by Michael Wilkerson
The Herald-Times September 15, 2005
Surely you're going to write about Hurricane Katrina, someone said. The slow government response. Hurricaning While Black. Bush's poor speeches, feeble FEMA, unimaginable misery in the wake of the storm.
Hurricane Katrina. In my weird mind, this catastrophe somehow dredges up thoughts of a band named the Dancing Cigarettes, from the early 1980s. A Hoosier evolution from Captain Beefheart and the Talking Heads, the Cigarettes were something truly new, artists who taught themselves their instruments, who made up new ideas on how to sound and what to say, and who eventually broke up. The brutal grind touring in an old VW van and working days at the Uptown Cafe while trying to "make it" finally overwhelmed them.
I remember nights at the Bluebird when I knew I was participating in something splendid, and my shock when the story didn't have a happy ending. It was a lesson in adult reality. Life is not a fairy tale. Still, the Dancing Cigarettes will always be with me, including the debacle of their last concert.
This, too, was at the Bird. The Cigs sounded ragged. They looked worn out. They sang about their childhoods ("I think about what my teacher used to say raise your hand, razor hand"), their fears ("don't stick your arm out very far or you'll go home in another car"), their temperament ("I got a D in Anger I just can't stay mad at you") and played instrumental homages to the Uptown ("Burnt Toast," "Eggs any Style").
The material was great, but something wasn't working. They had given it their best shot for four years and finally made the tough but adult choice to go their separate ways. Singer Michael Gitlin, announced, "We're the Dancing Cigarettes, and this is our last song." He strummed a chord and winced. "We used to be good."
We used to be good.
That's what I think about America. Oh, I know, in many ways we are still terrific. We do technology extremely well. We're a leader in the arts. Our universities are the envy of much of the world. As individuals, we're remarkably generous, taking in refugees and writing checks to help Katrina's victims.
But our lofty vision of the eradication of poverty and racism, of a rising tide that lifts all boats, of an America where everyone has equal and unlimited opportunity those things we all once believed formed our core identity as a society are gone. Katrina made it appallingly obvious.
We used to be good. At some point, though, we re-translated the American dream to mean, "I'm going to get mine and keep it." We supported leaders who pledged to "shrink the government until it could be drowned in a bathtub" (what a choice of words!). But most of all, we decided, like children, that out of sight was out of mind, that the misery of others was not our problem.
Katrina revealed the wreckage of the American Dream, in the Superdome and on the stranded black faces abandoned on roads and rooftops in New Orleans. The lesson is clear, but I doubt we'll learn it. We'll probably go right back to our pursuit of personal fortune. We have to change America, and ourselves. We can't just fantasize our way to a happy ending. But will we grow up? As the Dancing Cigarettes sang: "What do I have to do to get through to you?"