It’s a New Orleans Thing
The city doesn’t leave you just because you leave
I slipped into New Orleans in November almost exactly the way I’d slipped out, winding through the dusky mid-afternoon sun, quietly and without fanfare. Back on August 1st, I’d packed up my Rogue Sport with my life’s necessities — my dog, my Keurig, my grandmother’s bin of cast iron pans, and three days’ supply of Jack and pretzels — and headed north to Chicago, and to my father’s ever-weakening voice.
Hurricane Ida wasn’t even a tropical storm yet; she was just a misty swirl out in the Atlantic, a flighty debutante still considering her summer promenade. Of course in August, in New Orleans, there’s always a misty swirl out there, waiting.
I didn’t live here in 2005, but my Gentilly neighborhood was crushed when Katrina came ashore, swamping the levees, flooding the cemeteries, and drowning so much of the future. Even after all this time, my neighbors don’t call Katrina by name.
“The Storm took her,” they’ll say, giving a telling of someone they knew Before. They crinkle their eyes at the horizon like lookouts.
I had four days of lucid, hilarious conversation with my father. On August 3 — my 61st birthday — he said, “Damn, kid. You’re old as hell.”
When a nurse said something about his bowels, he laughed and winked at me. “She just said I’m fulla shit.”
He explained to another nurse, in excruciating detail, why she was misusing the word “step” and should say “stair” instead.
Soon, though, he was silent, and then ICU’d, and then sent home on hospice care.
On the last day, we sat around his bed, playing his favorite old movies and drizzling brandy on his lips because it was the last thing he said he was thirsty for, days and days before. We laughed through Guys and Dolls, sang all the songs in the Wizard of Oz, gushed over Lena Horne in Stormy Weather.
When the credits rolled on Cabin in the Sky, we queued up his all-time favorite western, Shane, a classic rancher vs. farmer morality play. In the past, like the litigator he was, Daddy would spend the whole movie knocking holes in the farmers’ claims to the land, and never failed to shout at least once: It’s Native land, you’re all thieves anyway!
It felt odd watching in silence, this last time.
And somewhere between the farmers’ square dance party and the ranchers’ big shoot-out, my daddy rode off into the sunset like Shane. Still upright on his horse from sheer force of will, but unable to turn back.
We buried him August 30, and it wasn’t until then that I glanced at the news or social media, and saw what was left of Grand Isle, Louisiana — the place where I’d learned to fish just a few weeks earlier. The place where I’d discovered that, unlike Costa Rican mosquitoes, Louisiana swamp mosquitoes are not even a little bit frizzed by citronella. Or 100% DEET concoctions. Or tipsy women screaming and slapping them in the dark.
It took a few weeks, but soon I was packing up my Rogue Sport with my dog, my Keurig, my grandmother’s cast iron, my Jack and pretzels, and my daddy’s 2005 White Sox World Series Champions jersey — and heading south again.
It’s a simple thing really, to just follow the river to the Gulf. To drive along the Mighty Mississippi and let the sun tell you the time. To gauge your location by whether you need the windows down or the heat cranked up, by whether you can find country or jazz on the radio, by whether the gas stations sell fried pies or veggie wraps.
It’s simple enough to embrace the Voudou traditions when you arrive … revering your dead, speaking of them often, leaving gifts for them in special places. To remember that your relationships with them have not ended … just transformed.
And it’s simple enough to just breathe here, to walk along the old bayou road searching for that floating street market where the Black grannies sell calas, those sweet rice fritters that’ll make you cry. To have some music with your oysters and some gin with your tears. To sit atop the ferry at sunset and watch the river turn gold or copper or whiskey brown.
Anyway, I’m back.
New Orleans, cher, I guess I just can’t quit you.