Just the other night I was watching an old baseball movie on TV, “A League of Their Own.” Dottie, the catcher for Atlanta, calls for time as her sister, Kit, steps into the box. “High fast balls,” she tells the pitcher. “Can’t hit ‘em, can’t lay off ‘em.”
New Orleans is my high fast ball. Can’t live here, can’t stay away. I moved to Tucson after Hurricane Katrina, “The Storm,” as the locals say. But I’ve come back more times than I can count, driving through Lordsburg, Deming, El Paso, and stopping for the night in Junction, where the endless flat turns into hills. Last trip, when I went for dinner before collapsing at the Roadway Inn, the waitress greeted me: “Bohemia, right?” You know you’ve got it bad when a server in Texas knows your drink.
This time, I’m staying in New Orleans for a whole year, in an attic apartment by City Park. I’ve rented out my Tucson house so I can watch my grandson get his start. I miss the desert, but my body defaults to this place as if it’s pre-selected in some hard drive at my core. The minute I step onto its sidewalks my whole gait changes—I slow down, I sashay—and my mucus membranes let out a sigh. It’s a muscle memory as much as a choice. It’s a rhythm, a lilt.
My first stop when I got here in September was the Rite Aid to pick up some cash. The woman at the register, black, about my age, bagged my shampoo and opened the till. “Here your twenty, baby,” she said.
I misted up. Where else does a purchase come with an endearment? And when you’ve got “baby,” who needs verbs? The same thing happened at Halloween. My son and his wife were cooking when the trick-or-treaters rang the bell. One little girl took her candy, told us thanks, and gave her own sweet back to us: “Y’all food smell good,” she said.
There’s a tee shirt shop on Magazine with a singlet that reads, “Listen to Your City.” And I’m hearing it, not just the music down on Frenchmen Street, but the voices with their own riffs, their own motifs: “Hey, how y’all doin’?” “Hey, all right.” I’m hearing the poetry. “Y’all food smell good.” Two spondees.
But mostly I’m looking at a cityscape, a big messy jumble of old and new. I’m walking through it, around the paths in City Park, down to the Quarter via Esplanade, and through the streets of Lakeview where I used to live before the lake moved in.
I’m looking at trees. The knobby stalwarts are still here, the ancient oaks, along the new-built jogging paths in City Park and by the practice track off Roosevelt Mall. But in their shadows the young trees mark the spots where the brackish water took its toll.
Dying oaks stood rooted there when the mayor first called us back to “look and leave.” I looked at them. They were twisted, denuded, wearing their trauma for all to see. Then the city axed them and planted more. Ten years later those saplings have quadrupled in size, on a beeline to the canopy that shades the road.
By the shores of the Big Lake, one shady survivor has become the park’s Zen Tree, its branches draped with wind chimes whose deep gongs reassure us: “I’m okay, you’re okay, it’s past.” And then, a little farther down the path, a Katrina tree rescinds all that. It’s as if there had been a third choice then, when the arborists determined who would live and who would die: a “maybe” or an “other,” an “almost dead,” a “wait and see.” The gamblers lost. Amid the survivors this one pokes up like a bad dream, frazzled, failing to thrive. When I look at it, the storm comes back. I can almost hear the wind blow.
By the art museum, where massive oaks once lined the road, someone lost all hope and clear-cut the lot of them, planting in their stead that anti-oak, the crepe myrtle, slender-bodied, bush as much as tree. Someone played it safe.
In the neighborhoods, on the other hand, people dreamed big—too big. They swung for the fences, building Hummer-houses on bungalow lots. Or going for a land-grab and ending up with an estate. My former house was the fourth from the veterinary clinic. Now it’s the second. One neighbor spread out on the three lots north of mine. The clinic ballooned in its former space as if, having given up on small pets, it now deals in ungulates. Down the street the friendly little school with its tiled depictions of nursery rhymes now looms above its marquee. I can’t imagine a kindergartener’s first day at this place, how scary that would be.
My coffee house, next to the vet’s, has kept its footprint, except that it’s a Starbucks now. There’s that same side door I would enter through when it was Coffee and Company, and we’d go there after soccer games to pick up a lentil plate, too tired to cook. When it first went up, I noticed the racing stripe above eye level, then lettered beneath it the word “Katrina.” Immediately, I understood. That’s the water line, the mark of the lake-lap overhead. My house had a real one, just along the porch lights; every house in Lakeview did. We hardly need a “lest we forget.” I like to think it’s empathy, a corporation’s version of “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Here in Mid City houses wear their storm-signs too. Every several blocks one flashes the X spray-painted by the National Guard back in mid-September, 2005. I’m not sure why. I couldn’t wait to blot mine out when I lived in my son’s house just after the storm. I ended up painting his entire house just to cover up that bit of blight.
Now, strolling my grandson, I encounter on some tidy street, a house encrypted with that selfsame code. It’s like coming upon a Katrina tree, or a ghost bike propped up on a city street. To me, it’s a kind of wallowing or maybe a sign of survivor’s guilt: “The lake might have passed me by, but I was here too, and I’ve got proof.”
One day as I was pushing Andrés down the sidewalk, a woman came out to say hello, as strangers here are wont to do. “Wow, what color are those eyes?” she asked. “Well,” I answered, “I’m not sure. They’re not blue and they’re not brown. I guess they’re grey.”
She took a closer look. “Lake Pontchartrain eyes,” she proclaimed.
And once she said that, I saw it too, a water line almost to his rooftop, a strange murky marker on this new iteration, this boy who, having missed it all, still carries the lake in the color of his eyes.
At the end of that movie, Dottie and Kit are parting ways, Dottie to marry and leave the league, Kit to play on. “Lay off the high ones,” Dottie advises. “I like the high ones,” Kit replies. And there’s the rub. I am at once the character Dottie, who abandoned ship after the storm, and Kit who, despite herself, can’t lay off.
Before my lease runs out and I return to Tucson, I have three weeks to walk the city: long, hot out-and-backs from the southern boundary of City Park all the way to the river, an hour away. Toward the end, just about to Decatur, I reach a kind of tipping point, my footfalls in synch with the beating of my heart, the sweat spilling into my eyes. And in that rhythm, in this space, I say to myself: “Here your city, baby. Here it is.”
Sally Cole is a retired English teacher who lived in New Orleans for twenty-eight years before relocating to Tucson after Katrina. She has written about this in a memoir, Leaving New Orleans: An Unsettling Tale and about her hometown of Tempe, Arizona, in a local history/memoir called Alligators in the Baby Pool: Remembering Tempe Beach.