Thursday, November 03, 2005

All we had was that funny feeling

This is something I tried to write several times...apparently some part of me wasn't ready to let it out. It doesn't really matter now...but it was the next part of the story of what the hell happened to us. The date above is the first time I took a stab at it. The real date today is June 27, 2006...Your Ambassador

The weather had improved enough to move ahead with the next challenge--getting the plywood off the windows to get air in the building and let it begin to dry out (and hopefully create some ventilation...August is still August, hurricane or no...).

M and I ventured out onto the long balcony to start manually removing all the screws to get the boards down, when J said he was heading home to get his cordless rechargeable screwdriver from his apartment. M and I continued on in his absence, bouyed by the knowledge that this task was going to get much easier on his return. Minutes dragged by and then more than an hour and no J...

We finished the task at hand by ourselves and still no J...another hour or so and still no J...another hour and we were more than panic-sticken...where the hell was he? A little later he turned up, not quite understanding the dark current swirling through the condo...yes, we were relieved that he was ok but where the hell had he been? Passed out at his apartment. I have never been quite so quietly angry in a very long time, but that was nothing compared to the balancing act that M was attempting between absolute relief that J was ok and utter, paralyzing frustration and anger with J's apparent lack of judgement or concern for the greater good. Yes, we all slept poorly the night before and yes, we had all had a couple cocktails to get us through the storm, but we had no idea how much J had been drinking to help him to deal with all the many levels of crap he perceived he was facing. Funny, the friends we reach for in our darkest moments, eh?

This rolled over us and through us...and then the next obvious task was organizing dinner for the 8 remaining people in the whole condo. R and R from downstairs fired up the charcoal grill--and dinner of burgers and hot dogs and chips and such was thrown together with much nattering and fussing and awkward moments--one of the more obtuse (read fuck-head) residents was not so quietly inquiring as to the arrangement of M-me-J, when I leaned in and loudly said, "I'm the new boyfriend. Any other questions?" J resumed drinking through the evening and assured us that, given that we were all a little shaken by some of the "noises" we were already hearing, he would take the first watch of the night and then wake one of us around 3AM to take over. About an hour after the rest of us turned in, J passed out again--as L discovered when she came out to check on some new odd noises downstairs. So much for security issues.

The next day, the residents of B. House and their sundry associates (J and me) hit the street in front of the condo--slinging branches and trash up on the neutral ground to help clear the way for whatever services might need to travel our way to restore power to the neighborhood. With an odd assortment of rakes and shovels and hacksaws and M's truck, we managed to clear all of our block and then turned our attention to the catch basin for the drain nearest the front entrance. No wonder the street fills with water there when the rain comes at a its customary pace--there was so much trash and debris in their, stewing in the late summer swill that comes of stormy runoff.

It was during this part of the day that I spotted a police car slowly working its way down our end of Bourbon Street. My initial reaction turned out to be right, tho' no one including M believed me at first. "Guys, the cops are looking for gas tanks they can siphon out of." I had been paying special attention (read: anal) to the mayor's announcements about the citywide state of emergency and martial law--enforcement officials can commandeer a building, vehicle or its contents as they deem necessary. After a moment of doubt on everyone else's parts, we approached the cops and they admitted that they absolutely were working the neighborhood, seeking the older cars and vans and trucks that would be easiest to get into and liberate gas from. M had to talk them out of taking his, saying truthfully that if necessary, it would be our only way out of town. (On reflection, we never saw those two officers again and we have come to believe that they may have been looking for enough fuel to get themselves out of town and therefore become deserters. Mere speculation, but if that is what came to pass, may the Lord and their fellow officers have mercy on them.)

Finished with the morning grunt work, we grabbed a quick bite to each and then headed over to my apartment to collect the last of my food stores and bottled water and candles and everything else that might be of some remote usefulness to us all. We did discover during the course of the day that the condo still had land-line phone access, as long as you had a non-cordless phone...let's here it for the stone age! Chats with our friends B and V prompted us to head out in M's truck to not only traverse the city inspecting their respective homes, but also to ransack their kitchens for anything edible with their blessings (it was understood that any liquor not hidden or locked up was fair game too--martial law, you know). On the way to B's place, we retraced our path so many times due to the not-surprising number of downed trees and power lines and to the vast stretches of standing water through the vicinity. We finally got headed in the right direction, only to discover that the main road to B's flat was full...full of people and cars and water...more and more water...too much to risk forcing the truck through on a fool's errand.

So we turned around and headed back to the condo, only to encounter our first taste of the looting that would come to brand and stain the city so in the hours and days ahead. Breaking into the grocery store and Walgreen's for the necessities was something we could ultimately rationalize for anyone who suddenly had nothing. Were we among those ranks yet? No, thankfully...but it could have so easily been us. Then, there on the corner...people crawling out of the hole they had ripped in the side of the Beauty World...bags and boxes and armloads of supplies and product and weaves and wouldn't be the last time that day that my stomach would lurched in a way I'd never known before then.

Shaken by this, I was beginning to decompress in my head and physically started rocking in my seat...when I realized that M wasn't returning to the condo, but rather headed uptown toward V's pad. Nononononononononono I can't I can't take me back I can't do this I will not die this way don't make me do it I don't want to die this way why are you doing this to me...None of this I verbalized and this is the first I have made mention of it since. On and on we drove, near to the river as we could along Tchoupitoulas Street, driving the wrong way on one way streets at times to avoid the largest of the fallen trees...Other than downed trees and the buildings, there was much less catastrophic damage than we had expected to see. A new ugly parking garage which we all hated had been partially ripped away much to our very dark glee...favorite ancient haunts of ours, still standing as they had for more than a hundred years...and then the Wal-Mart...scores of peole, trailing away with shopping carts overflowing with everything...absolutely everything...clothes and food and guns and toys and bikes and TVs and stereos and absolutely everything.

We drove on, quietly appalled, but unhindered by human confrontation. At last our journey led us past the Zoo, which we could see little of other than the morass of fallen trees and abandoned vehicles. Moments later, we uneventfully arrived at V's house, grateful to discover that the China Ball tree smack in front of the house had fallen JUST to the side of it, ever so slightly grazing it but doing no discernible damage. The little victories are huge at a time like that...and then across the street, the little grocery run by a fabulous and kind man of Vietnamese heritage who kept the store name of Singleton's was spotted to be open--and we scored some more food and water and most importantly (tho' I could not have known this then) a carton of cigarettes for J. After a quick assessment of the treasure that V's kitchen held, we took the lot and her toilet paper and candles and a stack of her best towels and hit the road for the French Quarter.

This is still only the day after Hurricane Katrina made landfall over Southeast Louisiana. We did not leave for two more days.

This does not begin to answer for you as to where J and M and I are at now in this unexpected friendship...because the story gets much worse and I hate myself for some of the things I thought at the time, because I know the reasons now...but there is so much story that I will try to continue telling it if I can bear to pick up this thread again...

Not that the truth really matters...

In my arrogant hours prior to the arrival of Hurricane Katrina, I emailed everyone in my address book the following:

Hello, everyone...

I am emailing you from our fortress in New Orleans where we are very prepared to ride out the storm that is approaching the Gulf South. We made the decision to stay when the city made its mandatory evacuation order this morning at an unfathomable point--the interstates are so gridlocked and almost all the gas stations are already tapped. We have provisions for more than a week's stay here and several other people in the building with whom to pool resources and energy. The building itself is high and surrounded by other large strong buildings--this part of New Orleans is higher than most (not saying much, I know) but we are as safe as possible and could not rationalize trying to flee in the heavy traffic and find ourselves trapped on the interstate when the worst of the storm comes. And it will come...

This storm will have some major effects on South Louisiana, and we want to be here to be able to do something about it, rather than be trapped away from here for week or two, not knowing the state of affairs. Light those candles, say those prayers and keep a close watch on the news. I can be reached here as long as my work cell phone can be charged and that number is 504 *** ****. Please do not call in unnecessarily. Be assured that we will take no stupid chances and that we are in a position to make the best of what will likely be a very bad situation. I will contact everyone through email as soon as I can when there is news to tell.

It's going to being a long stretch here--be patient and I will be in touch as much as possible. Talk to everyone soon. Love, Ken

That was Sunday afternoon, August 28th, 2005. Dear God, what were we thinking?

The journey that would follow our decision to stay goes on...and now it's time to tell the whole story.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

This is where we began...

To prepare for the storm, we spent Saturday morning in a mind-numbing line, waiting to buy plywood to cover the upper windows on the condo and then dashed home to make as many contacts as we could before settling in for an evening of take-out, good wine, and somewhat uneasy sleep. Sunday, we got up and made another dash to the market for a buttload of supplies and such with which to ride out the storm as we had done so many times before and then hurried back to the condo to "get ready." Hahaha...

J. called during this later time and M. asked me if I had a problem with him coming over to stay with us. "No problem here," I lied. "It's a hurricane--where else is he going to go."

Two truths: I did not want him there, owing to a great mistrust from the previous three months' history AND he did have other options that would have kept him safe and sound through the storm and out of harm's way. How could I know that lying about something like that could change my life forever?

M. and I started working like madmen, trying to organize food and water and batteries and toilet paper and people and clean clothes and an old farty dog and several flighty neighbors. The big focus for the afternoon was the effort of getting the plywood installed--Dr. G. from the condo is afraid of heights so he was of minimal help--but we at least predrilled all the holes in the boards and laid everything out to expedite the process. We got the 8 windows covered as best we could and then returned to the other internal issues of resources. J. appeared later with some of the essentials (propane, rum and cigarettes) and the evening progressed--a light dinner and a movie (ironically enough The Life Aquatic...). We all retired for the evening, as restless as we were--having paused the movie too many times to count to check on the status of Hurricane Katrina...reassuring each other that she was beginning to wobble thus and drift there and speed through and vear away and on and on and on...

Some time during the night, the wind picked up and started humming through the closed shutters to the french doors. If Satan played the harmonica, I think it would sound something like that. We all woke early, 5:30ish and were instantly glued to the images on the TV, showing us that the worst of the worst was just going to skirt us but it would be bad...very bad before it improved and to be prepared for the worst case scenario. Soon enough, the power winked out and we were plunged into that eerie semi-darkness that rarely occurs outside of storms like this. The wind continued its rage all day, along with the seventh circle muzak...branches creeked and swayed and shuddered and finally snapped...trees were simply denuded in a matter of minutes during the strongest gusts...and all we could do is make small talk and check the walls and doors and sashes for possible leaks and remind each other to eat something because you won't be of any use to us if you fall over faint from exhaustion. Strangely, we were each able to collapse at different times for tense naps that were welcome yet hardly refreshing.

After several hours--this was the beginning of the suspension of time as we knew it--things eased up and we braved a look outside and around the building and throughout the neighborhood. Can this really be? There were so many trees, bare as empty coatracks...branches strewn about carelessly like giant lincoln logs, thicker than our waists...covering our beautiful avenue with such contradictory destruction and devastation that it was scarcely registering at all. Time and place and focus were removed from any recognizable structure and still have yet to return. What we did not know of the worst the city would face in the very near future was ultimately, we know now, one of the greatest mercies we would receive in all of this. The unthinkable was about to become our reality...

The Song of Unquenchable Desire

It seems unfair and demeaning of me to use references to wars that I did not live through, and yet, the only thing that my mind returns to is every picture of every bombed out city in Europe through to the end of World War II...this is the thing that I cannot strike from my mind's eye, now that I am back out of the remains of the city of New Orleans. We drove in by a different route this time, finally able to come in along Interstate's funny that only now, I remember the first Louisiana joke I ever learned during my early days there..."What's the only good thing to ever come out of Alabama? I-10!" Not so funny anymore..

Our trip brought us through Slidell and then finally into New Orleans East and afforded us the views of monstrous dumping sites burgeoning with debris of innumerable sources and unstoppable stench. Passing exit after exit in the East, we could see every surface was covered with a ghostly (ghastly?) film...every car dealership with its wares dressed out in their finest Katrina Patina, as we have heard it called. Once marshy spots have dried up and crackled like the great salt flats, owing to the ironic fact that the region has had little to no rain since Rita skirted by. Brush fire, anyone? The wetlands have turned to prairie and lawns to deserts. We found ourselves unable to stop comparing the waterline marks from neighborhood to neighborhood, grimly speculating what it had looked like and what anyone's chances for salvaging the smallest tokens would be.

I am struggling with the idea of so much wasteland, for all that this word means now, in this once lush, pseudo-tropical purgatory...and even more with the odd, nearly desperate struggle for a kind of normality in the French Quarter. The Quarter was never normal...stop trying to do something even more unnatural to it now. Let it mourn and let it heal. What at first appears to be the spirit of initiative and the drive to rebuild are poorly masked frustration and yearning that border on not-so-quiet anger and pervasive denial. What use is there in pretending that it's all ok when it spectacularly isn't? People are returning in great numbers and businesses are reopening and there are jobs of certain kinds to be had and all of that is good...No, not just good, but wonderful and amazing and breathtaking. But give it all time to mend itself well and be ready for the wounds to need dressing for years to come. Be part of the healing...but choose the right tools, the right medicine.

New Orleans, and the rest of southeast Louisiana, has always tolerated life with a sense of an acceptable level of tragedy, knowing that each year, some hamlet would flood or a shrimp boat would sink or 500 more residents would be murdered or several more politicians would be indicted but seldom convicted or that someone's favorite restaurant would close or that the school board would find new ways to deny our students the education they deserve or another legendary musician would pass on to the next Big Gig. All of those, individually and sometimes collectively, were always all bearable...and often were the very things that allowed us to see all the other extraordinarily beautiful treasures around us, even if it was the simple, earnest hello from another local as you passed them on the street. It took me far too long to get over my initial reaction to that--you would never greet someone so idly, so carelessly, especially a stranger, in my former life in New England, without first counting the cost or benefit. For the longest time, I was sure that people were "smiling in my face, but peeing in my cocktail." I could not have been more wrong.

It is exactly that predisposition of locals (and those who eventually become locals) to engage the rest of the world, to invite y'all to nothing more than a passing pleasantry and make the day the slightest bit better for it. It is qualities like this, and the desire to take care of each other and every single person who ever set foot in our fair city, that reassure me that there will be a kind of Mardi Gras some day, that will almost but not quite entirely seem like something I remember...and that the word "debris" will take on other layers of meaning, but will eventually once again become associated with blissfully messy, gut-churning po'boys...that I will marvel at how azure blue the sky is over all the rooftops and think how very lucky I am that the city picked me to live there. To be sure, for now there is great disquiet in New Orleans, but there is also great it really any coincidence that the word "Desire" can mean so many different things to so many people on one day, and the all the same thing the next?

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