How would you describe Plenty Enough Suck to Go Around?
If your sister or cousin was kind of artsy and lived with her kind of artsy boyfriend and two basset hounds and someone suddenly stuck a hammer in her hand and dropped her into a scary, flooded wasteland and said hey, y'all tear down this whole house by yourself and then try to rebuild it while people try to rob you and shoot your friends? This is the book she would write.
Reviewers and readers have said it's a darkly humorous, compulsive, shocking, and fun read despite dealing with some "deep" and "tough" issues.
After years of hands-on construction experience, would you hire Cheryl Wagner for your construction crew?
Some guy did try to hire me, actually. I was outside covered in sheetrock mud with a pan in my hand. That someone would offer a crew job to a thirty-something female wearing glasses and a tank top just because she had sheetrock mud smeared on her arms is either testimony to how utterly the storm transformed me or how desperate the labor situation in New Orleans was at the time. You pick.
Among guys I worked with, I was not known for my mudding technique. I was better at measuring and cutting. But would I hire myself? Maybe for certain things. I could definitely be a contractor and a thorough one now, but that would make me too expensive for most people. But I wouldn't want to be a contractor because yelling makes me tired. And most of them lie a lot.
What surprised you about life in the flood zone?
Where to start? The flood sleaze and copper thieves and drug addicts that came in with the relief crews and decided to stay. The odd ways that living in prolonged topsy-turviness impacted people's identities. My boyfriend and I started behaving in ways we had not prior. We were for a long time unrecognizable to ourselves. I didn't really know that I could wake up one day and my pacifist, vegetarian boyfriend would have turned into a meat-eating, shotgun toter. I didn't realize how completely environment could transform people. I mean, it makes sense — if you live in a kind of post-apocalyptic world, obviously you inevitably become a little post-apocalyptic. But I didn't know this when we decided to rebuild. I don't know why, but I thought we could easily float above the fray somehow.
I also saw a lot of women after the storm doing awe-inspiring, crazy things. I saw women in their fifties, sixties, and seventies doing backbreaking labor in insane heat. I knew this happened in the world. My own mother and grandmother worked in the fields on a Hungarian Settlement farm in Louisiana, but still I had not seen with my own eyes the backbreaking labor that women were capable of. That inspired me to keep going some days when I did not feel like it (and that was many, many days). I would see some old woman busting ass and think, That lady has 40 years on you! Keep going. You can do this.
Do people in New Orleans who got to rebuild their houses feel guilty that others did not get to?
I can't speak for everyone, but I do. After the flood, I had a lot of contact with neighbors and friends who weren't able to rebuild. On the other hand, there are some people Uptown and in the Marigny who didn't flood who think people should shut up and get over it and it's your own fault for not living on the Sliver by the River. Those are our delusions-of-invulnerability people. They think the Mississippi River levee is infallible.
Some of your friends in this book are people from the South who are musicians and artists who chose New Orleans as home. Is there any such thing as a bohemian anymore?
I've been taking an informal poll of people most Americans would consider bohemians — musicians, visual artists, writers I know. The interesting thing is that almost of them said they weren't bohemian. And this is coming from people who spend either all their time or every free second they have on music, art, books, some craft, or film. I think after the Boomers, no one without a trust fund calls himself a bohemian anymore, even if they're in a "collective" of some sort.
My boyfriend Jake's Dad (who is Southern) introduces Jake as "the bohemian in the family." One day Jake's dad said something like he admired me because it's brave to be me. Which in the South is never a compliment. It means you're too artsy or eccentric or gay or vegetarian to know if the UF Gators won their latest football game. I said I wasn't eccentric and that he should meet some of my friends. He said, "I'm six foot five. The other day I was in a meeting. For once I was the shortest person there. Just because I was the shortest person in a tall room doesn't make me short." Well played, Jake's dad, well played.
Looking back on almost four years of dealing with the aftermath of this disaster on a daily basis, what do you think the government could have done differently?
They could have done their jobs correctly on any basic level and in unison. I really believe people died in the years after the storm from the sheer stress brought on by repeated government failures at all levels. Survivors were not treated with dignity. No one addressed their basic medical and psychological needs in a timely fashion. Repeated instances of this over time broke people.
People had heart attacks or strokes from the stress. People shot themselves and tried to commit death by cop; a woman shot herself and her developmentally disabled child. People jumped off bridges — one young guy walked into Bayou St. John. There was a documentarian and a pediatrician who shot themselves. A lot of people had older relatives who had been in reasonable health prior to the storm stress suddenly give out and die. It went on and on, month after month for years like this. You could not pick up the paper or bump into someone without hearing one of these stories.
A lot of ugly stuff happens to people when insurance companies don't have to deliver the product people have purchased from them, when Road Home programs don't have to deliver disaster relief funds to homeowners in a timely fashion or, in many cases, ever at all. When government bureaucracies cannot or will not fix levees and canal walls on time and contractors rob people or do criminally substandard work, people suffer. When there is no functioning criminal justice system for years, people get robbed and killed.
The next wave of problems from this will come when the Katrina children grow up into hopeless, sad individuals stumbling under the weight of their collective post-traumatic stress disorders. It's depressing to say, but it's true — this killed many of their grandparents off, and many of their own adult lives will suffer.
Everything I went through, someone else went through it worse. As hard as it was on us, and I play with the idea of us being the "lucky ones" in the book a lot, it's true. We were and are the lucky ones. It's beyond imagining really, and I mostly try not to. There's no way to exaggerate the magnitude of this suffering. People don't want to hear it. And I don't blame them. I don't want to hear it, either.