HOME SWEET NOLA
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.