On my now-daily run to my house in the Bywater to check if the lights are back on (and the place is inhabitable again) I encountered one of my neighbors, Phong.
Phong is a slightly-stout, middle-aged Asian man who lives two houses down and across the street with his wife, Valerie, his mother-in-law and three pugs (there were four before the storm but the oldest of the pack succumbed during their evacuation). They occupy a small shotgun, double cottage painted lavender with pink and purple trim.
Phong returned alone seven days after Katrina to go back to work as a hotel parking lot manager in the French Quarter.
He quite possibly was the first neighbor to visit our block after the storm.
While standing in front of his house on that morning back in the city, Phong watched a young man smash a chunk of concrete through a car windshield half a block away, then flash a hand gun, as if to make the point that nothing was going to stop him from doing whatever he wanted to do.
Fearful for his safety, Phong left immediately.
Back at the hotel, he cut a deal with several FBI officer to patrol our block on a regular basis during their night rounds in exchange for choice parking spaces in the garage.
The night patrols continued for the next several weeks, and when Phong had free time during the day he went back to our block with an armed off-duty FBI officer and posted a watch on various neighborhood stoops.
Within blocks of my house, homes and businesses were looted, buildings were burned to the ground and general chaos reigned for days.
But on my block, no human hand inflicted any discernible damage.
I think Phong single-handedly saved our block.
He told me he did it because he and Valerie consider the whole block as their home. They don't want to return to a street of empty and abaondoned houses, or a block filled with strangers.
When I shook his hand and thanked him for protecting my house and the neighborhood, he shyly glanced at his feet, shrugged his shoulders and said he did nothing special.
He's wrong, and far too humble.
I wish everyone had a neighbor like Phong.
Since Wednesday was the first official day for people in my zip code to return home, there was a marked increase in human activity in the Bywater.
I bumped into four or five acquaintances who were returning to their homes for the first time.
Three of them were greeted with holes in their roofs, chunks of plaster on their furniture and floors, and mold growing on walls. Just more reminders of how lucky Constantine and I are.
Everyone seems to be determined to return, at least in the short term, but they don't know yet if they will stay for good. We're all worried that the city could change into something we don't recognize or like over the next few years.
Signs of life returning:
Several times I encountered young women in Pippy Longstockingsish garb riding bikes with big handle bars and large baskets.
Those of you familiar with the Bywater know that it's filled with slightly eccentric, bohemian, 20 and 30 something starving artists who don't own cars and get around on hand-me-down bikes.
Surreal moment of the day:
A guy from the neighborhood (see description above) stood next to his bike at the intersection of Dauphine and Press streets handing out single sheets of paper to people driving into the Bywater from the lower Marigny. On the sheet was a list of corner groceries, restaurants, hardware stores and other businesses open along on our side of Canal Street.
Things I don't like about NEW New Orleans:
The bugs are back.
Weeks after they abandoned the city with the rest of us, insects seem to be pouring into New Orleans in exponentially greater numbers than their human counterparts. It seems impossible to sit still for more than a moment without a fly landing on an exposed section of skin.
And the Bywater and other neighborhoods are under assault from an outbreak of fleas apparently brought on by the large numbers of the pets left behind by fleeing residents.
If you come to visit, bring plenty of bug spray!