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Ruin and rumination.

I left Louisiana 20 years ago and have not been back since. I've always promised my partner, Christopher, that we would visit New Orleans together--he's never been there--so I could take him to the places I loved. Like proper tourists, I envisioned us standing through a too-hot, too-crowded performance at Preservation Hall; having late-night beignets and chicory coffee at Cafe du Monde, followed by a walk along the French Quarter levee; getting up for a breakfast of melt-in-your-mouth fresh croissants and homemade hot chocolate at La Marquise bakery, half a block from Jackson Square.

I feel guilty that baked goods are so prominent in my mind when I try to comprehend the staggering destruction and suffering the people of New Orleans have endured in the past weeks. There's Anderson Cooper on CNN, slogging through the poisonous floodwaters and yelling at the governor about dead bodies, and here I am in Los Angeles, haunted by the spectral scent of melted butter and by memories of the distinctive clatter of the St. Charles Street trolley through the Garden District. But as former resident Christopher Rice points out in his moving essay [page 47], we each grasp massive loss by focusing on the one thing that's particular to us. For all the wreckage and tears I witnessed on the news day after day, I didn't shed honest-to-God tears for New Orleans until I read my friend Chris's worries about the fate of his late father's grave.

The devastation of a hurricane--or a tsunami, or an earthquake, or a wildfire--is just statistics until something punctures your emotional defenses. Masses of struggling humanity may leave you awestruck but unmoved, while the image of one man clutching the beloved dog he can't bear to leave behind will reduce you to sobs. Helicopter shots of inundated streets may look like so much alien landscape until you listen to one amazing woman named Charmaine Neville describe how she barely survived for days and eventually stole a bus to get her loved ones out of town, crying as she drove by people for whom there simply was no more room. (Search for Charmaine's name at to see her video interview.)

Once someone has made it real for you--as we hope some of the stories in this issue will--what do you do? You donate money, time, clothing [see page 16]. You write your elected representatives and demand that FEMA get its act together. You think of anyone you've ever met who could have been affected, and you reach out to them, see if they're OK, see if they need anything.

For me, that person was young Matthew Cardinale, a Point Foundation scholar and journalist who has written for and whom I knew was in New Orleans working at a shelter for homeless youth [see page 43]. He rode out the storm, and for nearly a week after the flooding his fate was unknown. Then, finally, Matthew phoned from temporary quarters in Florida to say he was OK. He just hoped his cats would still be around when he got back to New Orleans. Again, irrationally, I welled up with tears.

First the croissants, now the cats. Am I so shallow? Maybe so. But if I feel bad about that and pick up the telephone and my credit card to make myself feel better, maybe my guilt can do some good.
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Author:Steele, Bruce C.
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Oct 11, 2005
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Next Article:Workplace protections.

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