The Writing On the Wall
 The Five Fingers Review January 2007, an issue devoted to “the intersection of word and image”
At first it seems like a form of vandalism, what a madman might have done cut loose in an empty city. But quickly we realize it appears everywhere, on every door, the enormous X, out of all proportion, drawn in red paint, a blatant violation but full of purpose. After a while, it starts to seem vaguely religious in its repetition, a Hindu bindi, a smudge of ash, an image of cancellation and repentance: perhaps one more of those peculiar and unique traditions of which New Orleans has an endless supply. All we know is that someone wrote them, a message from one stranger to another, a capsule of information. Each X is slightly different. Some of them are so lopsided, they look like crosses instead. Someone has written in big red letters across the grocery store: "St. Joseph Pray For US."
Legend has it that the water from Lake Pontchartrain, when it first came into our homes, ran clear and blue with fish swimming in it, pure as a stream. Within a day, it turned brackish, gray and torpid, viscous with dead marine life and human waste. Now the flood has receded. The waters have retreated. All that has passed. There are signs of what has come and gone. The bushes are brown, the branches down. But the disaster is worse than what we can see. The devastation is all inside. The buildings survive, the structures persist, but the city lies stricken. No one lives here anymore. There are no words to describe the nothing we can't see.
We see our neighbors, our ex-neighbors, and we say this to one another. "There are no words."
Why should it matter? What evidence do we need to see? What is the obligation we all feel to describe? Will it alleviate our sorrow? Will words clean our houses or restore our power? And yet we are hungry for them anyway.
It is the beginning of October. The mayor opens the city for the first time. We gather, we re-group. It feels lifeless, torpid, oddly silent.
Our apartment is a forest of mold. The mold covered everything indiscriminately, although it also sought out particular victims, a picky spore, a lover of fabric and leather: seeking out a wallet in an otherwise clean desk drawer and spinning its fuzzy web. Black splotches cover the walls like a disease.
In all directions you can see fallen trees, brown branches, dead leaves, as if autumn had accelerated into one violent moment.
The insides of the houses are turned outside. Big piles of trash: insulation, branches, desks, toys, refrigerators, clothes, all jumbled together, a soggy indistinguishable mess. A flood as ruthless as a fire, eating up whatever lay in its path without remorse for the human meaning locked up inside the humble possessions, laid bare in their flagrant decay.
The mammoth tree next door survived, the trading tree they call it, they say Andrew Jackson used to trade with the local Indian tribes there, two hundred years ago. It survived with only a few branches lost, a minor scrape in the long history of this old fellow, the latest disaster scowling down from its mossy brow.
Our intrepid landlord canoed into our house a few days after the hurricane. He found survivors, some playing cards as they waited, others frantic with distress. One old man needed a dialysis treatment. He had cheerfully held out for four days waiting for the doctor, but as soon as our landlord managed to locate a doctor, the old man promptly died.
A lot happened while we were gone. We can only guess what sort of dramas played out on these streets.
All we have are the signs. The signs point to stories we can't really know.
Rescuers left the X. Each quadrant of the X has a specific meaning. The top quadrant specifies which troop had checked out the house, the quadrant on the left indicates the date, the quadrant on the right the number of survivors, the bottom quadrant the number of corpses. Mostly, that space is empty. Each X is mute testimony to its own particular drama: the national guardsmen breaking into the house, calling out, walking through empty flooded halls, boys from Oregon perhaps, the stench, the heat, the darkness, looking for what they're dreading to find.
The X was a message to the next bunch of rescuers, a form of communication in a city where communication had broken down.
Alongside the X on many houses are messages about animals, some poignant, some hopeful. "DOG INSIDE. FRIENDLY CAT. CAT FOUND. DOG DECEASED" and so on. A few bland words, but it is their meagerness that makes the images so vivid: the cats and dogs, so pathetically reliant on us, forced to endure for weeks alone, isolated and ignorant, utterly incapable of making themselves known from inside the flooded tombs which had once been their homes.
New Orleans relishes its eccentricities. When we first arrived in the city, everyone rushed to explain questions of local vocabulary. For example, never refer to north, south, west, east. No one will know what you mean: the four directions of the city are uptown, downtown, lakeside and riverside. They also told us that the median in a road is called the "neutral ground." A surprising number of people said this to us and with solemnity, as it were an important clue to understanding the city and feeling like a native.
A lot happened on the neutral ground in New Orleans. Every time there was an election, the neutral ground filled with signs for candidates. To judge by the ferocity with which rival campaigns planted their flimsy signs, local elections were determined by the sheer quantity of posters. Now the neutral grounds are filled with signs for disaster relief. Class-action suits, clean your carpets, restore your art. Gutting your house, mold-busters, the man who works miracles with floors. Plus signs for stores and restaurants which have opened up. It is the only way of getting the news out, a primitive bulletin board, information technology made simple.
We drive home at night, after the curfew, the emptiness strange and vast. The power is still not working here. The headlights alone illuminate the shells of lifeless houses. One car follows us. Robinson Crusoe longed for a companion, but when he found a strange footstep on the sand, he ran and hid in fear. At the last moment, just before we get to our house, the car turns away.
The flood has drawn a thick line across the houses, a watermark, five or six feet up the wall. The line is so even might have been created by a brown and brackish magic marker.
Like an artist signing her name in the corner of the canvas, the flood says, I was here, I did this.
Why should X mark the spot? What is X?
Circles suggest mystical unity, harmony, completeness. A single straight line indicates distinction, demarcation. What about X - erasure and cancellation? Two lines crossing?
The Greek and Latin letter, the Roman numeral 10, base of the decimal system, the most likely variable in algebra, anything that is secret or hypothetical or permanently unknown. Malcolm X for his lost African name, the X-files, triple XXX pornography. The mysterious, that which goes beyond definition.
X has four parts, a useful divider of our four-way world, north, south, east, west or uptown, downtown, riverside, lakeside.
A pictorial drama of overlapping. A convergence of two paths. A point of decision and then a splitting of the ways.
One thing that remains from the flood is the atmosphere of scarcity and fear. You can feel it in the one open supermarket, a few minutes out of the city limits. The shelves are full, but we jostle nervously with our shop carts. How much should we buy? Will it be enough? Will we be alone and helpless in our homes like the cats and dogs, unable to communicate?
Communication still seems like a fragile enterprise. The phones don’t work, the mail doesn’t arrive. People turn to grafitti to share their feelings.
They have left personal messages: "Mary, I aired out your apartment." And they have scribbled communal pleas on their door, prayers, curses, imprecations. "Go away, Katrina." "New Orleans will recover.""Don't panic."
Messages from an anonymous hand, designed to reassure or deplore or simply express, nothing more to say than a sigh.
My grandmother from Texas used to read out loud all the signs she saw. "Shoney's Fried Chicken," she might say as we drove down the street. "99 cent whoppers. We're here to please you. Mufflers on sale" as if each banal billboard insisted upon a performance, as if it would be rude or perhaps foolhardy not to share each urgent message we passed.
I find myself doing the same as we drive through New Orleans, reading the graffiti aloud. The silence of the city --- perhaps soon there will be a hum of construction --- now this odd emptiness and the sound of my own voice reading messages from strangers to strike out against the silence.
New Orleans is famous for its cemeteries. The original inhabitants of this strange city in a swamp buried their dead above ground so that the bodies would not rise to the surface of the murky earth. They built spectacular mausoleums to house them.
Epitaphs carry a message from the dead to the living. The dead can not speak for themselves, the graveyard is hushed. What they knew, we cannot know. But a garden is not enough, not even a monument; no feat of sculpture, no matter how imposing or decorative, suffices. The words make the stones come alive for us: they testify to the act of speaking, that someone back then was speaking to us.
The X on the doors were not written for us. They carry messages for other rescuers, urgent and functional information.
But they speak to us nonetheless, like epitaphs on the graves of strangers, like the most primitive signature possible, the scrawl of someone who cannot write their name, the fundamental mark, a desecration, a mystery, a scratch on a map that says - if nothing else -- we were here, we remain.