdown, including domestic violence and child abuse. The disaster represents a loss of social and economic support for people, causing anger and resentment toward each other and outsiders.

 

At the Florabama Roadhouse, a crew-cut female singer-songwriter bashes out Toby Keith songs. We sit outside in the pink twilight, watch the moon rise over the ocean. In the morning we wake to a BP work crew on the beach in front of the hotel in Gulf Shores. They stand in formation, in fluorescent yellow vests and yellow boots duct-taped around their ankles, watching bucketloaders and raking machines comb the sand. Children dart across the cleanup zone, carrying plastic buckets and shovels. I wade in to the sea, look down at my feet, reach for a dark pebble, feel it give between my fingers into a thick red smear. My fingers are sticky; they smell like petroleum.
In the water: tarballs everywhere.

 

The federal treasury receives roughly $4.5 billion dollars every year from offshore leases and royalties.

We meet up with my friend Chandra in Pensacola. Trash bins on the beach are labeled for “oil debris only,” and more tarballs wash up along the tideline. I swim anyway; the water is soft and warm, but there’s a shadow over everything. More shadow: from the fishing pier, a large dark area beneath the surface in the shallows. It doesn’t move.

A tar mat, waiting to come ashore?

 
 

Catherine Schmitt is the author of essays, articles, and the book A Coastal Companion: A Year in the Gulf of Maine from Cape Cod to Canada. She lives in Bangor, Maine, and online at www.CatherineSchmitt.com.
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