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Coming back to New Orleans
I returned to New Orleans yesterday. I’d been away eleven days. My neighborhood, the Marigny, just got power back the previous night. The idea of staying here without power in that heat—without air conditioning, without refrigeration—was unthinkable. I have been in my New Orleans apartment during the summer when the power has gone out, and it’s ugly. Of course, I was lucky. I was able to leave. Others couldn’t. And others, especially south and west of here, truly are suffering, still. News outlets report that nine people have died due to the excessive heat.
When I exited the expressway on my return and drove down Elysian Fields—that same street Blanche Dubois mentions at the start of A Streetcar Named Desire—toward my street, Dauphine, I felt like I was looking at a city that was exhausted. Not defeated, exactly, but something like an older boxer who has gone too many rounds, been punched too many times. The city felt weary. Like the spirit had been beaten out of it. I’d never experienced that. I can’t explain why I felt that way, and I would guess many New Orleanians would reject that and bring up Katrina, which was truly a horror and from which the city did recover, at least on the surface. Though in my ten years in New Orleans, I have heard and seen again and again the deep scars and misery that storm caused. “Everyone has a story,” a woman I know said of Katrina. I came to New Orleans after Katrina, so I only know it by those sad stories.
I was away eleven days. People who went through Katrina were away for weeks, months. Their lives were upended, and many never resumed those former lives. They began to live differently. A woman who lost her home and everything in it with Katrina told me once that she only buys cheap kitchen knives, the kind you can practically bend. “I lost all my fine knives in Katrina, and I don’t want to lose them again.” This was over ten years after the storm.
A few hours after I arrived home, I drove to my local supermarket, Robert’s. I passed by a few houses with fallen trees on top of them, or nearby. Mostly, there was a lot of detritus on the aide of the road, long tree branches and big piles of sticks and brush. When I got to the market, there was a line of people outside, patiently waiting to get in. I didn’t join them. I went back to my apartment and finished unpacking and cleaning up. A few hours later, I got on my bike and went back to give it another try. The supermarket was closed, the parking lot empty. Two national guard soldiers were there, in uniform, with assault rifles. They were standing by the entrance doors. Had people been looting? I hadn’t read about that. I guess better safe than sorry.
I rode closer. “Will the store be open tomorrow?” I asked one guardsman.
“At eight am,” he said. He couldn’t have been more than twenty. It was striking how young he was.
“Can I ride my bike by you to get to the other exit in the parking lot?” It was a simpler way home.
“Sure. It’s not like I’m sectioning the area off,” he said, as if I’d asked something ridiculous.
“Well, that gun gives me pause,” I said, eying the lethal hardware slung across his chest.
“I ain’t got no rounds in it now,” he said, with a big-kid grin.
Still, I rode by him briskly.