Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.
The famous phrase comes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a seaman lamenting the bounty of water that spread on all horizons from his ship but from which he was unable to relieve his thirst.
Coleridge was an early19th century English poet and philosopher, but in many ways he fits the profile of a thoroughly modern man. A thoroughly modern New Orleans man at that: He was a poet and philosopher. He suffered from anxiety and depression. He was chronically physically unfit. He was in constant financial straights. He was a romantic.
Literally; he was one of the founders of the British Romantic Movement.
He was even dependent upon opiates, a pre-Victorian scourge enjoying a formidable comeback in these thoroughly modern times.
But more than anything else, he is known for a line of verse decrying the lack of potable water while completely surrounded by it. And that secures his stature as an honorary New Orleanian.
Not because the city is completely surrounded by water, which it is. But because you can’t drink it, even if it comes out of your kitchen faucet.
Not unless you’re a fan of bacteria, e-coli, diarrhea and God knows what other risks and travails our water system delivers to our homes these days via the constant malfunctions and grandiose incompetence of our Sewerage and Water Board.
As I write this story we are under a boil alert. Again. And again. And again. So many times in the past few years that sometimes it seems like the authorities over there are not clear that Sewerage and Water are supposed to be separate departments, not the same product.
Despite substantial post-Katrina advances in education, urban renewal, entrepreneurship, environmental awareness, civic activism, counter-corruption and swelling city pride, nothing hews more firmly to our lingering reputation as a Banana Republic, a Third World sovereignty – a Confederacy of Dunces – more than our inability to provide consistently reliable safe and operative water works and drainage systems.
It’s much like the trials of aging: Losing hair where you want it and sprouting it where you don’t. That’s New Orleans in reverse. We’ve got water where we don’t want it and, too often, none when we need it.
The boil advisory of which I currently write – I don’t want to be too specific because who knows if or how many more there will be before this magazine goes to press – caught me unawares, as I’m sure it did many of my fellow citizens. There’s no more comforting feeling than taking a brisk shower, giving your teeth a good, thorough scrubbing, and drinking a refreshing iced coffee before turning on the TV and hearing a stern talking head direly warning that residents of the city should refrain from drinking tap water, taking showers and brushing their teeth without taking emergency precautions.
Otherwise, well….we all know what the complications can be.
Or do we? Why the hell can’t we have safe and steady drinking water like to rest of the country, Flint, Michigan excepted? (And at least they know every day when the wake up not to drink their water; here, it’s a crap shoot. Will we, won’t we? Do we, don’t we? Tune in to your local news for the latest updates.)
Updates. That’s what our water safety is subject to now, with extraordinarily increasing – and alarming – frequency.
It’s not much of a sales pitch to lure the best and the brightest to our city, a new generation of kale-eating, Fitbit-wearing, hybrid car-driving, Lululemon-clad paddle boarders who prioritize health and longevity almost as much as they do money.
It’s called Quality of Life. It’s called environmental awareness. It’s called health and safety. It’s called common sense. It’s also called the very essence of our existence: Water.
It was another quotable bard, W.C. Fields who once complained that, during Prohibition, he was forced to live on nothing but food and water — a lamentation I can relate to.
He also said: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”
It often seems like we’ve got a bunch of damn fools running our utilities and monopolies. But they’d better not quit. Because, after all this carping, I’ve worked up a powerful thirst. And outside my window as I write this, school busses are dropping kids off at my neighborhood school and that’s a sight that tends to diminish one’s appetite for fermented beverages.
But what are the choices?
The new head of the Sewerage and Water Board, the man charged with turning around the culture of associates at the utility, is named Paul Rainwater. I don’t know if that is serendipity or some kind of cruel joke. I suppose time, rain and water will tell.
But for now, it’s water, water, nowhere.