The text message was only two words long: Oh God. That was it, nothing more. It came from my friend Lacey Booth in New Orleans, where I had been living temporarily until two weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit. I was now back in Brooklyn, playing pool at 1 in the morning and feeling illogically guilty for not being in New Orleans, a city I'd fallen for so recklessly, so stupidly, that only a few days before I'd been looking to buy an apartment in either the French Quarter or its scrappier bordering parish, the Marigny.
Recklessly, stupidly: I use those words with affection, with the hope of preserving some of what New Orleans was before Katrina submerged it in water, tore it up, devastated it. More naively, I'd like to think that the city I'm describing here is not gone, that if I talk about it in the present tense, a version of what I'm sketching will reemerge in the weeks and months to come, once the streets are dry and the bodies are collected and the looting has stopped and the troops have gone home and the rebuilding process begins -- once civilization can get back to denying the ever-present chaos of nature.
Loving New Orleans is -- I cannot say was -- a masochistic act, like devoting your life to a woman who has told you upfront she plans on leaving you. Tell a local you adore the city, are thinking of moving there, and you'll be greeted with a deluge of warnings, reasons to reconsider. The city is dangerous, backward, corrupt, shiftless, a killer of momentum and personal integrity. Also, it's sinking. Like Venice, it makes exactly zero sense, which, of course, has always been the appeal: the macabre decadence, the unnerving darkness, the flickering gas lanterns, the feral smell of moss and liquor everywhere, and those repulsively huge, prehistoric roaches skittering around your feet at night. When you live in New York you tend to be arrogant about other cities. They're too small, too similar, soulless, corporatized, fake, irrelevant, dead.
I had imagined New Orleans as a city with striking architecture, sure, but other than that a mosh pit of everything that embarrasses me about America: binge drinkers, breast flashers, bead grabbers. What I found instead, and hope to convey to anyone who has never been there, was a place that has something few cities in America possess anymore: a pulse, a fever, an identity all its own. This is because New Orleans is, to paraphrase a statement popular among locals, an un-American city that happens to be in America, third-world shrapnel lodged in the belly of the first world. If this sounds to you like a crude, insensitive description of the city, all I can say is that clearly you haven't been there.
Anyway, Lacey's message. Oh God. At the moment it came in, the last I'd heard about Katrina was that it was terrible, yes, but not nearly as terrible as predicted. There were no toxic floods. Houses stood. People were alive. In my mind the levees, which had broken a few hours before, still held. I texted back: What's going on? Absurd as it sounds, having such a dire conversation through the pop communication of text-messaging was oddly poignant, the privacy of the exchange resonantly personal in the midst of so much overwhelming clatter. This was not the newspaper. This was not a 24-hour news channel, repeating the most horrid images imaginable, feeding collective fear and pretending that prefacing doomsday predictions with the word "unconfirmed" is somehow journalism at its noblest. This was a person I knew pressing buttons on a barely functioning phone -- a person who had just realized she had lost her home: It's really gone. And I don't know what to do or where to go. We're all feeling displaced...
Lacey is 20 years old, a tiny, charmingly enigmatic, big-hearted girl from Tupelo, Miss., where her father runs the hardware store where Elvis bought his first guitar. She takes any stereotypes of small-town Southerners (so popular in my New York world) and reduces them to piecemeal. With no syrupy accent, she's an NPR groupie, a Kundera junkie who is happiest when holed up somewhere alone, listening to music and making whimsical, ethereal paintings (one of which hangs in my living room). In New Orleans she worked at Café Luna, a coffee shop on Magazine Street. She is a student at Loyola -- was a student I should say, given that Loyola, like Tulane, is underwater and shut down for at least a semester -- who was set to start her first year as a junior the day Katrina hit. Today she finds herself part of a diaspora of up to 100,000 students who now have no school, no more certain road into adulthood, a predicament nowhere near as dire as those without homes, without insurance, with dead or missing loved ones, but they are experiencing a raw sense of being uprooted all the same. They are young during a time when to lose, say, a semester of school seems to mean being permanently relegated to the second tier of generational progress. They will be among the first to get on their feet, of course, but for the time being they are among the lost.
"Do you have any idea what we should do?" Lacey asks when I finally get through to her. She has gone to Mississippi, is staying at her father's house with three friends, trying to figure out their future. When the news of the hurricane first came they were morbidly thrilled, the idea of life being put on hold, momentum frozen. Lacey talked about road trips -- New York, maybe, or California, where she's never been. They would become vagabonds, transients. But now that it's all real, there is nothing amusing about it. Their apartments are very likely ruined. They don't want to linger. They want to start over as soon as possible. "God, it's so crazy," Lacey says, sounding anxious but resigned. "I have no idea what I'm going to do. I mean, will other schools even take us? Do you know anywhere I can work?"
Without going into too much detail about what led me to New Orleans, I'll simply say that it is -- again I refuse to say was -- a terrific city for curing a mild nervous breakdown, especially if you have impossibly generous writer friends willing to lend you an apartment in the Quarter. In the summer the city is a furnace, populated only by the very poor and the very hardcore, all of whom spend the days chasing shade, and nights wandering around sweaty, glassy-eyed, psychologically unhinged. It can feel a little bit like an asylum, in a good way, a purgatory between the best and worst reality has to offer. I didn't know anyone in town, but on my second night I ended up drinking with Lacey and her friend Matt Newman until it was 6 in the morning and none of us could remember our middle names.
Matt is 21, grew up in Ohio, has long brown hair, Buddy Holly glasses, a sardonic sense of humor. He wants to be a movie director, and I believe he will become one. In the meantime he had just gotten a job at the Virgin record store. That first evening of drinking -- Abita Ambers at Molly's on Decatur Street -- was the sort of slurred and dragging night so easy to have in New Orleans, where you wake up with fewer brain cells but more friends, so everything evens out. In the weeks that followed, Lacey and Matt helped make New Orleans real for me, a home. We played pool at a bar called Cosimos, ate catfish and squash at Lacey's small apartment uptown, went to the movies, drank, and laughed cynically over horror stories of our parents' divorces.
From a mass e-mail Matt sent out the other day from Lacey's house in Mississippi: I'll be looking for school or work or both sometime soon, so if anyone has any suggestions or brilliant ideas for the wayward, homeless student, I'm open to any and all suggestions. The important thing is, I'm OK. I've got my car, I've got my laptop, and I've got about four T-shirts. Keep your fingers crossed for the poor thousands of people that are stuck in the city now. Thanks to everybody who's written or called in the past few days, it's nice to know people are thinking about me...
Two days after I first spoke to Lacey, she and Matt are driving north, through Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, up through Illinois to Chicago. The windows are down. The music is loud. The drive takes 10 hours. They are with their friends Sean and Willimenia, fellow students, hoping to enroll in Loyola in Chicago. Loyola is a Jesuit school, girded by the indisputably noble philosophy, regardless of what you think of organized religion, that you help your brothers and sisters when they need help. All Jesuit schools have agreed to take in Loyola students. "We're 30 miles away," Matt tells me over the phone, sounding not so much thrilled as wary, still disbelieving his new reality. He tells me about some people they knew in Chicago, friends of friends, which is a start. They have a place to crash for the night, maybe even a week. I tell him that sounds like a plan. He says he's a little nervous, but knows everything will work out.
"Oh, want to hear something funny?" I say.
I tell him that I'm sitting in the garden of DBA, a bar on First Avenue in the East Village -- same owners as the DBA on Frenchmen Street, in New Orleans, where we spent quite a bit of time pretending to know about exotic beers. The interior, I say, is exactly the same. Matt laughs. He says that's fitting. I hear him tell Lacey, who's in the passenger seat, and I hear her laugh too. And just then, for a fleeting false second, the city still exists.