As I drove toward the lakefront, I saw progress. Not victory, not the promise of victory, but progress nonetheless.
It'll have to do for now.
I was on my way to see a basketball game last week at the University of New Orleans. Once upon a time, I lived an easy five minutes from campus. The rushing flood waters of Hurricane Katrina pushed me and the family across town. We now stay in a comfortable apartment in the "sliver by the river."
But it's not home. Occasionally, if I call my Darling Wife from work and say, "I'm heading home," she will ask, "You mean the house, or the apartment?" Home for us is still an ambiguous state of living.
The Privateers were likewise deprived of their home last year. They used to play at Lakefront Arena, the modern multi-purpose facility at the University of New Orleans. It's been the home of Privateers Basketball since the early eighties.
Katrina ripped off large sections of Lakefront Arena's metal siding, exposing the interior to a watery deluge. It will be several more months before the Privateers can go back home.
So for now, for this season, they are playing games at their old gym at the UNO campus. The ground rises considerably near the lake, so only a few buildings at the university were flooded, and those that were are being quickly repaired. That's where I was headed.
I drove up Carrollton Avenue, starting at the Mississippi River--the high ground of the "sliver by the river." The sky was dark, but the street lights and traffic lights were cheerfully bright. Houses along the avenue we mostly lit, too.
Crossing Claiborne Avenue as I continued north, houses, schools and businesses were mostly darkened. Sitting in the middle of the darkness, a Rally's Burgers was open with no one in line, and a single gas station across the street looked fairly busy.
At the corner of Tulane and Carrollton, the friendly neon bowling pin of Rock'n'Bowl cast its bright red light across the empty neighborhood. The street lights were all on, too, which is an improvement from the last time I went by here after nightfall.
Down Carrollton past Canal Street, the ornamental lights that were installed just a few years ago with the installation of the street car tracks were all lit up in a brilliant display. This, too, was a show of progress. But the only thing they illuminated was the uninterrupted rows of lifeless buildings on both sides all the way to City Park. Restaurants, bars, a car dealership, grocery stores, and what used to be some of the prettiest little houses, were all still and silent.
I drove around the traffic circle at Gen. Beauregard's statue, and merged onto Wisner Boulevard for the rest of the trip to Lake Pontchartrain. Again, the street lights glowed in a bright line all the way down, but darkness ruled on either side.
I decided to drive pass by my house, just to see. Why not? It was on the way, and I had plenty of time before the game.
A short detour and I was driving down my street. A single word: darkness. It was like driving through a national forest on a moonless night. No street lights, no porch lights, no lit windows, not even headlights from other cars. I put on my high beams so that I could at least see some of what lay beyond the street curbs.
A boxy white FEMA trailer was propped up on blocks in one neighbor's yard, but it too was dark. With every house and every car and every lawn covered in a brown layer of mud, the brightness of the white interloper was startling. There is no electrical service on my street yet, no sewer service either, so I'm not sure how anyone could live here even in a trailer.
Further down, I stopped in front of my house. Couldn't see it in the darkness, so I turned the wheel and backed around to point my headlights at it.
Silent, dirty, and sad.
And doomed. My Darling Wife and I have already decided not to repair our house. No, it will have to come down so that we can build up. It's not your fault, I said to the house. You were good to us.
I continued on my way to the University of New Orleans campus. The street lights again lit the way once I found Robert E. Lee and Leon C. Simon Boulevards. And the old gym was clean and shiny. A faint smell of fresh paint and varnish from the wood floor was still in the air.
I got a beer and nachos, and watch my alma mater play an exciting game of basketball. It was almost like old times. Almost "normal."
Sadly, the Privateers did not win that night. We clapped and cheered and booed at the refs, but in the end, UNO came up short.
As I drove "home," back to the other side of the city, Coach Towe was on the radio. He congratulated the opponents for an excellent game and talked about the progress of his team in the shadow of the catastrophe that has ravaged our community. Not victory, not the promise of victory, but progress nonetheless.
It'll have to do for now.