Monday, April 23, 2007

The one-two punch

John lost his mother and brother in the past few months. You might say he lost them to Hurricane Katrina. In New Orleans, his story is not typical, but it is not all that uncommon either.

Sunday morning I wandered out of our FEMA Travel Trailer to look at the day. Across our vacant lot, across the lot next door made recently vacant as well, I saw John standing with his hands on his hips. I walked over to say hello.

The house that used to stand next to our vacant lot was knocked down last week. The backhoe arrived late one afternoon and parked in the front yard. When I got home from work the next day, nothing but brown dirt remained. The only evidence of the house was a few glass shards and chips of brick.

It's one of those odd circumstances of urban living. We moved here about 6 years before Katrina, before the flood washed the neighbors away. John lived just two doors away. But I don't recall ever meeting him before this day.

So as suddenly as the levees breached, as swiftly as the neighborhood had been doused, as quickly as that house between us had been ripped up and carted away, we stood there and talked as if we had been talking like this all along.

John told me that he had lived here since he was 10 years old. His mother and father had built one of the first homes in Vista Park. He said it was the second house on the whole street. He pointed to a white-brick house a few hundred feet away, telling me that was the only other one here back in the early days.

And now, John observed matter-of-factly, it's looking a lot like it did back then. Vacant land all around. A few houses and not much traffic.

John was soft-spoken and alert when I talked to him. But there was a slight slur as one side of his mouth lagged in movement. It was easy to guess that he was in his 60's; I wondered too if he had suffered a stroke recently.

The clear sky radiated a blueness that only occurs on the hottest days. The bright light of morning was tempered by the low humidity and light breeze of what was starting out to be a beautiful day. In stark contrast, John told me about the unhappy journey his life has become since that not-so-perfect-day in August 2005.

The Saturday before Katrina attacked, John and his elderly mother were planning to stay. They had stayed for Betsy. They had stayed for Camille. The street had never flooded and damage was mostly from a few fallen trees.

But Sunday morning John heard panic in the voices of the reporters and meteorologists on the TV. The hurricane had not turned. It was headed here. He heard desperation in the pleas of the Mayor and Governor. He decided to leave his childhood home, still expecting to come back in a few days. John took his mother to the north shore, to a house his brother owned on the relative high ground of St. Tammany Parish.

We all know what happened that Monday.

The weeks and months that followed have continued to be hard on John. Harder still on his family. His elderly mother was not able to return home, and his brother took up the job of filing the paperwork for insurance and government assistance. John was not specific--and I did not press for details--but at some point his brother was not able to go on. He killed himself less than a year after Katrina.

John's mother, now dealing with further grief, had to move to an assisted living facility. "She lasted six months," John says, so plainly that it startled me. As if her death from the one-two punch of a hurricane and a suicide was a given.

"And how about you?" I asked. "How are you getting along?"

He tells the same lie we all tell when asked. "Fine."

He purchased a condo in Metairie soon after the storm. John initially wanted to return here, had the house gutted and treated for mold. He's been keeping the lawn trim and made some inquiries with contractors.

But now he thinks not. "I don't need a three-bedroom house," he says. "And I don't have the energy to do the work anyway." His current plan is to sell it to The Road Home program, and he knows what will happen to his childhood home then: demolition.

He surveys the land around us. "I remember all these trees when they were first planted," he says with a mixture of pride and sadness. He smiles a crooked smile and shakes his head.

John lost his house in Katrina, and you could say he lost two family members, too. But more than that, he lost his home and probably all that remained of his youth and energy.

The rising waters drowned a lot more than just houses, and many, like John, are still treading to survive the flood. In New Orleans, his story is not typical, but it is not all that uncommon either.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Of Leaders and Opportunists

Leaders inspire us with vision.

Leaders help us to become more than we thought we could ever be.

Leaders show us how we as a community can be greater than the sum of our parts.

Leaders are in short supply in New Orleans right now--or are they?

I guess it depends where you look.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Correction and update

It was pointed out to me by both my Mom and my Darling Wife that I can't tell the difference between a thistle and a cleome. It's the latter that I captured in the photographs below. Oh well, I guess I should stick to engineering.

That's the correction; now the update.

I've noticed that I get at least one or two hits per day here from people searching for Camellia Grill. I find it hard to imagine that when one googles Camellia Grill, probably the most famous lunch-counter eatery in this city so famous for great food, they wind up at this non-culinary blog. Well, I do on occasion blog on food, because ultimately, it's always about the food in New Orleans. But that is far from the main topic here.

Anyway, the family was in the Riverbend neighborhood on Sunday so we walked by the tall white columns of Camellia Grill to see what was up. The doors were wide open, probably to let the place air out from a fresh coat of white paint. Relaxing comfortably on a chair off to one side was a bright-eyed fellow in painter's coveralls chatting cheerfully on a cell phone. He lowered the phone and announced, unprompted, "Open soon! Come back!" I'm as much a linguist as I am a gardener, so take it for what it's worth but I would guess his accent was Italian. In fact, he said next week.

We three peeked in to see what we could. The walls were bare and newly painted or spackled. The counter is still there and looks the same. The stainless grill equipment and shelving is still there and looks the same. Several stools looked as though their seats had been ripped off and were ready to receive new cushioning. My Darling Wife and I wondered if in fact it could be ready by next week. Still looked like a lot to do to us.

But as we turned to leave, I could've sworn I caught the delicious scent of frying bacon. Open soon! Come back!

Monday, April 02, 2007

A thistle grows in New Orleans

A few months ago, I was admiring the sunflowers popping up in the neighborhood.

Today, it's thistle that catches my eye.

Their large, round, spiked buds shine bright pink and purple in the afternoon sunlight. Some reach upward no less than 4 feet on a tubular, jagged stalk.

Thistle volunteers in post Katrina New Orleans.

My Darling Wife loves them. When I told her that I was going to trim our little patch of lawn the other day, she asked, "Why?"

Because it needs to be cut, I said.

"Okay, but don't cut the wildflowers." Apparently, she thinks some of the scraggly, odd-shaped weeds growing around the FEMA travel trailer are actually pretty. Not knowing much about plants and gardening, I made her come outside and point out what she wanted to keep just to be safe.

She pointed to a tall, ominous looking plant sprouting near the steps; a thistle that had not yet bloomed.

Gardening Factoid: There is no biological designation for a "weed." A weed is simply a plant you don't like that shows up in your garden uninvited. If for some reason you DO like it, it's not a weed--it's a "volunteer."

So being the fine husband I am, I carefully cut around the volunteer and complained about it profusely.

Thistle (I learned after I looked it up on Wikipedia) come in several varieties. Ours is probably a Milk Thistle. The Wiki folks describe its prickles as "an adaptation protecting against herbivorous animals." I don't know about that, but speaking as an omnivore I can assure you I was not even slightly tempted to eat it.

There were several other scraggly, climbing and spreading imposters that I was told to leave alone. The current environment in this damaged city seems to favor the wildest of weeds (or volunteers) over the nice grasses we usually would have had before the waters came. The brown that dominated following Hurricane Katrina is quickly being overrun with green.

And we continue our love/hate relationship with nature here.

The city of New Orleans considers unkempt lawns a sign of dereliction and is starting to enforce what is called a “Good Neighbor” ordinance. It’s a law that requires homeowners, whether here or there, to maintain their empty houses and properties. In the neighborhoods of New Orleans, untamed nature is not to be tolerated.

At the same time The Times-Picayune trumpets the need for us to work with nature, to allow her the space to “do her thing.” We are told that humanity’s desire to control our environment is at the root of all our problems here in coastal Louisiana.

The answer, I think, lies between these two views. I don’t agree that we are helpless and should surrender to the furies of the natural universe. But I also don’t think we should view nature as the enemy at the gates. This is not about mankind versus nature, but of mankind living within nature.

Hurricanes are part of the natural environment of the Gulf of Mexico. And our insatiable appetite to build and shape the human environment is perfectly natural, too. Heck, even the most ardent environmentalists will draw you a picture of what they want the coast to look like--as if nature needs their help to make her vision a reality!

No, I say we ARE nature. I say we have to enact our own adaptations to survive in this environment. We know hurricanes are coming, so we should build a hurricane protection system that incorporates multiple lines of defense, so that one localized failure won’t doom the city. We know hurricanes are coming, so we should build our houses up off the ground and strong enough to withstand the wind.

We will struggle on. It is the nature of nature, you might say. The people who have not left, the people who are coming, we will all make it happen. Our houses will rise over the tangled, tortured landscape.

My Darling Wife and I are finalizing plans for our own high-rise home here. We are going to stake our claim to this land and this city. We are not defying nature; we are working within nature to make our home here.

Around us, other houses are rising. Several new slabs have been poured here, and the homes of the new New Orleans are taking root. Only time will tell if we will be viewed as volunteers or as weeds.

Thistle growing in post-Katrina New Orleans.

I looked again at that strange thistle, and had to give it credit for its perseverance and tenacity. Looking around at the neighboring vacant properties, I see several more of them scattered about.

They rise defiantly on the vacant land here, growing where some would not approve, reaching where some would not dare.

A few months ago, it was sunflowers, rising up from the damaged landscape.

Now it's thistle, standing tall and warning away enemies with its prickles.