Friday, June 19, 2009

Live from a 3-hour layover in Phoenix

June 19, en route to New Orleans:

The last time I was there was two days before the hurricane. We had packed tofu sandwiches and driven the three hours south all in the name of seeing a movie. Back then (and maybe still) if you want to see any kind of independent movie in the theater, you had to go to New Orleans or Memphis.

I read about the hurricane in a newspaper about halfway down. We were in a convenience store buying cokes, and I read the paper and figured it wouldn't be much of anything. I grew up with hurricanes. During Hugo in '89 in Georgia, my mom covered the windows with grey duct tape, and we all sat in the bathroom. Not a whole lot happened, as far as I could see. I didn't know then that South Carolina had endured most of the damage.

The summer of 2005 had already seen a few hurricanes. Just a few weeks earlier, they had evacuated New Orleans in the name of a hurricane that never came.

Not a whole lot happens, I figured, so I kept driving even though my mom called me, too, on the way South and asked if I knew I was heading toward a hurricane.

We got down to Canal Place early and ate our tofu (Lindsey had cooked it in red wine with herbs) in the food court. A bunch of women in movie theater uniforms were standing around talking about maybe going home early. Our movie either started or ended at 4 (I can't remember now), and they said if the showing wasn't canceled, it'd at least be the last of the day.

I was eavesdropping and told Lindsey I was going to be mad as hell if I didn't get to see Broken Flowers. I had been on a serious Bill Murray kick since Lost in Translation, and I had driven three hours just to see him.

They decided to go ahead and show the movie, but about half the workers got to go home. A man dressed up in movie theater manager clothes said New Orleans was being evacuated and whoever could should go on home and pack.

We went in to watch the movie -- which actually wasn't great -- and I was cold the entire time. For some reason, I was wearing shorts even though Southern movie theaters are always freezing with air conditioning.

Afterward, everything was empty: the mall, the parking lot, Canal Street. The other streets held only a few people, most of whom were nailing cardboard over windows. We had wanted to go shopping at Whole Foods -- another thing Jackson didn't have -- but it was already closed.

I can't remember what we talked about on the way home. I must have been shocked that people were taking it so seriously. It seems stupid now, how ridiculous I was. I can remember vividly those empty streets. All of Magazine, boarded up.

It took something like eight hours to drive up I-55. Everyone was leaving, I thought, leaving that city behind. Later, I realized New Orleans hadn't been empty at all.

Mississippi had its own damage. We didn't have power for 10 days, and looking for gas was a mad free-for-all I never could really explain to anyone. The day after, all of Belhaven looked like a giant had come by swatting trees over. We drove around looking for all our friends, hoping everyone was alive (Even in Jackson, three people died).

I haven't been back to New Orleans. I used to go every few weekends to see movies or go dancing or drink super-sweet drinks near the water. Once, in college, we drove down there after 11 o'clock at night to walk around. We got back just as I was supposed to be at work the next day. New Orleans was where went after break-ups; it was where I went to find you after heartbreak, to tell you I had made the wrong decision. You smoked American Spirits, and I wore a t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. It was where I went to my first dyke march and where I picked up my car -- for $1,000 cash -- after it had been repossessed from school.

In a few hours, I'll be back. I know there'll be mosquitos and sweat that runs between your breasts even at 3 a.m., but what else?

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