Sometimes, while walking in the Quarter, some street hustler will approach me, opening with "Where you from?" assuming a tourist. I nod my head across the river with pride and say, "Algiers. Where you from?" (Algiers being an old New Orleans neighborhood across the river from the Quarter.) Being from New Orleans has always been a mark of distinction. For me, it means I choose to live in this glorious mess of a city, a place where food and music and celebration take precedence over all else. A place where death is celebrated with parades in the street. A place always slowly decaying, but in a remarkably aesthetic way. And a place over which hangs the omnipresent threat of destruction.
Every year at hurricane season, talk turns to the Big One, the direct hit on the city that we all fear, and yet none of us ever quite believes will come this year. And so we do what New Orleanians have always done. We party. We eat well and we drink. We parade and we dance in the street. We celebrate the good that the city offers. We wake up every morning in a beautiful city with palm trees and banana trees drooping outside the windows of hundred-year-old shotgun houses and Creole cottages. We drink strong coffee on our porches and hear the crowing of roosters from the next street over and the foghorns of riverboats and ferries on the great river that flows past unseen on the other side of the big earthen levees. We walk down potholed streets and sidewalks heaved by great live oaks, and we greet neighbors and strangers alike. We go to work, but do not work too hard. We reminisce about the last meal, the last party, the last parade, the last band we saw. And we look ahead to the next.
Year after year passes, and the Big One does not come. Those who survived Hurricane Betsy are fewer and fewer. The tropical storms, the street flooding, the heat, and the humidity maintain the city in its constant state of decline. Houses freshly painted in the spring, by fall look old and weathered. Wisteria, cat's claw, hibiscus, night-blooming jasmine, and birds of paradise grow and bloom so abundantly that you can almost watch vines creep up downspouts and clapboard siding and wrought iron fences, nature slowly reclaiming the city inch by inch.
These days, being from New Orleans means something different, a more dubious mark of distinction. I struggle with being a refugee, with accepting the fact that my family and I have become dependent on the kindness of friends and of strangers. The generosity has been heartwarming and humbling. And yet I am angry that my identity as a New Orleanian [End Page 1056] has been changed as irrevocably as has my home. My feelings about going home change frequently, from day to day, hour to hour, vacillating wildly between hope and despair. One minute I am resolved to go back and help clean up and rebuild and reclaim the life that I'd built there. The next, I look around Houston, and think how much easier it would be to stay here, to start over in a place that is not in need of so much repair. But I cannot talk about New Orleans in the past tense.
Mardi Gras 2005. We go to Endymion, a huge parade that is not among my favorites. I prefer the small, quirky neighborhood parades like St. Anne's and Muses and Krewe du Vieux. But we have friends, John and Biljana, who live near the Canal Street parade route and have a party each year, and other friends who have an Irish pub nearby. So we hit the party and fill up on red beans and rice and king cake. We walk to the parade and mingle in the massive crowd for a while. The parade is still rolling hours later when we make our way to...