I was sitting at the bar of the Dave & Buster’s on Rockville Pike attempting to “celebrate” my brother’s birthday, and it was not happening. My parents, busy minding him and his friends, had left me to my own devices. He and his best friend both came up, separately, and put a hand on my shoulder asking if I was alright. Of course I was. “Don’t worry,” I said. “Go have fun.”
Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana on August 29, 2005. If you know Adrian, please greet him this Saturday. Anyone whose birthday is eclipsed by national tragedy knows the feeling of guilt for celebrating yourself and the feeling of being forgotten by your friends. (Sidebar: Apologies to my friend Katrina, whose name was appropriated by the hurricane.)
I was sitting at the bar – mind you I was 20 at the time – watching the coverage of Hurricane Katrina, drinking rum mechanically. I was trying not to burst into tears. I felt selfish and stupid. I was safe, evacuated, surrounded by family. Why was I upset? “You’re not even from New Orleans, you just go to school there,” I kept telling myself.
After a few rounds, the bartender, prepared to hear about school or a girl or some other mundane problem, asked me what was wrong.
“That’s my city,” I barely whispered. I felt the words escape my lips as if someone else said them. It was the first time I referred to New Orleans as something that was mine.
I kind of sat there, drunk and stupefied, so naturally she said “Wait, are you even 21? Let me see your ID!”
Eyes glued to the TV screens above her bar, glass of rum firmly in hand, I reached back with my free hand and gave my wallet to her.
She looked at the ID, sighed, and slid the bottle of rum over to me. “Just don’t tell them I served you, okay? I’m sorry about New Orleans. It’s a great city.”
I left her a cash tip, obviously.
Katrina changed the way I felt about New Orleans. Katrina made me realize how I felt about New Orleans. For real.
If you ever want to know how someone feels about something or someone, deprive them of that thing or person for four months, and see how they react.
As a dumb teenager in college, I looked at New Orleans as a playground. Coming back from four months away opened my eyes to the reality of the city.
I knew that bars stayed open late. I didn’t know that some bars stayed open through the storm, serving beer out of coolers by candlelight, to give their customers physical and emotional shelter, a feeling of safety and familiarity during chaos.
I knew that locals were kind. I did not know that some locals, after boarding up their houses against invaders, boarded up their neighbors’ houses and sat on their porches, ready to protect their neighborhoods.
I knew that New Orleanians let the good times roll. I did not know that New Orleanians stand by their city through the bad times, blinded by love, fighting not to leave and always, always fighting to return.
I was talking to a friend yesterday about the decade anniversary of the hurricane, and he finds it funny how everyone gets involved now because it’s 10 years. “People who live here live with the reality of Katrina every day. I see it in my neighborhood. Every day.” He’s right.
As a city, NOLA had problems. C’mon, NOLA still has problems. I happen to prefer its problems to the problems of other cities. And I respect all the solutions, however haphazard and harebrained, that citizens attempt to solve those problems with.
My barber and friend once told me I was New Orleans. I laughed, thinking he was mocking me. I told him he was New Orleans. He grew up in The East, and he went to Marion Abramson High School. I grew up in the DC metro area, and I went to what would be the equivalent of Jesuit.
I’ll never forget this. He paused the haircut, looked me square in the eyes and said, “Drew, New Orleans isn’t just the people who grow up here and never leave. It’s also the people who come here and stay. A melting pot. A gumbo. That’s New Orleans.”
I wanted a glass of rum on that flight in January 2006, but the flight attendant wouldn’t serve me. I wanted it to celebrate the return, to drink to those who had been lost to the storm, and to relax myself because I wasn’t sure how I’d feel seeing New Orleans again.
Looking down at the city from the plane, I saw the familiar streets and trees and something new… a blanket of blue tarps over almost every roof. “They’re going to fix this,” I thought.
The thought shifted. “We’re going to fix this.”
When that flight touched down at MSY, I heard myself say suddenly and permanently: I’m home.