last night i was up on my roof looking for a break from the humidity that had permeated the past 3 days. it started raining. it was a spring shower, lost in the end of august. the raindrops were tiny and plentiful, falling gently through the warm air. they succeeded in soaking everything in a matter of seconds.
it was the remnants of hurricane katrina.
a sad echo of what she had been just 2 days before.
i am having a really difficult time with this hurricane – everyone i know who lives or has family in new orleans is okay. i’ve heard from them. there’s one person i’m still very worried about – he isn’t able to write email. he isn’t able to phone. he isn’t able to walk or speak. and i have to hope that his caretakers got him out of town, out of his home – his home which is his sole posession in conjunction with the trust his father left for him when he died. and i’m worried about the city.
oh, the city.
i went to college in new orleans. new orleans never held the party appeal that it holds for so many. i never wanted to experience mardi gras, and only stayed in town for one. and i stayed holed up in my apartment nearly the whole time. i didn’t really want to go there at first – but they had my degree program (not everyone does), and a good one at that. their financial aid offer was FAR better than colorado state’s.
so off i went. it was my first time experiencing REAL humidity (and i mean FAR more than anything i’ve experienced since). i went to school, i met some people, but i didn’t love it. i made some friends, i started to love school, i found a great coffee shop that played amazing acoustic music, but i didn’t love it. the first time i stepped on a frog on the sidewalk, i hated it. the first time i saw a palmetto bug (think: enormous flying cockroach) i nearly died of a heart attack.
then i left for the summer, and went to europe for 2 months. most of the time i was in france, in spain, in my beloved ireland, i couldn’t wait to get back. when i got back to the US i went to california and met some friends at the grand canyon. then we had a grand rendez-vous in new orleans. that’s when i started to love it. it was mostly situational, i believe. i met jake, who turned out to be one of my best friends. i’m lucky enough right now that he lives in new york, and i’ve seen him a few times since i’ve been here.
that fall, we had a hurricane evacuation. hurricane earl. there were jokes tossed to and fro about the hurricane with the redneck name driving us out of town. we went to greenville, sc, to asheville, nc, and spent a night at lake toxaway, nc. (some of my favorite pictures i’ve ever taken were on that trip) there were madlibs in the car, singing, and it was an adventure. we watched jim cantore on the weather channel in his north face jacket waiting for earl to hit. and hurricane earl never happened. he went east and dealt a blow to mississippi, instead.
we just got 10 free days out of classes. we came back, and surveyed the tape left on the windows. not a week later, it started raining. and raining and raining. all friday classes after 10 am were cancelled. tropical storm frances came to town. we left all the tape on the windows, and gathered in my bedroom, mina, jake, lynne, david, and i. maybe colleen and/or alan, i don’t really remember. i was the only one with a cell phone. that day, the rain brought the water levels up to the porch. there was flooding. rockstar matt lost his basement apartment and most of his rock star gear.
as that year went on, i grew to fiercely love new orleans. the enormous trees down st. charles avenue, the functional touristyness of the streetcars, the little neighborhoods with attitude unto themselves, the people with more personality than can usually fit into one human being. i had a cajun anatomy professor who weighed about 350 lbs, wore jeans, a plaid flannel shirt, and suspenders every day. in lieu of a pointer, he used a fishing rod.
there were heartbreaking areas, too. for every opulent plantation style mansion, you had to go just 2 blocks to find people living 2 tax brackets lower, if they had the jobs to pay taxes. there was crime out the wazoo. abject poverty that i’ve never seen in the US, with the exception of the families i worked with in maine. there was a housing project that i saw once on the south side of the river. it’s been long enough that i can’t even remember the name of the town (not weswego, though). it looked like something straight out of a post-apocalyptic/nuclear fallout film. the building itself was absolutely blighted. it was called something to the effect of “Fisher Gardens” and the tagline was “A Vision of the Future.” complete with small children playing with small objects in a weed, broken glass, and needle infested vacant lot right next to the crack deal going down.
my last summer in new orleans was spectacular. coffee and reading on maple street. we had a porch day, wherein we sat on the porch of the house from sunrise to sunset, watching the people walk by, the tour buses stopping at our house periodically. walking around city park. going to whole foods and passing the purple people and the purple people house. the dollar theater in kenner. esplanade mall. and hal.
oh, my darling hal. he’s the one i reference above – rock star matt and i were his caregivers. the finest heart i’ve ever known beats inside the man who speaks not a word with his mouth but speaks volumes with his eyes, with his piano, with his love. the only photos i have of people framed and mounted on my walls at home are of hal.
whenever i meet people who are from new orleans, who have lived in that bizzare, magical city, i feel an instant connection. the people who remember schwegmann’s and K&B, who know that counties are for other states – la louisiane uses parishes, the ones who know that the best book store in the world is on maple street, the best coffee co-op is on daneel, that you can play scrabble there with one of your favorite musicians, who know how to spell tchoupitoulas, have seen shows at howlin’ wolf and the mermaid lounge, who know how to pronounce carondelet, who know a good bit of lagniappe when they see it, who know that dock st is near hickory and dickory but not the water, who have made jokes about the huey p. long bridge all the while praying that it wouldn’t crumble under their car, the ones that ask “hey baby, where y’at?”.
and i look at these pictures that are being plastered all over the news and try to reconcile them with the pictures in my memory. and i think of the people in fisher gardens, in the ninth ward. what happens when you make the transition from having virtually nothing to having nothing at all? what about the half million people who have lived there that have lost their homes? their families? their lives? their critical infrastructure has been reduced to practically nothing.
i can’t help but think of the diseases that will spread from the standing water and the dead bodies… typhoid, cholera, dysentery. not to mention the water moccasins.
you hear the stories of the looting. the shots being fired at rescue helicopters. two parishes have tried to declare martial law but cannot because of the state constitution.
where do you begin rebuilding a city that took 300 years and 4 countries to make in the first place? how can it go from nothing back to anything?
will it ever be the same? of course not. there will always be the memory of katrina. katrina who finally upstaged her big sister, camille. she’s the one of legends now. the one that broke the levees. that killed thousands, the one that displaced hundreds of thousands.
i stood on the roof in the rain last night for quite some time. watching the water fall in a mere memory of what it had been, what it had meant to so many thousands of people just hours before. i was, for the first time in years, overwhelmed by my own thoughts of gratitude for my privileges.
i don’t have much. i don’t get paid actual money. but what i can give i will, because i at least have something. i have too many pairs of shoes. i have more clothes than i actually wear. i have a bed to sleep in, a family that loves me. i am blessed richly with friendship. so i can do something.
won’t you do something, too?