The Not-So-Black Death November 2, 2012Posted by Mark Folse in Federal Flood, Fortin Street, Murder, New Orleans, NOLA, The Narrative, The Typist, Toulouse Street.
I open the folder that spent the last seven years in the Toulouse Street shed, and you can smell the light dusting of black mold. I go through it page by page, toss a few on the scanner, and tuck the most precious into gallon zip lock bags but my sinuses are on fire. I imagine the almost microscopic spores settling into the carpet and couch. I should have done this in the kitchen but it’s too late now. I will have to vacuum the front within an inch of its life. I never gutted a house like Ray, never faced the decision of my friend Eric to lose the respirator because working in a Type III in August in New Orleans is a choice between strangulation quick or slow. I remember the workers back in ’06 in the convenience store, grabbing a large, milky coffee and a Mexican sweet roll to start the day, bandannas bandito-style around their necks, the only protection they would have against the gypsum dust and mold.
You gotta die of something I think as I step out onto my stoop for a cigarette. The air is laced with hydrocarbons from the upriver refineries and my coffee is brewed with water from the sewer of mid-America. The other night I saw a man I haven’t run into in a while whose daughter suffered from dangerous levels of lead when first tested, an educated man and wife living in a carefully renovated house, not your idea of a tenement with peeling yellow paint, children stuffing flakes in their curious mouths but in parts of this city the dirt is thick with lead and arsenic. Their daughter is fine now but how many other children are playing in a packed-dirt rental backyard right now?
You gotta die of something, and that fried oyster po-boy might kill you in ways your clucking doctor might not imagine as she renews your cholesterol medicine. R.I.P., Mr. Folse, the shrimp boat captain said on Facebook when I told her I would continue eating wild caught Louisiana seafood. The planes had been out that day, she said, spraying Corexit on the latest sheen from British Petroleum’s Deep Water Horizon wellhead. For now those initials stand for Reel In Po-Boys, and who can blame her for still fishing when I-10 is lined with smiling chefs telling us to Eat Louisiana Seafood? What happens to Corexit when you dump it into a deep fryer? Who knows? Nothing to see here. Move on. What do you say to people who came home to complete ruin that would deter them living here? What would keep the people suffering today in New York away from a steady diet of diesel exhaust, Jersey VOCs and stress? What would take the farmers off the land, the ones who wrestle 50-gallon drums of poison without which they couldn’t make the bank note? What could keep that shrimp boat captain off the water? Short of Chernobyl and soldiers loading people onto trucks, nothing.
You gotta die of something, and if I put down the cigarettes what other diabolical entertainment might my grandfather’s ghost reach up from his alcoholic’s grave to suggest? If I were forced to stop eating seafood you can put me on suicide watch right away. The water is as clean as the Sewerage & Water Board can manage, and wins taste tests, but I know from a local brewer that Dixie used its own purified well water because the city’s Ph was skewed because there are still antique lead pipes in the system. They just don’t know where. I once found a slug beneath my patio chair one New Year’s Day, the hole where it went through the webbing. So it goes. You pick your place and take your chances. You are more likely to be killed or seriously injured by a car while walking in New York City than you are to be shot in New Orleans. After the flooding from the second hurricane in two years to strike New York you start to ask the question you answered a thousand times yourself: why do people live there.?
I am not worried about how I die so much as where, and that is the one decision about death most of us get to make. I was born here in New Orleans in a hospital on Perdido Street. I will die here and invite anyone who wishes to dispute that point to join me. I want to die where my diet is a cheap and easy contributing factor, where a wake is an occasion to shame the Irish, where a band is more essential than a minister. No bouquets for me. Just bury me when the sweet autumn clematis are in bloom, on a cool October day with someone cooking with the windows open, and the sound of the band carrying to the next ward on the apple-crisp air. Just put a pack of smokes and my Zippo in the box to get me through the day.