Sunday, September 18, 2005

View from the Capital City

Here's the scene: I'm sitting inside a CC's Coffee Shop in a strip shopping center in Baton Rouge eating an oh-so-almost-flowerless dark chocolate cake.

I know what some of you who really know me are saying - "What are YOU doing in a CC's? You hate CC's."

Yes, that's certainly true, but in this the capital of mediocre chain everything, CC's is the best you can do and still get free Wi-Fi Internet access.

Earlier tonight I ate a huge bacon and cheddar cheese burger at George's, a fantastic hole-in-the-wall bar restaurant that might remind me of some of my favorite neighborhood places in New Orleans if not for the uptight suburban clientele and very collegiate staff.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the meal, watched some SEC football and am now topping off my gorging with a cocoa overdose.

Wow! If I didn't' know better, I'd say my life is almost back to normal.

I noticed for the first time tonight that the stress and anxiety of Ms. K, as I saw another New Orleans writer put it, seems to have become background noise in my life. But a friend and fellow evacuee warned me tonight that such thinking is probably rooted in illusion. My despair over the storm and the aftermath is probably still there. It's just that I've started ignoring it at some level.

Whatever the case, it's a welcomed relief.

My now-regular trips into the city for work and personal reconnaissance certainly have helped. Every time I go inside I see more people in the city, more activity, more cleaning, more reason to be hopeful.

I've visited a half dozen houses of friends and delivered live reports to them from my cell phone. All of them were in neighborhoods that weren't flooded, so the news I've been delivering has been welcomed with cries of relief and joy.

My friend Suz, who's down here writing freelance stories about the storm, did what I've been dreading. She went to a house in Lakeview and reported to mutual friends of ours that, as they feared, their house and everything in it are ruined.

It seems my life has become one of extremes. I shift in the blink of an eye from despair to hopefulness, from calmness to raging anger, from a still mind to a head full of clutter. It seems the world of storm victims also exists in a world of opposite poles. On one end are people like me who still have their house, car, office, job, neighborhood haunts - basically their own little corner of New Orleans still in tact.

Then there are people like Suz and my friends, who have lost thier house, car, office, job, neighborhood haunts - basically most of things that make up the life they knew.

I'm sure there are people in the middle, but I'm fixated on the pole opposite mine.

I spent the morning in New Orleans checking my house in more detail and driving around interviewing shopkeepers, restaurant owners and business people trying to clean up and reopen.
I drove all the way to the CBD on I-10. The underpass near the Jefferson Parish line is completely dry. The general public still can't get into the city. But the only police check point that I encountered was when I crossed the line into Orleans Parish.

On each trip I seem to notice more bits of destruction that miss my eye previously.

This time it was the shredded steeple top on the old brick church alongside the Pontchartrain Expressway near the St. Charles Street exit. And the woman's black high-heel shoe, smeared with gray sludge and lying without its match in the parking lot of The Times-Picayune.
I went into my garden for the first time.

It's a wreck, as I expected. Half of the neighbor's pecan tree crashed into the yard, crushing the chain-link fence between the properties and smashing a fairly new terracotta fish bowl. From the other neighbor's yard, the top half of a pine tree blew onto the other fence and half of the back deck.

At most, it's a couple of weekends of yard work. Constantine has visions of a stoic and sparse rock garden. We both want life to simpler now.

I forgot to mention the biggest reason for my recently found serenity: I rescued my car! Finally got it out of the parking garage near the Superdome on Thursday. Not even a scratch on it.

The out-of-town people working on the recovery effort are fantastic. All of my encounters have been positive, and even moving at times. Without even thinking of it, I find myself automatically saying thanks for being here when I talk to one of them. Their responses have been humble, gracious and appreciative.

I talked briefly with a woman with Homeland Security who was dropping off cat food along Esplanade Avenue early this morning. She has several drop off points that serve as soup kitchens for both cats and dogs in the neighborhood. She and her partner make the drops during their regular morning patrols.

A week ago, she discovered a dog trapped in a French Quarter home. Since then, she has been dropping food and water for the dog through the house's front door mail slot.

She told me that her supply of pet food has been big enough to share with others caring for the many stray animals that continue to suffer in the city. She acquired the food after obtaining permission from a local pet store owner to break into the shop and take supplies that were nearing expiration.

Surreal moment of the day: Driving to the end of my block and encountering a barricade of wood and barbed wire and a large hand painted sign reading, "Danger ... Chemical spill ... Keep Out!"

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