Monday, September 26, 2005

Returning to Planet Chaos

I'm back in Baton Rouge after five days in the very normal city of Chicago attending the annual convention for the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.

It was great to be away for such a long time.

There were several moments when I felt like a fly on the wall.

One was while I was getting a much needed haircut in the hotel salon. Sitting in the barber's chair next to me was a 30-something white-collar guy getting his hair cut by a middle-aged immigrant woman. They slowly entered into a conversation about the hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, talking about the shocking images on television, and the great degree of suffering. They each had tales of visits to New Orleans with typical tourist details - coffee and beignets at Cafe du Monde; window shopping along Royal Street in the French Quarter; a buggy ride.

Then the guy made this comment: "I just don't think they should rebuild the city. People really shouldn't live there. It's below sea level and everything. We should rebuild it somewhere else away from the swamps."

I turned to him and told him that the city he was talking about not rebuilding was my home and a place that I love.

He struggled for more words. He was embarrassed, as well he should have been.

The decision of whether or not to rebuild New Orleans doesn't lie with guys in a salon in a big Midwestern city. It lies with me and my friends and neighbors who live in the city and breathe life into it.

Everywhere I went in the Chicago, I was met with sincere and often deep expressions of concern and sorrow when people learned my home town.

The expressions of support and admiration for the work that we have been doing at The Times-Picayune were unending.

The moment that I think I'll remember most happened at the start of the convention, during a gathering of chapter presidents and national board members. We went around the room introducing ourselves and telling where we work, what chapter we represent, and our goals for the week.

When the microphone got to me, I choked up as I told everyone that I was a business writer for The Times-Picayune and president of the Louisiana chapter. I might as well have been saying, "We haven't been destroyed. We're still here despite the last three terrible weeks."

Everyone applauded.

Then I laid out my goals. Last year, I talked about picking up new event ideas, learning how to grow membership and networking with colleagues.

Last week, the list was much more basic.

"I want to feel as normal as possible, because I haven't really felt normal since before Katrina. And I want to tell as many people as possible about the heroic work being done in Louisiana by gay and lesbian journalists."

I can safely say tonight, mission accomplished.

Despite the miles of separation between Chicago and New Orleans, I was never far from planet chaos.

On Friday, I skipped most of the workshops in the late morning and afternoon to monitor television and Internet reports about Rita, and to track the whereabouts of my parents and other relatives who were in the storms path.

I also felt guilt about not being in Baton Rouge covering the new storm.

By Saturday, the anxiety had lessened, and the stress had been replaced by excitement. My partner, Constantine, was swinging through Chicago on his way back South from Connecticut. We would get to see each other only for the second time since the weekend before Katrina.

When my cell phone rang at 10 p.m., I presumed it was Constantine calling for directions to where I was staying.

Instead, he was calling to tell me that his car had broken down in Toledo, Ohio, about three hours from Chicago, and that he was stuck there until he could get the car in a shop Monday morning.

We talked about one of us renting a car and traveling to the other city, but we couldn't come up with a plan that worked.

So Sunday afternoon, I flew out of Chicago while Constantine sat in a motel room across the state line.

Just more proof that, right now, everything that can go wrong probably will go wrong.

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