Leaving 

What will New Orleans look like once the author and thousands of others move away?

"We're moving?" We'd been putting off our family discussion for weeks. We didn't know that our 7-year-old daughter, Cecilia, had read a local weekly paper that is printing some of my articles. She saw a picture of her teacher on the cover and just kept reading. It was the first newspaper article she's ever read, and it was in an alternative weekly. I feel some pride about that. But at the close of the piece, I had written about moving from New Orleans.

"Too many people are leaving and I don't want to be one of them," she now announces loudly.

Cecilia is dressed as a witch. Three other witches are at her side. It's Halloween, and we're trick-or-treating in Carencro, the small Louisiana town where we've lived for two months. She's not crying; she's not laughing. She's just being loud. The local parents look over at us.

I stop and kneel down to Cecilia's level. But she doesn't want to talk more about it. She's gone back to trick-or-treating.

In fact, we don't resume the conversation until the next day, on our first trip out of Louisiana since the storm. We've flown to Chicago and are driving to the suburb of Evanston. We are visiting schools there and preparing to move in with family in mid-December.

I'm in the front seat. My kids sit in the back. My wife, Tami, is in the middle, sitting between the kids' car seats. We restart the conversation about moving. I tell Cecilia that if she wants to, she can finish up her school year in New Orleans. Tami could move up early, start the new job, look for the new house. I could stay back with the kids.

Cecilia pantomimes her response. First, she shakes her head from side to side. "No?" I ask. Then she tightly grabs onto Tami's arm.

It's settled.

The word is that 40 percent of the city's residents won't return. But nobody knows for sure. I think that estimate is too high. But many who don't return will be African-Americans, the poorest of whom have no jobs, no homes and no future in the city. New Orleans will likely become majority-white. The political landscape will harden and become more conservative.

I'm sitting in a New Orleans coffee shop, blocks from my house. It is filled with people; cars on return trips to New Orleans are crowding the interstate. Across the table from me is a neighbor, Chris Poche. He has kids at my kids' school. They're back in our neighborhood, too. These evenings, he says, they sit on their porch and watch as Humvees, filled with teenage soldiers wielding M-16s, lumber down Plum Street. It starts to feel like a bad episode of "Survivor."

But the Poches are planning to stay. "When you live in New Orleans, you have to find a way to like being in the messiness," Chris says. "Here, you can't forget there are poor people in the world. It's all stripped bare and we just have to be in it."

One night during our visit to Chicago, I attend an event titled "Race and Hurricane Katrina." Organizers included Louise LeBourgeois, a New Orleans-born artist who was living in Italy when Katrina hit New Orleans. She woke up in the middle of the night screaming, "You son of a bitch," and decided she had to do something. So she painted spirits rising from sugar kettles. And she helped organize this evening's event.

George Bailey, a professor from Columbia College, speaks about images of race and racism. Two actors perform the Ninth Ward poet Marcus B. Christian's "I Am New Orleans." We pair off for discussions.

Then an organizer asks if there are any evacuees here tonight. Three of us raise our hands. We are asked if we want to speak. I start by saying that this is the first time I've been outside of Louisiana since the hurricane. It becomes hard to go on.

When I first started this series of articles, I never planned on it ending this way. I thought the story would be how one family found its way back to its New Orleans home.

I have loved New Orleans because it is different from any other place. Now, some of those differences must be preserved, and others must be obliterated. Anything else, and the city might not survive the next storm. It might not even survive until the next storm. At least not in any recognizable form.

I wish I could say that the city will flourish. I wish I could be sure that the city, the state and the country will keep its promises to the people who live here. I can't. So when I need to feel hope, I'll look to New Orleanians.

At the Katrina event in Chicago, before we break for sandwiches and pralines, organizer Melissa Cook reads from a letter that Tennessee Williams wrote William Saroyan on Nov. 29, 1941. The topic is World War II, but he could be writing about the horrors of the autumn of 2005.

"I think there is going to be a vast hunger for life after all this death -- and for light after all this eclipse," Williams wrote. "People will want to read, see, feel the living truth and they will revolt against the sing-song Mother Goose book of lies that are being fed to them. A layer of thick, dull and insensitive epidermis is gradually being blasted off the public hide -- I hope!"

Michael Tisserand is the former editor of Gambit Weekly, New Orleans' alternative newspaper. This is an excerpt from the 10th part in an 11-part series. All can be read at www.altweeklies.com. The final installment will appear Feb. 14, 2006, after Mardi Gras.

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