New Orleans—the ideal place to get shot
spent the early part of last year in New Orleans recovering from gunshot wounds received as I was being robbed. It happened in the early evening as I walked down a quiet street with my girlfriend. There was a football game in town and the streets near the French Quarter were empty. The police presence was elsewhere. The incident itself was over in a flash but it plays over and over in my head and perhaps one day it will make sense to me.
found out later that there were fewer than 2,000 police in New Orleans at that time and it reached such a point that there was talk of the city was importing officers from Cleveland. Anyway, thanks to someone's mobile phone, the police eventually got to the scene.
ater, as I was carried into the emergency room at Charity hospital, a doctor reassured me that "New Orleans really is the best place to get shot." They had, he explained, had plenty of practice.
he same week I was shot, I read that three other tourists were killed near to where I was attacked. Tourists were urged not to fight back after being mugged (I was continually reminded of this by the district attorney's officials, who were critical of the way I chased the man who robbed my girlfriend).
here were additional complications to my injuries and my gunshot wounds were not as clean as first thought. Before I was taken in for my first operation, a priest came and gave me a little spiritual assistance. Later I was even serenaded by a nurse who whispered slow, mournful gospel songs in the style of Mahalia Jackson.
uring my initial week-long stay in hospital and lengthy recuperation, I observed first-hand the bankruptcy of the New Orleans health system. Several doctors who treated me actually apologised for the low standard of healthcare in Louisiana. Even so, they gave me the best of what they did have, for which I am grateful.
have just looked through some notes in the diary I made after I was operated on and one seems chillingly relevant. "How can the USA be expected to look after the whole world when it cannot even look after its own?" So it doesn't surprise me to see the world reacting with shock to the "Third World" conditions in New Orleans "in this, the richest and most powerful country in the world." I could have told them that.
ut I have been astonished by the reactions and apparent shame of some of the US television reporters who seemed overwhelmed to discover that there actually is poverty in America. They made me want to grab my television and shout "Hello, dear reporter, yes, America actually does have poor and underprivileged people as well. Hello, yes, the President might well be slow to react but at times like this, that's all that an over-burdened, out-of-touch president can be."
fter watching the scenes on television in the past few days, it occurred to me that if any place in the world could survive this catastrophe, it would be New Orleans. Significantly, in the most deprived parts of the city, there are churches and Gospel halls. Faith has to be strong because often it is all most of the people have.
hen I was last in New Orleans, I was driven around the city by a friend who pointed out the pump houses that seemed antiquated to me even then. The levees seemed insufficient for the amount of water surrounding the city. The roads were uneven and the tap water pressure in most houses was weak. The whole system appeared improvised, but according to my friend it all "seemed to have worked well enough so far given that there is not enough funding to improve it ." Locals would joke: "Yep, it is like the Third World but, hey, this is N'Awlins. Nothin's perfect. That's what's so great about it."
agreed but deep down I felt the whole infrastructure was very fragile. New Orleans is a party town, after all, and when tourists walk down Bourbon Street drinking frozen Daiquiri during Jazz Fest, crime, unemployment and environmental issues are far from their minds.
t was clear to me, however, that away from all the festivities something disastrous was on the cards. Too many things pointed in that direction. Why didn't the people who are supposed to be experts on this stuff react sooner? The problem we all know by now is money. Budgets. America's preoccupation with wars overseas. Nobody cares about the poor. Etc, etc.
t the time of my shooting I was trying to develop a musical event for a local school in New Orleans to raise funds for instruments and new uniforms for them to wear at Mardi Gras. Music, particularly in the school marching bands, gives many of the kids down there an opportunity to participate in the local community. This in turn raises their expectations and it is to be hoped, stops them descending into the local drug and gang culture waiting around the corner. I was due back later in the year to put on a show for Thanksgiving to raise a few extra bucks for the community. This all seems so trivial now.
ut the reality is that without its music New Orleans would have been a forgotten city long ago. The music of the American South inspired me and helped to shape me as a musician. They say that jazz started on Perdido Street in New Orleans and even Louis Armstrong honed his trade in the honky-tonks on Bourbon Street.
owe as much to music of the Southern states as I do to the British music that inspired me. If New Orleans is allowed to die, a crucial part of the world's musical heritage will disappear.
ight now, the flooded streets of New Orleans might seem just an American responsibility but sometimes even the most powerful people need help. Whatever we think of George W. Bush we cannot take it out on the poor and needy in Louisiana and Mississippi. (He won't be there in four years—they will.) Numerous people befriended me while I was there. Gradually, word is getting back to me that they are safe. One friend made it to Dallas with her family. Others are now scattered across the South: Jackson, Mississippi, Memphis. One musician friend is still missing.
think about what has happened to some of the faceless, scary "neighbours" who kept me awake at night while they partied and chanted songs on the corner of St Claude and Governor Nichols when I last stayed there. I hope they made it.
nd lastly, I think about the bicycle I left behind. New Orleans is almost entirely flat—as the world knows all too well now—and I found that a bike ride was a great way to get around while strengthening my injured leg.
hen I left last year I forgot to put the padlock on my bike. Whoever took it, I pray that they get to ride it around the French Quarter again soon.