Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Taken by the Tide

My husband's (Billy Sothern) writing appears in the New York Times Op Ed section Wednesday. This piece talks about the toll Helen's death has taken on his heart and his morale and resolve to fight for this city.

Here's the link: Taken by the Tide, Billy Sothern

Taken by the Tide

Michael Kupperman

Published: January 10, 2007

New Orleans

IN one 24-hour period last week in New Orleans, now a small city of 200,000, six people were murdered. Last year’s total of 161 murders probably made New Orleans the deadliest city in the United States by a significant margin. I suppose it was only a matter of time before the violence touched my life directly.

Last Thursday morning I received a call from my friend Kittee. “I have awful news,” she said, and then, very quickly: “Someone broke into Paul and Helen’s house. Helen was shot and killed. Paul was holding Baby Francis and was shot three times. He’s still alive. Francis is O.K.”

Paul Gailiunas — Dr. Paul, I call him — had been my physician for several years at the Little Doctors Clinic, a health center for poor people that he founded in Treme, one of America’s oldest black neighborhoods.

I had started to see Paul after my previous doctor mocked one of my colleagues about our work representing people on Louisiana’s death row. When I met Paul through a friend, I asked him directly, “Are you in favor of the death penalty?” He responded, with a smile, “Eh, I’m Canadian,” clearly feeling that was answer enough.

And it was, coming from the founder of our local chapter of Food Not Bombs and the front man for the Troublemakers (a band whose songs celebrate Emma Goldman and the idea of universal health care) in such a lighthearted tone that it would scarcely have alienated the most ardent conservative.

Helen Hill was Paul’s perfect match — a kind and generous woman who made award-winning animated films and taught art and filmmaking to children, adults, anyone who was interested. She’d spent much of the last year restoring reels of 16-millimeter film on which she had drawn by hand, and which had been damaged when their house took four feet of water during Hurricane Katrina.

She had a new film under way, inspired by discarded hand-sewn dresses, made by an elderly New Orleanian, which Helen had found in the trash after the woman’s death. The film interwove the story of the old woman and her dresses with Helen’s own flood-torn life, which took her, Paul and Francis to Columbia, S.C. — Helen’s hometown, where she will be buried today — for almost a year.

Helen had longed to return to New Orleans, despite Paul’s concern that crime and potential hurricanes made it too dangerous for their family. So Helen campaigned, sending Paul’s friends in New Orleans blank postcards, addressed to Paul, for us to write and mail to him. In mine, I pleaded with Paul — “We need you” — the way I do with anyone who is thinking about leaving, coming to, or even just visiting New Orleans. After what I am sure was a flood of similar cards, Paul relented.

I saw Paul and the baby a day after their return to the city, at a parade on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Francis had on a little railroad conductor’s hat, a T-shirt depicting a cartoon love affair between red beans and rice (the New Orleans Monday lunch classic), and a little sign pinned to his back, in Helen’s hand: “New Orleans Native. I Got Back Yesterday!”

The day of the anniversary was solemn but optimistic. Everyone still had a can-do attitude. Paul, for one, could help make the city’s people well and improve health care for the poor. Helen could make art depicting the city’s life. Others could rebuild schools, demand better levees, reconstruct their homes. It still felt as if our grassroots efforts, along with some real help from a government finally forced to make good on its obligations, could create a more just, fair and safe city. It might have been na├»ve, but it really seemed possible.

After wandering this beautiful, falling-over city the afternoon after Helen’s murder, forcing myself to remember why I love it here so much, I came back to my garden and picked flowers, those hardy few that had weathered the recent cold. I put them in a vase, wrote out the verses to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Dirge Without Music” — “I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground / So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind” — and drove to the couple’s house, which my wife and I had recently visited for Helen’s open studio. On the steps leading up to their old shotgun house I set down the poem and the vase, just feet from where Paul had been found by the police, shot, bleeding, holding his baby.

On the way home, I stopped at my neighborhood bar to try to eat something. A picture of Paul and Helen, followed by one of the baby, appeared on the television in the corner. Oh, my God. The bartender was kind. She asked me whether I knew them, and talked to me about her fears living with her new baby in a city with no functional schools, no real plan for redevelopment, and spotty or nonexistent basic services. The TV news switched to a weather report: torrential downpours were expected to dump half a foot of rain overnight.

I drove home in the twilight and arrived uneasy and restless. Remembering the coming rain, I resolved to make myself useful to my block by digging out a sewer so backed up that the street — on high ground by New Orleans standards — floods at even the hint of rain. I had done this many times before, having realized that my innumerable calls to the city were in vain.

I pried up the 100-pound cast iron cover with a shovel and then shimmied it from side to side until I had the two-by-four sewer open. It was full to the top with debris. I shoveled out the leaves, dirt, Popeye’s cups and other garbage until the small brick rectangle was as clean as it was a century ago, when New Orleans first created this drainage system.

Then I set to work on clearing the cylindrical drain — about as wide as a hubcap, at the bottom corner of the cleaned-out basin — so that the rain could find its way into the city’s sewers, away from our houses, cars and belongings. I got down with a small shovel and burrowed through the muck until it seemed to open at the other side. Reaching in, though, I could feel that beyond the drain lay more dirt and leaves, packed hard.

Indeed, it became clear to me that the whole sewer line running beneath the street was solid with waste, impenetrable to arms and shovels — that my street would flood again that night. The problem, I realized, is bigger than me.

I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Billy Sothern, a lawyer, is the author of the forthcoming “Down in New Orleans: Reflections on a Drowned City.”


Marco said...

Great piece of writing. I'll link to it.

Anonymous said...

Bill, you made me cry.


Anonymous said...

I taught Helen in Columbia, SC and I wish I could claim you as a student, as well. Your writing is a mirror sharp reflection of your world. My heart breaks again. Francie Markham

Bess Carrick said...

Joe Sanford and I are making a film on Helen Hill.

We are requesting that friends of Helen's come to the Sound Cafe tomorrow from 10 am to 1 pm, January 13th, and be interviewed for a film on Helen Hill. If you need a specific interview time, please email me and I'll put you in the production schedule.

I hope so much we see you there,
Bess Carrick

Anonymous said...

Billy, I just now read this. A friend of mine, who knew these wonderful people, sent your article to me. I had to wait to read it, because it just hurt to hear about Helen and Paul, and I don't even know them

Your writing is beautiful. Your digging out the sewers, is a gift as from God. I wish you, and everyone in New Orleans, love, honor, peace, and, for God's sake, someone to come handle the infrastructure. There are those of us who live in dry places, who have NOT forgotten you. I pray for you all, in my own small way.

And I do have faith that your beautiful city will rise, in peace.