Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Story from a Humid New Orleans

On the plane my computer stopped working when it got friendly with a cup of water. My phone died because I didn't plug it in, then somewhere along the way I lost the charger anyway. I arrived to a dark and locked apartment and a land lord that didn't answer her phone for most of the evening. The cab driver conflicted by his southern hospitality and the need to make money that night, waited with me on a dark porch in a neighborhood I've never seen for as long as he could but insisted I would be just fine right where I was. Of course I could always just scream real loud if something bad happened.

Two days lost to travel and a sudden halt to anything but the hot and humid city I saw in front of me, I inhaled New Orleans. The landlord finally arrived after I had the luxury of a glass of wine with a new friend I met in while in peril. The laptop eventually survived the trauma. And I connected with the people from the Gulf Restoration Network. But one question continues to stump me: what am I doing in New Orleans?

Being forced to sit and watch the people walk down Esplanade instead of write a report that is due in two days or that script due tomorrow or even contact the people I'm ultimately here to meet was surprisingly wonderful. That first morning wasn't so humid that I couldn't enjoy the view of exceedingly beautiful homes and pleasant 'good mornings' from strangers while drinking my coffee. Even the quiet breeze and the gentle warm overcast sun made my unexpected solitude seem as though I had planned this disconnection all along.

My morning experience reminded of a Dave Eggers statement in Zeitoun. People in New Orleans never had a lot of money, but they've always had a lot of time. So they visit and in this visiting grew community. I got to know the people sitting near my table well. The night before, however, while I was stuck outside my new apartment, slow growing anxiety began to compound as I might have just been swindled out of $300, stuck in the city with no place to live and an already used one way plane ticket. I eventually ended up drinking wine with my two new friends. Deep in conversation, I realized even if I had been conned, it still wasn't the worst thing I've incountered while on travel.

Both of my new friends lived in new Orleans for years before Katrina. I have begun to understand that the storm comes up in odd moments not unlike the source of a great heart brake. As I laughing shared all the things that had gone wrong that week even before getting on the plane, my friend smiled and said 'yeah, reminds me of trying to get out of the city during Katrina. It took me 13 hours to get to Lafayette. Usually only a 2 hour journey.'

The question of what am I doing here always lingers while I travel. Perhaps a powerless search for purpose or maybe an unquenchable curiosity. Probably a little bit of both. Sharon grew up in New Orleans, lived for short periods outside the city just twice. College and Katrina.

After Katrina she bounced from friend's guest room to friend's guest room all over the country. When asked if she would ever live somewhere else she said no. No hesitation but a small acknowledgment that she would travel to other cities, just not live in another. This is her home. Part of my unquenchable curiosity and powerless search for purpose comes from not, even just once, having that same thought. I've reached a point where people ask 'how long are you going to stay there?' Maybe to get a sense of how long they have to visit or how far along I am in planning my next quest. I don't have one home, but it sounded nice when she said it.

The American flag waves on many front porches as I bike the city. Mostly the same flag, which looks like it was dipped in black and gold for the Saints. A team that resided in Texas post Katrina, whose owner dropped the New Orleans part on merchandise that same year, and lost 13 out of 16 games in the 2005-2006 season but walked into their first game to a standing ovation from the crowd and the opposing team. Banks closed and schools go out early last week when the Saints played and won their first home game since last season's Superbowl. Every bar has a Saints schedule and a plea to watch the game, all the games, there.

Last night I met a man who identified himself as 'the man', as in he is an engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers. I responded with who I was, not the man. He spoke to me about the levees, Amsterdam, the flow of Mississippi River sediment, the need to filter out pesticides upstream, and his quest to build a water softener for his home. He is a lifelong New Orleanian though lived briefly near Golden Gate Park in San Francisco about 15 years ago. We bantered over the art scene in Oakland, tequila drinking and the murder that had taken place in the spot where I was sitting at Pal's Lounge a couple years ago. But mostly we talked about Katrina.

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