New Orleans

[Written Sunday night] On the corner of Touro and Urquhart streets in New Orleans, not far from the French Quarter, stands the house where my husband was born 93 years ago. Today you would call it a duplex, but back then they called it “half a house.” One of John’s earliest memories is of sitting on the stoop and watching his grandmother beat yellow bricks into a fine powder that she used to clean the steps. A few blocks over is the Thompson Methodist Church where John as a pre-schooler attended services with his mother, aunt, and grandmother, and on occasion was permitted to ring the church bell by pulling on the long rope dangling from the belfry. We’ve been to New Orleans only a handful of times over the last fiften or twenty years. A few years ago, we got a cab driver to take us to the house — it’s still a very poor neighborhood — and we were pleasantly surprised to find that, for the first time ever, the long and narrow dirt streets were being paved. Several streets were closed for this reason and the cab driver got as close as he could and waited for us while we walked down to the house to take some pictures. When we got back into the cab the driver could not turn around, so he had to back out down the block. It’s hard to believe that a city neighborhood that waited so long to be renovated with basic amenities may cease to exist tomorrow.

We called our friends who live there. Those we did not reach we assume have left town, but we did speak to one friend and has chosen to stay, not at home but in a downtown hotel. The logic seems to center on being above the water level, so I guess a high-rise building might feel safer, but what will happen when the first floors are under water and the power is out? I’m scared from thousands of miles away. Our friend is not a young man, so he’s not hanging out for the thrill. He’s something of a community leader, active in the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, so I imagine that he’s staying in hope of being useful in the aftermath.

I am watching news of Katrina as I prepare for the interview I have scheduled for tomorrow morning, look up the driving directions to the hotel where my subject is staying, and charge the batteries for my recorder. Then I realize that people in New Orleans are pouring over maps and charging batteries for much more pressing reasons and suddenly my life feels rather small and trivial.