Politics & Policy

Burst Levees

“I’ll get it!” Molly sings out, leaping out of her chair to answer the phone. This promptitude is an amusing and largely helpful aspect of having an 11-year-old around the place; I seldom need to sprint for the receiver any more, even if I could sprint this close to having a baby, which I can’t.

#ad#”It’s a charity,” Molly says, handing over the phone and studying my face intently as I take the call. She is a child intensely attuned to adult nuances, always anxiously curious, and even a routine phone call from an NGO about when the driver will be coming around to pick up a donation gets the old furrowed brow.

“What is it?” she asks fearfully when I hang up. “Is it to do with New Orleans?”

“No, lovey, it’s our usual people. Their truck is coming around tomorrow and they want to see if we have anything to give away.”

“Darn,” Molly says, “We already gave away most of our toys to the flood refugees.”

“What?” Paris asks for the hundredth time, looking up from his book. He has just been diagnosed with a raging but apparently painless ear infection and is now on antibiotics, which is a relief, as it has been distressing having to shout at him all the time. “PLEASE PASS THE SALT!” one must roar, to which he replies mildly, “What?”

“Okay, everyone!” I say to the children, “I want each of you to find five more toys to give away, and dig out any shoes that no longer fit you, and let’s see what we can put together.”

“Do games count as toys?” Violet wants to know. I nod, and she and Phoebe clasp hands and jostle up the stairs, loudly and virtuously naming the things they intend to give away. Molly follows at a languid pace.

“Hey,” Paris asks in puzzlement. “Where’s everybody going?”

“TO FIND TOYS TO GIVE TO OTHER CHILDREN,” I bawl at him, “AND SHOES THAT NO LONGER FIT.”

“Why do we want shoes that don’t fit?”

“TO GIVE TO CHILDREN WHO NEED THEM.”

“Oh!” his face brightens, and then clouds. “Rats. I already gave my boots to the children in Afghanistan. And those sweaters.”

“That’s okay, sweetheart. I’m sure we can easily collect some other things.”

“What?”

“NEVER MIND. YOU KEEP READING. I’LL HAVE ANOTHER LOOK IN YOUR CLOSET.”

Upstairs, Violet and Phoebe have strewn the contents of their toy box across the nursery floor, and I am struck by how genuinely depleted our supplies actually are. A large bag of stuffed animals just traveled clandestinely to Guatemala (I performed triage on them while the children were at the park with my husband). A heap of dolls and books went via school yesterday to the DC Armory, where several hundred escapees from New Orleans are taking refuge, and a huge box of winter things left by mail for Kabul a week ago. Adults write checks to charities, children part with favorite toys; one has to believe it helps, but it all feels pretty piffling set against the apocalyptic destruction along the Gulf coast.

Violet snaps me out of my melancholy trance. “By the way,” she asks, “where is Osama bin Laargen?”

“Bin Laden. My goodness, how do you–? We think he’s hiding somewhere in the mountains of Pakistan.”

“Why don’t we just go and get him?”

“Well, darling, the ground is pretty rough there, with lots of caves to hide in, and he has people protecting him, so–”

“Protecting him?”

“Even bad guys have friends, you know,” I say, wondering inwardly at this conversation with a five-and-a-half-year-old too young to read the papers. “And he’s a wealthy man, so he can probably buy plenty of protection.”

Violet purses her lips and looks thoughtful. I brace myself for some penetrating infant insight into current events. “After this,” she asks, “can we get an ice cream?”

“Ice cream! Yay!” Phoebe yelps, flinging her large yellow stuffed duck into the air. The noise brings Molly into the room, eyes agleam. “We’re getting ice cream?”

“No, no, no,” I say more grouchily than I feel. “No one is getting any ice cream.”

The children fall silent. “Okaaay,” Molly says, and steps warily away, as one avoiding a vial of nitro-glycerine. The little girls cast about the wreckage of their room, and according to some unspoken arrangement begin quietly dressing up in scarves.

Piano music ripples up the stairs. The stereo has been playing non-stop Dr. John since the enormity of the Katrina disaster began to show itself beneath the roiling waters, partly, for me, in an effort to keep one of New Orleans’ other musical sons out of my head. At odd moments, always with tear-jerking effect, I hear Aaron Neville singing a song by Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht that could have been composed to mock the Usher-like fall of New Orleans.

Oh heavenly salvation

Our precious city has been spared

The storm is passed, and vanished above us

The storm has ended

And Death steps back into the water

Once more….

Death, of course, is only now poking his skeletal frame fully into the open, reeking air of Aaron Neville’s city.

It is not long afterwards that I am sitting in our bookroom with my eyes leaking like a levee. One tends to weep easily in my delicate condition at the best of times; and these are not, I think we can all agree, the best of times.

I can remember, only four years ago, how wonderfully secure it was possible to feel as an American. We seemed to be loved and feared by foreigners in roughly desirable proportions. At home, we were a bean supper kind of populace; a covered-dish-delivering people who smiled at our neighbors. We were, it is true, no longer a nation that bowled together, and it’s not like children in most towns and cities could safely play on the street after school any more, and there were sharks in the ocean and Congressional interns going missing, but still–

Sitting on the sofa, blinking and sniffling, I realize that what I have been feeling, beneath the jolly toy-gathering, cheque-writing do-goodery, and the Dr. John-playing, and the tender preparations for a new baby, is cold fear.

September 11th ripped away any shreds of childlike belief that our government–our Government–made us safe from foreign baddies. Worse, for me, is what this last week has shown: That Americans really are not different from other peoples; that we are not protected from the Hobbesian beast within; that in the worst circumstances, we would, many of us, be spoon-stealers.

Of course, as with September 11th, Hurricane Katrina has produced countless acts of goodness and generosity, but I have been scarcely able to hear them. For me they have been crowded out by the horrible stories of child rape in the Superdome, of savage murders, slit throats, shots fired at helicopters, of looters shooting rescuers out of their boats. In wartime accounts, one reads of parents hiding their daughters, but surely not here–yet if barbarism can erupt in one American city, can it erupt in others?

That night, mercifully long after my own personal levee has been repaired and dried, we are finishing supper with the usual parental pep talk about everyone eating his or her peas.

“Does this qualify me for dessert?” Violet asks, tipping her plate towards me.

“Eat those last three peas, and then yes.”

“I don’t like vegetables,” Phoebe says.

“I don’t mind,” I tell her. “That is your supper and because you are a good girl, you will eat it.”

“There are many dead bodies on the moon,” Violet suddenly says, apropos of nothing except perhaps the zeitgeist. “Because some of the people ran out of oxygen and died there.”

“Ew, Violet!” Molly protests, dropping her fork with a clang.

“What?”

“And there are a lot of dead babies in New Orleans, you know,” Violet continues, confidentially.

“Stop! Ugh, gross. We’re eating!

“Violet, please, love, what happened there is really–”

“What?”

“NOTHING. NEVER MIND, DARLING.”

“I don’t like anything in the world,” Phoebe interposes coolly, “except God. I definitely don’t like peas.”

“Well, God made you in His Image–”

“–and He made the vegetables,” puts in my husband

“That’s right, God made you, and the vegetables, and He wants you to eat them. In fact,” I pursue, “you know the large, flat teeth you have in the back? Those are for grinding things like vegetables.

“I don’t have those.”

“You do!” laughs my husband.

“No,” Phoebe replies, unperturbed, “I don’t.”

The next morning we put out several clearly labeled bags of rather good items for the charity that phoned: Lots of barely worn shoes, and a couple of men’s’ suits, and a pair of brand-new stereo speakers that, with typical fecklessness, we never got around to installing and now do not need. That afternoon, the children and I get home and see that the bags have gone. Oddly, the driver seems not to have left the usual yellow receipt. As the children pile into the house and disperse upstairs, I stop to check if we have any phone messages. There is one.

… Unfortunately, our driver didn’t make it to your neighborhood today. We’re awfully sorry for the inconvenience, but if you’ll just put your donation out again by 8 am, we will definitely be there tomorrow to pick it up. Thanks!”

Alas, it is too late. Looters have already got the goods.

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