On August 29, 2005 I had just moved my newly minted Ph.D. self to Morgantown, West Virginia, when I awoke to the news that Hurricane Katrina had inched eastward, on the map, barely missing my home, the city that I love. But then, like the news of a death, the levees broke. As my friend Phyllis so eloquently stated in her memoir of the same name, not just the levees broke that day. My friends, my alma mater, my restaurants and bars and coffee shops and bookstores, my city, they all broke that day. As an ex-pat academic living in West Virginia it was all I could do to watch helplessly as the news showed stranded New Orleanians on rooftops of homes in the unbearable 90+ degree heat; men, women, children, dogs stranded at the Ernest K. Morial Convention Center and the New Orleans Superdome. My best friend contacted me that she had indeed made it to Mississippi, to her cousin’s home inland, before her newly renovated home was subjected to the wind that tore the roof off the house and the rain, that soaked the second floor dwelling and all of her belongings.
I’m a writer and a historian. I write about the city that I love. New Orleans. I write about it’s heroic people. I wrote a book about female civil rights activists, black and white, who fought against the entrenched racial status quo to effect change in their communities, for their communities, for their children, and for themselves.
But, I also write about the blooming night Jasmine that catches ones olfactory senses sweetly off guard while walking home after a long night of imbibing with friends in May. I write about the sultry, steamy, oppressive humidity and the seemingly insatiable cannibalistic mosquitoes. I write about the ever present, delicious music that feeds the soul of the city, and me. I write about the indescribable food that doesn’t taste quite as good without the humidity and music and general raucous sentiment that hangs in the air like the devil on your shoulder.
As my writer and comrade friend Chris Rose wrote, in the midst of his own Katrina depression,”Dear America, I suppose we should introduce ourselves: We’re South Louisiana…You probably already know that we talk funny and listen to strange music and eat things you’d probably hire an exterminator to get out of your yard. We dance even if there’s no radio. We drink at funerals. We talk too much and laugh too loud and live too large and, frankly,we’re suspicious of others who don’t.”
I am suspicious of anyone who doesn’t live life this way everyday. One is not from New Orleans. One is of New Orleans. I am of New Orleans. I miss it everyday. I miss my friends who are historians and musicians both. Those who are writers and imbibers (they generally go together). I miss the foodies and the readers and the lovers of architecture and all the intangible, albeit beautiful detritus that makes up my home. I miss what it means to walk down Bourbon street on a rainy March afternoon with the trumpets playing and the drinks flowing. I miss the Rivershack and Cooter Browns, the one bar that had the best beer selection long before anyone knew what craft beer was. I miss being a New Orleanian on a daily basis. Those of us that are ex-pats generally do.
I go back frequently; not frequently enough. It took me almost two years to step foot into Louis Armstrong National Airport after Katrina. And then, onto the soil that reflected the sweltering sun and then on into driving by the barren homes in the Ninth Ward. I drove through the drive-thru daiquiri shop and got a drink so I could steel myself against what I was bound to encounter and so I could adequately move through the mess that was still my home almost two years later. I still lament what was, but I cheer on what is so much yet to be.
Today my New Orleans is much stronger, but still not the town I call home. It lacks a certain something that goads me back year after year. I have a book coming out that will ensure that I’ll be spending much of the next year there. My hope is that I can find myself in my home again next year, among my friends and my coffee shops and my bookstores and my bars. I am of New Orleans. And as a New Orleanian, we always seem to find our way back there.