From Leaving New Orleans: An Unsettling Tale
Leaving New Orleans
It all began with my eyes. On Thursday, August 25th, 2005, fall semester just begun, my friend Catherine drove me to Metairie for the kindest cut of all: Lasik. In seconds I would leave near blindness—20/500 in my good eye—and join, for the first time since I was nine, a fully-sighted world. Catherine drove me home, Ambien tablets in my hand, hard plastic eye cups over my face. She didn't come in since I was going straight to bed. I thanked her as I shut the door; I don't remember if I waved. I would not see my friend again for four long months.
Four a.m., Friday, August 26th. I leap up, ripping the eye shields from my face, and greet a world of edges and sharp delineated lines. I can see my toenails and the nubble of the carpet underneath my feet. Walking through my kitchen, I can see the time glowing from my microwave, the grout between my kitchen tiles, the calendar numbers on my wall. Outside my door, in the street light's glow, I can see the veins on the leaves of the tree across my street, the grooves in the bricks of the house facing mine, the curve of hubcaps, the sidewalk's cracks. I sit until the streetlights fade and the new day breaks, in my green plastic porch chair, just looking and looking some more. Had I known that I would never sit on my porch again, I'm not sure that knowledge would have killed this joy.
On Saturday, I hardly leave my couch, phone in hand. The gulf is teeming with a swirling mass—the K storm—cochlear, straining toward land like batting toward a seam. We're in the cone—dead center—as the storm gains force, 3 today, by late tonight 4, and finally, on Sunday 5. There is no Category 6. The newspaper schools us in contra-flow: all lanes heading out, but there's a catch. Choose the wrong lane and there's no going back, right lanes forcing cars north to Hammond, left lanes to Baton Rouge or on to Houston and beyond. I'm memorizing flow lanes, watching the weatherman, and calling my son Davy all at once, while on the hour dosing my eyes.
“Hey, Davy, when are you guys leaving?"
"Not till Angela finishes up. She's working in the French Quarter. They're making her pack up all the merchandise before she can leave.”
“Oh, great. I'll get back to you."
Then I call Catherine.
"Hey, Catherine, I'm getting ready to leave. I'm going to Baton Rouge. Don has an extra room. Wanna come with me?”
“No, I'm staying.”
“But, Catherine, we're in the middle of the cone.”
“It'll turn at the last minute; it always does. I'm staying. I'm up high; I'll be fine.”
“But you've got gas and a good car.”
“I've got four cats and only two carriers. I'll be fine.”
“Throw the cats in the car. It's only to Baton Rouge.”
“Really, I'll be fine.”
“I'll call you back. Really, you need to leave.”
“I'm staying. I'll be fine."
I notice a message on my phone. It's Janet, a tutor in our Learning Lab.
“What are you doing? I don't know what to do. I don't know about my truck. Or that damn dog. Let me know what you're doing.”
I try to call her back, but her line's busy. She has no voice mail. I don't know where she lives.
In limbo, I settle back on the couch, watch the red icon spin on its projected path—straight to New Orleans—the weather channel's storm team looking grim.
It's my twin brothers' birthday. They're fifty-three. I call Tom.
“There's a storm in the gulf," he says.
“Yeah, tell me something I don't know. Happy Birthday. Look, I'm packing up. I gotta go.”
I don't get around to calling Steve.
Instead, I work in the kitchen, filling bowls for the feral cat I've been feeding for a year. I've named her Mewls for her plaintive cry. She comes in through my late dog's door flap, eats, then scurries out, confirmed in her wildness. I've never gotten close enough to touch her, so there's no question of her coming along. I place an open food bag high on my table top. If water comes in, I reason, her food will stay dry. Looking back, I cringe at this failure of vision, my feeble precaution—water to the table top the most I can foresee.
I'm pacing the floor instead of packing, picturing the traffic, minute by minute feeding onto Interstate 10. I pack up my laptop, irrigate my corneal flaps, throw clothes in a suitcase, stuff documents in an envelope, call Davy again.
"You ready to leave?”
“Angela's still not finished. I'm going down there to help.”
“Good plan," I say. "I'll call you back."
I try Janet again. Still busy. Then Catherine.
"Changed your mind?”
“No, but Gary's changed his. Now he wants to leave, but he doesn't have any gas. I told him he could siphon mine.”
“But then you'll be really stuck. Come with me.”
“I'm staying. I have food, water, cat food, litter. Roz and Ed are staying too. I'll be fine."
I'm very close to giving up. "I'll call you back," I say instead.
The day seems endless, the TV monotonous, the phone calls increasingly moot. Another hour passes. I call Davy.
"How are you doing?”
“We got it all packed up; then Angela couldn't find her purse. She thinks she must have packed it too so we're opening boxes.”
“My God. Let me know when you leave so I can leave too."
I'm getting desperate, but then so is Angela, her stress manifested in that last daft move. I pack the car, traveling light. Call Janet. It's busy still. Call Catherine.
"Sure you don't want to come?”
“No, I'm staying. Don't worry about me. The phones will go out and you won't be able to talk to me, but don't worry, I'll be fine.”
“Good luck," I say, and let her go.
The phone rings; it's Davy. "We found the purse; we're leaving.”
“Don't forget your cell phone," I say. "Are you coming to Baton Rouge?”
“We're not sure," he answers. "We'll keep in touch." I'm out the door before the phone settles in its cradle.
As I drive away, I don't look back, not a parting glance at my house or yard, the petunias in my flower beds, the shrubs I tended. I can hardly record what I didn’t do—the pain so sharp—what I didn't take, in my distraction left behind: the books, almost a thousand in all, children's books I'd saved for my grandkids, annotated college texts, a full set of Dickens—belonging to my son Chris—four copies of the book my mother wrote, now hard to find: Women Pilots of World War II. Or worse, the pictures—albums up high in kitchen cabinets, framed faces on bureau tops, but not high enough. One sweep into a pillowcase was all it would have taken. Even worse than the pictures, my mother's yearbook from World War II, We Were Wasps, leather-bound, women in jumpsuits smiling next to vintage planes. And hands down worst of all, what never even crossed my mind, my daughter Kate's journals, page after page in her childish, then gradually maturing hand, from second grade to now, her second year at Oberlin, a whole life in print stacked under her bed. I drove off, leaving it all, my mind on the contra flow, the cars heading outbound, chased by the storm.
Almost everyone who has lived through a summer and a fall in New Orleans has locked up her house, inched onto the interstate, and done that same faltering dance—stop and go, idle and surge—the wind at her back. This time is no exception. Through Metairie, the cars barely move. They crawl through Kenner. I maneuver into the outermost lane, waiting for the point where I will make my move, cross over onto I-10 East, now converted to an outbound route. Finally, past the airport, I see police cars, flashing lights, and barricades as right lanes feed to the north, left ones to the west on that emptied swath. Here, for the first time all day, I almost relax. Amazingly, I'm doing thirty; I unscrew my eye drops and throw back my head, dosing and driving, watching the world come back into focus as the moisture seeps in, evens out.
My joy returns. From the highway, I command an exotic view: cypress knees rising from stagnant pools, Spanish moss dripping from trees, flocks of egrets—white against the grays and greens—rising overhead, legs trailing behind. I can't stop looking—at the landscape, the cloud banks, the haze in the sky—or reading: highway signs, exit numbers, anything in print.
I get out my cell phone to check on Davy; they're on the road too, but headed northeast—Davy, Angela, Linda, (their dog) and a whole jazz band, The Hot Club of New Orleans, swinging toward the farthest corner of Mississippi where their violinist's wife has a home. "You sure you'll be safe in Baton Rouge?" Davy asks. "Is it far enough away?”
“I'll be fine," I say, aware that I sound just like Catherine.
Two eye dosings later, I'm exiting at College Drive, toward what will become my home for a week. I've made it in evacuation record time: three hours for a one-hour drive. For tomorrow and the rest of today, my friend Don and I will stare at the rotating whirl on the TV screen—Hurricane Katrina—hell-bent for shore. As the weatherman announces each minute wobble, Don places a pin on his storm-tracker's map. Red nubs now form a gentle curve from the Bahamas, across Florida, and into the Gulf, then gradually northward toward landfall, somewhere near, just hours away. If I look beyond the red pins' course, I can see the pricks of earlier storms, freckling the map from longitude 75 east of Nassau to latitude 35 just south of Cape Hatteras, from the Yucatan north towards Brownsville and beyond. The pin holes cluster south of three Gulf states—Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama—rays targeting Florida from Pensacola to the Keys. Months from now Don will give me this map, expertly framed, the storm's course completed, from Atlantic to landfall (tomorrow morning) in Buras, southeast of New Orleans. Her wrath still acute, Katrina will collide with that city as a Category Three.
But Sunday night we're still in the dark. We head out for dinner, restaurants bulging with storm evacuees. I'm still riding my corneal high, drinking wine, confident that Davy and Angela are safe. After dinner, in the car, my cell phone rings. It's Chris on the line. He's frantic, panicked at Katrina's path. "Relax, Chris," I say. "Davy's way up north; I'm in Baton Rouge. We're safe.”
“But it's going to be awful," he replies. "People are going to die." I still can't envision the havoc he foresees. "Chris," I say, and I shudder as I write this, exact words scored in my mind: "I don't have a care in the world." As I hang up the phone, Don and I shake our heads. "That Chris," we smile.
Davy was right. One hundred forty miles is only a stone's throw when a Category Three storm comes ashore. The trees in Baton Rouge toppled that night, one barely missing my car. The power went out, and we sweltered in the heat. But I got through to Catherine early that morning, her phone still working, to pass on the happy news: Katrina had missed, had swerved east to Buras, was now deflated to a Category Three. I knew before she did about the levees, the people on rooftops, trapped in attics, feeding into the Superdome. But I couldn't tell her. The phones were out by then. (Cell phones would fail us for almost a week, the 504 exchange hopelessly jammed.)
With no TV, the house a steaming box, Don and I walk through the neighborhood, climbing over fallen trees, skirting power lines, and picking up rumors about my town. A neighbor still has cable and feeds us scraps—a breached canal, a soup bowl, a sand-bag plan. But nothing is clear. Is it "overtopped" or "toppled"? Just how much water? When I ask about Lakeview, her face goes dark.
I cope through motion: breaking up tree limbs, sweeping up leaves, stuffing it all in garbage bags, and hauling them to the curb. I work for hours, purged by sweat, soothed by the rhythms of this mindless task. (For months I will move thus, wander compulsively through city streets, navigate interstates, run for miles in a limbo-state.) Days go by. The power returns, and with it TV, whose images scar. I'm worried about Catherine as pictures of looting and lawlessness loom. I go on line to list her missing, but another friend has been there first: Cynthia has logged on from upstate New York with Catherine's data—address, occupation, cat count, health concerns. There's nothing more to do. Chris keeps calling. "Come to DC. We need to be together." Davy and Angela have already left. My impulse is to follow, but I'd be giving up on Catherine, leaving her behind. Finally—torn—I succumb to his pressure, gas up my car, withdraw some cash, say goodbye, and set off again—a seasoned evacuee—leg two of my journey just begun.
Leaving Baton Rouge
This time it's not the traffic; it's the gas, more specifically, the absence of gas as I drive north, then turn east into Mississippi, whose devastation matches ours. At first I think it's an accident—the long line of motionless cars, stretching as far as the eye can see. Then it hits me: a gas line. My gauge is at a quarter tank; I probably should queue up too . But that line is barely moving. After hours of waiting, I could pull up to an empty pump. I drive past, fixated on my gas gauge, which creeps, as I drive on, to one-eighth, one-sixteenth, then I'm driving on fumes. This is worse than Georges, more horrendous than Ivan; if I run out of gas, who will rescue me now? I'll be stranded like Catherine, water to her porch top, or maybe higher, her friend headed north-east, leaving her behind. I've just concluded I deserve this fate, when a station appears with a manageable line, maybe twenty cars. Better still, an attendant—certainly one not Southern bred—is moving traffic in a seamless flow, crisp and efficient in her every move; when a pump frees up, she collects hard cash, then signals to the next car till I'm pumping too, so happy I stopped at that ATM. There is no comfort like a just-filled tank. I can breathe again, for almost an hour, forget my cares. The world comes into focus: bills of ibises curving overhead, pine trees sharp against hazy skies, that Gulf-state shimmer making everything move. Words fill my head, a sound-track to the pulsing scene: "And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.” “Sonny's Blues." In my other life, I'd be teaching this now, grading papers on my porch under leaves whose veins I could look up and see, my back to the house whose rooms I now envision—walk through in my mind—one by one, from west to east, and straight on into my back yard, conjuring up what no longer is, the words in my head not Baldwin's but mine. All the way to Chattanooga I chant and drive, aware at some level that I'm saying goodbye. Inside my hotel room I jot down those words before they can fade, then read them back. They have the rhythm of a Christopher Robin poem I read to my children when they were young. The nursery-rhyme singsong now comforts me.
Ode to a House (A Road Poem)
I had a house, low as the sea,
Waters breached the levees and roared down my street.
I had a house.
Inside my house, low as the sea,
My living room glowed like a memory
With its Mexican blankets and desert hues,
Inside my house.
I had a kitchen, bright as a dream,
Its red walls flanked white cabinetry,
Where folk-art animals stood up high,
But still as low as the sea.
My refrigerator was a patchwork of smiles,
My table a ring of so much joy,
We'd empty a bottle, and open one more.
I had a house.
I had a bedroom, wispy and white,
My ceiling fan whirred with a friendly knock,
While down the hall where my daughter slept,
The walls remember her late-night talk.
They held the poster from her Sweet Sixteen,
And muffled her guitar and melodies.
She had a house.
Outside my house, low as the sea,
Elephant ears pushed up through the leaves,
Banana trees drooped with their heavy load,
Outside my house.
I had a porch where I'd sit and read,
Where everyone who passed by spoke to me.
Outside my house.
I have my life, and eyes that can see.
I see the desert, dry as a bone.
I'm going home. I'm going home.
It will be twenty months before I pack up my car and leave New Orleans for good. But deep inside, I'm already gone.
* * *
It's Monday, September 6th—Labor Day—exactly one week since Katrina's strike. I have a half-full suitcase, a gassed-up car, and 600 miles of road left ahead. Chris has mobilized all his friends. Davy and Angela have already arrived. I've only to head up 81 North, then navigate the Beltway and find Calvert Place. With my motel coffee and DC map, I drive through a world of bustle and light, trees intact, gas off every interchange, the cars around me filled with people who don't know where I've been, the woman in the Mazda, traveling light.
Just south of Roanoke, I stop at a Subway to get something to eat. My phone rings as I'm ordering—the first time it's worked in a week. It's Chris on the line. "The coast guard rescued Catherine!" he tells me. "She's in North Carolina!" I burst into tears, right in the middle of "Do you want cheese?" The counter worker hands me some napkins and calls me "Hon," just like they do back home. I can hardly count out my money and pay my bill or find my way to an empty booth, the tears that I've harbored blurring my sight. For a long time I sit in my booth and cry, the woman in the Mazda weighted like a stone. Then I wash my face, get back in my car, and drive on: toward my sons and the house in Woodley Park.
[When my 10,000-mile evacuation odyssey ends, I move temporarily into Davy's house in Mid-City, then into a FEMA trailer while resuming my teaching job at Delgado.]
The New Normal: January 2006
Now it's really over. The Spring semester has begun. Miraculously, our students have returned, enough, at least, to be taught by a pared-down faculty in four of our buildings that didn't flood. We've lost our library, our Honors Office, four classroom buildings and a slew of faculty offices. The administration building flooded too, those employees now moved to the West Bank campus across the river from our Mid-City site. It's a joyful homecoming in Liberal Arts. We hug each other by the mail boxes, asking the only question posed these days, "How'd you do?" There are only two answers: "I lost everything" or "Just some roof damage." Still bearing my own cache of odyssey-guilt, I feel for those who admit to the latter, who lower their gazes when they reply. In English alone a quarter of us have lost our homes: David, Wendy, and I (Lakeview), Paul (Gentilly), Isaac (New Orleans East), Randy (Marigny),Cathy (Mid-City), Monica (Metairie). I don't know how to classify Charlie (North Shore), who lost his life, or those like Fred who couldn't find a way to return.
Our students are older, whiter. When I take the roll in my evening class I am shocked to see I'm the only one living on the East Bank of New Orleans. There are many on the West Bank, still others from the North Shore, River Ridge, Metairie, and even La Place. They come in late, having battled traffic, driven from afar. I am careful with them, uncertain what traumas they've been through. Early on in English 062, I made the mistake of asking one, after class, if his family had evacuated for the storm. "Yes," he answered. "We all got out…except my sister. She wouldn't come. And she drowned." How many more stories there must be like this, behind the eyes staring up at me.
I'm teaching in blue jeans, unable to replace the entire wardrobe I lost in the flood. The rest of my ensemble mixes cast-offs from boxes sent by two of my sister's friends and one of my own, Han—who has since changed her name to Lily. Her box sat unnoticed in the Mid-City Post Office for weeks while she emailed me asking about it, and postal workers denied it was there. They sent another one back to its sender, getting it wrong more often than right. In the hall after class, I pass Pat, from Math, who used to show up in skirt and jacket, so together, dressed for success. Now her style mirrors mine: survivor chic. She's in blue jeans too. In May, our first graduation after the storm, we'll parade our fates in our regalia, or lack thereof, nearly half of us in street clothes, the storm having stolen our caps and gowns.
I walk to work now, down Toulouse, past the flooded cars, the litter piles, and, eight minutes later, into my office in Building One, to my working computer, my mold-free books, my postcard collection, my one surviving family snapshot, all three kids on Christmas day. Seeing these each morning when I open my door is like Christmas itself, a correction to the landscape I've passed walking here, and the one I will pass on my way to class: a head-high pile of sodden books, reeking outside the library. In a few weeks, at tables set up next to that pile, volunteers will catalogue each volume lost until, finally, the books will be gone, the smell, somewhat later, vanished too. But I'll meet it again. One day in a writing class I smell it in the classroom's air and, puzzled, scan the room. This building didn't flood. I see no mold. Everyone is quietly writing a timed in-class essay, due in an hour. When students begin to turn theirs in, the scent grows stronger. A nearing student reads my expression, points down to his pants and shoes, and sheepishly explains: "I'm gutting my grandma's house. I didn't have time to change before class." What can I say? Like all of us, he's doing the best he can, the new normal here still being defined.
On the roads I note a new preponderance of pick-up trucks, out-of-state license plates, Latino drivers. A bumper sticker has transformed too. It began with the happy claim: "New Orleans—Proud to Call it Home." Then some clever person (an English major with an ear for rhyme?) revised it to comment on the culture here: "New Orleans—Proud to Crawl Home." Now it's morphed into a post-storm joke: "New Orleans—Proud to Swim Home," a callous sticker to bear, I think, given people like my student's sister who couldn't swim, and those who drowned even though they could. By the time I leave town a year from now, it will have evolved into its schizophrenic final phase, the optimists sporting "New Orleans—Still Proud to Call it Home," the pessimists "New Orleans—Proud to Call it Quits." I leave my Mazda's bumper bare until I reach Arizona, where it will wear the code of its new mountain town: "FLG."
Now, as I drive through our nail-strewn streets, I listen to the CD I found in my mailbox the day I returned to work: Hurricane Romance, a lyrical account of life in New Orleans just after the storm by a man who stayed in his Uptown home: Phil Melancon, piano man at the Pontchartrain Hotel. A close friend of Charlie's, he's that winning combination, a performer with both wit and pipes. His gift documents those days with humor: "You've got water you can't drink?/I've got food that I can't eat./This hurricane romance is fatefully strong/Let's get together. What else could go wrong?" He sings of playing his piano in the parlor, windows open, to entertain the National Guard, of playing golf in the deserted park, of enjoying the day when the water came back on: "I showered for an hour or three/Doin' the plates, doin' my clothes, doin' the dog./ Where's that cat?" He makes even the looting seem funny, changing the lyrics to a time-worn song: "Lootin' in the morning/Lootin' in the evening/Lootin' at suppertime." There are darker moments too, a song with a grim allusion to the spray paint code our houses bear: "Death is written in fluorescent on my downtown neighbor's door." But most of the CD brings needed relief to the gruesome grind of living here. I cruise along listening, my mood enhanced by the upbeat tunes that moderate the misery I'm passing through: "You've got holes, in your shoes? I've got holes in my roof," Phil sings. "You've got mosquitoes? I've got flies. You've got gnats? I've got rats." I join in on the refrain: "This hurricane romance is fatefully strong. Let's get together. What else could go wrong?"
But most of the time, it's hard to laugh at our post-storm lives. One morning, reading my paper before going to class, I see a picture of a former student, followed by an article describing the plight of those stuck in Houston—jobless, harassed by police, living in squalor on the Southwest side. This is not the first time I've opened the paper to see students' faces staring out at me. Twice, now, I've found them in obituaries. But LeReyne is alive, though hanging by a thread: "We're all close to losing it right now," he explains in the paper's quote. "I'm not right at all," he adds, "after so long.”
“So long" is five months after Katrina, at which point he owns nothing but a stereo and mattress. "We don't have nothing," LeReyne explains. "Nothing. Nobody. No place to go." It's been several years since I taught LeReyne, but I remember him well, for his winning smile, his writing skill, and the essay he wrote me, early on, describing his life in Hollygrove, that flood-prone neighborhood near to the river, known for its pockets of drug-spawned crime. It's also the home of Lil Wayne, a rapper who claims in his lyrics to be "Hollygrove to the heart, Hollygrove from the start." LeReyne wrote then, "I'm the last of five brothers," (or maybe it was four), but what followed remains still etched in my mind: "They were all killed. I'm my mother's last son. I'm all she's got." From then on, as I read his essays, I'd imagine his mother, heart in her throat, as she watched him set out on the mean streets of Hollygrove, crossing her fingers as he headed for Delgado, then holding her breath at night, awaiting his return.
At the end of the semester, LeReyne and his classmates filed in for their Exit Exam. He was one of the few I was sure would pass. He wrote for a full fifty minutes, turned in his bluebook, and walked out the door. The next class the students would have twenty more minutes to proofread their essays. But at that second session, there was no LeReyne. His blue book sat lonely on the edge of my desk while the other students proofread, polished, then left. Finally, I heard a commotion at the classroom door. LeReyne was maneuvering, with difficulty, into the room—on crutches, his foot in bandages, carrying with him only a pen. I felt relieved as I handed him his bluebook. He read it over, made a few corrections, and struggled to his feet to turn it in. As I walked to his desk to save him the trip, I asked, "Broken or sprained?”
“Shot," LeReyne answered, flashing that grin.
Thereafter, I saw him only occasionally walking across campus. He stopped me once to tell me he had passed English 101—"on the first try," he added proudly. "I'm not surprised at all," I told him. "You can write, LeReyne." And he could.
The newspaper article now fills me in on the interlude between then and now, five months after Katrina. This promising student couldn't shake the lure of easy money on deadly streets. Although he had a job (a line cook at a popular French Quarter restaurant), he began selling drugs for extra cash, ending up in prison for a year. Then the levees broke, and LeReyne wound up in Houston. I can hear his pain in the newspaper's quotes, but also his expressiveness, his fluency:
“They say we're violent. How you expect us to act? And ain't none of us in the business of going around crying about it. But we like, damn, show us some love. But don't nobody love us. So f—them.”
With pen in hand, LeReyne could transform that passage into standard prose, but here he almost raps it into print—double negatives, missing verbs—the street beat of Hollygrove in every line.
LeReyne is not the only son whom poverty and race have imperiled here, nor his mother the only parent in pain. When I first moved into my Memphis Street home, I met Aaron, who was mowing the lawn across the street. I asked him if he'd mow mine too. For years thereafter, I'd see him often, weekly in the summertime. He knew all the gossip in the neighborhood. It would be Aaron who would tell me after the storm which of my neighbors had died in the flood. He was honest, hardworking, and helpful to his kin. He was always traveling to "the country," as he put it, to help out his grandmother, other family members pitching in too.” You’ve got a great family," I told him one day. "I do,” he answered. "They'll do anything to help you. But they won't give you nothing. You have to pay them back." (They could almost be Republicans). But one morning he was crying as he mowed my grass. "What's wrong?" I asked. Aaron related that classic New Orleans tale. His son had been killed in a drive-by shooting a few nights before. "I did everything I could," Aaron explained. "He was hanging with a bad crowd, so I sent him out of state to live with his aunt. He was just back visiting me, and he went to hang out with his friends. He was in the wrong place, the wrong time. He was my only son." I tried to comfort him, burdened by guilt at having two sons.
A few months later, he greeted me cheerfully, asking, "Did you see the picture of my son?" He had paid for a memorial in the Times-Picayune. "But it hasn't been a year yet," I commented, surprised. "It's his birthday," Aaron answered. I was almost shaking as I inquired, "How old would he be?” “Eighteen," Aaron said. At that very moment, in his bed lay Davy. He would sleep until eleven; then I'd take him out for his birthday lunch. Eighteen years ago—July 31st, 1980—two baby boys were born in New Orleans, one black, one white. Now one is dead, the other sleeping, carefree in his bed. I never tell Aaron how our sons' lives crossed or, by extension, his and mine, our parenting begun that selfsame day.
LeReyne has made me think of Aaron, remember that birthday some seven years past. Now I have a brainstorm. I'll have my students write to LeReyne—a flurry of letters belying his claim, "don't nobody love us." I call the reporter who wrote the story and garner Lereyne’s phone number and address. Then I give him a call, tell him I saw his picture in the paper, ask him if he'd like to get some mail. He says okay, with a smile in his voice. Then I broach the project with each of my classes. Some students are receptive; some roll their eyes. They have no use for what they see as our city's bane, that thug subculture foist happily now on some new town. I tell them LeReyne’s different; he's smart, friendly, salvageable. (More eye rolls; some knowing grins.) "Just say something positive," I plead. ("Damn, show us some love.")
They write a lot of platitudes, most of them religious: "God helps those who help themselves.”
“God has a plan for you.”
“Accept Him into your life as Lord and Savior and believe.”
“Ask God for help, not man."
But their good hearts shine through nonetheless, especially as they close: "I believe in you.”
“Good luck, Your friend, Dave.”
“P. S. God loves you and so do I."
Sometimes they offer more practical advice: "Get a Texas driver's license so they won't know you're from New Orleans.”
“You should probably try to clean up a little since you are trying to find a job. Maybe get a hair cut, and try wearing long sleeves and pants to cover up some of them tattoos.”
“Coming back to New Orleans might be your best bet. The Celebration Church on Airline has tents set up with food.”
“My daughter lives on the Westside of Houston, and there is an unemployment office over there off Westheimer Blvd."
Best of all, they tell him their own storm stories, of evacuating with a newborn baby, then coming home to a ransacked apartment: "They took everything I had. They even took my toothbrush." Their letters make my evacuation seem like a trip to Disneyland: "I bank with Metairie Bank. No one honored my out of state checks. The only cash I had was three dollars and twenty seven cents." Their stories remind me of that second hurricane that blew through while I was safe in DC: "I thought I was seeing the light at the other end of the tunnel. Hurricane Rita blew through Beaumont, TX. And all I could say, 'here I go again.' My five year old son and I were on the go." Not all of them, I learn, had family they could turn to: "The one thing that hurt me the most, one of my sisters that lived in Jefferson denied my son and I a place to stay. My heart was broken into two." Many describe the despair they felt when exiled from home, that same despair LeReyne speaks of here ("The end don't look too good right now"). I hope their stories will make him see that others have been where he is today and survived intact to tell their tales: "After Katrina I felt alone, down in the dumps, wondering what to do next. I sat crying many nights wondering about my family and friends." One young woman connects with this assignment, having tried once to help someone just like LeReyne:
“I hear your story, which is to me a repeat of someone else I once knew. I've been down that road before. I struggled with a man from the streets. I prayed every day for him. He was from the St. Thomas Project. He had been to jail and work on Bourbon Street as a prep cook. I helped him every chance I got. I had written up a resume, shown him another way to think, that the streets means death and it makes you angry. Everything I tried he went against. He asked me to stand by him and guide him, as his girlfriend I did my best. He cheated on me. All of my time and sacrifices went down the drain.”
This must be one of the skeptics, I think, as I read her opening paragraph. I can picture her rolling her eyes as I make my case for writing to LeReyne. But she ends unjaded: "We all have seasons. Season where we cry. A season we laugh. Season of death. A season of birth, but remember enjoy every one. Life's a beauty." Dropped "s" and "ed" endings, comma splices, sentence fragments notwithstanding, I learn from the prose of the students I teach.
For the rest of the semester, every week I mail a letter or two to LeReyne. I never get a reply. He might be finding comfort in these missives; he might be laughing at them with his friends, those men he describes as "young black dudes, running around with nothing to lose": "Wait, wait, y'all, you gotta hear this one!" I'll never know. But one day, I see a message on my cell phone. It has a Houston area code. I retrieve it and recognize the voice of LeReyne, saying good morning to what must be his girlfriend. He's dialed my number by mistake. "I love you," he tells her (me) as he says good-bye. And that'll have to do.
It's been a hard semester. Everyone, students and faculty alike, has a part-time job on top of school: gutting a house, clearing limbs, holding on the phone for homeowners' agents—an experience worse than the storm itself. My flood insurance check came relatively soon, the maximum awarded for my contents and house (though I was woefully underinsured). But Farmers is subjecting me to phone-tag torture overlaid with plain old-fashioned spite. After months of calling them I finally reach an agent with a clue, who tells me my adjustor has quit, my file now languishing on someone's desk. "I am not going to the end of the queue," I say, with enough edge, apparently, to garner results. A few days later a new adjustor repeats the drill done months before: climbs on my roof, inspects my house, notes fences down in my backyard. Then he calls me with a quote, an amount so piddling once he's factored depreciation in that I couldn't even replace my ceilings, ruined by rain falling in through my roof. "Just send me my check," I say, so tired of it all. Mail from Farmers has come often to my post-office box: even information on contesting their awards. So every day I open my box with hope in my heart. But the check is never there. Finally I get back on the phone: "My check hasn't come, and it's been weeks," I tell the voice on the other end. "Let's see," she says, "that's 6229 Memphis Street?” “You're kidding, right?" I almost scream. "You mailed it to a flooded house? To a ghost town? That was deliberate…passive aggressive…" I'm so mad that I'm sputtering. The check has ricocheted back to Houston for resorting and redelivery, at about the same time potholes will be filled in New Orleans streets and levees built to withstand surge. She offers to cut me another check and mail it to the proper address—the one she had on file all along.
I rant about Farmers up and down the halls at work. But it's not just Farmers. "My homeowner's company did the same thing," says David, shaking his head. "Mailed my check to Canal Boulevard." After all we've been through, I'm shocked that these companies could be so callous. The interest accruing while those checks tour the Gulf South is plainly worth the pain inflicted. The hurricane was random, my fate the bad luck of the draw. But this act is personal. It would be easy to grow bitter here, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: copper wiring stolen from homes, contractors disappearing in the night, FEMA trailers poisoning their tenants, a president gazing down unmoved from the comfort of his airplane seat. To ward off that fate, I catalogue the acts of kindness done to me: the letters and checks from family and friends; the free food at Chipotle in DC; the care packages from Wendy's friends; the companionship of Daf on that road trip to Flagstaff; the Thanksgiving dinner at Anthea’s in New York; the clothes bought for Davy by Jim Tozzi in DC; the painting of my house from a photograph, done by Kate's friend, Christine, and given to me; not to mention the volunteers, from cities and campuses all over the country, gutting houses in the steamy day, then sleeping on floors, exhausted, at night. The balance is tipped on the side of benevolence, as Anne Frank taught us sixty years ago: "In spite of everything I still believe that people are basically good at heart."
These good-hearted people show up on weekends in New Orleans streets, having learned the cavalry's not on the way. They unload their lawnmowers from the backs of trucks and mow the grass in City Park. They hang hand-made street signs to replace the ones the storm blew down. They clean up swaths of city streets, with the newly-formed Katrina Krewe, who've gathered up rakes, trowels, brooms and garbage bags, then mobilized citizens on Wednesdays and Saturdays to bring back the charm of this hardknock town. Catherine and I join in one Saturday, for three hours cleaning up Esplanade from the river north to Rampart Street. We feel happily exhausted when we get through. But three weeks later, driving down to d.b.a., it's hard to look out the windows of the car, the street right back to the way it was.
It's about time, I realize, to tend to my own patch of storm-blown land. My house remains as Katrina left it, down to my refrigerator, still lying on its back, blocking access to the hall. This EPA-cited hazardous container should be sitting on my curb, waiting for the white-goods truck to haul it to the dump where Latino workers will drain its Freon and muck it out. I call up Danny, a neighbor, and ask for his help. He's got a truck and a wiry frame. He'll be by on Saturday to pick me up. When he arrives, he's brought a companion, the daughter of his girlfriend, nine-year-old Blaine. We head for Delgado to pick up a dolly. "There's my school," Blaine says, as we pass by a building standing ruined in the morning sun. She's had a hard time in the last few months, the loss of her school the least of her woes. She wound up at the Convention Center after the storm, no one having had the sense to evacuate with her and keep her safe. It's hard to imagine the things she's seen in her nine-year span. But she's cheerful today, on an outing with her almost-Dad. When we make it to Memphis Street, she registers no shock at the state of my house. But Danny scans the kitchen and says, "On your deathbed, you'll remember this." I have no way of knowing if this is true, but I do know his prophecy will haunt me for years.
We get the refrigerator on its feet without too much trouble, tape it closed, and use the dolly to push it toward the door. But there we're in trouble. The opening's too narrow. "Do you have a hammer?" Danny asks. I remember the weights that I walked with through the neighborhood in happier times, find them in the living room, and hand one to him. He bashes in the refrigerator's handles, gaining another two inches of room. But the bulky appliance still won't fit, and Danny's getting frustrated. He rips off the screen door and hurls it into my backyard. Then he rips off the door frame, sends it flying too. Now we're getting somewhere. He positions himself outside and pulls while I push from inside, trying to get some traction on the dirt-caked floor. Then Blaine, who's been wandering in the yard, gets a little too close as Danny pulls. "Blaine!" he yells, spewing a string of profanities that shock even me. But Blaine's unfazed, clearly used to language like this. At least, I reason, he's worried about her well-being. However he may do it, he's one adult who'll keep her safe.
We're almost there now, Blaine wandering by the backyard fence, the refrigerator half-way through the door. But suddenly a mucousy liquid starts to seep from the freezer compartment onto the floor. I lose all my traction as the liquid pools beneath my feet. "Push!" Danny yells. "One good push." Oh, this is rich, I think, as the liquid—slick as amniotic fluid—continues to leak and Danny to holler, "Push! Push!" In the end it's Danny's pulling, not my pushing, that gets results, the refrigerator popping out onto the porch. Now we just need to walk it down the three porch steps, then push it out onto the curb. But the wheels of the dolly have since collapsed. "Stand back!" Danny cautions, mustering his strength to ease it down himself. But human will is no match for weight combined with gravity: the refrigerator crashes down the steps, its door popping open as, from deep within, there emerges a scent on my deathbed I'll recall: old flower water, bad shrimp, toe jam, rotten eggs, silent farts—greed, vanity, slander, and envy—all combined into an uber-scent that fills the air. And here we lose all our resolve. I'll come back later, we decide, with duct tape for that open door; then Danny will follow to haul it to the curb.
Back at Davy's I invite both Danny and Blaine inside. She bangs on the piano. I give her a coke. As she leaves, I say, "Thank-you, Blaine, for all your help." This is silly, we both know. She didn't help at all. But she's a child in need of a few kind words. "You're welcome," she replies.
The semester drags on. I mail my letters to LeReyne, teach my classes, read my paper. For the most part, the newspaper stories are grim. But one day the front page goes over the top, reporting the murders of four New Orleanians—execution style, drug related—in a Slidell trailer park some thirty miles away. Two others survived. "Mother, daughter hid during slaughter," the headline says, beneath it adding: "They crouched in bath as four gunned down." It's that age-old story, I think as I read: the seventh kid, evading the wolf, by hiding in the grandfather clock; the ninth nurse, foiling Richard Speck, by hiding underneath the bed. "Can't these murderers count?" I wonder as I read. A neighbor describes the daughter "crying hysterically, her hair still full of conditioner from the bath." I skim through the rest of the article, time running out before my nine o'clock class. When I get to work, my colleagues have read this story too; we share our shock as we run to class. When I return, I see another colleague, with the same gruesome topic on her lips. "Did you read about those murders in the trailer?” she asks.
“Boy, did I,” I answer. “Wasn’t that awful?”
“You know who the girl was,” she says in a lowered voice. “It was Blaine.”
When I get home from work, I reread the article, every word now taking on a meaning that I missed before, the horror intensified by knowing it was Blaine. It is she, just nine, whose eye-witness account is quoted there: "One of the intruders declared, 'Now you motherf—s are going to die!', and the shooting started the girl told a neighbor." It was she, waiting in the bathtub in "excruciating" silence, then "emerging to find four family members dead on the living room floor." It was she who must have watched as her mother took a cell phone from one victim's pocket to call for help. It was she to whom a neighbor refers in the heartfelt quote:
"This poor little kid has been through absolute hell," Conley said. "She's seen things that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, things that no 9-year old should ever have to see."
Blaine's, like LeReyne's, is a story whose ending I will never know. She may develop a stutter, a fear of the dark, an inability to concentrate, or she may move beyond this, the memory faded as she reaps the joys of children, career, and a long-term mate until, at last, she but dimly remembers the crouching silence, the threat, and then the follow through, the desperate search for the cell phone, the call for help, and then finally, at the very end, on her death bed, the images resurfacing—she'll remember this.
[About a year after my experiences with LeReyne and Blaine, I moved out of my FEMA trailer in New Orleans and into the cabin outside Flagstaff, Arizona, that my parents left to my siblings and me. Here, at 7300 feet and often snowed in, I wrote this memoir.]
February 2008, Baderville
Water is wet; fire is hot, or so I thought before I moved to Flagstaff. The intricacies of wood—aspen, juniper, pitch pine, pine—alone and in combination I had yet to discover. But now, as I have slowly learned, fire is hot, or hotter, or white-glowing lava-hot, depending on the wood, the quantity of embers, the chimney's draw. Three months into winter, as I shovel my ashes, I sift the charcoal from the ash, leaving the biggest chunks behind to kick-start my fire, prolong its blaze. I start with pitch pine, a first-string player, that instantly ignites with a flame that wraps around and pulsates, sparking into my second choice, aspen—clean-burning, ash-grey—less flashy than pitch pine but solid and true. Juniper, shaggy-barked and dense, follows, but before I toss it to the flame I inhale deeply. That smell brings back memories—of hamsters, of campfires from my childhood. Juniper, my Madeleine.
Drinking my coffee before the stove, I turn the wood, I poke the embers, I add a log, I watch the pan of water that I keep on the stovetop to humidify the house and to signal the moment when I dare to call in the second-string: pine, ubiquitous pine, which I have in abundance, thanks to my neighbors, who thinned the woods behind their house (technically my land) to protect their property from the summer's fires. They chopped and stacked the wood, then gave it to me. When the water in the pan boils, or even better comes to a rolling boil, I add a pine log with no fear of harm. But one more will cool the fire, bring the boil to simmer, as a single player can slow down the game, a bass player drag, throwing off the tempo. Sometimes for hours I orchestrate my fire. Although I'm retired, it's an occupation. And yet I draw my line. I refuse to extend my watch into the night, as many others do, waking at all hours to stoke their fires. I'd rather wake to a frigid house, my bed, with its flannel sheets, its comforter, keeping me warm.
The fire dies; I bring it back to life; I embolden my pine by removing its bark, using as a lever my FEMA-issued knife, cheap and expendable, a link to my past—like my Red Cross debit card, which I used to scrape the first snowfall from my windshield, or my extra care with fire and ash, Katrina’s legacy: my fear of losing it all again.
On February 21st I wake to the aftermath of an overnight snowstorm, one of many since the initial event this winter on December 1st. It's the snowiest year one neighbor can recall since she moved here from Tucson in 1975. I have been dubbed an extremeweather magnet by the Baderville locals, who still see me as a storm evacuee. The trees bow beneath the weight of snow. When I walk down my driveway to retrieve my paper—a half mile round trip before my first cup of coffee—I must duck underneath one hanging branch. My otherwise pristine path has been broken by Edna, my neighbor's Res dog, who loves the snow. I often find her outside the stall of Charlie, the horse I greet every morning as I hike down and back. Outside the houses on Suzette, where my mailbox stands, the morning labors have begun. People shovel snow, feed their horses, plow their driveways, dig out their cars. Across the meadow, the San Francisco Peaks are half-hidden by clouds.
Those peaks, extinct volcanoes, are sacred to thirteen Indian tribes, among them the Navajo, whose name for them translates "Shining on Top," and the Hopi, for whom they are "The Place of Snow at the Very Top." When this three-day storm blows over, revealing those peaks—Agassiz, centered in my picture window; Fremont, off center to my right; and Humphreys, behind to the left (at 12,633 feet, the highest point in Arizona)—those names will ring true. The snowy peaks will shine in the sun, the trees below them dusted like Alpine beignets. When the snow ends and sun returns, I resume my long walks through the neighborhood, down Suzette, across Bader, to where Rudd Tank ends in a cul-de-sac, and then beyond, into the national forest; or, alternately, down Bader toward Highway 180, left on Mountain Shadows, and into the Experimental Forest, a large stand of ponderosa set aside for a Forest Service study of fire and forest restoration. Each house I pass tilts toward the peaks, its large windows framing their southern face, its deck spilling out for a closer view. So many disparate lives are bound by this constant—horse owners, single moms, retirees, ski freaks—waking to the mountain as they open their blinds, then gazing out, before drawing them at dusk, on that same wedge of stillness.
In the summer and fall, before the snows came, I'd drive up the mountain to look back from its vantage point. Seven miles up the Snowbowl Road, I could park and ride the chair-lift up Agassiz where, from an elevation of 11,000 feet, I could see my house, a brown speck at the edge of the woods, then, turning north, the glow of the Grand Canyon, seventy miles away. Other times, I'd hike on the Kachina Trail, an easy route wrapping around the mountain's face and opening up to views of the town: the train tracks, the Skydome on the campus of NAU. The first time I ventured onto this trail, I stopped, puzzled, a half-hour in as I heard the sound of a brook rushing by, but even with binoculars could find no water. And then it struck me. Looking up, I saw against the sky a quivering of yellow, the leaves in the wind like water over rocks. I was underneath a stand of aspens. I was all alone. And then I felt it, a creeping panic that would overcome me every time I'd attempt to hike, an urbanite, confronting a primordial fear. It would be almost six months before I conquered this demon, made it to the end of a hiking trail. That night, at the Ski Lift Lodge, I would announce to my neighbors: "I hiked the entire Oldham Trail—3.2 miles in and 3.2 miles back—and I didn't panic; I didn't get lost." My audience would stare back blankly, unable to fathom the source of my pride; longtime hikers, mountain bikers, horseback riders, skiers, unable to imagine losing their way or feeling, even for a moment, afraid.
One evening a few weeks later, just before closing my blinds, I take a final look at the peaks, their outline hyper-sharp in the sun's fading light. From the corner of my eye, I notice a movement: an elk has entered into the clearing just beneath my window where, like me, it seems to gaze at the peaks. The darkness rolls across the meadow, then climbs up the mountain's skirt, higher and higher, over pine and aspen, up the Snowbowl Road. When I lower my blinds, I see the elk bound away. Night comes to Baderville. Above the darkness, the peaks catch the last light, all three shining on top.
It's quiet in Baderville, the elk gone south, the deep-piled snow like acoustic tiles, keeping us silent and white. In the middle of the night I wake to stillness, light pouring in through my white cotton drapes. It's three a. m. Out the upstairs window I scan the sky, see the moon like a spotlight over the forest, a single star beneath it, low to the west. The snow looks different than it does in the day—whiter—but an eggshell white, a white without sheen, a dead-white white. The trees cast shadows—moon shadows—almost black against the snow. There's not a sound, not a quiver of breeze, not an animal cry. I remember the song by Cat Stevens, or at least its refrain: "I'm being followed by a moon shadow, moon shadow, moon shadow." But I don't remember ever seeing shadows like these, cast by this light.
[About now, in New Orleans, the street lights will be buzzing with static, blurred halos forming around them in the humid air. The bars will still be open, teenagers without curfews drunk-driving home. On Frenchmen Street the musicians will have gathered to jam at the Spotted Cat. Across town National Guard trucks will patrol deserted streets, eyes out for copper thieves, as feral cats slink under raised houses, spooked by their headlights.]
Somehow, despite the clashing scenes, memory and moment, I go back to bed, fall easily to sleep. Just before dawn, a single coyote cries behind my house: three yips and a howl, then a volley of yips, followed by an almost laughing, loon-like howl. Then silence. I roll over to sleep again, my last thought before I drift away, "What a road, what a long cold road it’s been.”
Sally Cole, a retired English teacher, relocated to Flagstaff, Arizona, after Katrina and currently lives in Tucson. She has published essays in Free Inquiry, the Journal of College Writing, and The Washington Post as well as a chapter in Sport, Rhetoric, and Gender: Historical Perspectives and Media Representations. Her memoir, Leaving New Orleans: An Unsettling Tale, is her first book