Saturday, October 27, 2007

Vignettes of Hope

Sometimes moments of beauty, hope, inspiration only comes in flashes. Brief moments, it's here, it's experienced, and then it's gone. Swallowed up by the monotony & despair of everyday life (which is one possible story that can be told). These times are a divine source of fuel.

Here are a few.


It is night-time, dark. The block is filled with drunk people & inane conversation. I go to the levee, to escape it all.

"What hope is there? What point???" I ask myself.

I hear a voice and I follow it.

Somewhere, someone is singing. Gospel. I don't know where, but I follow it.

Along the levee, around the turns, I go. I follow the voice, and it only gets louder with each step I take, the closer I get.

Finally I come to a house. It's the only house in the vicinity, all the others have been wiped away. Inside this one house there is one light on. And that is where the voice is coming from.

The voice is beautiful, amazing, bellowing with passion, celebration, worship and praise. Shameless, unrestrained, filled!

Parked outside is a pickup truck, a pile of rubble, and a man sitting on top of it. He is smoking a cigarette. I sit down too, taking it in.

Outside it is dark, except for that one house, with that one light.


A squad car pulled up to the main community house at Common Ground. Then another pulled up behind it. They bore the markings of being "military police."

A group of Common Ground volunteers was curious & concerned. We walked over to see what was up.

A C.G. volunteer was in the midst of a heated argument with a group of four young people in military fatigues, sporting "MP" arm-bands. He was angrily calling them "stupid", "control-freak", "fascist" - they were shouting back with "crazy", "delusional", "ignorant". Eventually the irate volunteer left the fray, hands in the air cursing all the insane shit that he has to deal with.

I approach two of the soldier-cops and ask about what is going on. Apparently the volunteer was seen sitting cross-legged at the end of a bridge connecting the upper & lower 9th ward. He was openly praying in a median next to cars taxiing off the bridge. This man was once a preacher, before he gave up on all of that. The soldier-cops confronted him, and after hitting on a female soldier-cop & protesting the injustice of the situation, he left. Somehow the intensity of their interaction was so strong, that the after-glow of the whole thing drew them together again once more - in front of my home.

I was curious, and asked the two of them nearest to me: "Are you all in the army?"

The female soldier-cop replied: "We", she motioned to herself and the black guy soldier-cop standing next to her, "are with the army national guard. They", motions to the other two men in uniform, "are from the air force police." I notice that the later group is wearing jungle fatigues, while she & her comrade are wearing desert fatigues.

"How old are you? I'm curious." I ask the female soldier-cop. "22", she replies. "How old are you?" asks her uniformed companion. "29", I respond.

"Do you get hit on a lot?", I ask. "All the time," she says, "you get used to it."

The two Air Force soldier-cops were excitedly talking with a group of other volunteers, while the other army reserve soldier-cop was looking back & forth between them & us.

"Have you been to Iraq?", I ask.

"We're going in a few months," she replies, "we all have to go sometime."

"Are you scared?"

"No. I don't focus on that. If I focused on that, I would more likely do something stupid. I would more likely get hit with an IED or something if I focused on being afraid."

A short-term volunteer appears. He's a big white guy, tall, muscular, crew-cut.

"I signed up", he says. "I'm in the Marine Corps. I'll be in boot camp in a couple weeks."

There is a brief silence, everybody is stunned and impressed.

A bond is then formed, and the soldiers, would-be soldier, cops, are immersed in conversation. They talk of boot camp, contrasting Army with Air Force with Marine Corps. And they talk about uniforms, and boots.

Later on, I would see the Marine recruit and his girl-friend alone standing in the middle of the street. They were directly in front of each-other, eye-to-eye, arms folded. They each held an intense stare, lowered voices, tight posture. They were Talking.


It was a night when the block was empty. It was somebody's birthday, and people were out drinking.

I was lonely, and I wanted to be around people. I found myself in the company of two people, one enormously well-read guy waxing eloquent on abstract philosophy with no obvious relationship with anything in real life. And the other person considerably less well-read, bitterly repeating himself about how you can't understand the Lower 9th Ward unless you were fucking born & raised there.

I wanted out. So I proposed to the group that we all go outside, to go find someone, somewhere.

"C'mon, man, everyone is out at the birthday party. Nobody is here! You know that," one of them says.

"I want to go find something to drink," the other person says. He then disappears into the night.

Jesus Christ, I thought, I will never find companionship in this place. I will never find someone whom I can talk to, have a real conversation with.

"No!", I blurt out, "we'll find someone! Let's go!" I then march off down the street & after a moment of hesitation, the other guy follows. I did what I did half out of sarcasm, half seriously, half for myself, half for show. I figured that the worst that could happen is disappointment, which is nothing new.

We come upon a Common Ground house, darkened & empty. We find two people up in the balcony talking. It is a CG volunteer and a woman whom I've never met before.

We climb up the stairs and introduce ourselves.

"My name is 'Nola'... I am named after New Orleans. I was born here and my parents really loved the place... I'm moving back here because I really need a change in my life... I want to devote more energy to public service... I want to work more on my writing... I felt called to come to New Orleans."

After that, things began to change.


I open a door, and find that there is a full-blown political rally/pep-talk taking place. This is unexpected. I walk in and take a seat.

Malik is standing up addressing a group of volunteers, seated & gathered around him, holding their attention.

He said many things, among them:

"Every big movement, every big thing, begins with this..." he looks to the ground & takes a few steps forward "...the first steps."

"I see people here walking around confused, I see people walking around feeling sorry for themselves. But this is not the time for that. This is the time for action, this is the time for getting it together."

"People come up to me, 'Malik, can you help me with this? Malik, I need that...' But this here is not about that. This is not about 'I', not about 'me'. This is about 'we'. What is it that 'we' need?"

"Sometimes I worry that I haven't done enough. Sometimes I think that I haven't taught enough about collective living, how to do stuff as a collective."

"People come up to me all the time, wanting to interview me, wanting to talk with me about what is going on here. But it shouldn't be like that. It should be that they can come & talk with any one of us here about what is going on."

"What is the first thing that you see when you cross over the Claiborne bridge into the Lower 9th Ward? Common Ground. I'd like it to be so that as soon as people cross into the Lower 9th, that they see a beacon of hope here, and they are drawn to it. Inspired."


It was a wet & rainy day. The entire day seemed to be painted in a dismal bluish gray and soaked in mud puddles. This lead to a kind of captivity in a way: You have to stay inside & work with others. The entire day my spirit felt cooped-up, constrained. And my soul was fed the soup that looked like a mush of bluish gray.

Then at some point it all stopped. The sky was no longer falling and the puddles ceased to grow. It was now safe to go outside.

I ventured out and the place was empty - nobody was out to be seen. It was a barren & glistening wet landscape.

And the sun was shining.

Everything out was given a different tone and a different color. Everything out was of a twinge of yellowish gold. Warm.

And my spirit felt alive. All around me, I felt a resurgence of energy, a replenishment.

Where at once I felt a drain, now I felt a revival.

This is a moment where it felt good to be alive.


Children & barges, gang-bangers & tourists, saxophone & powdered sugar. I watch the solemn mellow light of the sun permeate the sky & fade, water of the Mississippi lap up by me with a riverboat echoing jazz. And the street lamps turn on.

I love New Orleans.