Tuesday, November 29, 2005
Simon and I have been back in New Orleans for almost two months. During that first month, I barely wrote a word. I took lots and lots of pictures, instead. The following is the first entry I wrote. I hope that others will follow.
November 14, 2005
The power goes out again. This happens at least once a week, but there is no getting used to it. At times like these, the here and now feels startlingly immediate, and we try to focus on these things so we can deal with them: where are the flashlights, the candles, the matches? Whether we had plans prior to the loss of power is irrelevant, and I forget what it was I wanted to do anyway. I want light. I want the stove to work. I want my computer and the internet and a fan that I can turn on and leave on all night to ward off strange noises. Never mind that the neighborhood is quieter than it has ever been, that even the trains seem to have been interrupted. Every noise is odd now, even the familiar ones. You can’t really describe what’s changed, either. It’s as if you are seeing someone again for the first time in many years, and their looks are all still there, their appearances are arranged according to your memory, but perhaps they’ve adopted a new accent or gone religious on you. In either case, something happened while the two of you were apart, and even as you try to behave as you once did—remembering-when or re-telling a joke you once shared, the punchline thunks you in the gut, somehow. You laugh less heartily these days.
I point out to Simon that our flashlights are near dead and that our candles are at their ends. He knows I am blaming him. I have told him how silly I think it is to light up the house like a Catholic church in times like these. I tell him we need only light the room where we are right now. It’s true that I liked the way the house glowed the first night we lost power. We made boudin and red beans and rice on our Coleman stove, but back then the blackouts were a novelty—back then we all emerged from our homes to see if the neighbors had lost power, too. Back then we were convivial and maybe even grateful to know that we really were “in this together.” Now, though, I am angry because there is no one to blame.
My new laptop has three hours-worth of battery and so I sit down to get some work done. Simon lights about eight candles, then nine, and I snap at him for being wasteful. He says he refuses simply to sit in the dark and do nothing. He is not working these days, and six weeks into my semester, with midterms approaching and papers to grade, I, too, wish he wouldn’t “do nothing,” but I don’t want him to lounge around reading, as he has. I resent him for having the money and the time to do what I would like to do. It is hard to be in love right now.
While Simon goes out for a run, I call Entergy to report the outage. I ask the man at the end of the line when the power will return. “A ballpark figure will do,” I say, feeling sorry for the guy even as I ask—he who is burdened with the task of apologizing for things he can’t control. Even so, we’ve gotten ballpark figures before. They give us some small hope, even though by now we know to add an hour or two to the time reported to us. The man says he can’t offer one, and I think I hear annoyance in his voice, but find myself complaining anyway. “It’s just that I’m a teacher and it’s hard to get things done when the power goes out every time the wind blows even the tiniest bit.” He must be rolling his eyes. He must hate me. I hate myself. “Nevermind,” I say, and hang up.
We decide to go out for dinner so we will have less time sitting around in the dark. Every time the power has gone out it has been in the afternoon or evening, and now, with Daylight Savings Time, we have longer and longer to wait until the crews fix the lines, always the next morning and sometimes not until late the next day. As we drive to the Lebanese restaurant on Frenchmen Street, we pass by the Washington National Guard’s post at the creative arts high school a few blocks from us, by the river. This is the high school of the Marsalis kids, of Harry Connick, Jr., of Kermit Ruffins. It is now the only place in the neighborhood with electricity. Spotlights powered by generators make the place glow like a state fair. A guardsman and woman sit on folding chairs at the entrance and nod congenially to us as we pass. They will be leaving at the end of the week, I tell Simon. We are both quiet. We, who are liberals and never thought we would see the day when there was a military presence in our own hometown, have been changed by their presence. We have never felt this safe before. We don’t want them to leave. “Who will we go to if we need help?” I ask.
“The police,” says Simon. He sounds almost sarcastic, but I know that I am projecting. The Brit in Simon expects things to work as they are meant to, and the Southerner in me finds that notion almost comical. The one time I called the New Orleans police to come to my house because of a suspected break-in, they almost laughed at me. They suggested that I move.
“Ha, ha,” I say. Even the Louisiana National Guard has a bad reputation. The bartenders at Mimi’s say that they are the ones who hassle them about the curfew. They have ideas about New Orleanians. They don’t find us charming. I tell Simon that we should write a thank you card, maybe buy them a few cases of Abita before they leave, and I work on my letter in my head—how I will tell them about the first night back, when three young guardsmen helped me find my lost margarita I’d set down on the sidewalk. How I will remember to them the moments they shared with us on Halloween weekend at the corner of Royal and Franklin.
That night, a transformer on the telephone pole standing directly over the crowd blew, eliciting a few shrieks from the crowd, and then later, delight. The bartenders at Mimi’s lit seven-day candles and the Washington National Guard turned left their Humvee lights on. The New Orleans police showed up and it was clear that they wanted us to disperse, to go home, but they stood around, impotent. I’d like to think that they envied the Guard then, how the Guard really was only there to protect and serve us, not to prevent us from having a good time. In my letter I will tell them how I will miss feeling as if a figure of authority actually respected our rights.
At Mona’s, we order our favorites—chicken shawarma for Simon and a gyro plate for me. We talk about our wedding, which we have yet to set a date for and which seems an impossibly long way off. We want to have it in New Orleans but have already agreed that our initial plans to wed in January were far too ambitious. It’s not that we couldn’t plan it by then, it’s just that we don’t want our family and friends to see our city this way. I imagine my relatives pitying us, wondering what the hell we are thinking, living in a place like this. On occasion—and often when the lights are out—we wonder the same thing.
After dinner we run into James Singleton on Frenchmen Street. He’d played a few nights before at d.b.a. and we danced and danced and I nearly cried, I was so happy. I ask James if the rumors are true: has he really relocated to Los Angeles. He says that yes, he has, but that he is not abandoning New Orleans. I whine a little and give him the hard time I’ve given everyone I know who’s decided not to return. We need you, I say. How can the city recover without you, I say. But I can’t blame James. For all of its musical glory, New Orleans has treated its musicians horribly. Most of the nola musicians I’ve known have either had to take on second jobs simply to scrape by, or have gigged six days a week. How can you ask the musicians to return to this when they are being lured by other cities—cities where people are living, working, and have money to support our musicians who are, by now, both an object of pity and a spectacular “steal.” I can’t help feeling like New York and Austin and Portland and L.A. are stealing our culture from us. It frightens me. The idea of James Singleton sitting in a traffic jam on some L.A. interstate frightens me.
But: “I’ll always come back to New Orleans,” he says. “I need New Orleans,” he says. He gives me one of his spritely smiles and declares, “New Orleans feeds my soul,” and I know exactly what he means.