Saturday, September 6, 2008



September 4-6, 2008

“It was like a brief intermission,” one stranger said to another when describing Hurricane Gustav in a Mid-City wine bar on Friday night.

“I know!” the other said. “One week later and all the same faces are back, as if nothing happened.”

New Orleans felt so much the same— so slightly changed— when we returned from our “Gustavaction” on Thursday evening. So our neighborhood had a few fallen trees. So what if one neighbor’s “For Sale” sign flew across the street and under my Corolla, covered with muddy cat prints. So what if one of our window screens flew into his yard and got tangled up with the fallen tree limbs. It was no big deal that our roof lost a single tile.

New Orleans as a city was lucky—incredibly lucky— and among its citizens we were the especially fortunate. We returned to a house with fully operational air-conditioning, lights, a pleasantly un-fragrant fridge, cable, and Internet. Inside, the only sign of a storm was the presence of our porch furniture in our kitchen, our bikes in the bedroom, and some cherished books and shoes stacked ridiculously high. We had left expecting a Katrina, or worse, and we returned to the aftermath of a mere tropical storm.

Our landlord estimated that we lost power for as much as a day, or as little as a few hours. Even the milk and cheese in our fridge was still edible.

Wow. As we drove around the city Friday night, we continued to say this word.

We drove through dark neighborhoods, neighborhoods without working traffic lights, maneuvered around more fallen trees and tree limbs, and counted the number of houses and businesses still boarded up from Katrina— not to be confused with the many still boarded up from Gustav.

Though most restaurants were closed, almost all bars were open. We stopped in for a free wine tasting at Swirl, a dog friendly wine bar in Mid-City. As the strangers I overheard observed, the place filled with thirsty patrons as if nothing had happened at all. The only clue was the word “Gustav,” heard every minute or two.

After sampling wine, we passed the unmistakable smell of rotting meat at the Market on Esplanade, whose doors were still fully shuttered.

“That could’ve been us,” Haz commented.

We drove around looking for food, figuring that something had to be open— after all, this was a city where going out to eat can almost be considered a vocation for some. Add to that the lack of electricity and groceries available, and you have a very hungry group of restaurant-needy ex-evacuees.

Some restaurants had their lights on, others just had doors open, perhaps to air out the stench. Still others were boarded up. Random passers-by sat at sidewalk tables as if eating, but really they were just passing the time. Downtown, National Guard troops took the place of tourists as they guarded department stores with M-16s. All over the city the streets were still surprisingly empty, quite unlike the average Friday night.

We passed a lot of pizza joints that were open and stuffed with patrons. Five Happiness, a Chinese restaurant on Carrollton was open too, with a jam-packed parking lot. All the bars we passed were also stuffed to capacity. So far our options were pizza, Chinese, or bar food.

On Magazine Street we found a few other options, most notably Nirvana, the best Indian cuisine in town. We pulled up to the curb and happily found a seat inside. Nirvana was serving their lunch brunch for dinner, which was a symbiotic situation: we were desperate to overeat and save a few dollars, they were desperate to get rid of their over supply of curries, breads, and salads.

After dinner we headed to Haz’s brother Hasan’s house on the West Bank, the side of the river everyone expected to heavily flood. The neighborhoods leading up to Hasan’s house were dark and largely vacant, though his street, like ours, was full of lights.

We stayed for a few hours and talked about the things evacuees talk about— the car ride back versus the car ride there; how this was so much better than Katrina; how to make a FEMA claim; can you believe Nagin really said that; did you actually watch the Republican National Convention; and what about Ike.

These were the same things we talked about with our landlords and our good friend Gerald the night before. Our landlords were spending a night at their old house on our street because their new house was without power; Gerald was also joining us because his apartment was in the dark. One of our landlords, Consuelo, came up to our porch in her pajamas, holding a cup of coffee. She was laughing as she re-told her horrific Katrina story, of how she and Dan, her partner and our other landlord, swam in five-feet deep toxic water to the railroad overpass. From there they walked 17 miles to safety.

Dan had wanted to stay for Gustav; Consuelo couldn’t face another disaster. They had evacuated at the last minute to Bogalusa, where their hotel lost power anyway.

Next topic? The convention. Sarah Palin. John McCain. We all vowed to move to Canada if Obama didn’t win. That would be one storm we could never recover from.

Such is life in our double recovering city, a city still heavily bruised from Katrina, but freshly battered from Gustav. There’s not much to do besides talk on your porch, go to a friend or family member’s house, go out for a quick bite or a drink, and make sure you return before curfew.

Ours is still at 10 p.m.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


by Hazim Dayeh—featured writer

Nineteen and a half hours. The trip from New Orleans to Tallahassee normally takes about six. But, this was not an ordinary trip. Once again, and on the third anniversary of the storm we continue to live with, we found ourselves threatened by another major hurricane. For nineteen and a half hours, we drove through sometimes-squally weather, kissing the rear bumpers of vehicles that stretched ahead of us seemingly across the length of an entire nation. For nineteen and a half hours, home lay behind us, abandoned, deserted, and left again to an uncertain fate. And when we finally arrived at our hotel, travel-weary with two very confused cats, we had the rest of our time to watch alarmist news stations again spreading false information, this time about breached levees that hadn’t breached, as if willing something catastrophic to happen so they can keep a tragedy-obsessed nation watching advertisements. There was the one with the insurance companies’ favorite make-believe couple “Harry and Louise” once again attempting to kill health care reform. Then, there was the one with a cute cat who was partial to a new kind of cat food. An unidentified woman was selling me laundry detergent just before yielding to Wilford Brimley, who was saying something about “diabeetis.” One after another, television spots hawked everything from repetitive headache relief products to miraculous stain-removing goop sold by the loudest man on Earth. “More on Hurricane Gustav after the break.” And, when the levees didn’t fail, the networks turned to the old standby human interest stories – babies born during Gustav’s visit to the Louisiana coast, residents who rode out the storm and lived to tell their tale, and the ever-popular, ever-wishful mantra of “Will the levees hold?” America is alive and well and invading my hotel room as if it were a nation in possession of phantom weapons of mass destruction.

So, after another evacuation ordeal, after living under the threat of losing everything I deliberately left behind, along with more important things I forgot behind, several friends and family members have asked, “Why return?” After all, it’s just bound to happen again. In fact, as I write this, a storm named Ike is looks to be taking aim at some unfortunate place along the Gulf of Mexico. So why return? It’s an excellent question to someone who doesn’t know the city like so many of us do, and a stupid question to those of us who love our city so unconditionally. You see, New Orleans is our collective bad boyfriend, and we are its battered but adoring lovers. Time and again, he has given us reason to leave. And, just as often, we have forgiven him, succumbing to his mysterious and inexplicable hold on us. He is mean but charming, temperamental yet beautiful, spiteful though loving. The simple fact is that we love our city like no other. And, when we leave, however briefly, flirting with other attractive and not-so-attractive cities across this nation, we cannot help but feel a void that no other place can fill. We are New Orleans’ bitches, and we’re (mostly) ok with that. To those who cannot comprehend our love, we say, to know New Orleans is to love New Orleans. And, when we’re away, we know what it means to miss New Orleans.

For me, I miss sitting on my front porch, listening to talented high school marching bands spiritedly playing their instruments during a Friday or Saturday night football game. Sometimes, I could even hear major recording artists performing at Voodoo Fest in City Park. I miss the unbridled energy of the Rebirth Brass Band bringing down the house at Tipitina’s and leading a second line down Napoleon Ave. I miss the ferociously talented musicians who fill the humid late night air with music – Trombone Shorty, Irvin Mayfield, Charmaine Neville, Kermit Ruffins, Irma Thomas, Ellis Marsalis, Marva Wright, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, and so many others. I miss Mardi Gras with its pageantry, revelry, and weirdness, Jazz Fest with its many reasons to take a day or two off from work, Voodoo Fest with its eclectic mix of musical talent, French Quarter Fest with its unparalleled (free!) entertainment, and all the other festivals that celebrate our unique culture – Seafood/Creole Tomato/Satchmo/Just-For-the-Fuck-of-It Fests. In short, there are many cities in the world with plenty of culture and entertainment. But, in New Orleans, we live and breathe it, as though entertainment were an extra appendage attached to us, and culture a vital organ within us.

To those of us who love our abusive city, New Orleans is not merely another interesting American city. In fact, as a friend recently opined, New Orleans is not at all American. Its culture, its food, and its people are its own. We couldn’t possibly be less American if we spoke another language (and with the city’s colorful accents, one could argue that we do). This is the point that many outsiders cannot reconcile. To the city’s naysayers, we are an awkward, backwards people who do not seem to know how to operate a city efficiently. And yet, we are good enough for their conventions. On any given week, one can find these New Orleans critics walking our streets. They are the doctors, lawyers, and business executives who stumble and stagger along Bourbon Street, then return home to share pictures with their friends of their visit to “N’awlins.” To these platoons of America’s army invading our bars, we are good enough to party with, but too backwards to befriend. Thanks for the money, folks. Our beer taps will always flow for you.

Of course, like all bad and misunderstood lovers, New Orleans is not without its major flaws. Our crime is, indeed, bad enough to qualify us, technically, as an American city. Our poverty is legendary among other cities in this nation. And, of course, we are susceptible to tropical storms and hurricanes, some of which leave indelible physical and emotional scars, and some that scare us out of our comfort zone, then leave like a polite, if unwanted, guest. But, while we have weaknesses, we are strong. While our spirits sometimes suffer, we are resilient. While we have our share of insecurities, we are confident in our recovery. And, while our fair city is American, we are and always will be New Orleans.

Gustav Gossip, Phase 3


September 1-2, 2008

9am: wake up for breakfast and watch the news. Roll your eyes at all the people from Jefferson Parish complaining about the lack of news coverage of their area. Turn up the volume of the TV on purpose.

10am: Go back to sleep.

12pm: Wake up again. Cats may or may not be sleeping on your back. Shower, get dressed, watch the news. Make fun of McCain’s VP choice, Sarah Palin and her knocked-up daughter OR make fun of the sensationalized reporting on CNN.

2pm: Venture out for lunch. On Monday this meant going to the lame 80s-inspired Tallahassee Mall and eating decent Middle Eastern fast food. On Tuesday this meant settling for sub-par sushi at a downtown eatery, Jasmine CafĂ©. This latter location was also the unofficial headquarters for the area’s total six Obama supporters, who also enjoyed making fun of Palin.

3pm: Drive around Tallahassee looking for something, anything to do. On Monday we went to the hotel where Haz’s extended family were staying (pricier and nicer than ours); on Tuesday we drove around the FSU campus, around the state capital building, and around a skinny shaded area strangely called a park. On both days we figuratively kicked ourselves for evacuating here. Next time (and there will be a next time) we're going to Austin or Memphis or Dallas… or anywhere else.

4pm: Go back to the hotel. Watch the news. Get frustrated and read New Orleans blogs and forums online. Write ramblings for our own blog. Read. Pet the cats.

7:30pm: Go out for dinner. On Monday we went to Sahara, a Middle Eastern restaurant with Haz’s brother and family; on Tuesday we had Italian gourmet at the Olive Garden with Haz's sister and her family.

9pm-12am: Sit and talk and drink free coffee at the nicer, pricier hotel with Haz’s family, a collective total of 30 plus people. Make small talk with the Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT) on hurricane "standby." Make fun of Palin and CNN reporters clinging to lamp posts in hurricane force winds. Get in trouble with the management for being too loud two nights in a row.

12am-3am: Update our blogs, watch the news, read, pet the cats, go to bed.

* This is the schedule we followed as soon as we found out that “the mother of all storms” had not hit New Orleans. We probably should’ve been celebrating that our city was not permanently damaged. But celebrating is hard to do when you’re an evacuee. Everyone feels sorry for you, including yourself, especially when your city’s mayor repeatedly tells you its not yet time to return.


* Many US state capital cities are insipid, soulless places. Baton Rouge and Tallahassee are no exception. Haz and I are not fans of Baton Rouge. We don't even like it a little. Like most New Orleanians, we detest BR. It generally receives all the state funding and has little personality or class to show for it. Plus, everyone is obsessed with LSU AND phony politician Bobby Jindal is King of BR. Still, BR is wayyyyyy better than Tallahassee. Here's why:

10. Baton Rouge is not part of the bible belt; Tallahassee definitely is.
9. Baton Rouge has a romantic sounding French name. Tallahassee, though probably Native American derived, sounds much more hick.
8. Baton Rouge has a very good mall. Tallahassee has two disappointing malls.
7. I would choose LSU over FSU anyday.
6. Baton Rouge has far less Jesus signs.
5. Baton Rouge has better restaurants.
4.Tallahassee isn't anywhere close to the fun things in Florida. Orlando, Miami, Tampa, and the manatees might as well be in a different country. Baton Rouge is only 1 hour from New Orleans, Lafayette, and swamps filled with friendly gators.
3. Random strangers don't try to get you to join their church in Baton Rouge. In Tallahassee, they do.
2. We didn't evacuate 20 hours to Baton Rouge.
1. Baton Rouge is much closer to New Orleans than Tallahassee. Enough said.


“The morning was gray, but I had the motivation; I drifted away and ran into more; Heavy weather off shore.” —Billy Joel, from the song “Storm Front”

Phase 2: August 30-31, 2008

his is the mother of all storms,” Mayor Ray Nagin warned New Orleanians during his Saturday night press conference.

Worse than Katrina.

Staying behind would be the worst decision of our lives.

Those that stay will have to ax their way out of their attic.

Those found wandering the streets would be sent straight to Angola Prison.

“Get your butts out of New Orleans,” Nagin said with his signature irreverent swagger.

So the message was clear— clearly exaggerated, though it still made me cry uncontrollably.

I always knew that an evacuation during hurricane season was possible— it's a reality New Orleanians live with every year, from June 1st through November 1st. But I never thought a storm comparable to Katrina would come our way.

Haz started to seriously worry for the first time a few minutes later, as Police commissioner Warren Riley gave his speech.

Riley told us he was telling most of his squad to evacuate due to the severity of the storm. Only a “skeleton crew” would be policing the streets.

I looked at my watch. Saturday: 10pm. The mandatory evacuation was starting at noon Sunday. Time to move.

No tears fell as I finishing packing and preparing.

I suddenly felt focused, calm.

I made 6 sandwiches for us to eat in the car (conscious of the notion that no restaurant would be open), washed our remaining dishes, and unearthed more photos to take with us. Haz and I dragged anything that could become a flying projectile in high wind—porch plants, porch furniture, and bicycles— inside.

Outside, our neighbors’ porches were bare like ours. On a night like this on Labor Day weekend, the porches should’ve been packed with conversation.

We unplugged everything, except our fridge. If this storm was going to rival Katrina, we could come back to a rotting, moldy mess. But there was always that chance that they could be wrong. Maybe we would get lucky.

I moved some books, clothes, and shoes to higher shelves. Our house, which is elevated 4 feet, took about 2 feet of water in Katrina. Anything left on the floor, or near the floor, could be lost, though a tornado or fire would destroy it all. This is how we were thinking now. I told Mom that I was prepared for nothing and everything to happen.

In other words, this storm could totally change our lives or be nothing but a forcible adventure.

Haz and I drank some tea before going to sleep at midnight. The alarm was set to wake us up 2 hours later: at 2 am. We figured we wouldn’t hit too much traffic if we got on the road 2 hours before the contra-flow, the evacuation strategy where both sides of the road become one massive one-way out.

We woke up promptly at 2am and started packing the car. Our cats Diamond and Moo jumped around and ran through the house. Our anxious shuffling and moving put them on edge. They knew something strange was going on.

In the car, we managed to fit two cat carriers, a litter box, cat food, human food, a cooler, two suitcases, one boxed wedding dress, two boxes of photos, a Playstation 3, Haz’s camera and tripod, four laptops, pillows, and blankets.

The cats were coerced into their carriers with relative ease. We placed them side-by-side on the backseat, with the litter box, food, and water within their reach.

We climbed into our Saturn Vue and quickly looked around before driving off. Our neighborhood was empty. Even the police officer who lives across the street boarded up his windows and left town.

As we pulled away in the thick, dark morning humidity, I looked back at our shotgun apartment and blew it a kiss. We might never live here again—

or we could be back here, laughing and shrugging, in a few days.

This is the uncertainty— the permanent impermanence that New Orleanians live with, pack, and take with them everywhere. Uncertainty is what makes New Orleans a party town. Live today, because you, your loved ones or your possessions could be gone tomorrow.

Uncertainty is also what keeps New Orleanians so humble, and yet so full of pride. Where else in America do citizens forcibly pack up their lives and leave, hurricane after hurricane, year after year? It’s a situation that makes so many Americans ask: so why do we live here?

I questioned this all week, and I still couldn’t find a good answer as we turned down Canal Boulevard in the first few minutes of our first evacuation together. We had just left behind nearly everything we had acquired together in dozens of countries over five years. As we drove towards the Interstate, I thought about everything we loved but couldn’t take— clothing from Japan and Vietnam; rugs and blankets from Jordan and Thailand; a doll from my childhood; framed artwork, signed books, and CDs. It was all just stuff. Later I would silently curse myself for not putting it all in the attic. It just wasn’t part of the “get out” equation.

We turned onto the Interstate and found it stuffed full of cars. So much for beating the evacuation rush: we were now in it.

The cats meowed and panted as we crawled towards New Orleans East on I-610, heading towards I-10 East. We had decided to head towards a hotel in Tallahassee, safely out of the track of the storm. Haz’s brother Hassan and other family members were headed there. A car ride there would normally take six hours, which was much closer than Dallas, where we both had family.

The cats calmed down a little as we edged closer to Lake Pontchartrain. We listened to our favorite local news, WDSU, on the radio. The voices of familiar reporters suddenly told us I-10 east was closed due to a severe traffic jam in Biloxi and Mobile. We weren’t counting on this. We had no Plan B.

“Let’s go to Dallas,” I sighed, ready to get some sleep.

Haz looked pensive as he turned onto a dark, empty road. He remembered that Highway 90 could also take us across the Lake— and into Mississippi and Alabama along the Gulf.

But Highway 90 was even more congested than I-610. The drivers of cars filled with dogs, cats, TVs, furniture, boxes, blankets, coolers, wheelchairs and bicycles stared straight ahead with flat expressions. No one was honking, screeching their tires, or yelling. Everyone was just trying to keep sane. Our cats remained calm and napped on and off.

I also took a nap and woke up two hours later. We weren’t even across the lake yet. Normally it takes us only 45 minutes to cross Pontchartrain. So far this was 3 hours and counting.

Traffic came to a complete stop shortly after we crossed a narrow sliver of Pontchartrain next to Lake Borgne. Passengers piled out of their cars and stretched. Drivers stepped out and left their car doors open. Our cats woke up, confused. The cause of the halt was unknown. News on the radio told us nothing.

Haz and a few other drivers crossed into the wrong side of traffic to take a quick detour back to I-610, where we started. In Slidell, drivers pulled off as soon as a McDonald's and gas station came into view. Police blocked off the gas station. McDonald's was closed.

So there would be no bathrooms, food, or gas on this trip. We were suffering the same fate as our cats: boxed up inside a cage against our will.

I took over driving as I-10 north became I-59. We couldn’t go east the way we planned, so we would first have to go north to Picayune and take route 43 to I-10 east. As the contra-flow started and all northbound traffic was routed to the “wrong” side of the road, we yelled in tired disbelief when we found that the Picayune exit was closed.

So we crawled our way to Poplarville, where the radio told us we could catch route 26 to Mobile. But that too was closed.

Was this a conspiracy or just the twilight zone? Somebody didn’t want us to leave Mississippi.

So we crawled all the way on I-59 to Laurel, MS, some 30 miles north of Hattiesburg. Our top speed of 50 mph happened only twice, for no more than 2 minutes. Our average speed fluctuated between 10 and 20 miles per hour. Sometimes it was no more than a single digit.

Some passengers adjusted very well to the situation. An old old man shuffled with his cane in the middle of traffic, puffing away at his inhaler, pausing to pet a dog in a stranger’s car. Another man raced alongside a car for fun. Yet another started walking to see if he could go further faster. He did.

We opened the cat carriers and encouraged Diamond and Moo to explore the car. Moo happily crunched on her dry food while Diamond explored every corner and crevice. She finally landed on my lap, where she would spend most of the ride, purring and shedding too much fur from stress. Her presence put me at ease.

We clapped when Senator Barack Obama called our local news station to express his concern.

“My heart goes out to those whose lives have been interrupted,” he remarked.

Lives, interrupted, stuck on a highway in Mississippi. Obama’s voice was oddly comforting. Our own President still hadn’t commented on the situation. I paused to consider how simple everything had become: everything we needed was in our car. We used a highway map to navigate the state with the slogan “Like Coming Home.” We listened to AM radio for storm and traffic information. We ate bagels out of our cooler and, one of us was even forced to use a plastic bottle to urinate. Was it desperation or making the best of a bad situation? I was pretty sure it was the latter. As I looked at other Louisianans crawling by in cars, no one looked even remotely irate. Many smiled. Everyone was doing the same thing: listening to the news on the radio, moving their right foot from gas to brake, looking straight ahead.

And we all desperately needed the bathroom. Many couldn’t wait. In fact, we passed several urine-filled plastic bottles before we reached Laurel, which happens to be my middle name.

In Laurel we finally found a bathroom and gas station and a ton of New Orleanians lining up for both. I chatted with a girl from Metairie who had also been in the car for 9 hours. We had been in the car for 8. On a normal day, Laurel would’ve taken us no more than two.

The town of Laurel connected us with highway 84, a windy and beautifully empty road. 84 took us straight across the southern width of Alabama. Gustav’s preemptive strikes brought us pockets of wind and rain; we even saw the makings of a tornado, spinning dangerously close to land in the distance. Diamond burrowed her head in my arms and Moo willingly hid in her cage as rain pounded our roof.

We were mostly the only vehicle on the road. No more evacuees, no more gas stations or bathrooms— our landscape now consisted of rolling hills, trees, cow pastures and billboards advertising God.

When we finally exited route 84 and the deceptively wide state of Alabama, it was after 10 p.m. 18 hours on the road. Moo continued to hunker down in her cage as I fed her cat treats. Diamond hid in a tiny space wedged between the Playstation 3 and a suitcase as Highway 231 took us down into Florida.

30 miles outside of Tallahassee, a car accident caused traffic to backup in a freakishly familiar way. We followed a detour that took us down narrow one-way hills. A rabbit narrowly escaped our wheels. Moo started meowing uncontrollably as she jumped around the backseat, nervous and stir crazy from the long ride and the winding roads. What could happen next?

Luckily “next” finally happened to be our hotel. We pulled up to the reception hall at 12:30 a.m. Haz and I congratulated the cats, whose patience and remarkable adaptability had well surpassed ours. They were officially New Orleans cats, pet evacuees. We knew they could endure this again, if they had to. But could we?

Haz told the guy at reception that we had been in the car for exactly 19 point 5 hours.

“Well, you’ve been through enough,” he said as he passed Haz the room key.

And we still had no idea what was in store for us, or our city.

But at least we knew our cats would weather the storm.


Monday, September 1, 2008


—Should we stay or should we go now? If we go there will be trouble… and if we stay it will be double… by The Clash

PHASE 1: August 26-30 2008

I stepped outside to look around.
The air is thick with water; the sun’s heat is fierce.
My neighbor across the street throws coolers, pillows, and boxes into his car.
He’s wearing an “I love NOLA” shirt.
In the sky, a helicopter swings by.
The Sunday paper is at my feet. I almost trip on it.
After all, it’s only Saturday.

So it’s officially real. Our Sunday paper was delivered on Saturday and it carries the same message: get out.

Gustav, the storm we’ve been hearing about for almost a week is finally making its slow, mean path towards here: to New Orleans, on the 3rd anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The irony is so spellbinding that one local meteorologist just called Gustav Katrina by mistake.

So I shut off the TV. We’ve been watching the news nonstop since Tuesday, stopping briefly to watch the historic speeches of the Democratic National Convention so we wouldn’t miss out. Brian Williams interrupted one speech to bring us news of a monster storm headed for the Gulf. The anniversary of Hurricane Katrina was mentioned in the same sentence.

On Wednesday morning, as I was delivering my fidgety second grade students to physical education class, the PE instructor yelled a question across the yard:

“Ms. Dayeh! Did you get your flight yet?”

Flight? I looked at Ms. W with a confused expression. Then it hit me.

“Ohhhh…. “

She laughed as she told me she was going back to Tennessee, where she passed time for months after Katrina. This wasn’t the lackadaisical approach New Orleanians were famous for. This was pretty alarmist, even paranoid.

I smiled and shrugged. “I guess we might go to Dallas. My brother-in-law and Uncle are there . . . “

That evening my school held a faculty meeting devoted to “storm preparation.” We were urged to move all classroom items away from the windows no later than Friday. At the time, the storm was still in Haiti.

I came home that night and started to pack. I threw our wedding albums, passports, marriage license, birth certificates, social security cards, university diplomas, and cherished photos into a box. These are the things Katrina survivors told me they needed most. I even unearthed my boxed wedding dress and two cat carriers.

This preparation made me feel better, like I was being responsible, and not “waiting ‘till the last minute” as the news urged me not to. Haz declared that I was officially a New Orleanian, or rather a Post-Katrina New Orleanian— a new brand of Big Easy resident. While the former New Orleans city dweller would be quite fine with riding out the storm, or at least considering it, this new brand of citizen doesn’t even consider it. Not even for one minute. Not since Katrina.

The old brand of New Orleanian— as Haz most definitely is— looks at these storms and shrugs.

“Ah, could go anywhere,” he sighed.
“But it could come here,” I insisted.
“Yeah, but let’s wait a few days. These things always change,” he replied. “its part of the fun of living here.”

“Fun” is what storm evacuations used to be. Some even called them “e-vacations.” New Orleanians used to delight in throwing a few days’ worth of clothes in a bag, and randomly taking off for Memphis, Houston, Atlanta, the Gulf Coast beaches, or other scattered destinations. It was part of what made New Orleans permanently feel as a temporary place— the idea that at any time you might have to drop everything and go.

That was before what everyone calls “the storm.” Since Katrina, there hasn’t been even one single evacuation. Not even a real scare. So this Gustav, threatening to knock down our door, is the one we’ve all been waiting for.

We all knew the first “big one” after Katrina would be bad. I just didn’t think New Orleanians were capable of such mass hysteria.

Thursday night, as I sat in one of my grad classes at the University of New Orleans, everyone asked each other “so we are y’all gonna go?” The message was clear. The word evacuation wasn’t necessary. My professor ended class an hour early so we could all “go home and prepare.”

I went home that night and watched the news. To me, it looked like Gustav wanted to go to Houston, but was contemplating New Orleans. Haz, having spent most of his years in the area pre-Katrina, continued to consider the whole ordeal a farce.

“The damn thing hasn’t hit Cuba yet!” he said.

By Friday it was in Jamaica. The red swirly swirl was getting larger on the weather reports. An eye was now visible. Parents came to pick up their children early at school. I asked one mother:

“So what are your plans? Are y’all leaving?”

She turned and looked at me and said:

“Yes, indeed. We’re outta here.”


“Tonight. Not a minute later.”

Her son looked up.

“Does that mean no football practice?”

She laughed. “No way. Time to get on the road.”

Earlier that day, my students arrived in the classroom full of questions and comments of the hurricane variety. They had actually been talking about it since Wednesday.

“I’m gonna lose everything again!” one girl exclaimed.

“That thing is going to blow the city away!” a boy yelled.

I tried to calm them. I tried to reassure them that it “might” come this way, but it also “might” go to Texas, or Florida. I told them it wasn’t as big as storm as Katrina.

Later, when the custodial staff covered my classroom computers with garbage bags, they all asked “why?”

I gulped and lied. “The classroom gets really dusty on the weekends. The bags protect the computers from getting too dirty.”

I think they actually believed me.

But there was no point in talking like this to the parents. They noticed the garbage-bag covered computers and nodded, as if that confirmed their resolve to leave. This time wouldn’t be like the last.

Many of my coworkers, some of them Katrina survivors, felt the same. I had to sign an “evacuation list” before I left work on Friday. Our school’s faculty is now scattered all over the country: in Mississippi, Texas, Colorado, New York, and Illinois. Our principal already declared no school until Thursday next week.

Haz and I decided to go out to dinner that night. We drove across the city, past the Superdome, Arena, and central business district and across the Mississippi river to our favorite Vietnamese restaurant, Pho Tau Bay.

Pho Tau was as packed as usual. We gobbled down spring rolls and talked about where we should go. If we went. I mean, the storm was still being ambivalent. As we paid our bill, the cashier asked our plans and lamented the state of the city’s levees.

We watched the news until late that night. I threw 5 days’ worth of clothes and toilettries in a bag, along with some magazines and two books, in case I finished one.

We both woke up earlier than usual, today, on Saturday. Nearby local parishes were requiring mandatory evacuations, but not in Orleans. Haz’s extended family was heading out east to Tallahassee, where the storm most certainly wouldn’t go. We spent the day contemplating Dallas or Tallahassee, Dallas or Tallahassee. One destination would put us in a budget hotel for 4 days with 2 cats, while the other would put us at Haz’s brother’s house, though potentially on the wrong side of the storm.

As I started to read the Sunday paper and showed it to Haz, our doorbell rang. It was our neighbor, Peggy, who had to be airlifted out of a building during Hurricane Katrina.

“I’m outta here, guys, just wanted to say goodbye.”

The panic in her voice and the frenzy in her gesturing hands made it all seem too close, too immediate. We weren’t finished packing. We still didn’t have a definite plan. The cats had no idea they were about to be in a car for as much as 12 hours. And the storm was now hitting Cuba.


Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Fleur de Breeze

There’s a feeling in the night as I write this on our breezy porch. Our majesty palm is fanning her fronds next to me. The lime body of a gecko-like lizard relaxes on one of these sloping branches . The wooden chimes are chiming near our vines, vines which curl their unruly hair out of swinging pots. Some vine tendrils wrap around the wrought iron columns that support the porch. Others shelter a mother bird, who diligently sits on her nest in the swinging pot. I can just barely see the edge of her wings from here, where I sit at a little table in the middle of our porch and type about the night.

New Orleans is so special in Spring, particularly at this almost dusk time, the magic hour between 6:30 and 8:30, when everything gets cooler, a little less humid, and a lot breezier.

Right now, as I type, I can hear the last remaining bass beats reverberating from Jazz Fest, the 7-day celebration of local and big-time music at the Fairgrounds- less than a mile away. A few weeks ago it was French Quarter Fest, a free weekend-long outside array of bands along the Mississippi River. I couldn’t hear it from here, but I could feel it in the rhythm of the streetcar we rode to get there:
tangible excitement, a carefree, everyone’s on vacation attitude
lingering in and outside of the car’s open windows.

Before this it was the Tennessee Williams Fest- a series of discussions about Williams and productions of his plays. A Brando-inspired STELLLLLLLAH! shouting contest amid crowds of hundreds at Jackson Square. We rode the streetcar there too, breezing past signs for the NBA Hornets team and an upcoming performance of the Vagina Monologues.

Coming up is Bayou Boogaloo, with food and music along Bayou St. John, then Greek Fest, Creole Tomato Fest, and on and on…. it’s simply a season of fests and sunny weather before the storm season hits.

And this year it’s also a season of Hornets. Not the kind that sting and stalk you. We’ve got the playoff variety- a western conference number two seed that just beat Dallas in five games flat. People are wearing teal, yellow, and purple just as much- if not more- than they wear black and gold during Saints season. Plus, the team now has fleur de bee merchandise- that’s right- a turquoise fleur de lis with a hornet shaped into it. The bottom of the fleur de lis is the stinger of the bee, or er, the hornet.

This is very smart marketing for a once Saints-only city. The Saints emblem is of course a gold fleur de lis.

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of turquoise fleur de lis flags breezing by— hooked to the tops of cars and swinging from porches not unlike ours.

The porch is central to social life and tradition in New Orleans. Porches, particularly on shotguns, are designed to achieve maximum breeze. Our porch always rests in the shade. It’s oversized, open, raised four feet off the ground, and has two sets of stairs.

Porches are where friends and neighbors sit and talk about nothing in particular at night, starting at this magic time, at near dusk. If the mosquitoes are out, we burn citronella candles, or simply forget about it. On our street, the shotgun house porches are lined up so that if you turn your head to the left, you can look all the way through people’s porches until the next cross street. If you turn your head to the right, you can do the same thing. It’s a little bit like having a tunnel of porches on either side, a thin channel for that sweet breeze to blow through.

One of the most traditional, memorable scenes of Jazz Fest is the porch culture before and after each long day of music and incredible fest food. In the morning, people are on their porches, in rockers, folding chairs and sofas, selling bottled water, playing instruments, listening to music, or cheering the crowds of Jazz Fest goers on and on. At night, porch people living around the Jazz Fest scene drink, eat, chat, and invite strangers to join. There’s always a trumpet blasting in the street somewhere. Some people sell water for half price. Others vend memorable wears of the political variety. I picked up “Obama 504” – hand-crafted in Mardi-Gras colors at this year’s Jazz Fest, for $12.

Tomorrow I’ll wear this shirt to work because it’s Friday, and everyone around the city dresses down. Jeans, tee-shirts, sandals: it’s all part of this spring breeze—the few weeks between March and May when everything is tolerable, celebratory, and going on, growing strong. This year, we planted our first-ever garden during this magical time. We didn’t till the soil or pull up weeds, but somehow—the tomatoes, herbs, hydrangeas, palms, and fig tree— it’s all thriving.

Things tend to slow down to a lazy gravy pace in summer, when the heat is thick, the breeze is mostly gone, and the threat of major storms goes on and on. But the spirit of festivals, porch people, and that spring almost-dusk breeze never quite leaves.

All year long, you can see this spirit on the faces of the people here: a light relax in their smile, a dancing candle bright in their eyes.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Jazz and Rain

A Mardi Gras Indian at Jazz Fest '08

Haz and I were walking away from the Jazz Fest food stands with soft shell crab po boys in our hands when it happened:


We had been waiting for it all day. We just didn’t think it would arrive when we decided to grab a bit to eat.

Haz stuffed his New Orleans seafood sub into his mouth and quickly, as if on cue, pulled our rain gear out of the small backpack I was wearing. I wrapped my po boy in a napkin and held it in my hand.

Large, thundering drops pounded on our heads, bare arms, and jeans as we fumbled with our rain jackets and rain pants purchased several years ago from a grocery store in Japan. The jackets and pants were tucked neatly into his and hers green and blue pouches no larger than a paperback novel. Attempting to wrestle the gear out of the mini bag in pouring rain was no easy thing, especially with an increasingly soggy, smushed soft shell crab po boy in my hand.

As we fiddled with our Japanese rain gear, a troupe of Mardi Gras Indians started chanting and banging their drums and bangles on the Jazz Heritage Stage directly in front of us.

“Bring the rain, bring it down…. rain, rain, let it rain…”

African American men dressed in huge suits of florescent feathers and masks stomped and danced all over the stage. Mardi Gras Indian groups and parades are a huge part of New Orleans’ cultural history, with dances and costumes inspired by Native Americans. These tradition also takes cues from African cultures, inspiring a decidedly random mix that best exists in cities like this.

The Indians continued to sing as I finally managed to shimmy into my rain pants without falling into the mud. We could do nothing but laugh and vaguely dance as I resumed eating my soggy po boy and Haz struggled to get his boots through the legs of his rain pants.

We listened to the end of the Indians’ song and sloshed our way over to the Jazz Tent, where Terrence Blanchard and the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra were set to play movements from Blanchard’s Grammy-award winning album, "A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina)." We stepped through the tent in our wrinkled, dripping rain jackets and pants we last wore while hiking a volcano in Japan. The rain outside stopped as soon as we found ourselves a seat.

I finished my po boy sandwich and we both shimmied out of our rain pants as Blanchard started his performance with two songs prominently displayed on Spike Lee’s documentary, When the Levees Broke. Blanchard’s music dominates the documentary, bringing a distinct mood to the interviews of Katrina victims and hurricane footage.

The tent was completely silent as Blanchard and the orchestra took over, evoking thoughts of Katrina and the extreme side of rainy days.

The last song we listened to was the eeriest. Just as Blanchard and another vocalist started to hum and drone in a low, bellowing tone, the rains came again, as if on cue. The rains grew louder and louder with the music. It all brought tears to my eyes.

We emerged from the heavy overtures of the Jazz tent just as the rain stopped. We both kept our rain jackets on just in case. We finally headed over to the Michael Franti and Spearhead concert, where Franti sang happy, upbeat, political songs like “Everyone needs Music.” The rains came down once again, and we struggled to throw on our pants again. The crowd got louder, Franti got louder, and the mud grew into sludge.

* * *

Haz had a chance encounter with Franti earlier that day, before the rain. I left Haz waiting while I braved the aisles of portable potties and reluctantly selected a stall. As Haz waited, a white van pulled up. Out jumped the members of the band Spearhead, along with Franti, the talented political vocalist who often performs with the band. Everyone was barefoot. Michael ran over and hugged Haz, as if he were an old friend.

“Love the shirt, dude,” Michael commented.
“Michael Franti?” Haz asked, bewildered.
“Oh, cool. I’m a big fan. I’m looking forward to the show.”
“Oh thanks man.”

With that, the barefoot band ran off with a soccer ball, dribbling through muddy patches of once green grass.

I emerged from the portable stall and the clouds grew increasingly impatient. Haz told me about his celebrity encounter as we made our way to the soft shell crab po boys at the food stands.

* * *

And finally, as Spearhead finished, a small, hazy sun emerged. The sun was strong enough to lead us over to the main Acura stage, where Stevie Wonder and Irma Thomas were finishing up his tribute to her grammy-award winning album, After the Rain.

Stevie sang “Superstitious,” just before we sloshed our way through mud and crowds out of the gate. The streets surrounding Jazz Fest were plastic wrapped with rain, fallen leaves, and neighbors peddling bottled water and dry porches. We removed our rain pants and jackets somewhere along Esplanade Avenue, the oak lined promenade to jazz paradise in New Orleans.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

New Orleans Vignettes

1. Druids on Claiborne

They tell us to leave work early because the parades are coming. I do as I’m told. And yet, as I drive down Napoleon, I don’t see anything that would stop traffic. Large, exaggerated homes are decorated with purple, green, and gold ribbons, banners, and masks. Metallic beads from last week’s parades swing from oak trees as casually as Spanish moss tendrils, threatening to fall onto cars. Some vendors set up stands and carts stocked with feather boas, masks, jester hats and beads on the corner of St. Charles. Such sights are common to New Orleans any time of year, especially for those who live and work along the parades routes.

The one true sign of Carnival, of the week of nonstop parades and parties before Mardi Gras, is the police barricades lined up in the neutral ground and the litter— parade loot, napkins, beer cans, dacquiri cups— that sprinkles the grassy median like confetti. Another sign screams at me in the form of a siren just ahead.

The sirens of an NOPD motorcade are screaming and flashing on Claiborne. A cop stops drivers at the Napoleon intersection. My eyes grow a little large and I instinctively turn the radio down as if loud jazz will interfere with what’s to come. Other drivers around me are expressionless, unimpressed as dozens of parade floats crawl near us behind the entourage.

You didn’t leave early enough and now you’re stuck, you tell me when I call from the car. Oh well. It’s Carnival. Daily chores like getting to the bank, post office, and driving to and from work are just a tad too difficult. It’s much better to just resign yourself to slowing down, stopping, or joining in the fun.

Tractors nonchalantly pull the floats down Claiborne and turn down Napoleon right next to you. A hand painted sign tells you this is the Krewe of Druids parade. No one is on the floats yet— no beads, masks, bands, or dancers. It’s the skeleton of a good time slowly crawling towards the birthplace of the journey several blocks up Napoleon. Drivers next to you create text messages, fiddle with handbags, and talk to restless kids as a float with the bust of an enormous naked lady zooms by, followed by a float the size of a ship with a large pile of shit at the helm.

In some parts of the world, commuters tolerate cow crossings, sheep crossings, endless pedestrian traffic, bad weather conditions, Amish horse and buggies, funeral processions, emergency vehicles on the run, or even the various delays and complications that arise from war.

In New Orleans, drivers put up with potholes, flash floods, and debris in the street. They evacuate for hurricanes in cars packed with kids, pets, treasured belongings, and until recently, few cares. Still, the passing of a parade is the only thing that really stops traffic New Orleans; it’s the only nuisance locals have learned to love to expect, accommodate, and consider as a necessary component of living a big easy life.

2. Saturday afternoon at the Clover Grill

We are driving around the French Quarter on an early afternoon Saturday. The windows are rolled down, our favorite jazz station is on the radio, and the backseat is filled with purchases from the local arts market. Natives to New York and New Jersey, we can’t believe this kind of spring is possible in February.

Haz suggests we stop for lunch at a famous local spot, The Clover Grill, located just up the road from the crowds on Bourbon. The inside of the place is an homage to chrome— chrome counters, chairs, and table tops. The floors are tiled, the paint on the windows is authentically peeling, and the authentically ancient jukebox actually plays Beyonce, Whitney Houston, and Rihanna.

The mostly male staff sing and dance behind the counter. The menu encourages us to dance also, as long as it’s not on the tables. It actually reads: “Dancing in the aisles only. Please keep off the tables.” Another menu gem reads: “Please keep your hands on top of the table. No talking to yourself.” A large blackboard yells, “Try one of our weanies!” in pink and yellow chalk. Slowly I’m catching on to the not-so hidden vibe of this place. The menu also exclaims that “our weanies” are made of “100% real beef.”

It’s the kind of place where you expect to find lots of tourists ordering “New OrLEENS poor boys” not a bunch of local gay men having a good time. Tourists in horse and carriages roll down Bourbon taking pictures of us, sitting in the Clover Grill window, eating tuna sandwiches and fries. Later, as our waiter collects our dishes, he asks me if I’m sure I don’t want “those pickles.”

“No pickles for me, not today,” I smile.

“I just have to ask,” he quips, trotting back to the counter where his colleague is rocking out to Patty La Belle next to a jar of free condoms.

1. He’s not all trombone and he’s not short

It’s 11:30 at night, on a warm Saturday in March, a night filled with a wind just strong enough to ruffle palm fronds and feathers of St. Patrick’s revelers somewhere.

We are standing, sipping some cold drink, listening to a local DJ spin tunes that range from Fats Domino to Nelly. We are standing here, among locals, tourists, and teachers. Your school’s principal, special education staff, and guidance counselor are here with their spouses. Some are dancing. I teach second grade and I am here. Some individuals across the room are also teachers, across town. We are all tired, waiting. Waiting.

Rebirth comes on just before midnight- all sousaphones, sax, trumpet, and drum. We shimmy, shake, groove, move, stomp, and yell. You and I have seen this band a dozen times but the thrill never quits. Truly, they were the first New Orleans band I ever heard. I first heard them 6 days before Katrina and the Waves took over the city. That was at the Maple Leaf Bar. Now we’re at the Howlin’ Wolf. Downtown.

Rebirth finishes. We’re all sweaty, laughing, and thirsty for another one. But the show isn’t over. Not at 1 a.m. A certain fellow is the main feature, is the new mister of jazz here in the jazz city. He’s not all trombone and he’s not short, but his name is Trombone Shorty. His band is Orleans Avenue, a street located a few blocks from ours.

Trombone, whose real name is Troy Andrews, nonchalantly walks in, tall, slender, and unsuspecting in a suit during the Rebirth performance. You see him first, then point him out. This is always how it is in New Orleans- the local musicians living and hanging with the local non-musicians. Musicians live in rich neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods, black, white, mixed neighborhoods. There is no elite musician class here.

(I have a theory about this. It’s because everyone is some kind of musician here- an individual that appreciates the presence and purpose of a thumping bass drum, bellowing trombone, screeching trumpet, or fidgety fiddle. You can’t live here and not like music. It’s like being Christian and not celebrating Christmas.)

Trombone comes on stage full of vocals, trombone, trumpet, and eventually drum. His music is jazzy, seasoned with R-&-B and hip-hop, flavored with rock. I don’t remember much about it because when he plays I’m in the music, inside the horn, my mind a mere reflection of the instrument I am. I do remember that the show featured a second line procession (a local tradition in which Shorty and his band lead a line of dancers and revelers through a crowd of dancers and revelers). I also remember being on stage.

Shorty invited the entire crowd to join the performance as the hour passed 2. We squished and shimmied on stage, perilously close to the edge, close enough to see sweat on his face. We stayed through a half dozen encores. One encore featured Shorty’s signature trilling on the trombone and an note that lasted much longer than a Superbowl commercial break.

(All this hooplah led me to recall the last time we saw Shorty perform— at the First Baptist Church on Canal. It was Christmas, and the sold out crowd of churchgoers and non-churchgoers was treated to a performance in which the Trombone man played popular holiday tunes with his signature Orleans band, with local legend Irvin Mayfield, and, perhaps most surprisingly, with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.

Ray Nagin, our city mayor who became internationally famous during Katrina, most notably for his angry rant about governmental failure, was there. City Council member Jackie Clarkson and Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landreau were there. It was a family affair, a distinctly New Orleans affair. In a church, with blacks and whites. People brought together by music.

The stage dancing and second line procession also made me think of a memorable Rebirth concert at Tipitina’s last May. We were there with your Principal and a fellow teacher you call “twin.” Rebirth’s show lasted well past 2 a.m. and a second line led by Rebirth brought the entire crowd into the street— onto residential, Uptown Napoleon, not far from the banks of the Mississippi. Rebirth played their loud horns, drums, and sousaphones while the crowd danced, clapped, laughed, and sang. We moved in front of houses where families were sleeping. We yelled and cheered in the neutral ground— the grassy median dividing Napoleon—once the music stopped. Nobody complained. It’s all very expected here.)

Our night at the Howlin’ Wolf ended somewhere before three, after you magically won a raffle that earned us a pile of brass band CDs. The proceeds of the night went to local schools to buy young students instruments. We saw some of these youngsters play Rebirth tunes as an opening act before the evening truly began. These talented kids, the nervous kids, the kids who are cautious about playing such locally necessary rhythms, the ones who get more kicks from trombones and saxophones than video games— it’s up to them to keep it like this. To keep New Orleans musical in the sense that no other place is. And us? We need to support them as best we can.