Last week I went home again. To New Orleans. I had visited there vicariously in my mind through old connections during Katrina and the media blitz afterwards. I had seen the aerial photographs in magazines and newspapers and the email images sent by classmates of Marion Abramson High School, moldering and dank and abandoned. I spent hours on the internet trying to find the view of my old house, amidst the others of New Orleans East that had been swallowed for weeks by a soup of Lake Pontchartrain overwash, sewage and dead animals.
Then I went home for real. We were going to celebrate a joyous occasion-the wedding of a nephew at St.Louis Cathedral. We drove along the Gulf Coast on a sunny afternoon and the irony began to hit me. They have cleared and cleaned the coast line pretty well. There are still concrete slabs and abandoned houses but many times you would have had to have seen the grand homes and businesses that used to line a now very empty area of the coast. The beaches LOOKED clean but my imagination brought to mind the tons of scrap metal, cars, garbage, house pieces and countless paraphenalia of modern life that was pulled back out to the hiding water by the retreat of the storm surge.
We drove through New Orleans East on the interstate and didn't stray off. The mall that was brand new in 1975 when I graduated, where I had my first exciting foray into food service at an old fashioned ice cream parlor restaurant, where we shopped for jeans and prom dresses and even deposited our straw hats full of tip change at the inside bank was a pile of rubble.
As we got close to the I-10 highrise I saw the hotel I waited tables at during summer break. It was boarded and abandoned, along with the rest of the area around it. Then I saw the view of the old neighborhoods where kids on bikes, teenagers in cars and people on the street used to be the norm. The norm now was silence and stillness. Where noise and movement, joy and strife and the normalcy of life used to be on display for all to see had been replaced by grimness, no people for miles, no life for street after street.
The French Quarter looked similar to what I remember from my teenage years--except for the people. There was hardly any noise, din, crowds, music. It was so quiet and subdued. The tourists who had never been there before probably thought it was quaint and comfortable and enjoyable. Nothing like the up-in-your-face city that used to be my New Orleans. I felt like we were walking in a ghost town. A forgotten ghost town. So many people had left that remembered what it was like, that it's past is disappearing. And the future seems hopeless for a return to those old days. It took hundreds of years to be what it was in the days before Katrina. Decades seem too short to imagine that the Big Easy will be a big or easy way of life again.
The night of the wedding the irony of the present was most physically evident to me. When we were riding on the high rise of the interstate again, the faint lights of neighborhoods were visible below us. In the darkness were great patches of unlit areas that should have been glowing with lights. Street lights, house lights, car lights, neon lights, spotlights from businesses, security lights, traffic lights, police lights. Darkness reigned instead.
After the celebrations, we started the long ride home in daylight, and decided to veer off the interstate into my old neighborhood. My son mentioned taking pictures but somehow I couldn't bear to do that. Not because they were so terrible but because the opposite of the old adage "A picture is worth a thousand words" was true. They would just be photographs of abandoned houses, cars, streets and lives. They would FEMA trailers and bad roads and the sign of hope in the few houses going up. Never would they tell the story of what it felt like to be back in the landscape of your youth and find it had disappearred. Only words could describe the story because the sight of the tragedy of what happened in New Orleans is only one of the ways we perceive and process mentally. The pictures could never portray the silences, the loss of motion, the lack of smells, the feel of the houses, asphalt, rusted cars. And the memories of laughter in Joe Brown park, sunning out on the Lakefront, riding the riverboat and dancing, the smell of the peach trees in my backyard, marching in the football field of Abramson and trying not to land on a red ant pile, pushing through the crowds on Bourbon street, waiting for a table for coffee and beignets, watching the water and waves of the lake from the levee behind my house, the glowing lights of flambeau carriers and the drumbeat of a high school bands at the parades in Chalmette all seem to be drifting away, hardly possible in the city of the present. They seem a dream in the lost landscape of my youth--New Orleans.