Still, and again still, we must remember that in some of those stories of lives, there is an ending of sorts, there is an ending for some, there is living pain and there is living destruction and there is a sort of ending, there is a sort of proof of an ending, for some...
Two days ago, I went to Beenie's house, at least it used to be Beenie's house...
Beenie and my mother met in their teen-age years. I do not know how they met, exactly, maybe Beenie lived near my mother when she was growing up, I dunno. And it is probably too difficult still for my mother to tell now, so I don't ask. Or, I can't ask. I dunno, it seems maybe best to wait, at least until this Katrina anniversary is gone, is passed. My mother was on her own from a young age, younger than is fair, younger than anyone could want for their children, for anyone's child. My mother's parents, they died young, they died tragic, my mother saw too much of this too young, and this is part of the tragedy. Beenie was her friend, Beenie was just enough older, not much, but enough older to help, enough to show my mother how to get along in a world that she was too young for...they became Beenie and Tootie.
Those were not, are not, their real names. Their real names, they are names of their generation, an older generation, with names that show their generation, a bit strange to us of our other generations, old-timey. Still, I do know that from the first day, they were Beenie and Tootie, They gave each other silly names, names that laugh, names that allowed them to laugh and to put tragedy behind them, to meet life with laughter, and that is what they did together. They laughed. They giggled. They put their heads together and arm in arm, they walked down the streets of New Orleans in another time, they rode the streetcar, they worked, they lived, they lived laughing. Beenie and Tootie they were to each other, not really to other people, except maybe for some little children. To some little children they might be Miz Beenie and Miz Tootie.
Beenie helped Tootie find a job, and a place to stay, Tootie was just enough too young where this would not be possible without help. They worked near each other, Downtown in New Orleans when it was still called "Downtown" before it was called the CBD, the Central Business District. So many people worked Downtown then. It was toward the end of the War, it was a time when the Port was busy, the businesses of New Orleans were busy, there were jobs to do and jobs to be had. Beenie and Tootie were not well-off, they worked jobs that did not pay very much, though by their own words they did not want for very much either. They ate lunch together everyday, in a time when the restaurants of Downtown New Orleans had cheap specials everyday for lunch. People liked them because they were always laughing, tho', `course, that laughter probably aggravated some few people.
My mother wasn't completely alone without Beenie, there were relatives, friends of the family, there were people who could help and who did help. Still, with Beenie's help, with the help of an equal, Tootie could get started on her own, could build her own life. And she did build her own life. Beenie and Tootie, they grew up, they grew older. Tootie eventually found a guy and love, married, had kids - one of who is me. Beenie, she never married, eventually she bought a little house where she lived alone, tho' she was probably rarely lonely. Beenie and Tootie never lost touch, never ever had a falling-out. Eventually, Beenie's widower brother moved in with her in her little house. Beenie's brother had been a Marine in the Pacific during the War. Beenie's brother never talked much - after he came back from the War, Beenie's brother almost never, ever spoke. He was gentle and he did many kindnesses for people, still he almost never, ever spoke.
Beenie was a truly nice person. The harshest thing she ever said about anyone was that they were "not nice". She was religious, her harshest exclamation was "Oh! My God!"...in New Orleans, that is pronounced "Oh! Mah Gawd!". Beenie, she trusted her government. Beenie, she gave to the poor, she helped those with less than she had, she treated people with kindness. She had a twinkle in her eyes, she had round cheeks, she made people - everyone she encountered - feel good about themselves. She was sharp, Beenie was, she did not miss much, and to her life was simple, life was to try to find the good side of things, recognizing the rest, still looking for the good side. She called everyone "Mister" and "Miz", or "sir" and "ma'am", or "young man" and "miss". Everyone. And she meant it. She lived seventy-something, maybe eighty years like this. That was how she was.
Beenie and Tootie grew old. Throughout their lives, throughout their sixty years of friendship, Beenie and Tootie were always to each other Beenie and Tootie, and it really is this simple...they laughed together. When they were together, they couldn't go more than a couple of minutes without giggling or laughing. I remember having dinner with my parents and Beenie, a coupla years ago...during dinner, Beenie and Tootie started giggling about a man named Mr. Corapi who used to come into one of the offices where they worked, over fifty years ago. Mr. Corapi...elderly ladies, and I mean "ladies", they giggled and giggled, whispering "Mr. Corapi" to each other. See, it didn't take much. They just had that spirit together.
Before Katrina, hurricanes were just something that happened, most years...hurricanes were a part of life in New Orleans. Sometimes the storms were bad, "Oh Mah Gawd, Tootie, the wind was so high I thawt ...".When the hurricanes rolled in, Beenie and Tootie, they would always touch base, sometimes they evacuated together, Beenie and Tootie and my father. Mostly, they stayed. They had all seen, lived through, the worst hurricanes, evacuating or not. And again this time, Beenie, she stayed in her little house. Her little house in New Orleans. She told Tootie that if her God was ready to take her, she would go from her own home. With her little dog by her side, in her arms. Tootie, my mother, she stayed at the hospital with my father, he was ill.
Katrina blew in, and the storm was strong. Still, Beenie was safe in her little home. The storm passed. Only...
The levee a couple of blocks from Beenie's house gave way. After the storm, the levee gave way. No one expected that the levees would breach. The levees were supposed to hold. Three levees gave way, three levees, three different parts of the city, three breaches to drown a city.
Beenie's levee, it gave way because it wasn't built strong enough. The water soaked the ground twenty feet under the levee, turned the base to muck. The levee just slid back on the muck, the water pushing the levee over the muck, until it buckled, and the levee melted in a boiling, crumbling mess. The water came rushing in, rushing through, rushing over, spreading over the streets, over houses, over everything. The water came rushing in, rushing over lives. Rushing over people's lives.
In the area around Beenie's house, the water came rushing over people's lives, and it was rushing fast. Beenie's house was flooded, was drowned, fast. An hour, maybe two, maybe three. Beenie's life was drowned, fast, and deep. Fast and deep. And then, then...it was drowned for a long, long time. One of hundreds, thousands of lives that were drowned fast, deep, and for a long, long time.
As the water came rushing in, Beenie had no choice, even if she wanted to leave. Beenie heard the water, Beenie saw the water, Beenie was too old to climb the pull-down attic stairs, too old to battle the water rushing over. Beenie sat down in her easy chair, and Beenie drowned with her little dog in her arms. A lady of light and laughter and kindness, she drowned in the flood of the levee breaches. Beenie's body was found in her house, with her little dog in her arms, 19 days later.
And after Beenie's body was found, the authorities took her away, to a morgue, a morgue where they held her. The authorities did not release Beenie's body for many months, many months before she could be cremated, and interred. Many months. So many months. So many people, so many months.
Beenie trusted the authorities, she trusted the levees to hold, she didn't think the levees would breach. Beenie planned to leave her house, after the storm, if the utilities were going to be down for too long, if conditions were going to be too bad for too long. She told her relatives that she would do so. And I know that this is true, in my bones, I know this is true.
I went to Beenie's house, two days ago, to pay my respects. I was in the neighborhood, I was near where she had lived. I went to her house, to pay my respects.
The front door of what used to be Beenie's house stands open. It has stood open, wide open, for the past year. It stands wide open today. On a chair, the chair that has always stood and continues to stand today beside the front door, in the foyer of what used to be Beenie's house, there are four objects. The four objects were placed there before the storm, placed on the chair by Beenie. Placed there as part of the final preparations for the storm. Those four objects remain untouched, unmoved, not disturbed by flood or hand, untouched today. Even today. Untouched. The four objects are covered by mold and ruination, still they are untouched. Beenie put those things there, by the door, so she could leave with them in a hurry. There, beside the door, these things remain.
There is Beenie's colorful shawl on the back of the chair - a shawl for comfort. There is a battery-operated transistor radio on the seat of the chair - a radio for news. There is a folding frame that held photographs - for memories.
The fourth object. It is Beenie's purse. Her purse. It has been sitting on the chair, beside the door, untouched, for a year. Her purse, ready to be gathered up, her purse, ready to leave. If Beenie was not going to leave if necessary, those objects would not have been on the chair, beside the front door.
For a year, these things have remained there, untouched, undisturbed. In a ruined house that flooded with 9 feet of water for 18 long days. These things have remained there, untouched, undisturbed beside an open door for a year. For a year.
I can feel Beenie's light in my heart now, right now. Still, in that house that used to be Beenie's, I could not feel Beenie.
In that house, I could only feel something like...something dreadful. And I could feel something like sack-cloth, and ashes. And I could feel something like the lies that brought this to be.
I could feel something dreadful, and sack-cloth, and ashes, and lies. Something dreadful, and sack-cloth, and ashes, and lies.
Beenie, may she rest in peace.
For us, may we witness. May we not be turned away.