. . . If A Picture Paints A Thousand Words . . .

06 Nov

That’s from the Bread song “If” and it speaks to a girl and how words could never do her justice in describing her with mere words. It’s a romantic little song and unfortunately what brought it to mind today was anything but beautiful. Nevertheless, the words and their soulful lyricism of the song ring true but in a different way.

If I were to “paint” one picture today, it would have to be inspired by Poe or King and their dark vision of what evil things they would have us to believe lurk around us. And the only things I have circulating through my mind this night are memories of the 1970’s TV show “Night Gallery”, a “Twilight Zone”-like series which focused on the horror genre with weekly episodes to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Before each show, the host droned his brief intro and to close, the camera focused on a painting representing the name of that week’s scary show. They were always dark and gruesome images inspired to make you look behind you because you “heard” a door opening (only one didn’t) or it might cause you to hear a loathsome whisper from the next room (although no one was home but you). They set the mood for the story you were about to hear.

In my case, the picture before each story I would tell would be the same in most respects and the phrase “the words would never show the you I’ve come to know” eerily wafts in the background without a beautiful woman in sight. Moment by moment and step by step my eyes have only seen the same story over and over on this day. Some of you older ones will remember the nagging phonograph anomaly of a skipping record, hearing the same few seconds of a passage over and over until you bumped the record. You younger ones will just have to ask one of us elders to explain it. But no matter what I did today, the passage repeated itself over and over, not necessarily the same words but not very different at the same time. And a million words couldn’t do justice. You just had to be there because this attempt will fall far short of perceivable reality.

Words, like photographs, can only convey a momentary representation of visualized horror. In this limited two-dimensional communication between the eyes and the brain, we often forget that we must willingly force ourselves to add the “Z” plane to “X-Y” axis to form a realistic image closer to the truth. It’s a two-dimensional limitation of communication we must overcome. However, due to the safeguards of our grand design, the “Z” plane is either willingly or logically “padded” by our subconscious to ease the blow to our senses. So, by design, I believe our perceptions of what we see or experience is not always the complete truth in all of its depth or contour. We are so used to watching TV or a movie and allowing ourselves to fill in the missing “Z” plane with our own estimation of its depth or proximity, a level we know inwardly we can tolerate when we see horrifying things because we inwardly temper the intensity of our reactions to our ability to cope with that fear. And some people do it better than others. But what I have seen over and over today has been seen by millions and my purpose here is to amplify that what you saw is not what you saw. It is much more.

I had the distinct displeasure of touring St. Bernard Parish today—November 5, 2005—while journeying to my sister’s former home in hopes of recovering what little property she had left from Hurricane Katrina. For a frame of reference, Orleans (New Orleans) Parish is sandwiched between Jefferson (West) and St. Bernard (East), both Parishes being less than half the area of the Big Easy. St. Bernard was closer to the hurricane epicenter which made landfall in Mississippi about 60 miles away to the east. And St. Bernard is primarily flat marshland and extends southeast to the Gulf of Mexico on the east side of the Mississippi River. And for discussion purposes, St. Bernard bore the biggest brunt of damage for the Tri-Parish area of eastern Louisiana. And what I saw today cannot be captured in words or film.

It was like . . . like . . . a “Night Gallery” painting only the horror could never be put on canvas or this page. Since St. Bernard is nothing more than a narrow strip only a couple of miles wide (for the most part), I managed to tour a greater part of the upper parish going as far as Paris Road. I did not see one building, home or business that was not damaged in a major sense of the word. Buildings with no roof, strip centers with all windows blown out and contents strewn across the parking lot (or piled out front after cleanup), homes lifted from their foundations, water lines extending 6-7 feet on each building, vehicles stained with a white funk from top to bottom, shopping mall parking lots jammed with trailers of every shape and size and the occasional person carrying arms full of sheet rock or lattice to the six-foot by thirty foot pile of refuse in front of the shell of their home.

Chalmette/Arabi area

It was no better at my sister’s “home.” She lived in a double owned by my aunt near the Arabi Café right at the bend in the road. I used to love to the Cafe go there because they served breakfast 24 hours a day and my favorite was the pork chop and eggs plate with hash browns and grits. It was the best. But not now. Just across the highway is my sister’s street. Turning the corner I could see the three blocks of houses before hers each with its own distinct pile in front mostly consisting of a refrigerator, a washer, a dryer, a sofa, a bed, a pile of crumbled sheet rock and miscellaneous former belongings of anyone who lived in the respective home.

Community St. in Arabi.

Let’s do the math. Let’s say 10 homes on one side of the block times 2 for the other side of the street is 20. Take that times the three blocks to my sister’s house is 60. She lives mid block so that’s another 10 bringing us to 70 and another two blocks to the end of the street gives us about 120 homes. And everyone with the same problem, identical. None were spared in the least. Now I don’t know exactly how many streets there are in St. Bernard and exactly how many homes are on each block or street, but my sister is about two miles into St. Bernard and it extends another sixty miles down river. It does thin out in homes and population as you go further down but the fact is almost 60,000 peoples’ homes have been taken in one 24 hour period. And every home and business is its own “Night Gallery” painting in St. Bernard: one painting for a mass of lives.

My sister’s moldy living room water-damaged in Arabi

I entered my sister’s home which is raised about four feet off the ground. Furniture and shelving had crumbled and mold had been festering on the walls since August 30th or so. She had asked me to retrieve our mother’s rosary from the hope chest which lay in one corner of the room delaminated from the weeks of moisture. I had to pry it open with a crowbar because the wood had swollen as did all the drawers of any furniture throughout the house. The contents were soaked in aged moisture which had permeated from any crack or cells of the wood. The rosary was tarnished and the rest of the contents—pictures, mementos, trinkets, clothing and other things were hopelessly deteriorated, stained or now irreconcilable. I dared not open the refrigerator which fell backside down because no one in this region after two months of absence should really think it’s worth the effort. In the bedrooms, clothes hanging in the closets were putrid with mold from the water which had wicked up the three feet of internal water into the uppermost parts of the garments. Dressers and nightstands had both crumbled and swollen so drawers had to be busted out to examine the contents. The mattresses had also wicked the floodwaters and I’m sure the box springs were deteriorating from the infiltration also. The tongue-in-groove flooring had also buckled in many places making it hard and dangerous to navigate. Whatever was not on the top shelf of a closet or dresser was a lost cause.

That was just the one house that was closest to my life on this day. And if you’ve completed the math from earlier on you may be able to “touch” the scope and the magnitude of the words I have just described. That’s if you allow yourself the full effect of that “Z” factor I described earlier. But the “damper” effect may not let you.

Formerly Plantation Coffee House, Canal Blvd (previously Liberty Star Grocery)

Later, on the way home I decided to pass through my old neighborhood to assess the damage. For reference, I grew up in New Orleans in the Lakeview section of town which begins about midtown at the end of Canal Street which turns into Canal Blvd. at the Cemeteries. The Boulevard then continues north ending at Lake Pontchartrain. About a mile down Canal Blvd. just at the railroad underpass is the neighborhood I grew up in on the river side by Plantation Coffee House–formerly Liberty Star Grocery in my younger years–and crossing the railroad tracks to the Lake side, I spent my teen years and later my “father-care” years during his prolonged illness. So basically I lived my earlier life within three blocks of the two houses. And today no one lives in either neighborhood or for miles around, for that matter.

Ada Place, one block off Canal Blvd.

Lakeview is bounded by the Lake some 2-3 miles north, by the Marconi Canal to the east and by the 17th Street Canal to the west. And on the early morning hours of August 30, 2005, the levee wall breached forcing the waters of Lake Pontchartrain to equalize its own level in the homes and business of Lakeview and Lake Vista (redundant but actual) across to the Marconi Canal. The other “channel” directed the torrents down the Expressway lanes and sub terrain to Canal Street and into downtown New Orleans. It is also common knowledge that Lakeview is the tax base for the city of New Orleans accounting for about 65% income producing individuals’ homes. That’s not to be discriminatory, but it’s a fact.

I saw very little different in Lakeview than I did in St. Bernard earlier this day with the exception that many more of the structures along Canal Blvd. were standing but the guts were strewn about nonetheless. And oh so very few people could be seen working this day, some two months after the deluge. I would describe the scene but I’ve already done it once for you. And you already know how to do the math. Maybe I’m a little prejudiced since this area has been a part of my intimate life, but my eyes do not deceive me because my “Z” plane couldn’t be damped. I was there, formerly and presently. I was scared. Even worse than staring intently at a “Night Gallery” painting or reading through a Poe short story. And now it’s almost as if I wish that “Z” plane which makes the depth and coherence of reality so pleasurable when we allow ourselves to be entertained by the fear of the movie or the imagination of the written word, was just a theory. Only this time I didn’t look for entertainment–just information–on what happened just a few short weeks ago to the place of my birth and the realm of youth.

My “teen” home–waterline just below windows

I remember reading Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Sphinx” in my younger years. It’s an excellent study on the relativity of perception and how it affects our emotions and decisions. You really should read it.

DURING the dread reign of the Cholera in New York, I had accepted the invitation of a relative to spend a fortnight with him in the retirement of his cottage one on the banks of the Hudson. We had here around us all the ordinary means of summer amusement; and what with rambling in the woods, sketching, boating, fishing, bathing, music, and books, we should have passed the time pleasantly enough, but for the fearful intelligence which reached us every morning from the populous city. Not a day elapsed which did not bring us news of the decease of some acquaintance. Then as the fatality increased, we learned to expect daily the loss of some friend. At length we trembled at the approach of every messenger. The very air from the South seemed to us redolent with death. That palsying thought, indeed, took entire possession of my soul. I could neither speak, think, nor dream of any thing else. My host was of a less excitable temperament, and, although greatly depressed in spirits, exerted himself to sustain my own. His richly philosophical intellect was not at any time affected by unrealities. To the substances of terror he was sufficiently alive, but of its shadows he had no apprehension.

His endeavors to arouse me from the condition of abnormal gloom into which I had fallen, were frustrated, in great measure, by certain volumes which I had found in his library. These were of a character to force into germination whatever seeds of hereditary superstition lay latent in my bosom. I had been reading these books without his knowledge, and thus he was often at a loss to account for the forcible impressions which had been made upon my fancy.

A favorite topic with me was the popular belief in omens- a belief which, at this one epoch of my life, I was almost seriously disposed to defend. On this subject we had long and animated discussions- he maintaining the utter groundlessness of faith in such matters,- I contending that a popular sentiment arising with absolute spontaneity- that is to say, without apparent traces of suggestion- had in itself the unmistakable elements of truth, and was entitled to as much respect as that intuition which is the idiosyncrasy of the individual man of genius.

The fact is, that soon after my arrival at the cottage there had occurred to myself an incident so entirely inexplicable, and which had in it so much of the portentous character, that I might well have been excused for regarding it as an omen. It appalled, and at the same time so confounded and bewildered me, that many days elapsed before I could make up my mind to communicate the circumstances to my friend.

Near the close of exceedingly warm day, I was sitting, book in hand, at an open window, commanding, through a long vista of the river banks, a view of a distant hill, the face of which nearest my position had been denuded by what is termed a land-slide, of the principal portion of its trees. My thoughts had been long wandering from the volume before me to the gloom and desolation of the neighboring city. Uplifting my eyes from the page, they fell upon the naked face of the bill, and upon an object- upon some living monster of hideous conformation, which very rapidly made its way from the summit to the bottom, disappearing finally in the dense forest below. As this creature first came in sight, I doubted my own sanity- or at least the evidence of my own eyes; and many minutes passed before I succeeded in convincing myself that I was neither mad nor in a dream. Yet when I described the monster (which I distinctly saw, and calmly surveyed through the whole period of its progress), my readers, I fear, will feel more difficulty in being convinced of these points than even I did myself.

Estimating the size of the creature by comparison with the diameter of the large trees near which it passed- the few giants of the forest which had escaped the fury of the land-slide- I concluded it to be far larger than any ship of the line in existence. I say ship of the line, because the shape of the monster suggested the idea- the hull of one of our seventy-four might convey a very tolerable conception of the general outline. The mouth of the animal was situated at the extremity of a proboscis some sixty or seventy feet in length, and about as thick as the body of an ordinary elephant. Near the root of this trunk was an immense quantity of black shaggy hair- more than could have been supplied by the coats of a score of buffaloes; and projecting from this hair downwardly and laterally, sprang two gleaming tusks not unlike those of the wild boar, but of infinitely greater dimensions. Extending forward, parallel with the proboscis, and on each side of it, was a gigantic staff, thirty or forty feet in length, formed seemingly of pure crystal and in shape a perfect prism,- it reflected in the most gorgeous manner the rays of the declining sun. The trunk was fashioned like a wedge with the apex to the earth. From it there were outspread two pairs of wings- each wing nearly one hundred yards in length- one pair being placed above the other, and all thickly covered with metal scales; each scale apparently some ten or twelve feet in diameter. I observed that the upper and lower tiers of wings were connected by a strong chain. But the chief peculiarity of this horrible thing was the representation of a Death’s Head, which covered nearly the whole surface of its breast, and which was as accurately traced in glaring white, upon the dark ground of the body, as if it had been there carefully designed by an artist. While I regarded the terrific animal, and more especially the appearance on its breast, with a feeling or horror and awe- with a sentiment of forthcoming evil, which I found it impossible to quell by any effort of the reason, I perceived the huge jaws at the extremity of the proboscis suddenly expand themselves, and from them there proceeded a sound so loud and so expressive of wo, that it struck upon my nerves like a knell and as the monster disappeared at the foot of the hill, I fell at once, fainting, to the floor.

Upon recovering, my first impulse, of course, was to inform my friend of what I had seen and heard- and I can scarcely explain what feeling of repugnance it was which, in the end, operated to prevent me.

At length, one evening, some three or four days after the occurrence, we were sitting together in the room in which I had seen the apparition- I occupying the same seat at the same window, and he lounging on a sofa near at hand. The association of the place and time impelled me to give him an account of the phenomenon. He heard me to the end- at first laughed heartily- and then lapsed into an excessively grave demeanor, as if my insanity was a thing beyond suspicion. At this instant I again had a distinct view of the monster- to which, with a shout of absolute terror, I now directed his attention. He looked eagerly- but maintained that he saw nothing- although I designated minutely the course of the creature, as it made its way down the naked face of the hill.

I was now immeasurably alarmed, for I considered the vision either as an omen of my death, or, worse, as the fore-runner of an attack of mania. I threw myself passionately back in my chair, and for some moments buried my face in my hands. When I uncovered my eyes, the apparition was no longer apparent.

My host, however, had in some degree resumed the calmness of his demeanor, and questioned me very rigorously in respect to the conformation of the visionary creature. When I had fully satisfied him on this head, he sighed deeply, as if relieved of some intolerable burden, and went on to talk, with what I thought a cruel calmness, of various points of speculative philosophy, which had heretofore formed subject of discussion between us. I remember his insisting very especially (among other things) upon the idea that the principle source of error in all human investigations lay in the liability of the understanding to under-rate or to over-value the importance of an object, through mere mis-admeasurement of its propinquity. “To estimate properly, for example,” he said, “the influence to be exercised on mankind at large by the thorough diffusion of Democracy, the distance of the epoch at which such diffusion may possibly be accomplished should not fail to form an item in the estimate. Yet can you tell me one writer on the subject of government who has ever thought this particular branch of the subject worthy of discussion at all?”

He here paused for a moment, stepped to a book-case, and brought forth one of the ordinary synopses of Natural History. Requesting me then to exchange seats with him, that he might the better distinguish the fine print of the volume, he took my armchair at the window, and, opening the book, resumed his discourse very much in the same tone as before.

“But for your exceeding minuteness,” he said, “in describing the monster, I might never have had it in my power to demonstrate to you what it was. In the first place, let me read to you a schoolboy account of the genus Sphinx, of the family Crepuscularia of the order Lepidoptera, of the class of Insecta- or insects. The account runs thus: “‘Four membranous wings covered with little colored scales of metallic appearance; mouth forming a rolled proboscis, produced by an elongation of the jaws, upon the sides of which are found the rudiments of mandibles and downy palpi; the inferior wings retained to the superior by a stiff hair; antennae in the form of an elongated club, prismatic; abdomen pointed, The Death’s- headed Sphinx has occasioned much terror among the vulgar, at times, by the melancholy kind of cry which it utters, and the insignia of death which it wears upon its corslet.'”

He here closed the book and leaned forward in the chair, placing himself accurately in the position which I had occupied at the moment of beholding “the monster.”

“Ah, here it is,” he presently exclaimed- “it is reascending the face of the hill, and a very remarkable looking creature I admit it to be. Still, it is by no means so large or so distant as you imagined it,- for the fact is that, as it wriggles its way up this thread, which some spider has wrought along the window-sash, I find it to be about the sixteenth of an inch in its extreme length, and also about the sixteenth of an inch distant from the pupil of my eye.”
  – – THE END

It depends on your “focus” as to what you perceive.

Canal Blvd. Note water-line one-third up windows

I know what I saw today and it wasn’t a moth. It was closer to representing the dashed lives of hundreds of thousands of people in this region. You—on the outside with the benefit of objectivity—may only see the moth. But that may only be because your “Z” plane perception is protecting you from the depth of despair because the “moth” is not on your window pane. And talk about faulty logic! That same beast is currently walking across window panes that seldom exist anymore in the houses I speak about today. I guess . . . you just had to be there.

“. . . then you and I could simply fly way . . .”

But fantasy and romanticism are only fabrications in the “Z” plane . . .

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Posted by on November 6, 2005 in Katrina


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