I got back early this AM and I cannot write about the convention
without first writing about New Orleans, a city I’d know before as a
tourist and convention-attendee. A place I know now as so sad, so
harrowing, so disturbing, and so full of the most remarkable and
courageous people I’ve ever met.
People like Pat Austin of the University of New Orleans who spent
three days after Katrina in a Baton Rouge motel parking lot in a tiny
Toyota with her sister and eleven cats. Pat who lost her house to a
levee breach, but who is totally and utterly and passionately
committed to her home — New Orleans. Pat, who wanting me to bear
witness, spend most of yesterday touring me in that same Toyota
through her beloved city. 9/11 made a New Yorker out of me just as
Katrina has made Pat more devoted to her hometown than ever.
Pat had shown me photos when I saw her at NCTE in November and again
when she stayed with me in March, but I have to say they and news
coverage had not prepare me for the magnitude of what I saw yesterday.
I think it is not possible to appreciate it unless one is in it. The
unsettled feeling I had around the convention center and the Quarter
(with so many places still closed and boarded up) was nothing compared
to the feeling I had yesterday on my tour with Pat.
She began by pointing out to me the miles and miles of destroyed cars
under the highway we drove along. They were being brought there from
all over, a dreadful Katrina automobile graveyard. I’d probably seen
them on my way in from the airport, but hadn’t known what I was
She next took me through the Lower Ninth Ward and the adjoining
neighborhoods. Pat had taught there years ago and had been there many
times since Katrina and so was able to point out specific landmarks
to me. We drove around there for hours. The only analogy I could come
up with was being at Nazi concentration camps — that is, how the
vastness of the devastation really hits home when you are physically
seeing it rather than experiencing it in photos or film or in words.*
And seeing, so many months later, lace curtains in a window of a
collapsed home, a tricycle atop of pile of destroyed home stuff, the
official markings (which Pat translate for me) indicating the death of
people and pets, the ironic communications (”Baghdad”) and the
heartrending pleading ones (”donations needed for rebuilding”), the
signs (for lawyers doing claims, for people needing evidence, for
businesses specializing in demolition and rebuilding), the workers
(say a group having a lunch break in a playground), empty businesses
with signs as if they were open (strips of fast food places and other
familiar businesses) — all destroyed.
Worst of all was the horrible eeriness of emptiness. The sense of the
thousands who lived there, the ghosts of a vibrant and busy community,
of people who had worked to buy these homes, now uninhabitable. Mile
after mile after mile after desolate mile.
We then went to Pat’s neighborhood, to her house. She’d shown me the
photos back in November, but again there is no comparison to the
experience of being there. Of standing in her living room and seeing
the remains of her library stuck on the floor. Seeing the beautiful
chandelier which feels like the only thing the water missed as it
stopped a foot or so short of the ceiling. The sodden scratching
post. The waterlogged copy of Pat’s own children’s book (THE CAT WHO
LOVED MOZART) placed by her in the newspaper holder in front to remind
those who came of those who lived there.**
After that inexpressibly sad experience Pat took me to her new home.
What a joy to see that she has a lovely new place that she is making
beautiful with new and old. (For example, she showed me a photo of a
plush toy Babar in the midst of her old home’s destruction and then
showed me a washed Babar on the new bookshelf next to his book.)
But I’m not done for then she took me to the wealthy areas near the
lake that were as destroyed as those in the poorer communities we’d
already been to. She took me by the infamous levee break, by the
university run out of trailers, by homes being raised on pilings as
now required by the local government, by churches being restored, by
well tended gardens in front of gutted houses, by a remarkable
Vietnamese temple all bright and restored among desolation, by FEMA
trailers and storage units in front of elegantly expensive homes, and
by more and more and more. She explained, she pointed things out, she
kept apologizing for overwhelming me. Yes, I was overwhelmed, but it
was important that I saw. I still feel that I don’t have the right
words to express all of what I saw.
As for the convention itself, it was sad too. As much as everyone
wanted it to be normal, it wasn’t. The exhibitions were quiet, much
more than other times. Maybe it was just me, but there was a subdued
quality to many of the events and receptions. Remembering New Orleans
before, it was hard for me not to notice the difference and so walking
from place to place, to event or reception, it was difficult to forget
what had happened there only months before.
Yes, there were happy moments, of course. Watching Shannon Hale in a
red dress dance in bare feet up to the dais to receive her Newbery
Honor was joyous as was Chris Raschka’s homage to Karen Breen as was
Lynne Rae Perkins beaming face. Oh, and Chris’s duet with Norton
Juster was great fun too. I (usually a curmudgeon about this sort of
thing) proudly wore my “I LIKE MIMI” button (done in the style of the
old “I LIKE IKE” button) to honor Mimi Kayden who received a life-time
achievement award. Bill Joyce had to rescind his invitation to enjoy
absinthe (evidently the W Hotel wasn’t willing to host something still
illegal), but the mint juleps weren’t bad.
But what I’m coming home with and still processing clearly is not the
ALA convention, but New Orleans. I sure hope they can come back; I
really really really really do.
* When I told this to my father he said it sounded even more liked the bombed-out cities he saw at the end of World War II, cities like his home of Frankfurt.
** The house was eventually razed (Pat showed me photos of that too) and, last I knew, Pat was gardening the land.