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Not easy returning to the Big Easy

by Brian Clarey

I’m shaking. Have beeen since last night when the reality of the trip I’m about to take took hold in my mind.

I’m going back to New Orleans.

It’s been six years since I fled the city with my wife and newborn son, six years since I’ve smelled the sweet Deep South air and let the oppressive humidity seep into my bones, six years since I said goodbye to the place that I loved more than any other, the city where I became a man.

And, save for a quick bartending stint during Mardi Gras 2001, I haven’t been back since.

I’m shaking because my love for the city has never truly left me. My mind goes back to her at odd hours and she visits me in my dreams nearly every night, going back even to a time before the floodwaters overcame her and tried to drown her soul.

I wonder how she’s changed, if I’ll still recognize her. I want to know how her hardships have reshaped her and if she still retains any of her old charms.

I’m on the plane right now, tapping out these words while the muscle relaxer kicks in. Jordan Green sits next to me flipping through the Times. We’re going down to stake our claim on the American story of the century ‘— the submersion and possible rebirth of a society caught between the river and the lake and situated well below sea level. We don’t know what to expect.

We’re bringing notebooks, laptops and cameras, a handful of pens and a couple pencils in case it rains. No hotel room. No rental car. No dinner plans at Commander’s Palace or Bayona (the best restaurant in the city, IMHO). No gambling binges at the casino on Canal Street. We land in the early afternoon and we’re gonna hit the ground running, Gonzo-style, recording every nugget of story we can find. And then we’re gonna write it all down.

You might wonder what business an alt-weekly that hails from the heartlands of North Carolina has in detailing the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the destruction of vast swaths of this great American city, the efforts of our government and our countrymen to resuscitate her, the failures and successes of reconstruction.

I can’t speak for Green, but my reason starts with a promise.

In those dark, late-August days when the storm swept through, the levees gave and the deluge swallowed New Orleans, when those without the means or desire to evacuate swam through the streets for shelter or huddled in their attics armed with chainsaws, when the bodies began to pile on the strip of sidewalk in front of the convention center and the Superdome was full to bursting with human filth and misery while our president watched it all through a window on Air Force One’… I scrolled through the images on my computer screen as the tears fell from my face and my heart ached like an open sore. And down in New Orleans my people were getting pissed.

On Sept. 5, I got an e-mail from a college professor of mine, a Jesuit priest named Raymond Schroth who had long since left Loyola in New Orleans for St. Peter’s in Jersey City. My old friend Peter Reichard, who in the years since we had studied together had become one of Louisiana’s more astute political writers, had called Father Schroth from a safe haven in Chicago and left an exasperating message.

‘“New Orleans has been hung out to dry by the federal government,’” Reichard had said in anger and incredulity. ‘“A national shame’” he called it in those dusky days when our elected officials displayed its ineptitude, impotence and incompetence. His brother was holed up in Charity Hospital in a neighborhood where gunfire strafed through the streets and on the rooftops snipers drew beads on looters. Peter feared for his brother’s life and for the city he loved, which he believed was in the proocess of being written off by our governnment. He was begging that the story, the whole story, be told.

All of this was relayed in the mass e-mail my old professsor sent out to all of his newspaper friends, saying: ‘“I figure you should know of Peter’s trust in you.’”

But while the waters have receded, the story is far from over. Whole neighborhoods lay in waste and ruin, their denizens scattered to the four corners. Businesses struggle with a shrunken consumer pool and an economy where necessity trumps luxury every time. Almost. And people are coming back, picking up the threads of their lives and rebuilding the city one painstaking home at a time.

Or so we’ve heard. We’re going down to see it with our own eyes.

Because my friend Peter was right about one thing: the city of New Orleans was hung out to dry. The institutions in which we placed our faith (not to mention our tax dollars) did not answer the call. But I suspect the people of the Crescent City are picking up the slack. And I assume they’re doing it with their usual panache.

But, again, I want to see it for myself.

To comment on this column, e-mail Brian Clarey at editor@yesweekly.com.

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