Carondelet Street or bust
Please note the footnote at the end. If you can, please donate. I can promise you it is worth it.
It was such a fine spring day,
with fragrance divine, oh baby,
and such magnificent regalia,
oh so fine, Azalea.
I've got to go back there
and find that blossom fair,
I always dream of,
'cause with you who can be a failure.
My first love, Azalea.
-- Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, from "Azalea"
A week ago Sunday, I saw the sunrise over the
I had vaguely recognized Wallace when I saw him in
Wallace proposed that we attempt to drive the six hours down to
Wallace bought a set of battery-charged power tools, walkie-talkies for times we anticipated being separate, canned pineapples and water. I bought blue tarps, bungee cords, the biggest Maglite on the market and energy bars, and tried in vain to find rubber boots.
There was no traffic at all as we passed through
We had a quarter tank of gas and two full five-gallon gas cans in the back of the van when we stopped for gas in Hammond, about 60 miles outside the city. We figured it would be our last chance for gas before
However, it turned out that teenagers, mostly black, hung out at the gas station in their cars until late at night, playing loud, bass-heavy music and talking to friends. I figured this out quickly after watching five police cars simultaneously converge on the gas station, lights ablaze, to close down the place and chase off the kids. We pulled into the now-empty gas station after circling the block and letting the dust settle. The pumps had been turned off so I walked up to the little gas station store. The glass door was locked and I stood staring in at the clerks until one came up to the glass and told us that they were closed.
In the weeks since evacuating New Orleans with my wife and two dogs and having no place to live, I have gotten used to asking for favors, begging and saying please and thank you. Through the glass, I told the clerk my "sad story." I told him that I was from
Within minutes of getting back on the Interstate, we saw flares and police cars parked ahead on the highway, blocking the road. Wallace and I checked in on our story once again and slowed to a stop next to a tired-looking, middle-aged white police officer.
"How you doing, officer," Wallace said.
He asked us where we were going and we explained that we were going to New Orleans, that I was a lawyer and that I had legal business related to the storm, a half truth. We showed him our identification. He responded simply, "I'm too tired to care. You can do what you want. He commented that our car smelled of gas and chemicals: "What, you got drugs in there?"
We explained that we had cans of gasoline in the back of the van. He responded kindly, "Gas? You know that's not really safe ... get out of here."
We drove through the checkpoint and up onto the causeway, the elevated highway that runs through the swamps toward
On both sides of the causeway, we could see the glow of the massive factories, cities of industry now back in action, spewing flames.
We were quiet for a while, eager to see our homes, our city, and knowing it had changed. We were also exhausted.
We cut around the city to the south and onto Highway 90, the old highway into the city, on the
As we approached the bridge, we reached another roadblock, manned by the Crescent City Connection Bridge Police. The officer standing guard was bleary-eyed and looked as if he were about to fall over. He hardly listened as we told him why we were traveling into the city. He had no objections. Wallace asked him how he was doing. His pain poured out. He told us that he had lost his house, that the floodwater had risen to the roof, and that it was destroyed. He said that the insurance adjuster said that his policy didn't cover flood. He told us that his wife and kids were in
We thanked him, sincerely, and drove off. As we pulled away, I saw him go back to sit with his fellow officers, none of whom could probably bear hearing each other's sad stories another time. Each, perhaps, waiting to talk to the next couple of guys trying to pass into town who were willing to listen.
The city was dim as we passed over the bridge. We could see a big military ship docked on the side of the river next to the convention center. Within minutes, we reached my house, five blocks from the Superdome. It was still dark.
I inspected the house with my flashlight, and it looked the same as I had left it. I unlocked the door and walked into my high-ceilinged living room, and could smell the aroma of home, slightly stale, a little sour, but distinct. No water had come in; the flood had not reached us. I drank some water from the cooler I had left stocked with four five-gallon jugs, then went upstairs, where I did not know what I would find.
I crept up the stairs, almost blind in the dark with my flashlight off, but knowing the steps, because I was finally home. At the top of the stairs I reflexively switched the light on, to no avail. I flipped on my flashlight and saw that my ceiling had collapsed from above. From the right angle, I could see the night sky through the wound in my roof. There was soggy sheetrock and wet bits of insulation, made of shredded newspaper, everywhere. I wanted to start cleaning up then and there but realized it was absurd, that there was still more to see. I crossed through my wife's studio, unblemished, with her paintings on the walls, and then into our bedroom, where the ceiling had also collapsed onto our new pillow-top mattress, which we had talked about with joy every night since its purchase as we got into bed.
I climbed the narrow ladder up into my attic, walked carefully along the rafters, then climbed through the hole in the roof I had seen from below. I nervously walked up the back face of my double-pitched roof and could see with the flashlight that large portions of the roof were damaged and exposed. Jitters passed through my body. I had been awake for almost 24 hours, I was standing on my roof in the middle of the night in my abandoned city, and I felt nauseated. Even under the best of circumstances, I have no business out on a roof. But anticipating the damage, I had brought up a tarp, some screws, and Wallace's new drill. I tried to secure the tarp over some of the damaged areas, but I began to feel my feet slipping on the remaining roofing tiles beneath my feet.
Knowing that I was a danger to myself, I slid back down the hole and made my way downstairs and told Wallace what I had seen and what I tried to do. He told me that he was good on roofs -- he would come up with me. We made our way back up. He did most of the work. He explained that we weren't really accomplishing anything but that it was good to try, that I could tell my wife that I had tried to repair the roof in the middle of the night, and I would be a hero. I felt pathetic and scared but comforted.
Before making our way back downstairs, we watched the city come awake. New Orleans never had the early-morning hustle and bustle of other American cities but, instead, a few people heading to work, a few stragglers still trying to find their way home. In
Back downstairs, I cleaned up what I could and packed some things and brought them down to the van. I found the rings and the journals but had lost the list my wife had given me. I panicked, knowing that I was in no state to make decisions. Everything seemed pointless by this time. Miraculously, I got through to my wife on my cellphone.
"Nikki, I can't find the list. I've lost it. All I can remember are the rings and the journals," I told her.
She could hear in my voice that I was not well, that I hadn't eaten, and that I was exhausted. She said, "Billy, you got everything that matters. Go downstairs, eat some beans from a can, and sit down for a minute. Promise."
She has said these kinds of things so many times in this house as we restored it from a shell, as I worked myself into the ground with my job, and her words put me back together, a little bit anyway. We got off the phone and I grabbed as much as I could remember, neglecting her advice for the time being.
Before we left, Wallace handed me two garbage bags and told me that I should clean out my fridge. It hadn't occurred to me. I opened the door and began to retch at the smell. I tried to wrap a cloth around my face, but it kept dropping down. The worst were the chicken cutlets in the freezer that turned to mush when I grabbed them and then leaked through the cellophane wrap, all over my hands. I dragged the garbage bag through my house to the curb. Immediately flies swarmed to it. Wallace sprayed bleach on the floor in my living room and cleaned up where the bag had leaked. I will love him forever.
When I got my bearings, Wallace introduced me to two dogs that had come up to him while I was upstairs. They were already peacefully resting in the kennels he had brought with him in case we ran into strays. They knew that they had hit the jackpot and weren't going to do anything to mess it up. He had already named one of them. The black Lab puppy was Sancho Panza, after Don Quixote's sidekick. He asked what the names of the cross-streets were on my block, as Carondelet, the name of the street, didn't seem like an appropriate dog name. I told him that they were the names of muses, Clio and Erato. He named the baby pitbull Clio, the muse of history.
We got into the car and drove to his house. On the way, we looked for my Jeep, which I had parked in a garage to protect from flooding, but it was gone. It had been liberated. I hoped that whoever took it made it out of town with their family. Maybe they will drop me a postcard from
Wallace's house was in much better shape than mine, and he made quick work of packing, cleaning out his fridge, and getting us back on the road. I could tell that he felt kind of bad that his house wasn't damaged like mine. I was just glad that I didn't have to go up on another roof.
As I waited for Wallace, I met two young guys from the Oregon National Guard who had come up to the house, thinking that we were holdouts and intending to encourage us to leave. They were very sweet and I offered them cigars, a recently acquired vice, which they initially declined. They had both signed up for the National Guard before Sept. 11 to help pay for college. While I could tell that they both had their hesitations about the "war on terror" and their pending deployment to
I introduced them to our new dogs, who were happy to have a little attention. One of the guardsmen told me that there were dying dogs everywhere, and it made him incredibly sad. He said, blankly, "These starving dogs are the saddest thing ... after the dead bodies." They quickly changed the subject.
After being yelled at by holdouts, the police and their commanders, they had made their first friend in
"What we wouldn't give," they said.
I told them to come back and visit when it was a city again and that they would surely have a better time.
Wallace and I got back in the van and started to head out of town. Before we left his neighborhood, Bywater, we came across some scrappy-looking guys and we pulled over to see if they wanted any of the water or food that we had left in the van. They introduced themselves, saying, "They call us holdouts." They turned down the water and food, saying they had plenty of canned food and that they had gallons of water in their hot-water heaters. They explained that they had been bathing in the
We drove off and left our occupied city. I slept most of the drive back as Wallace, still solid, drove. I woke up as we were approaching
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About the writer
Billy Sothern is a New Orleans writer and attorney living in Oxford, Miss., until he can return home. His nonprofit, Reprieve, accepts donations to support the organization's many indigent clients who are now homeless and without money or credit.