I teach developmental composition in the Westbank of New Orleans, over the bridge from my home. If you were to keep on driving out there, away from New Orleans, you would be in the area on the map that looks like it’s breaking apart into the sea. If you followed any of the spill (spill always feels like the wrong word, let’s call it THE FUCKING EARTH HEMMORAGE) that occurred recently, you’re familiar with some of these areas: Plaquemines Parish, Lafitte, Barataria. I’m from California; I ride my bike most days; my father was an artist; and my mother was responsible for negotiating minority contracts for the City of Los Angeles during the 80s. It’s easy to say that if I lean, I fall over left. For me, indentifying the enemy here is easy – oil.
However, my students are a different story. Many of them come from this area as did many generations of their families. Their livelihoods are tied up both in fishing and oil – one brother on a shrimper, another off shore on a rig, the father and mother perhaps run a marine supply company that services both industries. Stories like this abound in my classes. One student’s day job was running wetland soil samples for Shell, one of those devastation/preservation programs they run ads for during sporting events. Another student, if not for a back injury on his last deployment, would’ve been on that rig that blew apart on April 20, 2010.
Late last spring, I had a student called Paul who I liked a lot. He was smart, showed up every day, did the work and was always a pleasure to shoot the shit with when I caught him outside before class. Paul was a roustabout, which, by the way, is perhaps one of my favorite words. Because of that I talked to him at length about his work. The short of it, he was a dockhand – a general laborer that tied boats off when they came in, fixed a window, or carried cans of fuel and supplies on board.
What’s that pay, being a roustabout, I asked him one day.
About a hundred a day, but the money’s been better since the spill.
How much better?
2 bills a day plus another hundred as per diem.
Paul went on tell me that he was now working 6 days a week, taking off one day to attend his summer classes. And there was still more work. This was late May and the efforts down there had just started for Paul. By the end of the semester, he’d disappeared from my class, only to show up tired and in a daze to take the final. I could’ve failed him because of absence policy but the work he’d already done and his score on the final earned him a pass. I couldn’t blame him either – this 18 year old kid had just gone from making 2 grand a month to a salary that if it kept up for a year would yield him close to six figures. But we both knew it couldn’t keep up. One of the last conversations I had with Paul before he disappeared into his work went something like this –
You be careful with that money, man. Don’t go on and buy a boat or anything.
He said, I know.
You know why they’re paying you all that money, right?
Yup, because pretty soon it’s all gonna go away.
When I asked the question I don’t think I had an answer in mind. I was just asking to be contrary and in truth, I was probably a little embittered that a student of mine had gone from being my economic peer to making four times what I did. Sort of made my consistent argument in these classes about the importance of matriculation to a four-year university moot.
The money hasn’t stopped flowing in, actually. It is now late October and people’s income claims are coming in. This was one of the first summers I didn’t wait tables in New Orleans because I had summer teaching and I figured myself incredibly lucky. Summer service is traditionally slow – painfully slow. The tourist season drops off after Jazz Fest and a good night makes fifty or sixty bucks. This coupled with the miserable heat and humidity and this town’s predilection for heavy, heavy drinking in good times and especially bad, by August, everyone’s got suicidal ideations.
Now, however, with the change of the weather and five figure checks being issued as quickly as they can be printed, there’s a charge in the air. The other night at a party, I ran into a couple of people I used to wait tables with. The first girl, a cute gutter punk complete with nose ring that lives in a squat in the upper ninth, ran up to me, exclaiming that for the first time in her life she was a thousandaire. She told me she was buying a case of Dom and throwing a party, that I should come. Another cat mentioned he always wanted to buy one of those British military issued Rolexes, you know, those RAF ones. Uh huh, I said. He asked if I’d filed my claim yet.
I didn’t wait last summer.
But you have the last couple summers, right? You still got those W2s?
Tell them you couldn’t pick up work last summer in service because of the drop off.
Be a bit unethical, wouldn’t it?
You’d feel unethical taking money from BP?
He had a point.
After Katrina, FEMA and Red Cross money swelled in too and like now, some of it was spent inappropriately on lavish goods rather than what it was intended for; I realize that statement is inherently political and with that, I offer that I have no fucking idea what it was intended for…nor was I here. 5th Ward Weebie immortalized this in his now bounce classic “Fuck Katrina.” Bounce is a New Orleans hip-hop probably best typified by its manipulation of a particular beat and its use of call and response. In one version of “Fuck Katrina,” Weebie calls, “Got a new car? To which he responds, “FEMA bought you that.” “Got a new grill?” “FEMA bought you that.” When I mention that FEMA and Red Cross came back for their money when they found out it was spent ill advisedly, the thousandaires in chorus reply – Do you really think BP’s gonna ask for its money back? Again, another fine point. Dom parties and Rolexes, it seems, for all.
Of course, not everyone’s spending his or her check in such a manner. I’ve talked to many who are looking to go back to school, who will be using the money to support their families, put a down on a house so that they can stay in this region so they continue to aid in its redevelopment. All fine things. I am happy that BP is being held accountable for what seems the largest ecological disaster ever, and frankly, that despite a Mickey Mouse clean up effort that consisted more of ridiculous nomenclature than redoubled efforts, they have been totally forthcoming with reparations for the region both big and small. What frightens me most is how liberally the payments are being doled out, however. From anecdotal evidence, it very well seems I could file a claim and collect on that summer spent teaching comp rather than waiting empty tables and this is scary, the ease and limited documentation required.
That BP has set up a system that it most likely knows is prone to manipulation makes me suspect of their ultimate intentions. We’re not getting one over on them. Repeat, we’re not getting one over on them.
I am reminded of the class action suits against big tobacco in the 90s and the large payouts made by those companies that shielded them from further action and damages by consumers. I fear that all of this, the quick and easy money, is just hush money. A little bit now to stave off the ecological and economic fall out that is sure to come, to avoid dealing with the repercussions that are entirely unforeseeable but in no way less definite in the next 5, 10, 15, or 50 years. I fear that this initial good will is a strategic salvo that will allow BP to shirk further litigation by those worse affected by this criminal atrocity. Until then, I will sip my champagne and admire my boy’s new watch and try to forget what Paul said before he disappeared into the Louisiana wetlands – pretty soon it’s all gonna go away.