As I drove Paul to the airport last Sunday, I was missing him already. I'd gotten to share a bit of my favorite time in New Orleans with him; on Saturday we attended the Krewe de Vieux parade that starts in my neighborhood and winds through the Quarter. Floats like the one that read, "Buy Us Back, Chirac," and, "Home is Where the Tarp Is" conveyed the "spirit" that journalists keep referring to (tritely, I might add, though not without truth). We laughed, we caught throws--my favorite was one mocking the power company, Entergy, with a likeness of its logo changed to read: "Entropy: We Have the Power... and You Don't"! Later that night, as if to ice the cake, the power went out. This time, though, it was charming.
Having Paul here was invigorating. Simon took him on a bike ride into the Lower Ninth while I taught, and when they returned, Paul seemed visibly shaken. "I was blown away," he said. I did my best to keep things light. When we went out later to tour Gentilly and Lakeview, I said that I thought it was good we were getting all the devastation packed into one devastating day. So on Saturday we could move on to some fun. We could move on to posting the Valentines his students made for New Orleans kids--the ones that I laughed at that said, "We Wish You the Best," and the one that read, "I Love You, Mom." We could move on to joking about the good a Valentine will do in times like these. 'Cause with someone from out of town here, you can make these jokes. With Paul here, they were funny.
But Paul is gone, and it is just us again, and as if to punctuate my emotional sadness, my body got sick and I spent Monday and Tuesday in bed, feeling sick and feeling dark. Last week's meeting has begun to sink in, and I really do have to think about what it will be like to live here without my teaching job. Sick and in bed, I began to feel like it's not something I can do. I've joked to others about driving a UPS truck, bartending at the Hard Rock Cafe--anything to stay in this city I so love. But really I'm not sure it's something I can do. Could I be happy without my students, without this life that I love? And with the city just a shell of itself--and that shell reminding me: You Are F-Ing Lucky at every turn--You Are F-Ing Lucky That You Are White, will I feel okay? Will I love New Orleans if she doesn't recover--if the people who made it the Chocolate City I moved to can't return? I'm just not sure.
But then Mardi Gras is upon us. On Wednesday we had cheerleading practice for the Ninth Ward Marching Band. The documentarians (everyone seems to be making documentaries in this city, these days) showed up even before the cheerleaders. They filmed me making buttered popcorn and arranging cookies on a plate. They asked me about moving here and what stories my students told. "What was the craziest story your students told," the cameraman asked. I couldn't remember. Weren't they all "crazy"? Wasn't THIS crazy--this standing in the kitchen that was still standing, buttering popcorn and talking about cheerleading and devastation in one breath--wasn't it?
I told the story that Debra from my class last semester told me. She'd worked at Gulf Coast Bank in St. Bernard Parish. She'd lost everything. No one had heard from the President of the bank, an elderly man who lived in Chalmette, and yet their first task was to rescue flood-damaged money from the back. They had to launder it. It smelled like flood and money.
I told this story, and then I said something like yeah, that was crazy, and I opened the 'fridge to return the butter to its place, saying, "I can't imagine. I've never had money to launder." And later--because this is how self-conscious and guilty I feel these days, I worried about how that might seem. Me, opening a full refrigerator, with its organic milk on the door, bemoaning my being the privileged poor. What could I possibly have of value to say?
And yet, in school this week I was telling my students that THEY ALL HAVE STORIES TO TELL. Many of them feel like their stories aren't worth telling--like stories like ours of survival and guilt and what it's like to be okay amidst everything that's not are not noteworthy. "All of it matters," I said. "All of it."
But really, when you feel like no one is listening, when you see the lack of change, the way things have remained and remained and remained as they were the day we came back in October (okay--there are more gas stations and grocery stores open, yes, but so what?,) it is hard to remember that everything matters. It is hard to remember that anything matters. When Paul was here, though, and when outside people come in, it feels again like we matter.
And when we parade--when we make up a routine in the back yard to the recorded band music: "Rock You Like a Hurricane" and "House of the Rising Sun", while next door the Hispanic contractors peek out from behind the plywood windows of the house they're repairing--when we listen to music and dance, not just to celebrate, but to forget, it's all good for a minute. For a Valentine's minute, it's all f-ing good.