In the Flood’s Wake

By Phyllis Dunham

June 25, 2013

Lawrence’s baritone voice rings through the empty space. He assures me that he and his mother maintain their properties impeccably. It’s their family business.

“The fourteen foot ceilings are all original,” he says, “As are the medallions, the carved pillars, and the glass-front built-ins.”

He is an only son and only grandson of a family of German descent who has lived in Uptown New Orleans for generations. He boasts about being past chair of some local German society.

“We are old New Orleans,” he says.

My friend Susan and I clack across the beautifully-restored hardwood floors of the sunlit shotgun house in Gentilly Terrace. She’s traveled with me from Texas to help me look for a place to rent in New Orleans. I’ll be living and working here for the next three years. Lawrence declares his house to be “perfect” for me and points out the square of fenced backyard that is also “perfect” for my dog.

“Your house is lovely,” I tell him. “But it’s more than I can afford without a roommate, and there are no private bedrooms for accommodating one.”

He pushes. He can take another $100 off the monthly price if I’ll sign a twelve month lease. I’ll need to make my mind up before the weekend, though. Someone else is very interested.

“But I’d rather rent it to you,” he says, lowering his voice. “Mother and I prefer your demographic.”

I know that I will not rent from him, but when he keeps pressing me to make a decision. On our way out the door, I tell him that, yes, I’ll keep it in mind. He lights a cigarette as we step off the porch onto the perfectly-clipped postage stamp of front lawn. He takes a long drag and smiles.

“I just know we’re going to work something out, Ms. Dunham. It’s perfect for you.”

When Susan and I slip into the car safely out of earshot, she asks, “What was that stuff about the demographic?” I shift into gear and pull away from the curb.

“I’m guessing it’s Uptown-speak for white.”

 

June 26, 2013

“So where were you in Katrina? What happened to you?” Susan asks our host, Maddie. Maddie grimaces.

We are relaxing, fanned by the evening’s first badly-needed breezes, on the porch of Maddie’s B&B, one story above busy, leafy Broad Street. My search for an affordable apartment isn’t going well. Maddie has been dealing with plumbers and broken showers and cranky guests all day. The work of running her two side-by-side B&B houses seems never-ending.

Maddie pushes a few sweat-damp strands of blond hair behind her ear and says to Susan, “I don’t really want to talk to you about that.”

I can’t tell if she places more emphasis on “talk” or “you.” Susan crumples a little. “I’m sorry,” she says. Maddie doesn’t say anything for a while.

 

August 30, 2005

My family is a hurricane-watching family. My mother turns on the television in the living room of her East Texas lake house. She hands me a mug of coffee and clicks to the first morning news about Katrina. Snuggled under a blanket on her sofa, I had gone to sleep the night before worried for Louisiana and Mississippi.

We’ve dodged hurricanes on the Texas Gulf Coast over the years. The names Beulah, Alicia, and Carla hold sinister meanings for us. We’ve been lucky. Many of our family and friends have not. We know what it’s like to stare at waterlines on the walls inside their houses days after a hurricane. We know the sense of loss as surely as we know the stench of lacy mold patterns spreading across sheetrock. We know the sickening heft of soggy carpeting as we rip and drag it through the front door to heave it onto the pile of debris on the lawn. We’ve gathered in those reconstructed dining rooms and still imagined the water two feet above our heads years after the storms.

My people are devotees of the “get out of there” school of hurricane response. But Mom and I have heard that many New Orleanians didn’t or couldn’t leave. We watched the television coverage when Katrina made landfall the day before, including that stop sign flapping in the gale that news directors can’t seem to get enough of. But there hasn’t been much real information yet.

This morning, the day after, the helicopter footage reveals a deluged New Orleans. Yet the news anchors sound oddly perky chatting about upcoming segments. “What the hell?” my mother wonders aloud. “Don’t they know there are people in those houses?” My throat tightens; I can’t sip my coffee. I look over at Mom. She silently wipes away tears.

 

September 3, 2005

My sons and I have loaded my car with sleeping bags, blankets, sheets, towels, and plastic bags full of soap bars, toiletries, and clothing. We ransacked our closets and wiped out the neighborhood thrift store to gather these much-needed items to take to the Austin Convention Center. The first of the people from New Orleans are arriving.

We pull into the loading zone where people are unpacking a dozen other cars, and we begin to haul our contributions onto the curb. A volunteer with a clipboard tells us they have no extra volunteers. Would we mind toting the supplies into the Center?

Inside, the halogen lights on the ceiling high above cast a peach-ish glow on all below. What strikes me most is the quiet. There are people everywhere. Volunteers set up cots. Nurses take children’s temperatures or pat the hands of older people in wheelchairs. Volunteers stack supplies into organized piles, bedding here, clothing there. Dazed mothers hold wide-eyed children close, and daddies stand helplessly by. All voices seem muffled. Almost whispering. Calm. But not quite that. Just coming from somewhere further back in their minds.

 

June 28, 2013

When my cell phone rings, Susan is napping, I am sitting at the desk in our room at Maddie’s B&B toting up figures and making pro-con lists for the two apartments I’m trying to choose between.

“Hey, it’s Lawrence,” the voice says. “Did you make up your mind yet that the Gentilly Terrace house is perfect for you?”

I hadn’t expected to hear from him, and his house was never in the running. I tell him that I’ve decided to take another apartment and wish him good luck in finding the right tenant.

At first there is silence. Then a furious barrage: “Well, that’s it! Mother and I are doomed now! I needed to show the bank by Friday that all our properties have long-term leases so we can refinance. I’ve worked my fingers to the bone refurbishing all those properties since Katrina. Fourteen of them. They’re all tied together in the loan package. It’s all we have. We’ve spent every cent we had trying to bring them back. Every one of them flooded. So did the first floor of our house Uptown. Eight fucking years, and now it’s all going to hell anyway.” He goes on to tell me that he has known sixteen people who’ve committed suicide since Katrina. Sixteen. And now, according to Lawrence, he and Mother will lose everything.

Somehow, in this moment, it’s my fault.

 

September, 2005

My Austin neighbor, Tabitha, sits on my sofa telling me about the two Katrina survivors who are staying upstairs at her house. We sip tea, and she shakes her head. It’s a sad situation. The mother, Miss Gina, is quite old, and her middle-aged daughter is mentally challenged, can’t walk, and has trouble speaking. She can’t come down the stairs, but Miss Gina insists that she can take care of her daughter by herself. She always has. They need time to figure out next steps, and Tabitha says they have nothing left in New Orleans. They don’t yet know where their relatives are or who survived. Moved by Tabitha’s gracious sharing of her home, I ask what I can do. She doesn’t know.

The next morning is Sunday, and I have an idea. I’m a good cook, and I know Southern food. I call Tabitha and tell her not to worry about Sunday dinner because I’m bringing it over. I tie on an apron and cook up a mess of smothered pork chops and rice, collard greens, cornbread, sweet potatoes, and an apple crumb pie. Around midday, my son and I pack it all in a couple of cardboard boxes and carry it across the street. As we set everything out on Tabitha’s kitchen counter, Miss Gina lifts the foil from some of the dishes with one bony hand and waves the aromatic steam toward her face with the other. She is dark-skinned and wears a tignon over her hair. She is tiny and rail-thin with a sculpted face like Cicely Tyson. She inhales the smells of the familiar foods, smiles approvingly, and nods at me.

Over the next couple of months, each Sunday around noon, I carry the Southern dishes I know how to cook across the street to Tabitha’s: jambalaya, bread pudding, greens with ham hocks, macaroni and cheese with bacon, black-eyed peas, key lime pie, chicken and sausage gumbo, braised cabbage, red beans and rice with Andouille sausage, breaded pork chops, and peach cobbler. Tabitha tells me that Miss Gina has started looking toward my house through the curtains of a Sunday morning and saying, “I wonder if Miss Phyllis is already cooking over there.”

 

June 29, 2013

Susan and I sit at a glass-topped table at a Midcity restaurant waiting for our dinner. Midcity is the aptly named neighborhood in the middle of the Mississippi River crescent that cups New Orleans. This part of town is also middle class and ethnically middle of the road—a patchwork of black and white enclaves. We’re celebrating. I have just signed the lease on my new Midcity apartment, an elegant raised double, owned by a friend of Maddie’s who leased it to me before it was advertised.

“Maddie’s wound kind of tight, don’t you think?” asks Susan.

“I guess she’s been through a lot,” I say.

Fragments of Maddie’s story have revealed themselves through our conversations during our stay. Susan and I attempt to piece these shards together into a cohesive whole: Evacuation. Dad died in a hospital. Days after the storm? During the storm? Home destroyed. Lost job. Insurance money late. Not enough. Bought two houses somehow? Making it work. This has to work. Exhausted.

It’s enough of a story to figure out that you shouldn’t ask anyone directly about Katrina. You let it come if and when it will. Susan regrets her question. She’s never seen devastation on such a monumental and long-lived scale. Neither have I.

 

May 15, 2013

Because I’m moving to New Orleans soon, I want to get my hands on as much material about the city as I can. This morning I found a DVD documentary called Trouble the Water in, of all places, the discount bin at the Dollar General store. As I eat my dinner off the coffee table, I watch footage shot by Kimberly Roberts, a young woman from the Ninth Ward, as her family huddles in the attic during Katrina’s worst hours. Her brother, who can’t swim, uses a punching bag as a flotation device to paddle through the water to check on neighbors. Kimberly is particularly concerned about an elderly neighbor whose daughter can’t walk. My posture straightens. It can’t possibly be. But it is.

There is Miss Gina’s daughter being pulled through the stormy water on her neighbor’s back. There is Miss Gina, days after her dramatic rescue, sitting at a picnic table in northern Louisiana talking with the film makers about where she may go. There is a Red Cross worker asking Miss Gina if she wants to go to Austin. They have found someone who will host her and her daughter. Miss Gina smiles and claps her bony hands together in gratitude.

 

September, 2014

The classroom where I teach freshman composition at the University of New Orleans is my new favorite place on earth. I’ve wanted to teach writing for so long, and I enjoy it even more than I imagined I would. My students are mostly eighteen years old and mostly from around here. They are to write personal essays, and few of them have ever been asked to write about themselves before.

“But Ms. Dunham,” one says, “I was told in high school never to use ‘I’ in a paper.”

“It’s okay,” I tell her. “It has to be about you. This is your story.”

Roughly a third of the essays they submit are Katrina stories of one sort or another. For some the storm is the main event. For some it’s the dazed post-storm slog through floodwaters to find a way out. For some it’s a way of explaining why they lived in Houston for several years or why they miss family who never returned. And, in one case, Katrina is even a lark, an adventure in Dallas and an opportunity to bunk up with cousins and play for several weeks while the adults sort things out. But the return stories are the toughest. They return to neighborhood blocks where only one or two houses are occupied. Or houses full of muck and mold. Or makeshift schools without the comfort of friends or familiar teachers or routines. These young writers express the loss and tumult of catastrophic change they experienced at the age of nine.

 

September through December, 2014

The #55 bus travels from the foot of Canal Street along the river side of the French Quarter, then up Elysian Fields Avenue all the way to Lake Ponchartrain and the University of New Orleans before circling back to the Quarter. I ride the #55 most weekdays back and forth between campus and home. In the late afternoons and early evenings, the bus is crowded with folks trying to get to Canal Street for transfers to Midcity or Uptown or to ride the ferry across the Mississippi River to Algiers. Musicians carry battered trumpet, clarinet, or guitar cases to their gigs on Frenchmen Street. Chefs wear bandanas on their heads and checkered trousers and clogs on their way to restaurants in the Quarter. The mood is a combination of end-of-the-day exhaustion and beginning-of-the-evening exhilaration. But in the mornings, there’s a different energy and a different clientele on the #55.

In the morning, people ride to the bank buildings and stores along Gentilly Avenue or to doctor’s or dentist’s offices or to their jobs and classes or to work as maids in the big houses of the Lakeview neighborhood. More women ride the #55 in the morning. On my morning commute, I have witnessed a half dozen or so post-Katrina reunions.

These reunions start with a look—two women, one half-squinting at the other before she finally says something like, “I know you. You’re Melva’s sister, aren’t you?” or “Didn’t you used to live over in St. Roch? That house with the yellow front?” or “You’re Vanessa’s girl, right? You sure grew up pretty.”

Sometimes the women change seats to sit next to each other or stand up in the aisle and hug each other hard. The reunions always start happy like that. “Oh girl, I remember your Momma and all those damned dogs of hers. Like to bark all night. But she sure is a good cook. How is she doing?”

Eventually, the laments emerge:

“I was so sorry to hear about your Grandpa. He was the sweetest man I ever knew.”

“Shug and them just left. They say they’re never coming back. And she’s right. They got nothing to come back to.”

“It took me five years to scratch my way back. My kids can stay in Houston. Once I got all my papers back, I got on the bus and came home. I can live on my social security check and my pension right here. But it’s lonely sometimes. Girl, it’s lonely.”

“You know they lost Willie after the storm. Never heard nothing. Don’t even know if he’s dead for sure.”

There’s quiet then. Tears. More hugs. Phone numbers are exchanged. But for some, the hugs alone seem to suffice as if, after Katrina, people know how easily folks can slip in and out of your life. You have no control. But this chance meeting on the #55 right now is good. Even if it is painful, it’s good.

 

August 10, 2013

David Simon, the producer of the HBO series Tremé, is on my television talking about the Katrina recovery. He’s on a panel discussing his successful show before an audience of press and fans. He says that even when government and business failed the people of New Orleans, it was the City’s culture that brought it back, “One trombone solo, one crawfish étouffée, one second line parade at a time.”

I see that the people of New Orleans are strong, and I believe that the source of whatever resurgence New Orleans has experienced is, as David Simon says, her people and culture. But is New Orleans really back? I can’t say. It’s not my place to say.

 

May 18, 2014

New Orleans glows in the sweet, slanted rays of late afternoon, post-shower sun. But I am upheaved. The owner of my Midcity apartment, cash-strapped after part of the property was damaged in an electrical fire, is selling the building. The new owners, a group of former frat brothers from Austin turned post-Katrina real estate speculators, plan to make a few improvements and raise the rent by forty per cent. I am once again stumping around the city searching for a reasonably-priced apartment. In the ten months I’ve lived in New Orleans, rents have risen so much that I can no longer afford to live in Midcity.

I’ve set my sites on the Tremé, the oldest African American neighborhood in America. There’s nothing on Craigslist in the Tremé, so I borrow a friend’s car to cruise the streets looking for rent signs. I spot a corner house, a blue and gray shotgun, with a handwritten sign on the door. I’m in luck. There’s a couple drinking beers on the stoop. I stop to ask them if it’s still for rent.

“Oh yeah,” the man assures me. “The lady who owns it is real nice. She’s an airline stewardess.”

I ask if they know how much it is. Luck again. The price is in my range. “Y’all live around here?” I ask.

“I live two doors down,” the lady says pointing with her beer can. “And he lives around the corner over there.” She tells me that they’re just relaxing with a cold one after work. She drives a construction truck, and he’s a mechanic. They’ve known each other since they were children, and both still live in the same houses they did when they were kids. Even their grandparents and great-grandparents lived here, and she points out neighbors’ houses. “Mrs. LaPlante has lived across the street since I can remember, and she’s old.” They ask my name and introduce themselves. She’s Irene, and he’s Reginald.

I’m getting the picture of a stable, safe neighborhood of people who get along well and look out for each other. It sounds great, but I ask, choosing my words carefully, “Would someone like me be welcome here?”

“Of course you would, Baby,” Irene assures me. And Reginald asks me where I’m from. “West Texas,” I say.

“Naw, you’re more Southern than that,” Reginald says. “Where were you born?”

“Houston,” I tell him.

“Oh my God,” he says as he tears up. “Houston was very good to me and mine.” He hugs me, and Irene pats me on the shoulder. I’ve done nothing to deserve this.

“I was just born there,” I say. Reginald releases me and wipes his eyes.

“You just don’t know,” he says. “I lived in the Astrodome for days. Then people just let me live with them. You don’t know what it took to get back here. I love people from Houston.”

Later that evening, I call the number from the “for rent” sign and leave a message. The owner’s agent calls me in the morning with the news that the Tremé house has already rented. The sign has been on the door less than a day.

 

June 1, 2014

The Marigny is a triangle of neighborhood adjacent to the French Quarter. The residents are mostly white and young and hip, the coffee houses and restaurants trend toward vegetarian and vegan, and the music and clubs don’t attract Bourbon Street-bound tourists. The apartment I’m looking at, however, is on the wrong side of St. Claude Avenue to be the real Marigny. It’s eight blocks north of the trendy music venues on Frenchmen Street. Downscale real estate developers who can’t afford to invest in the real Marigny and are looking to attract white tenants have dubbed this boot heel of the Seventh Ward “New Marigny.”

A white landlord owns this apartment and its mirror image on the other side of the wall. This house, like most of the others in the Seventh Ward, is a shotgun double, a form of New Orleans duplex, a hall-less narrow apartment with one room opening into the next and the next. There is a concrete stoop rather than a porch on the front, but the floors are wooden, the ceilings are high, and the price is right. I can afford to live here because the neighborhood is 93% black. The neighbors all seem friendly. They are mostly older people or families with children, and there is a sprinkling of young, white musicians and Bohemians. This will be okay, I think. I negotiate a lease and settle in.

My first month is a tough month. I hear gunshots several times a week. Sometimes there are fatalities, and the red and blue lights of the police cars and ambulances flash past my windows. I worry for my safety.

I also worry about money. The speculators from Austin who bought the Midcity property refuse to return my deposit. The tenant who rents the house I own back in Texas moves out without notice and trashes the place. I am scared and broke, and I do something stupid. I don’t call my New Marigny landlord to tell him that I can’t pay rent on time. Instead, I talk on the phone with friends and repairmen back in Texas trying to restore my house there to rentable condition. I mail checks to them. Finally, I find a new tenant. The financial bleeding stops, and I receive a deposit and rent check from the new Texas tenant on the same day that my New Marigny landlord calls. He is understandably upset.

“You should have called to let me know,” he says when I apologize and explain my situation. He’s right. I tell him I can pay the rent and the penalties today. He says bluntly, “We expect better behavior of someone from your demographic.”

 

August 1, 2014

I’m sitting on a porch across from Saint Augustine Catholic Church in the Tremé waiting for my friends to emerge from the Backstreet Cultural Museum. They are visiting me from Texas for my birthday, and I wanted them to see the Mardi Gras Indian costumes inside. The son-in-law of the family who runs the museum is telling me about the church and the historic neighborhood. His and his wife’s families are considered Creole royalty and have lived in this neighborhood for generations. He’s a young man, I’m guessing thirty, and he knows the streets and traditions of the Tremé in a way no guidebook or tour guide can duplicate.

Eventually, he stands and stretches and says, “I better get going. I have to pack all weekend.” He and his wife are moving next week to New Orleans East.

“Why?” I ask. “This neighborhood is beautiful. I wish I could live here.”

He agrees. He shrugs. “Families I’ve known all my life are moving out,” he says. “We got to. We can’t afford it anymore.”

 

October, 2014

I’ve missed the #55 bus this morning, and there won’t be another bus for at least forty-five minutes. I have a meeting with a student on campus in thirty minutes. I call for a cab.

“How long you been living in this house?” the driver asks as I scoot in. I know what he’s getting at. I’m neither black nor young and Bohemian, an odd fit for the New Marigny.

“About six months,” I say. “Where are you from?”

“Right here,” he says. “Heart of the Seventh Ward. That’s why I don’t mind picking you up. I know everybody on your block.”

He asks me how I like living where I do.

“It took some getting used to. The gun shots this summer were a bit much.”

“Yeah,” he says, “But that don’t affect you. That’s drug stuff. The odds you’ll get hit by a stray bullet are pretty slim, and ain’t nobody around here gonna jack you. Anybody who wants to do that kind of thing will go to Marigny or the Bywater or Uptown. You’re pretty safe here.”

“That’s what my students tell me,” I say, and I ask about his story, “Have you always lived in the Seventh Ward?”

“Oh, I had to leave for a while after Katrina. Went to Houston for two years.”

“What brought you back?” I ask.

“New Orleans,” he says. “I missed everything about it. In Houston, they have what they call New Orleans restaurants, but they can’t do it right. You can order a Po’boy there, but you won’t get a real Po’boy. When you bite into it, the bread’s just not the same.”

 

November, 2014

A man sitting on the #55 bus bench pulls his shopping bags closer to him to make room for me. As bundled up as I am, I still feel the cold metal on my bum through the layers when I sit down.

“You know when the next bus is?” the man asks.

I check the time on my phone. “About eight minutes.” I say. “I just try to get here early because these drivers leave too soon sometimes.”

“I hear that.” He says. “It ain’t nothing like it was before Katrina. We used to have buses every fifteen minutes on some lines, and buses ran all night. You could get anywhere you wanted to, anytime just about. Getting to work was easy. Getting back home was easy, too.”

“The buses here are so clean and nice,” I say.

“Yeah, but there aren’t enough of them anymore. All that recovery money for new buses ran out.”

Later, I can’t stop thinking about what the man said. What happened to all the old buses? I look it up. When the evacuation of New Orleans was ordered just before the storm hit, some of the buses were used to take people from the neighborhoods to the shelter of last resort, the Superdome. But, in the end, eighty-five per cent of New Orleans’ school and public buses were destroyed in the flood. It would have taken three to four times as many buses as New Orleans had at its disposal to evacuate the remaining 97,000 citizens. Still, I can’t help wondering: Why were any of them left parked in bus yards to be destroyed in the storm?

 

December, 2014

I haven’t heard gunshots since Labor Day Weekend when two young men got into an argument walking from the Quarter along my street. As I sat on my sofa grading students’ essays, I heard three shots, then a pause, and then two more. I slipped to the floor, cuddled my dog in my lap, and waited for the red and blue flashing lights before I opened my door. A police officer was tying yellow tape to the banister of my stoop.

Later I hear that the young man who was killed never had a chance to pull the gun from his pocket. He was not from the neighborhood; no one around here knows him, but over the next few days, neighbors place candles and flowers on the sidewalk where he was pronounced dead at the scene.

On Halloween, the same ebullient neighborhood children who play ball and dance in the streets after school stop by in their costumes to scream, “Trick or Treat!” outside my door. Their parents and I chat while I drop candy into their paper bags and plastic pumpkins.

On a random Tuesday evening, a second line parade of about eighty or ninety handkerchief-waving celebrants with a full brass band struts past my door. The broad bells of the sousaphones and trombones flash. The sounds of “We Want the Funk” fade as they round the corner toward Claiborne Avenue.

On weekends, neighbors gather on stoops and sidewalks to barbecue. They balance stereo speakers on their window sills and blare hip hop and R&B. The aroma of smoking meat wafts through my screen door along with the bass beats. Dread-locked musicians load guitars into their vans at night and construction tools in the morning. Older horn players, strolling south to the Quarter or Frenchmen Street, tip their hats every now and then toward Jelly Roll Morton’s house across the street. As I take out the trash, I am greeted by a ragtag six a.m. reveler straggling home, still masked and costumed in French Renaissance style, dancing up the lane to a tune only she can hear. Sometimes Susan calls from Texas, worried about me. The occasional tattooed skateboarder swerves around a pothole, wheels grinding on the ragged pavement, holding a damp, paper bag-wrapped forty-ouncer aloft as if saluting the day. Overhead, seagulls caw. In the distance, the low chords of ships’ horns on the Mississippi moan through the fog. And every one of these things is a scrap of hope for New Orleans.

——————–

Phyllis Dunham writes and teaches writing in New Orleans where she lives with her dog, Mabel. The mother of four now-grown adopted sons from Belize, she formerly directed organizations working for social change on women’s issues and the environment. Her works have appeared or will soon appear in The Cenizo Journal, Drunk Monkeys, Sugar and Rice, and Persimmon Tree and on WWNO public radio.


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