From the time I saw the television images of the Superdome and the Lower
Ninth Ward, I knew I needed to go to New Orleans...
So writes Sheldon Laskin in his yet-unpublished article "New Orleans: Lament
for a Royal City", which documents his weeklong journey to the Crescent City – still
very much reeling from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – this past
January to perform volunteer legal work.
"I've always been engaged in social action in one form or another," explains
Laskin, a freelance writer who by day serves as Director of the Multistate
Tax Commission's National Nexus Program. "Katrina says so much about where
this country is now. I mean, in my lifetime, we've never had anything like
that, and those images were just so…compelling."
From the start, Laskin –
who also has personal ties to that area – knew that offering his legal
services made the most sense.
"Habitat for Humanity does a wonderful job," he laughs, "but I'm not really
very good at that kind of stuff."
Unfortunately, a trip being organized by students from the University of
Baltimore – where Laskin also teaches as Adjunct Professor of Law in
the Schools' Graduate Tax Program –
didn't mesh with his own schedule, "so I pretty much went on my own and made
my own connection, with New Orleans Legal Assistance (www.nolac.org)" – a
nonprofit that offers free legal aid in civil matters to low-income residents
of southeastern Louisiana.
"After some e-mail went back and forth for a while, they figured the best thing
I could do was help out in the low-income tax clinic," notes Laskin, who spent
his time in the area working on a backlog of such cases – many of which
had been held over since before the storm hit.
As surely as volunteering his legal skills, Laskin planned to write of his
experiences in the storm-ravaged region, though he was less sure of how he
would approach such a potentially-sensitive piece. "When I actually started
to listen to people's stories," he explains, "I kind of naturally felt [I would]
just record what these people said, with minimum commentary, and just let the
observation speak for itself."
The resulting aforementioned 3,000-word article offers a sobering look at
a city where, according to Laskin, "time just stood still" in one tragic, well-nigh
incomprehensible moment, through the eyes of those whose daily lives continue
to bear the scars of its impact.
"Because I did that, there are limited venues where it can be published," he
admits. "It's not political – it's just observations – so
a political magazine isn't going to be interested in it."
As a proponent of social obligation and responsibility, Laskin has had other
work published in such progressive venues as Tikkun (www.tikkun.org),
a magazine which describes its purpose as being "to heal, repair, and transform
the world" –
themes which pervade Laskin's personal conversation and writings.
"I'm active in the Tikkun community, Rabbi Michael Lerner's progressive spiritual
political action organization," notes Laskin. "The full Hebrew expression is ‘Tikkun
olam' – ‘to heal the world,' which is an obligation of everyone
[as a part of society]."
Laskin has also had numerous technical articles published by way of such
professional outlets as the Maryland Bar Journal and Lexis-Nexis. An
amateur genealogist, he has also been featured in niche publications such as Ancestry.
"You know the old axiom,
‘Write about something you know'?" Laskin posits with a laugh. "It really
does work. Try to sit down and write about something you don't know – sure
cause of writer's block."
While Laskin continues to shop his latest article, however, his motivation
in writing it remains steadfast, regardless of where it might be published.
"I think people should try to empathize," he stresses. "They should try to
understand what a trauma this (Katrina) was – and is…that
it's an ongoing trauma. I mean, how do you move on when every night you come
home to a house that's half-gutted? New York, September 11 – it was a
horrible experience, but people could essentially go home to their houses that
night. These people, when they go home – nothing is untouched."
To this end, Laskin hopes to return to New Orleans in the future – though
preferably not alone. "I'd like to involve my daughter. [At 12], she's too
young to do a Habitat for Humanity project – they won't let her for insurance
reasons. She's obviously not old enough to drive, so she can't even be a gofer.
But she's certainly old enough to do something. I mean, she could read
to kids in daycare centers, for one thing. There are things she can do, and
I think it's important."