It’s now the day after. It kind of reminds me of the day after Mardi Gras when most of the city has had too much party the day before and everyone is sleeping later to nurse that pounding head and making plans to stop by the church to get the ashes on their foreheads. But this day there is one major difference: the “ashes” themselves lay in monstrous piles in front of homes in the desolate streets, that is if the home is not itself a heap of ash-like uselessness itself, something like a worn out wooden bucket filled with holes that can no longer hold the water it was never meant to contain. To see any movement—human or not—in this mass of “once was” is a welcome sight. But you won’t see much of that today. You could just as well plop yourself down with a cold Dixie—if you could find one of those—just outside St. Louis Number One and wait for someone long gone to rise from one of those ancient sepulchers. What’s even stranger, if you think about, is that’s exactly what will happen if you wait long enough. You can wax theological if you want but I’m talking more localized if you know what I mean.
Just over a month ago in the waning days of the month of August 2005, a million people packed their bags for a short vacation. The vacation turned into a month’s worth of anguish, uncertainty and devastating news reports. Okay, to put it into perspective it was no more than a December in a Saints season and the resultant angst will still last at least until well into the next year so things haven’t really changed all that much, emotionally at least. A little more intensely personal for most of us but for anyone who has been a Saints fan, today is nothing more than another glitch of a season, another “wait until next year” syndrome. And this “vacation” has turned into a Saints season in force because we will get no definitive results until next season—God forbid, even a hurricane season—and that will be the test of our mettle as it always has been now for a couple of centuries. So, it’s not that we’re not used to this.
But this time it’s a little bit different. We can go home after the Saints’ loss. This time about a million people have no home to go back to or, at least, not the one they remember. It’s much worse than the botched Carney extra point a couple of season’s ago after rallying back and then making a Hail Mary kick off return–with more lateral swishes than the Queer Eye For The Straight Guy Gang–which put the Saints into a possible tie and the chance to make the playoffs. Not that they deserved it. But New Orleans life has always been a dream of beating the odds and skirting the periphery of normalcy always knowing that luck has everything to do with existence unless you happen to be one of those who actually planned your life to a “T.” But Life has its on little way of keeping things even over the long run. This time the Big One that had been prophesied for years finally took her toll of Saints and anti-Saints fans alike. It’s a quick dose of reality that really wakens the senses, a nightmare you just never can seem to wake up from.
There are some things that are more insidious than others, especially in the realm of nightmares. It’s those horrific dreams where nothing threatening is happening that are sometimes the scariest. The big green hairy monster chasing you is obvious; you’ve seen a million Wes Craven movies and somehow your instincts should be affected but you kind of know the difference between Hollywood and reality. And, for the most part, dreams turned into nightmares remain warmly in that realm of “willful suspension of disbelief” which is part of the entertainment equation. We all like nightmares because somewhere deep within us some Jungian archetype craves the need to be scared. Some people strap bungee cords around their ankles. Others jump from airplanes with nylon chutes for fun. And about a million plus people chose to live in the New Orleans region just for kicks. Bad things mostly happen to other person, at least that’s what we used to believe with conviction. But that’s not what was really scary in this nightmare of a return to home just about one month after Katrina.
It was much more the nightmare which scares me the most. It’s that isolated tinge of being all alone in that city that once bustled 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Yes, those TV images across the screen for the past month were horrible to look at with water as deep as most New Orleanians are tall even in their above sea level living rooms. The images of people being rescued and even those who were not rescued but chose to stay in the “safety” of the Superdome or Convention Center. That was scary but that was not real because I saw that on TV, the same instrument I use to watch Arnold Schwarzeneggar or Tom Cruise or Jennifer Lopez or Julia Roberts and that ain’t real. What is reality is riding through the streets of New Orleans after the waters have subsided, eerily resembling 6 a.m. Ash Wednesday morning just after daybreak, then 6 hours with the sun a full azimuth later still resembling the lack of movement typical of the day after Fat Tuesday. Imagine, if you will, a freshly dressed corpse, the shell of a body now free of the disease which helped to extinguish the life it once had. You notice the mortician has done a fairly nice job of restoring some of the life look back into the deceased by removing some of the bad. Deep within you’re hoping the deceased will slowly or suddenly—it doesn’t really matter as long as life returns—spring back into motion. But also deep within there is that woeful dread which you know is the fate of our mortal coil that eventually all things must come to an end and return to the dust it originated from. Those fluids have been removed from the “body” and what is left behind is nothing more than a shell of what was just a month before.
That’s the dilemma of returning to New Orleans on this day. The “corpse” lay dormant flushed of the hellish liquid that drowned her once lively spirit. She is now devoid of any influence, both desirable and undesirable, as she lay in wait for the promised resurrection. All you can see as you ride through these vacant streets and gutted homes is a ghost of dashed dreams and virulent destruction and you wonder if you should hope for a cure or a peaceful interment. And what will the immediate future yield? Will it be a gracious Easter after a penitent Lenten season or will life return as normal complete with all the problems that plagued the city before her demise? That’s the genesis of the nightmarish vision which rivals any Stephen King novel if he were to write the ending of this Katrina story.
Ride down any street and you see the measure of what we are up against. Almost every home has the brownish mark of the beast at whatever level of judgmental water it had in it at one point in time over the past few weeks. Sometimes you see more than one mark stretching across the whole property as if to imply that some force arbitrarily decided that different measures of recompense were due and that once was not necessarily enough to make her point. After peering into a couple of friends’ homes who had about 5-6 feet of water in them, it was not hard to imagine the multitude of homes I witnessed this day having the same jumble of misplaced and disintegrated furniture along with water-soaked couches and rancid refrigerators, a veritable hodge podge reminiscent of an early Ash Wednesday morning on Bourbon Street just after the Street Cleaning jets have piled the sludge and degradation into a central pile for the dump trucks to haul away. And those that had snuck their way into the city before officially legal had already begun the process if, in fact, I am not mistaken and their possessions had found their own path to the now littered more than normal streets of a majority of the city as if in some macabre flotilla without human direction.
It would almost be appropriate to suddenly have a rogue sagebrush wisp past me and I stand looking down these deserted streets. After all just a few short weeks ago, national correspondents and officials alike reported the OK Corral nature of the city with firefights and mass human destruction taking place carte blanche. It was not enough that Mother Nature impishly wreaked her havoc but some of us that live here thought anarchy suddenly became permissible since there was no one around to tell them how to act, not that that would have mattered to them anyway since they more than likely only amplified their normal behavior in the freedom from “oppression”, a fantastical myth perpetrated by small minds and low ideals. And some others of us have excused this selfish narcissism as a long overdue retribution for injustices imagined because social progress should never be measured by mass conditions but more appropriately by the evidence that those who chose to move ahead have done so of their own accord, an American dream of sorts. Stealing a big screen TV while your neighbor’s ailing grandma is treading water is “justified”, kind of, depending on how you look at it, I guess. Or if you wear a badge. But someone did hot wire a bus to drive some of the unfortunate out of the deluge, a type of entrepreneurship and a worthy “criminal” whose creativity will surely be his redemption one day. Anarchial heroism at its best, I would say. If only the Mayor would have thought of that with all the RTA buses languishing in the yard unused but available.
And what I describe is the daylight hours. Just a few short hours later while finishing up our inspection of the property, the late evening sun descends below the month old pruning of the majestic oaks that canopy our street. Evening in the neighborhood usually means a torrent of workers finishing the day by stopping at the supermarket a couple of blocks down, the next door neighbor raking up the constant carpet of oak leaves almost daily, another across the street washes the daily dust from his beamer and countless walkers do their promenade in sweats and tennis shoes or perhaps being dragged along by their eager black lab chasing the other neighbor’s cat. And there are always congenial “Good evenings” although no one has really ever stopped to carry on a conversation longer than a few words of witticisms. But this evening is different. I could just as well be standing in St. Louis #1 hoping to talk with its tenants. I’d have a better chance to hear a reply. All I could hear this darkened day are my own thoughts ringing through the streets but connecting with nothing.
I always appreciated those instances out in the country far away from the city lights. Just to look up at the sky and count the millions of flickering specks and an occasional meteor flare has always been a welcomed diversion from normalcy. But one should never be permitted to do the same while living in a metropolitan area such as New Orleans. It’s unnatural. But it’s real. No sound. No passing cars. No lights. No breath but my own tonight. Even now the curfew has been pushed to midnight. It’s 8 p.m. and it could just as well be 4 a.m. on a Sunday morning with one exception: the two cars I would expect to see or hear heading down Gentilly Boulevard toward Gulf Outlet Marina towing their Center Console fishing boats are nowhere in sight. Nor will they be since there is no more Gulf Outlet Marina to launch at. And no one to go anyway since there ain’t nobody home. Anywhere.
You really don’t need to close your eyes. You can just glare down the street, that dark foreboding expanse in front or behind you, and you don’t even have to imagine what it might feel like to be comatose; all you need to do is stare. You might be lucky enough to discern some ethereal shapes from the starlight, but you won’t be able to recognize anything anymore than recalling what things looked like in broad daylight just a month or so ago. It’s our human habit to take those little things for granted like they don’t matter. Until now. It’s now you feel like a clown for not knowing the guy across the street’s name because at this point to talk with anyone would be a blessing. And you know how embarrassing it would be if he did show up and all you could muster was a “Hey, buddy” instead of a meaningful “Hey, Frank.” But staring down this street of void you can now realize that what you lived in before was much more than a trivial existence because living, breathing people once populated this area, people who could some how offer something useful in conversation or favor, or inversely something you could return to them to make life more fuller than just living a mere existence. Suddenly a cold chill runs down your spine, not a fear as much as a dread, that what you had previously may never return and if–by chance–it does how long will it be and how long should you wait to see if life returns to normal before you throw in the towel. There is also the chance that you’ll wait innocently and patiently only to find a Boogey Man behind that door.
That’s the scariness of the situation. It’s like being in the quintessential horror flick. Everybody’s having a good time and Katrina Voorhies shows up wielding her machete. Everybody flees but you know one by one everyone will manage to return because things will be getting better. But there are those creaky sounds. And subtle clues. What’s behind the door? Who will be the first to open it? What will they find? And we all know how stupid everyone is for “investigating” those odd sounds and questionable circumstances in horror movies: “Don’t do it!” And how many people are actually left alive or sane in the end of the movie. Please, no sequels!