The water that washed into New Orleans also washed away a lot of the city. One of my neighbors, a Marine and his family, can be counted among the casualties of Katrina's flood.
Although originally from North Carolina, my Marine neighbor took a liking to our quirky town. His tour of duty here with the Leathernecks had ended, but his kids were in good schools and the wife liked the neighborhood. So they stayed.
When Katrina came to town, my Marine neighbor had rejoined and was serving in Iraq. His family reluctantly fled to the familiar hills of North Carolina as the flood water rose on our street.
So now resettled, and with nothing to come back to in New Orleans except years of rebuilding and dust and sweaty work, my Marine neighbor informed me that they are not coming back to New Orleans.
I totally understand. Their children are now settled in to their new schools. The oldest will graduate from high school this spring, and the youngest is just starting. The wife has a new job. The Marines have sent my friend back stateside, and he's spending most of his time at Camp LeJeune.
My Marine neighbor came back to get some things from their mud and mold coverned house last week. He spent two days digging and found some important papers and a few unspoiled items to take back with him, back to North Carolina.
But before he left, he put up his flag. We both flew the stars and stripes on the front of our houses before the hurricane came to town.
I was at my house the other day, and there it was, waving free and showing its bright colors to the sepia-toned houses and shrubbery all along our street. There it was, swaying gently in the breeze, as if my Marine friend had just left for work and would be coming home soon like he did so many days before.
I felt a great deal of appreciation for him at that moment. A good neighbor, a fine father, and a Marine of exemplary stature, how fortunate I was to have lived across the street from him for these six some years.
That simple gesture of raising the colors before he left, what did that say about him, about our neighborhood, about New Orleans?
They could say, "These Colors Don't Run," or, "Don't Tread on Me," statements of defiance against Katrina and her destructive force.
But what I think it says is, "Semper Fidelis," the Marine's motto, "Always Faithful." Because even if circumstances and family responsibilities have carried his family away, I think my Marine neighbor knows that friendships will endure, and New Orleans will not be washed away.
The 60-Second Interview with John Blancher
So if you're from around here, you know who I'm talking about. Likes to dance on the bar. Dresses up like Elvis at every legitimate opportunity. Runs a place called Mid City Rock'n'Bowl.
I was headed up Carrollton Avenue toward my still soggy, mold infested house in Vista Park yesterday to do some treasure hunting, as such. As is my custom, I'm scanning left and right and taking notes about what businesses are open or looking like they want to open. I was cruising past the faded painting of the world famous bowling pin logo of Rock'n'Bowl and I saw two people standing out front. Recognizing Blancher, even without the jumpsuit and sideburns, I pulled a quick louie.
I drove up next to him and rolled down the window.
Me: "Hey, John! Good to see you!"
Him: "Hey, how ya doing buddy!"
Me: "You getting ready to open this place?"
Him: "Man, I wanted to open this week--I'm ready right now. But I can't until they get the grocery cleaned out."
It turns out that what is keeping both the rockin' and the bowling at bay is the Union Grocery Store, or what is left of it. For whatever reason, no one has cleaned out the grocery since it flooded more than two months ago. It sits right below the Rock'n'Bowl, so the rotting and smelling and you-don't-want-to-think-too-long-about-it remains of that place are making Blancher's place uninhabitable, even by FEMA standards.
He explained that there's some sort of rift with the landlord so that for the foreseeable future, the alleys and the amps will be silent. I really didn't catch it all, only I understood that when he said, "no telling when," he probably means, "no time soon."
I wished him well, and I told him, as the unofficial spokesperson for the music-loving population of New Orleans and surrounding environs, that we missed the place dearly. He thanked me as a glint of sunlight reflected from the corner of his eyes.
I continued up Carrollton to the remains of my house. But I found no treasure that day to compare with John Blancher and his Rock'n'Bowl.
Web site: http://www.rockandbowl.com/index.htm
A little coffee shop on Oak Street. An old, out-of-tune piano. A little girl who loves music.
Yesterday my wife and my daughter went for a walk and ended up at the coffee shop on the corner. We just moved to this neighborhood, having been forced out of our Vista Park home by Katrina. They were exploring the area when they stopped for a spell.
It was pretty busy, and like so many New Orleans spots, it was populated with a UN-worthy assortment of locals and internationals, preppies and punks, freaks and geeks. A man was playing on an old piano set in the corner, and as they do in so many clubs and coffee shops, no was paying any attention. The man finished his playing, then quietly left the building.
Our daughter, who has been taking piano lessons for a few years, was intrigued. She thought he was pretty good.
Curious, my wife asked the coffee chefs, who was that guy. Did he play here often? Not really, they said. Just a customer who sometimes gets in a little ivory action with his coffee. Would you mind if my daughter played some? No, go ahead.
So my 9-year-old went up to the piano, and without the benefit of her sheet music, she played some of the tunes she's been practicing all these many months. The way my wife tells it, everyone stopped to listen. All conversations in that little coffee shop ended abruptly, and fingers, toes and heads kept time with the music from the out-of-tune piano courtesy of a little girl. Hispanic workers, taking a break from their clean-up work, were nodding in time. Still wearing their day-glo vests and the dirt of the disaster, they sat and smiled.
When she had played enough, she got up to return to the table and her mother. That's when the whole coffee shop gave her a hearty round of applause.
Later, my wife insists, as the Hispanic workers returned to their back-breaking work, they whistled some of the tunes my girl had played as they went out the door. Other patrons stopped by their table to compliment her playing.
All of New Orleans was contained in that coffee shop that day. Ethnicly, economically, educationally diverse, but all gathered in community thanks to the music.
Web site: http://www.oakstreetcafe.com/
The family is reunited: my wife and daughter returned to New Orleans this week and we all three have moved into a comfortable if a tad overpriced apartment in the Riverbend neighborhood. I've met a few neighbors and it seems like we're all displaced homeowners.
There's good and bad in that realization. First, it shows the resolve of homeowners like us, who lost it all in the flood, to stick to it and to make this old gal we call New Orleans pretty again. But it also begs the question, where are all the people who used to rent these apartments?
The two women who vacated the place I now call home left town and do not plan to return. They went to New York, where they have found jobs and new opportunity. Even though they're paying three times the rent for half the space, they don't think they'll come back for many years, if at all.
So therein is the problem. It's going to take more than love to nurse New Orleans back to health. It's going to take jobs, schools and housing. And that, I am certain, is going to take years.
The great philosophers Lennon and McCartney said, "All you need is love." On one level, they were right. I don't really need all the stuff that got destroyed in my flooded home. All I really need is my family.
But on another level, they are totally wrong. Love alone will not restore New Orleans. Love will not bring back her freaky, creepy, wonderfully irreverant diaspora. Love will not bring back the houses and the gardens and the families. Those things will happen only with much blood, toil, tears and sweat.
If I sound pessimistic, do not worry. Lennon and McCartney also advised us that, "In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make."
We're here, and we're ready. We love this city, and we are not giving up on her. We're flipping the finger at Katrina, Rita and all her kin. We're swinging hammers like there's no tomorrow. We have bumperstickers that say, "Make Levees, Not War."
Yeah you rite.