Friday, July 2, 2010

The Salty Smell Has Disappeared

I've been noticing how, when visceral realization of the full scope of the oil-spill disaster finally strikes among my friends, it arrives, not in slow, incremental thrusts but as a full-spectrum nuclear blast on the entire nervous system. And one becomes like a turtle thrown on its back, helplessly pawing the air. It happened this week to my friend Elizabeth Indianos, the one person I know who actually lives in the Gulf, in a small, spectacularly lovely, fishing town called Tarpon Springs, an hour away from Tampa.

I've been waiting for months for the spill to really impact her, worried to death, but Liz has ben sublimely preoccupied, indeed all but consumed, by a public art commission she's been working on for weeks and weeks: the construction of a giant Sundial she designed for the Northwest Florida State College campus in Niceville, FLA. It has meant long hours of work, and commuting back and forth to another town every day. As a result, our phone calls have flagged.

At one point I had meekly asked her, "Liz, things are really gonna get bad. Do you have a Plan B?" She replied that she'd been too busy to really think about it, or even watch the news. She seemed happy inside her bubble. Besides, Florida was still okay. I could tell she just wasn't "there" yet, and I had already determined it was not my place to blow up her world. It would happen in its own way and in its own time. Let her have peace for as long as possible. She is, after all, one of the smartest-in-the-world people I know, so I was all too aware that, once she really confronted this head-on, it would be absolutely devastating for her. No point in rushing the awful process.

This week, however, it happened. The art project finally done, Liz went to the Alabama coast for a little holiday with her husband, to visit his parents who have a house with a direct view of the beach. Just as I knew she would be, my poor darling friend, whom I dearly love, suddenly looked the Medusa in the face, and has gone belly up with the sheer horror of what she has seen. Here, in her own words, is what she writes about her experience there:

Elizabeth Indianos – 6/30/2010- Writing from Gulf zero- on the porch balcony of a lovely beach house overlooking Gulf Shores, Alabama -- and the worst nightmare. I'm freaking out around the clock, off center like a listing ship. It's hard to witness this up close and personally. I’m just another mortally wounded, oil coated, squawking bird, hopelessly ducking into my room when I tear up, blasting off a torpedo of poetry between sobs. I don't know what else to do while my world self-destructs.

It's all too much.
Have to snap out of it.
Can't just hide in my room.
Going to wipe my face and go out.
Pretend. Drink margueritas with the family and hope I don' t implode.
It’s tough being an artist canary.
I down my margeurita, spiff up with my lipstick, dab some erase under my eyes.
I don't have my usual coping skills. I'm not tip-top.

Alone, I go out on the toxic dunes, interview the workers, and shake hands. What do they think? Most are young, healthy, strong workingmen and women, adhering to a militaristic protocol and cleanup regime. It has to be that way. There’s a lot to consider.

They are happy to see me; a person from the outside who asks how they’re doing and what they’re doing. No one joins me. I gather that it’s not that civilians don’t care, but I keep hearing derisive comments about workers being lazy, doing things stupidly, happy to make money on this cleanup. Everywhere, there is misplaced, political blame-calling and scape-goating. The cleanup crews are on par with the poisonous, garbage rolling up to their feet.

Young man Aaron wears gadgets that monitor the air, sun and humidity. He’s in charge of checking his workers at regular intervals, making sure for health reasons that they stop, hydrate and comply with Osha and other regulations. Though the crews wear special boots, gloves, hats and suits, Aaron is nervous. Arsenic and toxins are in the water I had my toes in earlier. Fumes are in the air. He nods towards the Gulf and says, “ Don’t go in there. I’m worried about the effect this is going to have on my workers. Everyone on the Alaskan spill came down with cancer.” When I ask, he explains some of their clean-up methods. All along the shore are balls that look like grassy, college football pompoms put into the water to soak up oil. Long booms resembling cotton tubes soak up oil when it hits the shore. Both methods are changed out 3 and 4 times a day, like huge Band-Aids absorbing blood at the aortal artery. He agrees with me that the task is daunting. Neither of us say hopeless but we think it. Aaron describes finding a big, black, tar rectangle at low tide…He thought it was a car. He tells me he told officials that cosmetically plowing the beach, tilling the oil under the sand at the end of each day with bulldozers is not an answer, but rather a problem. No one will listen.

Another worker, Lucas, says that the boats peppering the horizon do a good job, endlessly sucking, absorbing and corralling oil with rotating skimmers. The boats move and change their locations following where the oil plumes go. Sensing that they could talk to me for hours, I thank them for their hard work and leave, carefully dodging tiny, dime sized tar balls as I trudge up the dunes to hang with the family watching me from the two-story veranda.

We cook a big dinner; carnitas with slow roasted pork, salsa, and blueberry cobbler, our Margaritaville Eucharist. Everyone keeps drinking. We are in lock down, embedded in a Jimmy Buffet song where he sings- "There's good news and there's bad news. The bad news is that the world is coming to an end. The good news is that there's gonna be a party- SO DON"T BE LATE!"

Immersed in our desperate reverie, conditions worsen by the minute. Elongated, chocolate ribbons stripe the water and move in, rolling closer into shore. Clean up crews are gathering. I sense panic and run down the dunes to hear, “This is what we’ve been waiting for!” The crews kick in and fight the noxious, endless sludge into the night; soaking up oil, dispensing it in bags, removing it against a backdrop of hovering coastguard boats. How can it ever stop? Will it ever stop? It stings our eyes and through a blur of tears I remember the last line of the Great Gatsby – “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

I’m devastated all night. My son-in-law attorney in NY lets me know that his uncle in Florida thinks the government is covering up the toxic effects and that the entire state of Florida is going to be evacuated. My friend and creative collaborator Mike, a composer and GREEN activist nails the irony in an email:

“It’s a fucking nightmare…Almost 3 months and it’s just like they said it would be, still spewing our precious, liquefied dinosaur bones into the water. Isn’t it totally absurd, by the way, that we power our our cars from the bones of T-rex? ”

Last night on the news, Liz reports, they said that fines up to $40,000 would be given if pics are taken. Too bad. I took mine before the warning so the hell with them.

Liz's POEM:

Gulf Tears- June, 27th 2010- Elizabeth Indianos

Family vacation.

Brown rivulets surround

my feet in the water.

Strange bubbles

Sting my feet.

I have toxic toes now

on a spongy chemical sand.

No salty smell, where is the nectar,

the fish?

Only, sharks, those oily buzzards,

come in to eat the dead ones.

I spot a brave sandcastle

breaking out like beach graffiti.

Defiantly, I eat with the locals,

shrimp and oysters twice today

and shake hands with those doomed miners;

crews in makeshift work camps,

who bulldoze and patrol shores

-intent on cosmetic cleanup.

A full moon sparkles white velvet on waves

but, the night has company.

A hive of boats twinkle like stars,

working overtime, to

clean up the horizon.

Is this real Science Fiction?

I’m standing at the wake of

my Mother Ocean,



Removed, looking into the casket,

determined not to love her anymore,

because she’s gone.

I haven’t cried yet and

try to take pictures,

but even my camera shuts down.

It can’t bare witness either.

I’m a sorry daughter, wishing she had done more

while her parent was alive.

I should have loved you better.

You’ve known me all my life.

Finally, with this oil and ocean,

the body and blood of my hemorrhaging planet,

chemically camouflaged to disperse its salty tears,

I cry a requiem.

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