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  • What Was Found
  • Maura Fitzgerald (bio)

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Common Ground Collective volunteer housing, St. Mary of the Holy Angels School, Bywater, May 2006. All photographs by Maura Fitzgerald.

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Leaving aside what was lost, for the moment, here is what was found:

In the top drawer of the dresser in Ms. Maddie's bedroom: a cardboard box filled with baby teeth tucked into tissue-lined compartments. In two inches of caked oil covering her carpeted living room floor: a dozen tiny elephants, beaded, ceramic, Chinese porcelain, dusty terra cotta or shimmering eggplant and marigold. In her Chalmette house: space and light.

The place looks so much bigger than it ever did. She is standing by the kitchen sink washing the dishes, watching the kids play in the street outside, hearing the blare of the television in the den, the clatter of videotapes tossed aside. Her grandson comes to the threshold and there is his grandmother, alone in the hollow plywood skeleton. He runs back to the street crying.

I could tell you about what was lost. About streets flanked by piles of debris five feet high, houses in the middle of streets, orphaned concrete steps, cars overturned or in trees, block after block after block after block after block after block after block. I could tell you what was lost and we could speak to each other with great sincerity; we could care deeply. There is war in Iraq and Afghanistan, poisoned drinking water in China, genocide in Sudan, guerilla raids in Guatemala, the body of a dead teenager dumped across the river from a New York City nightclub and now Ms. Maddie's no-longer house outside New Orleans. So we could care deeply about everything, but in the end it would only be a list. We wouldn't give a shit about anything.

So leaving aside what was lost, for the moment, here is what was found. There are mornings in New Orleans when you wake up and there isn't any milk in the apartment, but ManChu, the corner store on North Claiborne and Esplanade, will be open. Inside there will be Chinese food, oyster po' boys, beer, liquor, orange drink, milk, yes, and two dozen people just standing around. It is cool inside, already hot enough outside to boil the skin off your back, and no one is buying anything. There is a crowd of kids kicking a seven-year-old sissy mufucker fallen in a clenched curl in the corner near the cereal, but no one has the energy to tell them to stop, much less leave and walk home in this kind of heat.

"There is a house a couple blocks towards the river, baby, that way, yeah. You might not see us, but we're around back. My cousin picked up the crawfish and all that this morning. You ain't never ate a turkey neck? Well, shit, ain't today your lucky day."

Stand at a newspaper-wrapped table in the backyard, watch the kids in the pool shoot their squirt guns over the fence. The man next door yells that he is "going to kill you little shits" if you don't stop splashing him. You never know, that man just might be cuckoo crazy. "I told you boys to stop, dammit, and I ain't going to tell you again." One last feeble squirt that doesn't reach the fence, but that's not [End Page 52] the point. Just remember "you ain't the boss of me; you ain't even scared me none." Don't ever try to out-crazy a twelve-year-old boy.

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Looking Glass Beauty Salon, Lower Ninth Ward, June 2006.

Big basket of crawfish dumped on the table, scooped onto saucer plates like hubcaps. Rip the heads off, suck the brains, suck the tails. Let the sweat drip down your face, the little drops of blood escape from the tiny finger cuts made by shells, the spices sting your wounds. And baby, eat, eat.

There are afternoons in New Orleans when you go downriver to Bywater, to the warehouse, down...


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