Remembering New Orleans
I've spent less than 48 hours in New Orleans, and about half of that was in jail. The county lock up of the OPP -- that stands for Orleans Parish prison.
It was one of those bewildering nights that I've told stories about ever since. One moment I was headed back to my hotel, trying to get into a parking space on a crowded street in the Faubourg Marigny, off Esplanade Avenue, and the next moment a cop who seemed high on something was yelling at me for backing up traffic. Then he slammed my boyfriend's head against a brick wall. When I asked him why he'd just done that, he told me "now we're gonna have to arrest you too honey... and you gonna be the only white folks in that jail tonight."
He was more or less right. Most of the people there were black and poor. Most of my time I spent trying to find a place to sit in the crowded , pee-covered cinderblock cell, trying to make collect calls to my mom, trying figure out how she could wire $900 in cash at 4 a.m. on a Sunday morning for bail. People were yelling at the guards, and we all had that anxious desperate feeling. I was scared. One woman kept talking about the girl she'd stabbed earlier that night in a jealous fight over a guy.
But most of the women took care of me. One lady looked at me in my red flats and my nice coat and flowers in my hair, and said "honey you've never been to jail before have you?" She was right too. And she kept a kind eye on me. That night the jailers lost my bail, fed me a limp tuna fish sandwich, yelled at me a lot to go from one place to another, and they would get mean if I looked them in the eye.
One lady who'd snuck in a joint in her sock offered me a smoke in the cell; I refused. All of us in the women's cell curled up and leaned against each other to get some sleep. We shared scarves and coats because it was cold. Some were in there for public drunkenness, or disturbing the peace, or missing a court date, or too many unpaid parking tickets. Mostly misdemeanors. I don't know what all of them were in there for.
I felt hung over and nauseous from the stink of the jail. I realized my boyfriend and I couldn't have been the only ones in there on fake charges. One guy who had been asked what he was in there for said he had been walking down the street and the next thing he knew he was face down on the pavement, getting handcuffed. When he asked the police what had happened they said, "boy, you poor and black in New Orleans on a Saturday night."
It took me about 15 hours to get out of jail. When my bail finally came through, I didn't have time to say goodbye to any of the people I'd met in there. They were being lined up and handed orange jumpsuits when I left. They didn't have money for bail.
The next day at my court arraignment, the prosecuting attorney dropped the charges. I had to pay $200 and sign a paper that promised I would never sue the city of New Orleans. I'd gotten a good night's sleep and a shower. I saw a lot of the women I'd met the night before still in handcuffs, chained together in orange jumpsuits on the other side of the court room. Nobody had come to bail them out.
I haven't been able to get them out of my mind as I watch the pictures of so many people trapped in New Orleans this week, without even bread and water. Some of those ladies are probably there.
I fell in love with New Orleans in those 48 hours. Somehow between the hours in the pokie, I also got a chance to eat alligator meat, two or three beignes and some pralines. I wandered through the cold fall streets of the Garden District, through an old graveyard. I heard a guy playing trumpet on the levee, and I bumped into strangers who winked at me and handed me beads even though it wasn't Mardi Gras.
My boyfriend and I have been wondering what would have happened to us if we'd been in that jail this week. I heard that the inmates in county lock up got evacuated to a freeway, where they've been sitting in ankle deep water, handcuffed together in a chain.
-- Krissy Clark, Weekend America Assistant Editor
Posted by Krissy Clark on September 2, 2005
Krissy, I really commend you on not impugning the integrity of the entire city based on your jail experience. (I also have to say that you're probably a lot tougher than me, and I think someone ought to buy you a drink for that.) Still, I've heard a lot of people draw flimsy, far-fetched parallels between this storm and the Wrath of God, and there's a lot of judgement here in the gospel-sodden south about how New Orleans had a good smite coming to them. I disagree. I think it's foolish to retroactively look for causes to distasters, and I also think it's a woeful oversimplification to say that NOLA is full of sin and sin gets what's coming.
I miss New Orleans, and I can assume that, in the coming months and years, I will miss it more as I discover things that are gone for good. Like you, I'll continue to tell the stories (good and bad) and hope that everyone remembers why we loved it so much, sin and all.
Posted by: Angela Warner on September 4, 2005 3:29 PM