Carondelet Street or bust

Driving all night back into occupied New Orleans, a man finds exhausted cops, a stray dog named Sancho Panza, and rotten chicken in his Katrina-damaged house. But nothing will keep him away from the city where the beer never stops flowing.

Published September 19, 2005 10:27PM (EDT)

It was such a fine spring day,
down Louisiana way,
with fragrance divine, oh baby,
and such magnificent regalia,
oh so fine, Azalea.

I've got to go back there
and find that blossom fair,
I always dream of,
'cause with you who can be a failure.
My first love, Azalea.

-- Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, from "Azalea"

A week ago Sunday, I saw the sunrise over the Mississippi River from my roof on Carondelet Street in New Orleans. I was up there with Wallace, a fellow refugee I had met the day before in Oxford, Miss.

I had vaguely recognized Wallace when I saw him in Oxford the previous day, but I couldn't place him. We talked for a minute and he mentioned that he was a teacher and I was able to remember him. He was the hip English teacher at a struggling all-black high school in New Orleans where I had taught street law to "at risk" kids. He had John Coltrane posters on his classroom walls and tried to teach his students radical history. He made an impression on me when I taught his class because his students, who didn't hear much, listened to him. He, in turn, listened to his students, who weren't used to being heard.

Wallace proposed that we attempt to drive the six hours down to New Orleans in his old white Econoline van, in which he used to tour with his band, to assess the damage firsthand, to fix our homes if necessary, and to retrieve precious belongings that we had left behind. We had each just received nearly $700 in Wal-mart credit from the Red Cross, so flush with cash, we stormed the Wal-mart hardware section nervously buying anything that we thought might be useful on our trip, a trip that we had no precedent for and no way to have foreseen.

Wallace bought a set of battery-charged power tools, walkie-talkies for times we anticipated being separate, canned pineapples and water. I bought blue tarps, bungee cords, the biggest Maglite on the market and energy bars, and tried in vain to find rubber boots.

We left Oxford in his van at about 10 p.m., filled with nervous energy and hoping to slide into New Orleans just before dawn, as we had been told by friends that the security checkpoints were not up until sunrise.

There was no traffic at all as we passed through Jackson and approached Hammond, La. We had a steady stream of conversation through the night, talking about our wives, both artists, both far away, progressive politics, and our hopes and concerns for New Orleans. Occasionally one of us would note the possibility that our 12-hour drive to New Orleans and back might be in vain because we could be turned back at the city limits. But we would quickly skip over this point and again rehearse the work-related pretexts we intended to pitch if we were stopped. Maybe 10 times on the drive, one of us said, "That's my story and I'm sticking with it."

We had a quarter tank of gas and two full five-gallon gas cans in the back of the van when we stopped for gas in Hammond, about 60 miles outside the city. We figured it would be our last chance for gas before New Orleans and we were not sure we would make the 120 miles back and forth with the gas we had. It was the only gas station open when we pulled off Interstate 55 at 2 in the morning and it was so jammed full of cars that I assumed it was a gas line full of southern-bound New Orleanians, like ourselves.

However, it turned out that teenagers, mostly black, hung out at the gas station in their cars until late at night, playing loud, bass-heavy music and talking to friends. I figured this out quickly after watching five police cars simultaneously converge on the gas station, lights ablaze, to close down the place and chase off the kids. We pulled into the now-empty gas station after circling the block and letting the dust settle. The pumps had been turned off so I walked up to the little gas station store. The glass door was locked and I stood staring in at the clerks until one came up to the glass and told us that they were closed.

In the weeks since evacuating New Orleans with my wife and two dogs and having no place to live, I have gotten used to asking for favors, begging and saying please and thank you. Through the glass, I told the clerk my "sad story." I told him that I was from New Orleans and trying to get back into town, that I had seen a satellite photo of my roof and that it was damaged and getting worse, and then busted out the wild card that works with most men in most situations. I told him that my wife had her heart set on my getting her wedding rings and the diaries of her sister who passed away and that it would break her heart if I didn't make it home to try to find these things and bring them back. I wasn't lying and he could tell. He asked me if I had cash and when I said yes, told me that he would let me fill up. I thanked him, sincerely, not in the manner that I do in my normal life, when people do little more than is required.

Within minutes of getting back on the Interstate, we saw flares and police cars parked ahead on the highway, blocking the road. Wallace and I checked in on our story once again and slowed to a stop next to a tired-looking, middle-aged white police officer.

"How you doing, officer," Wallace said.

He asked us where we were going and we explained that we were going to New Orleans, that I was a lawyer and that I had legal business related to the storm, a half truth. We showed him our identification. He responded simply, "I'm too tired to care. You can do what you want. He commented that our car smelled of gas and chemicals: "What, you got drugs in there?"

We explained that we had cans of gasoline in the back of the van. He responded kindly, "Gas? You know that's not really safe ... get out of here."

We drove through the checkpoint and up onto the causeway, the elevated highway that runs through the swamps toward New Orleans. Since the balance of the ride back into the city would be on this two-lane road, there would be little opportunity for anyone to send us back now. We were almost home.

On both sides of the causeway, we could see the glow of the massive factories, cities of industry now back in action, spewing flames.

We were quiet for a while, eager to see our homes, our city, and knowing it had changed. We were also exhausted.

We cut around the city to the south and onto Highway 90, the old highway into the city, on the West Bank. The West Bank is part of Jefferson Parish, the white-flight suburb surrounding the city. It is the part of the city that throngs of people tried to flee into, over the bridge from the convention center, only to be turned away by armed sheriffs. Only a few days later, two white men in a van, we were trying to go the opposite direction.

The West Bank was in remarkably good shape. We passed a bingo hall with blinking lights. The Burger King was opening up, getting ready to sell egg sandwiches and Tater Tots. All of this minutes away from New Orleans. It seemed impossible.

As we approached the bridge, we reached another roadblock, manned by the Crescent City Connection Bridge Police. The officer standing guard was bleary-eyed and looked as if he were about to fall over. He hardly listened as we told him why we were traveling into the city. He had no objections. Wallace asked him how he was doing. His pain poured out. He told us that he had lost his house, that the floodwater had risen to the roof, and that it was destroyed. He said that the insurance adjuster said that his policy didn't cover flood. He told us that his wife and kids were in Florida, that he was worried about them and wanted to be with them but only managed to talk to them for a few minutes at a time because he was worried about roaming charges on his phone and because cellphone service was constantly cutting out. He told us about a classic Bronco that he had just finished restoring and about the huge tree that had fallen on it. We asked him when he would be relieved so that he could take care of his home and his family, and he laughed. He explained that there weren't many officers on his detail and that they were all working 18 hours a day, unsure if they were even going to get paid. Wallace asked him whether his union was doing anything to help him. He laughed again, saying, "Union: You're not even allowed to say that word around here."

We thanked him, sincerely, and drove off. As we pulled away, I saw him go back to sit with his fellow officers, none of whom could probably bear hearing each other's sad stories another time. Each, perhaps, waiting to talk to the next couple of guys trying to pass into town who were willing to listen.

The city was dim as we passed over the bridge. We could see a big military ship docked on the side of the river next to the convention center. Within minutes, we reached my house, five blocks from the Superdome. It was still dark.

I inspected the house with my flashlight, and it looked the same as I had left it. I unlocked the door and walked into my high-ceilinged living room, and could smell the aroma of home, slightly stale, a little sour, but distinct. No water had come in; the flood had not reached us. I drank some water from the cooler I had left stocked with four five-gallon jugs, then went upstairs, where I did not know what I would find.

I crept up the stairs, almost blind in the dark with my flashlight off, but knowing the steps, because I was finally home. At the top of the stairs I reflexively switched the light on, to no avail. I flipped on my flashlight and saw that my ceiling had collapsed from above. From the right angle, I could see the night sky through the wound in my roof. There was soggy sheetrock and wet bits of insulation, made of shredded newspaper, everywhere. I wanted to start cleaning up then and there but realized it was absurd, that there was still more to see. I crossed through my wife's studio, unblemished, with her paintings on the walls, and then into our bedroom, where the ceiling had also collapsed onto our new pillow-top mattress, which we had talked about with joy every night since its purchase as we got into bed.

I climbed the narrow ladder up into my attic, walked carefully along the rafters, then climbed through the hole in the roof I had seen from below. I nervously walked up the back face of my double-pitched roof and could see with the flashlight that large portions of the roof were damaged and exposed. Jitters passed through my body. I had been awake for almost 24 hours, I was standing on my roof in the middle of the night in my abandoned city, and I felt nauseated. Even under the best of circumstances, I have no business out on a roof. But anticipating the damage, I had brought up a tarp, some screws, and Wallace's new drill. I tried to secure the tarp over some of the damaged areas, but I began to feel my feet slipping on the remaining roofing tiles beneath my feet.

Knowing that I was a danger to myself, I slid back down the hole and made my way downstairs and told Wallace what I had seen and what I tried to do. He told me that he was good on roofs -- he would come up with me. We made our way back up. He did most of the work. He explained that we weren't really accomplishing anything but that it was good to try, that I could tell my wife that I had tried to repair the roof in the middle of the night, and I would be a hero. I felt pathetic and scared but comforted.

Before making our way back downstairs, we watched the city come awake. New Orleans never had the early-morning hustle and bustle of other American cities but, instead, a few people heading to work, a few stragglers still trying to find their way home. In New Orleans, sunrise meant "go to sleep" about as much as it meant "wake up," even among many of us who lived there. Now, however, with the city empty of its citizens, sunrise signified only wakeup time to the soldiers who, that morning, occupied the high-rise apartment building on St. Charles Avenue, the great Mardi Gras parade route, a block behind my house. They wandered out the building, absent-mindedly gazed up at us on the roof, and got down to the business of brushing their teeth and shaving with little cups of water in their hands.

Back downstairs, I cleaned up what I could and packed some things and brought them down to the van. I found the rings and the journals but had lost the list my wife had given me. I panicked, knowing that I was in no state to make decisions. Everything seemed pointless by this time. Miraculously, I got through to my wife on my cellphone.

"Nikki, I can't find the list. I've lost it. All I can remember are the rings and the journals," I told her.

She could hear in my voice that I was not well, that I hadn't eaten, and that I was exhausted. She said, "Billy, you got everything that matters. Go downstairs, eat some beans from a can, and sit down for a minute. Promise."

She has said these kinds of things so many times in this house as we restored it from a shell, as I worked myself into the ground with my job, and her words put me back together, a little bit anyway. We got off the phone and I grabbed as much as I could remember, neglecting her advice for the time being.

Before we left, Wallace handed me two garbage bags and told me that I should clean out my fridge. It hadn't occurred to me. I opened the door and began to retch at the smell. I tried to wrap a cloth around my face, but it kept dropping down. The worst were the chicken cutlets in the freezer that turned to mush when I grabbed them and then leaked through the cellophane wrap, all over my hands. I dragged the garbage bag through my house to the curb. Immediately flies swarmed to it. Wallace sprayed bleach on the floor in my living room and cleaned up where the bag had leaked. I will love him forever.

When I got my bearings, Wallace introduced me to two dogs that had come up to him while I was upstairs. They were already peacefully resting in the kennels he had brought with him in case we ran into strays. They knew that they had hit the jackpot and weren't going to do anything to mess it up. He had already named one of them. The black Lab puppy was Sancho Panza, after Don Quixote's sidekick. He asked what the names of the cross-streets were on my block, as Carondelet, the name of the street, didn't seem like an appropriate dog name. I told him that they were the names of muses, Clio and Erato. He named the baby pitbull Clio, the muse of history.

We got into the car and drove to his house. On the way, we looked for my Jeep, which I had parked in a garage to protect from flooding, but it was gone. It had been liberated. I hoped that whoever took it made it out of town with their family. Maybe they will drop me a postcard from El Paso, or where ever they are, when they are done using it. No hard feelings.

Wallace's house was in much better shape than mine, and he made quick work of packing, cleaning out his fridge, and getting us back on the road. I could tell that he felt kind of bad that his house wasn't damaged like mine. I was just glad that I didn't have to go up on another roof.

As I waited for Wallace, I met two young guys from the Oregon National Guard who had come up to the house, thinking that we were holdouts and intending to encourage us to leave. They were very sweet and I offered them cigars, a recently acquired vice, which they initially declined. They had both signed up for the National Guard before Sept. 11 to help pay for college. While I could tell that they both had their hesitations about the "war on terror" and their pending deployment to Afghanistan, they were patriots, in the best sense. One of them, a lieutenant, told me about their temporary barracks in an old neighborhood high school. He told me that he was disgusted that kids ever went to school there and that in Oregon the place would have been bulldozed and rebuilt so that kids could have a proper place to learn. He seemed troubled that all of this was happening in America. He realized that many of the problems that he was seeing in New Orleans existed before the storm and wanted to know why people had put up with it and why they hadn't voted the people out of office who let this happen. I told him I didn't know but that maybe we could change things in New Orleans in the future. He seemed hopeful. I felt less certain.

I introduced them to our new dogs, who were happy to have a little attention. One of the guardsmen told me that there were dying dogs everywhere, and it made him incredibly sad. He said, blankly, "These starving dogs are the saddest thing ... after the dead bodies." They quickly changed the subject.

After being yelled at by holdouts, the police and their commanders, they had made their first friend in New Orleans. I told him how to pronounce the street names properly and what each neighborhood was called and what they were like. I stressed that Esplanade Avenue is pronounced like "lemonade" and that they should correct any of their superiors who say it otherwise. They both laughed. I offered the cigars again and they accepted. As they were walking away, one of them accidentally bumped my leg with the barrel of his M-16. He was embarrassed, as though I might not have noticed the massive guns that both of them were carrying. To ease the tension, I said to them, "You're the only two 22-year-old men to ever come to New Orleans and not get drunk or laid." They laughed hard and started walking away again.

"What we wouldn't give," they said.

I told them to come back and visit when it was a city again and that they would surely have a better time.

Wallace and I got back in the van and started to head out of town. Before we left his neighborhood, Bywater, we came across some scrappy-looking guys and we pulled over to see if they wanted any of the water or food that we had left in the van. They introduced themselves, saying, "They call us holdouts." They turned down the water and food, saying they had plenty of canned food and that they had gallons of water in their hot-water heaters. They explained that they had been bathing in the Mississippi but that "it was beginning to get nasty." They wanted bleach to keep things sanitary, but we didn't have any. They settled for some Orange Clean, cat food that we had brought for strays, and a five-gallon can of gas for their generator. They told us to tell others to come home: "Bring people back. Tell them that it is OK. That you can make it here."

We drove off and left our occupied city. I slept most of the drive back as Wallace, still solid, drove. I woke up as we were approaching Oxford and told Wallace to pull into a convenience store so that I could get some beer. It was around 8 at night and we had been on the road for a full day. I brought a six-pack of Budweiser to the register, and the cashier told me that they couldn't sell beer on Sundays anywhere in Lafayette County. Broken-hearted and shocked, I told her my sad story, but she was inflexible. I thanked her and left, with new resolve to return home to New Orleans as soon as possible.

By Billy Sothern

Billy Sothern is a New Orleans writer and attorney living in Oxford, Miss., until he can return home. His nonprofit, Reprieve, accepts donations to support the organization's many indigent clients who are now homeless and without money or credit.

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