My girlfriend looked up at me recently and shook her head. She'd been losing sleep lately, and was worried. We'd both moved up here from New Orleans a couple months earlier to take separate jobs -- good jobs -- in Atlanta, so on the surface we considered ourselves incredibly fortunate. But, as with all things post-Katrina, any kind of change just stirred up our emotions. "I dunno," she said. "Do you think it's because the anniversary is coming up?"
"The anniversary" she referred to is Aug. 29 -- the day Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the city I'd come to call home.
On my way to work, I stopped off at a coffee shop and was greeted by a beaming, twentysomething African-American woman named Laurita Marie. On her left shoulder, just underneath her sleeve, was a now familiar fleur-de-lis tattoo that immediately told me she was a fellow New Orleanian. What was even more striking was the tattoo had a fist rising from the lapping water underneath the French icon. It seemed by now that all of us, wherever we were, were sporting some form of inked defiance -- I have my own fleur-de-lis and had recently viewed a full gallery's worth of tattoos on the New Orleans Times-Picayune's website. So I knew she was from New Orleans, but politely asked anyway.
"Excuse me, where are you from?"
"So am I. What neighborhood are you from?"
"Did you evacuate here?"
I told her I'd evacuated to Lafayette. Then I paused, and couldn't help but asking: "How are you holding up? You doing OK?"
She hesitated, then said, "I don't know. I'm having trouble sleeping lately. I guess it's because, you know, the anniversary's coming up."
The thing is, we all know. Whether we're from the Tremé, or Uptown (my neighborhood), or Mid-City (where my girlfriend barely avoided getting flooded) or eastern New Orleans (where her childhood home was consumed by water), and no matter where we are now, New Orleanians all have a sense of shared memory, and the impending anniversary brings it all back. We've all experienced the uncertainty and confusion that eventually gave way to grief, anger, frustration and anxiety and, finally, a determination to move on, whether in New Orleans or elsewhere.
My girlfriend and I both eventually returned to our homes and jobs, under challenging circumstances to say the least. But we were committed to return to New Orleans and try to make a go of it. I'd told prospective employers in California and New Mexico -- both incredibly sympathetic to my situation -- that the last thing I wanted to do was move there and wake up one morning three months later and say, "I want to go home." If I were to leave New Orleans, for whatever reason, it would be on my terms.
I could sense some friends and relatives were dubious and thought I was following my heart more than my head, returning to a bombed-out shell of a city that had been reduced to what we began to call "the sliver by the river," where 20 percent of the city remained relatively functional.
It's a little ironic considering that before the storm, I'd grown a little frustrated with New Orleans. I'd spent seven years in the same job and sweated the same things as everyone else: the crime, the poverty, the crappy education system, the lack of a large and vibrant young professional class.
What I'd taken for granted was how liberated I had felt after moving there from my hometown of Tallahassee. It was in New Orleans that I learned I could be fearless and reckless even while progressing in my career. I learned that culture can exist in everything from a trumpet to a po-boy, and that a city could actually have an inner life, its own language. For better or worse, I'd arrived at the conclusion that most people didn't come to New Orleans to find themselves; they came there to lose themselves. More than anything, I remember walking around my neighborhood thinking to myself, "I can be whoever I want to be, and no one's going to fuck with me."
Except, I would learn, nature -- and my government.
Over the six weeks of my evacuation, my situation seemed to change weekly: first cut off from friends and co-workers, then laid off, then interviewed by companies across the country, then deciding to return to the city and try to make it as a freelance writer, and then suddenly rehired by my paper. Returning to New Orleans, oddly enough, seemed the most stable move I could make.
But as I drove back to the city for the first time, in early October, I began to fret over whether my house had been looted or damaged. Instead, I opened the door of my Uptown shotgun house to the sight of the ceiling fan spinning and cool air blowing. Nothing was touched, including a stack of photo albums that I'd (curiously enough) spent the week leading up to the storm assembling. A friend came over and helped me dump my fridge out on the street along with the others (which added to the city's growing stench). I helped him dump his and then returned briefly to the safety of Lafayette, where I plotted my permanent move back to New Orleans.
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