Thursday, August 27, 2015

Be A New Orleanian Wherever You Are

The radio played Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” I started to cry waiting for the red light to change. It’s been ten years to the day since the Friday night a group of us ate dinner at G.W. Fins, drank the champagne of beers out of plastic champagne trays (Miller Hi-Life for the uninitiated) at Lucy’s Retired Surfer Bar before ending the night in the courtyard of Pat O’s. We teased our friend about having to go to the bank’s recovery center the next day. He worked in IT for the bank and always had a trip to Shreveport when there was a storm in the Gulf. 
Have I changed since then? Perhaps. Defintely. Not at all. I have a new career, a child, lived in four more places, but I still can be the same person who drove out of New Orleans on the Saturday of August 28, 2005 with three days worth of clothes, my husband, my West highland terrier –Cole  (for John Coltrane), and my wedding album in my overheating car. 

I forgot my toothbrush. It's comforting now to know that I can survive anywhere with very little. Like thousands of other people, we drove to a hotel in Houston, thinking it would only be for a few nights. Unlike thousands of others, we were among the lucky ones. Our apartment was virtually undamaged and I had a job. The bank I worked for had a place for me at work by 9:00 a.m. on Monday morning, figuring out how we should talk to our customers. We all thought we'd dodged a bullet. Then, I heard someone yell, "The levee's gone." I popped my little gopher head out of my cube and looked around. The two others from New Orleans popped up as well. This changed everything. No one was going home on Tuesday.

Because my husband and I lived just over the Parish line, we were allowed back into Jefferson Parish for one day to pick up things from our home. We stopped at the business banking center just outside the city to collect some files and my husband's car - parked three stories up for safety. We walked onto the dark floor and saw light coming from a corner office. "There's power!" I must have said.
"No. That's the sky." My husband answered.

I always go back to that moment when I underestimate life. "No. That's the sky." Life will throw at your more in a day than you could handle when you woke up. By the time you go to sleep, you're better for having had to look at whatever reality the day gave you. The sight of National Guard Tanks and troops on Clearview are my only understanding of what it must be like to live in an occupied territory. Nothing is real and nothing is yours. Everyone is afraid. Many of those men and women had families strewn across the country, lost homes themselves and yet there they were - saving their homeland. To this day, a nation owes them its gratitude. We drove back to Houston that afternoon and stayed until the end of December.

I moved away from New Orleans in June of 2006 for my husband’s schooling. It was the hardest move I’ve ever made. The last night in town, I ate dinner at Jacque’s Imo’s. Jack Leonardi came over to the table, “Ah, the last supper. We’ve had a lot of those,” he said as he scratched his beard. I choked back disappointment and regret. There isn’t a good word to describe what it feels like to leave New Orleans. People have tried. Louis Armstrong “Knows What It Means to Miss New Orleans.” Kermit Ruffins reminds us, “when you’re feeling down and out and there’s no way out, you get dropped off in New Orleans.” But how do I explain this to someone who hasn't’ lived there?
New Orleans is more than a place to me. It’s a Universe. The air in the city, that humid, muggy steam. It’s a ghost constantly touching your shoulders, sometimes suffocating you, sometimes tapping you just lightly enough to know it's there.  There’s music everywhere. It sustains you. But what’s really different about New Orleans is the people. For me, it was the first time I found people I trusted enough to let myself be myself in public. It was probably the only time. It works there because the people I met didn’t simply identify with their work or their accomplishments, they identified with what made them happy – being in a great city, eating great food, listening to great music, and being together. It didn’t matter how much money you made or what car you drove. Somehow we were all in together. 

I remember watching fireworks over the Mississippi River on New Year’s Eve 2005. We came back from Houston that morning darned if we weren’t to start the new year in the place we loved more than anywhere. With each boom, another exclamation point added itself to the rebirth of the place we’d seen take such trauma.  The last six months I spent in New Orleans were among
the happiest in my life. I knew we were leaving and I felt guilty and sad about that but I also let myself say “Yes” to everything the city offered – every festival, every restaurant, every re-opening.

Our bank was acquired by a much larger national bank. We had great laughs when our new boss from far away called to ask me if everyone had the flu? “The Jazz Fest flu.” I replied. It was the local’s Thursday of Jazz Fest. Our office was empty. He was a good man but he’d never be one of us – the ones who stayed until Bruce Springsteen closed out the first weekend – the ones who didn’t waste time arguing about how to recognize Mardi Gras in a national company (it didn’t matter. No one was coming to work that day so policy was irrelevant) – the ones who cannot abide a sazaurac made with anything but Peychaud’s bitters – the ones who think that all anyone in heaven eats is Crawfish Monica. So even though, I miss that city that care forgot, I am lucky. My life is blessed with the ability to “Be A New Orleanian Wherever You Are,” and to know exactly what that means. 

Perhaps my greatest honor, was bringing my own child back to the place I love so much. She was four and thought Mardi Gras was a party the city put on just for her. It was my birthday so I told her, "No it's a party they put on just for me. And the whole world too." Many of my friends in Northen California raised an eyebrow, "You're taking your child to... Mardi Gras?" "Yes." I replied. New Orelans and Katrina taught me not to explain. Those who need an explanation will never understand and those who don't understand already. She sat atop her father's shoulders collecting throws, she saw the white tiger at the Audobon zoo, she played with the children of my dear friends and she learned to love a place much earlier than I ever did. How lucky she is that the city picked itself up and made a path out of the flood water?