Six Years In Exile

I’m no longer around the corner from a tasty snowball, or an short hour’s drive away from red clay.  Maryland is my home.  It almost feels like home now. I’ve made new friends.  One of my favorite things to do is watch those new friends mingle with my old ones.  It’s almost always a good fit. Times like that make me think I’m not so different from the girl who drove away in a beat up Celica almost six years ago.

Not being able to go to your regular haunts makes feeling like the same girl quite difficult.  Conveying the betrayal I felt, and continue to feel, is difficult.  They could rebuild that city brick for brick, and the fear that it could happen again still wouldn’t be removed.  When people who’ve visited and love my home say, “It will never be the same again,” I agree, but for totally different reasons.  They think Mardi Gras and to their credit, even the goodness of the people of New Orleans.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  It’s just an overly broad testimony regarding the shift in New Orleans.

I can sit here and tell you the story of the piece of crepe myrtle tree that my mother begged my grandmother to give her for almost two years.  My grandmother passed away always saying she would let her have a piece, but never got around to doing it.  When she passed away, my mother took a tiny piece of that tree home in remembrance of her and planted it in the middle of our small lawn.  For three summers, she sat hopeful for any sign of that tree bearing life, and for three summers, it didn’t.  Then one spring, for no reason at all, we saw flower after flower bloom on the tree that was more of a silent rebellion than an adornment.  In the years after my mother’s passing, I would drive past the tree.  Once I had children of my own, driving past “Gramma’s Tree” became part of our daily trip home.

I can explain in great detail why this tree was important.  You may even feel a tug at your heart when you realize that I’m referring to this tree in the past tense, because it wasn’t strong enough to survive the storm.  You won’t know the quiet joy I felt each time I saw it bloom.  The thing that helped Mama remember her mother, helped me remember Mama.  Those blooms being forever lost is why New Orleans will never be the same to me.  Not being able to see a long lost friend without discussing how we lived [or tried to] in the time warp that was September 2005, when everything was uncertain, is why it won’t be the same.  The thought that some friends are long lost because they didn’t make it makes being the same impossible.

Through it all, I’m thankful that I made it through.  I give thanks for being able to relay the story behind the tree to my children.  They choose to maintain strong ties to their roots.  I feel like I’m doing something right.  They met the lady who used to sell me $0.27 Buttermilk Drops at McKenzie’s when I was their age during a visit home, and matched my excitement.  Things like that make it bearable.

It’s different.  I’m different.  But we’re still standing, getting stronger by the day.

Last year, I wrote this post, recalling my experience.  I’m not in a place where I can reread the entire thing myself, but I think if you haven’t read it, you should.  Read it, if for no other reason than to understand that we weren’t these exotic party people who are now forever lost, but real flesh and blood humans who had a sense of home like everybody else.  But I will cut and paste the end, because it bears repeating:

Nola.com said it best:

       New Orleans will forever exist as two cities: The one that existed before that date, and the one after.

And even though that sums it up best, it still doesn’t begin to approach the actuality of New Orleans, because it’s more than a city.  It’s more than two.  New Orleans begins in the bones.  It’s hard drinking and hard loving.  The knot you get in the pit of your stomach when you know you must leave soon; that sigh you give when you plan your return – that’s New Orleans claiming you.  It’s the necessity, not the novelty, of getting your liquor “to-go.”  New Orleans is listening to Jim Henderson call that fucking field goal 375 times and getting a lump in your throat every damn time.  It’s being separated by two degrees from everything and everyone you need to know.  When you realize that Nagin was wrong about New Orleans being chocolate – it’s black, gold, green and purple.  It’s the tears in my eyes as I type this post.

Even with all that goes wrong with my city, every year, I have that long conversation with myself, where I consider moving back.  Ultimately, I come to the realization that setting up shop here has been good for all of us, and I have a phenomenal support system in my new home.  Yet, only a foolish tree would hate its roots.

I know what it means to be New Orleans.

If you had any sense, you’d wish you were as lucky.

So before I go to bed and pray for the lost, I’ll toast to surviving painful changes, forgetful mothers, persistent daughters and memorial crepe myrtle trees.

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Still Knows What it Means…Five Years Later

The rules probably dictate that I wait until the actual anniversary to write a commemorative post. However, two things are at work here: 1) I prefer to spend that day celebrating my blessings rather than mourning my losses; and 2) I’m not much for following rules, especially those set forth by that beyotch Katrina.

Friday, August 26, 2005

The night before I evacuated was one of the best nights of my life.  My baby was going to start school that Tuesday, I had settled on going back to school in January, and had abandoned my plans to move to the East Coast.  Life in my hometown was looking up, so I figured I could stick it out.  My girls and I piled into Big Pimpin (R.I.P.), had a good time at True Brew’s Poetry night, hooted, hollered, sang and danced.  On the way out we heard a random conversation:

“Yeah man, they’re saying this one might really hit us.”
“They’re always saying that shit. You leavin?”
“I dunno.”

We got breakfast.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Finge and The Bug were already at my homegirl’s crib, fast asleep, so I decided to bunk there for the night.  The TV was on, and there was a weather report.  At 3:30 a.m.?  On a Saturday? The radar shows this gigantic storm that is basically on track to swallow up my city.  Eh, old hat.  I gave the “whatever” shrug, and passed out.  You can’t evacuate without sleep.  Once I woke up, I saw that I’d missed two calls from my dad.  I was flat broke, getting paid on Wednesday, and had no interest in participating in a BS round trip evacuation, but the Big Chief was alarmed, so I had no choice.  I halfheartedly threw a few things in a weekender (three outfits for each of us), then had to convince my younger sister in much the same manner my father convinced me to get out of the city.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Once we arrived in Shreveport, my sister’s in laws made us feel warm and welcomed.  They cooked, and they cooked, and they COOKED.  (All told, I gained 15 pounds before I left Shreveport.)   Each news report we watched was more ominous than the last, to the point that I stopped watching them.  If this ruthless stranger, Katrina, hit New Orleans directly, the city would be destroyed.  We’ve heard this before.  A week before the storm, when it would inevitably turn just a smidge to the right or left.  Never the night before.  It was too much for us to bear, so we stopped watching the reports.  We were safe, and no amount of news coverage would stop the events of the following day.

Monday, August 29, 2005

The storm came.  It did what storms do.  Then it went.  New Orleans did not receive the devastating direct hit that stole my appetite the night before.  Coastal Mississippi was demolished.  The Twin Span, a bridge that had always given me the willies which crossing it on the way to Mississippi, looked like a checkerboard of stone and water.  There were reports of loved ones being torn from the arms of one another due the storm surge out of the Gulf of Mexico.  It was heartbreaking to watch.  One man watched his wife basically just surrender to the surge, shouting for him to take care of the children.  I prayed for them, and planned to send aid the following weekend – when I planned on returning home.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The damned phone wouldn’t stop ringing.  It’s nine o’clock, I have no idea why everyone is up. Since my kids were up, and I promised everyone I’d cook breakfast, I decided to get it in gear.  Everyone was plastered to the television in silence.  There was water.  Everywhere.  Everyone speaks of the three breaches.  In actuality, there were three main breaches.  In the first twenty-four hours there were 28 confirmed breaches — ultimately, there were 53.

The death toll for New Orleans alone was 1,577.  Law enforcement and first responders were traumatized.  Two police officers committed suicide; others just got in their cars and drove away.  Even the most basic actions were mired in chaos.  Reaching the 504 area code was virtually impossible, so we could only text.  The rest, you could see on the news.  Everyone watched people go hungry, go thirsty.  My friend sat on a bridge for three days without food or water.  People chanted, begging for provisions.  I watch my local, state and federal government fail its own citizens, as they spent time either bickering, or issuing undeserved kudos.  I watched public figures make disparaging remarks about their own constituents, and deciding who was and was not fit to return.  Basically, the people who kept the city running on their sweat and ability to swallow shit we undesirable.

Til Eternity…

In the coming months, the corrupt infrastructure that was as ingrained in New Orleans as Mardi Gras and red bean Mondays was put center stage for the entire nation to see.  The simple question, “Why didn’t they just leave?” was revealed to have answers far more complex than anyone could have anticipated.  The news was inundated with accusations, resignations and indictments.  There was no power, and no clear picture of when the city would even be inhabitable.  I made the heartbreaking choice not to return, and went back to the plan I’d made earlier in the year to relocate to the Washington, D.C. area.

Nola.com said it best:

New Orleans will forever exist as two cities: The one that existed before that date, and the one after.

And even though that sums it up best, it still doesn’t begin to approach the actuality of New Orleans, because it’s more than a city.  It’s more than two.  New Orleans begins in the bones.  It’s hard drinking and hard loving.  The knot you get in the pit of your stomach when you know you must leave soon; that sigh you give when you plan your return – that’s New Orleans claiming you.  It’s the necessity, not the novelty, of getting your liquor “to-go.”  New Orleans is listening to Jim Henderson call that fucking field goal 375 times and getting a lump in your throat every damn time.  It’s being separated by two degrees from everything and everyone you need to know.  When you realize that Nagin was wrong about New Orleans being chocolate – it’s black, gold, green and purple.  It’s the tears in my eyes as I type this post.

Even with all that goes wrong with my city, every year, I have that long conversation with myself, where I consider moving back.  Ultimately, I come to the realization that setting up shop here has been good for all of us, and I have a phenomenal support system in my new home.  Yet, only a foolish tree would hate its roots.

I know what it means to be New Orleans.

If you had any sense, you’d wish you were as lucky.