Saturday, April 24, 2010

Post-Diluvian Follies: Into the Heart of Darkness

Farewell dear children, darling wife, I bid you adieu! Duty calls, and I must travel into that dark land to the east. I will cherish your memory, and perhaps—some day—I shall return.

This was a weird business, these calamities and scarcities and mass-migrations, packing water and provisions, leaving the women and children behind, journeying to a quasi-wild frontier that had sprung up in the middle of our industrialized twenty-first century nation. Had I remembered to pack the squirrel jerky and Bowie knife?

With the gear stashed in the trunk, a full thermos of coffee, and a stack of tacos at my side, I sped down I-71 in the little white car (my aunt Annou’s car actually, the end result of a complicated series of post-storm caravans and vehicle swaps). It felt exquisite to just be moving, doing something after weeks of restless exile spent watching the horrid spectacle unfold on TV. To see my city, no matter its state, to set foot in my house, no matter how wretched—I was near-ecstatic.

An hour later I was near-motionless, sitting in a vicious thicket of cars, occasionally—glacially—creeping forward only to stop again. I was in the midst of a mass of de-vacuating Houstonians who had fled Rita in unprecedented numbers, fearing their city would go the way of New Orleans. Now, it seemed, all four million were returning at once.

The teenagers behind me maintained their spirits by hopping out, in turn, and jogging alongside their car as it crept down the road. Two hours later they were still behind me, slouched now deep in their seats with expressions of hopeless misery. I considered going back but couldn’t turn around and eventually resigned myself to my fate.

Then suddenly the traffic broke free, and we were flying again: past Katy, past Houston with its countless exits and bewildering tangle of highways, and on through the little towns to the east. (I traversed Houston many times those months and breathed a sigh of relief each time I made it to the other side.)

The sun was setting as I drove over the bridge into Louisiana. Now I was in the center of Rita’s path, and her mark was everywhere: snapped trees, missing roofs, flattened signs. Government truck convoys roared past in the left lane.

As I drove into Lake Charles, night had fallen. Black silhouettes of billboards and gas stations slipped past. Only the flashing lights of emergency vehicles punctuated the darkness.

We were diverted from the main highway. I dimly made out the battered forms of buildings. Someone on the radio talked about “the resilience of the Cajun people”. We moved slowly as deputies waved us through with glowing batons.

Then we were back on the highway again, east of town. The flashing lights slipped away behind me. I drove on through the now unbroken darkness towards Lafayette.

Baton Rouge shone brightly, full of life. (It had doubled in size immediately after Katrina, swollen with tens of thousands of homeless New Orleanians.) Late in the evening I stopped for gas (hooray!) and food. A game had just let out and the McDonald’s was full of LSU purple and gold. And for the first time on my journey, I heard the unmistakable New Orleans accent. I was getting close.

I heard the accent again in the car as I picked up the first fuzzy signals of hometown radio.* It was a talk show—WWL. Listeners called in lamenting their exiles, lamenting the absence of po-boys, berating FEMA, berating the governor, and—in what struck me as a jarring contrast—talking about the highlights of that night’s football game.

The announcer reminded listeners, “Remember, folks, Jefferson Parish has lifted its curfew for people going to the game, but you must have your ticket stub to get back in the parish. If you don’t have your stub, they ain’t gonna letchya ’cross the parish line.”

I switched stations but got the same talk show. I switched again and got it again. I flipped around the dial. Was my radio broken or was every station broadcasting the exact same signal? For a few disoriented moments I thought maybe I’d slipped into one of those old science fiction movies where the aliens take over the airwaves to announce their imminent world domination—but instead of world domination they were just chit-chatting about inept governmental bureaucracies and turnover stats.

A more sober survey of the dial confirmed that the individual radio stations really had abandoned their respective hip-hop, gospel, oldies, and whatnot formats and consolidated into a single disaster-centric Mono-Radio.

Shortly after midnight I crossed the Mississippi line and passed through the (barely worthy of the term) village of Nicholson. I crossed the train tracks and wove through the strange new utility worker shanty town that had sprung up—dozens of trailers lit bright as day with towering arc-lights—down a gravel road, and pulled up in front of the quiet little house that was to be my temporary base of operations for subsequent sorties into the city.

John came out onto the porch and helped me with my stuff. And in the early hours of the morning in a small house in the dark night of Mississippi we drank trunk-warm bourbon from champagne glasses (the only remotely viable glassware we could find) and talked about all that had passed.

* Though our “hometown” radio was, as it turned out, housed in Baton Rouge for many months.

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