In the end I decide not to take it. There are the army roadblocks and checkpoints going into the city, and vehicle searches. I do not savor the prospect of being found by the US military to be in possession of an unregistered weapon, even if it is a sixty-year-old WWII souvenir and has not been fired in decades.
But I suppose I am more haunted by the idea of giving in, of saying that civilized rules of conduct no longer apply, of asserting that carrying a gun is the only means of survival. I keep running the constantly-repeated video images of looting and lawlessness through my mind, the vicious looks the looters threw at the cameras as they ran by. They could still be there, a nest of them, camping in my home. There could be... there could be anything. That is when I shake my head and stop. This is all getting too big in my imagination. I am being a fool, giving in to the Bad Guys. And thus I make up my mind, and tell my father.
I will not take the gun.
It is a decision I will come to regret.
South Louisiana bayou country is a powerful, deep place, and yesterday morning the land made its point softly and without effort. A full harvest moon hangs just above the tree line to the west, golden and soft-edged, while at the same time in the east, rising out of a twenty-foot-thick gauzy blanket of fog, a blazing red sun slowly clears the horizon, the perfect disk intersected by the thin horizontal cuts of low clouds.
As I drive the old bottom-heavy Mercury up onto the elevated highway southeast of Lafayette, I can see the cane fields spread out in all directions, green and uniform like a giant’s out-of-scale carpet. Only about a quarter of the fields are already blackened and cleared. At harvest time, the quarter-mile green squares are purposely set with a controlled fire to burn off the superfluous lower leaves before the ten-foot-tall stalks are gathered. I remember when I was a child being told to stay away from the autumn fires, as all sorts of animals and snakes rush headlong from the fields, fleeing the smoke and flames.
Which was why, I suppose, there are numerous “Bear Crossing” signs all along the highway as Louise and I ride through Terrebonne parish.
I am lulled by the passing scenery, given such comfort by rural memories that I almost forget why we are riding through the countryside in my mother’s huge squeaking car with a trunk full of water, machines and provisions. We are driving into New Orleans, a city first ravaged and then abandoned, to see what parts of our lives have been left intact. And if this narrative has already grown a bit flowery, I suppose it is in reaction to the fact that I am truly frightened. I am looking for anything, anything at all, to keep me calm and level-headed going into a place so recently a seat of anarchy and death and all the horrors in between.
OK. I am scared.
The first signs of the hurricane begin immediately upon crossing Highway 1, the sole thoroughfare all the way down Bayou Lafourche to the Gulf. We cross the bridge and come upon a clutch of uprooted river oaks, and the first of many roofs and signs we will see that have been draped without care or seeming effort in the remaining trees. Highway 90 has been cleared of debris and limbs. Amazingly so. It has been less than three weeks since Hurricane Katrina, listed variously between a Category 1 and Category 5 storm, had marched across the coastline, and yet here is a major highway, running freely and without impediments. The shoulders of the road, though, are piled high with trimmed and stacked limbs, the leaning trees cut off roughly as they approach the roadbed on both sides. The leaves are already dead and brown, and there is a sense that whatever had happened to so severely disrupt, and then hack into submission, the surrounding forest is long gone.
There are few cars on the road. It is early on a Sunday morning after all, though stores and cafés are beginning to open in each of the small towns and villages we pass. Signs of normalcy are everywhere, a Sunday all-you-can-eat crab boil, docks lined with airboats and shrimpers, fishermen just coming back into port at dawn, drinking 16-ounce tall-boys of Budweiser for breakfast while sitting on the bows of their swaying boats.
About half the stalls in the Westwego fish market are open, including our favorite, Amy’s, which specializes in blue lake crabs the size of our Mercury’s hubcaps.
Along the divided highway more and more mom-and-pop stores are coming open, each with progressively more wind damage, but still nothing severe enough to make you instantly think hurricane.
Then suddenly we are up on the Westbank Expressway, only seven miles from the Mississippi and New Orleans. Six lanes wide and we barely see that many cars as we approach the toll booth for the bridge. A rising dread, and dryness in the mouth. And then there is the first reminder of what we are to face. An armed roadblock of National Guardsmen and sheriff’s deputies set up in the center of the roadway. They take one look at my elderly car and motion us through, smiles on their faces.
“You’ve no idea of what you are getting into,” their faces say.
We continue up the bridge and get off at the first exit on the New Orleans side, Camp street, headed into the CBD, the Central Business District.
Instantly there is a car coming up the street the wrong way, half a block away, headed right at us. He swerves with a squeal, and waves as he passes, sensing rookies coming into the city. I can read his face, too: “Hey, I drive any way and anywhere I want. No rules, here, folks. Better figure it out quick.”
Stoplights and signals are dark. Most are twisted round their poles and tilted at diagonals to the ground. There is debris everywhere, but much has been pushed into the gutters. We pass the glass front of the Contemporary Arts Center, and come to a halt in the middle of the road to get a sense of where we are and what is happening. It is our first bit of legal disobedience, but we need to get a grip. There is no one about, in any direction. The only noise at the moment is the sound of a half-dozen choppers passing quickly overhead.
My stomach lurches, and the physical unease makes me even more unsettled emotionally.
We drive onto Poydras, a major north-south thoroughfare, and turn north. The vast boulevard is draped with downed wires, its turn lanes filled with garbage, aluminum cans, plastic bottles, and unidentifiable rotting masses. I don’t speculate, just drive by.
The first of the smells enters the car. It is, to speak politely, the faint background smell of sewage. Followed by a stronger scent. Death. I think reflexively: “Something is dead nearby, road kill maybe, an animal caught in traffic.”
But that is not the case. That smell is never to leave while we are in the city.
We turn right onto O’Keefe, now heading toward Canal and Baronne Street, where Louise’s office is located. Another car is coming up the street the wrong way, but turns just before he reaches us. A few blocks further, on the right, many mechanical-looking trucks stand vibrating outside the venerable Fairmont Hotel. There are multiple generators, powering the building, portable air-conditioners blowing fresh air into its halls, and one giant tanker that appears to be pumping the last of the Canal street water from one of the rare basements of New Orleans beneath the hotel. We pass the truck slowly.
And I experience my first brief moment of terror.
It is the smell of that water. The water we’ve seen on TV for eighteen days. It is black and greasy, but it is the smell, the smell that never oozed from my parents’ TV 200 miles away, that holds the horror.
Death is below its surface, exhaling bubbles from the corruption of flesh, the fermentation of misery. Sour human and animal urine and sweat. Flowing rivers of shit. Rotting food. Poisonous petrol waste.
I smell the bowels of hell. I try to exhale and take nothing further in. I gag. Louise looks like she has stopped breathing, is holding her breath. I speed up and we roll onto Canal street, turning to the curb a couple of spaces down.
The smell has dissipated now that we are off the side street. I stop the car and try to regroup.
There was no physical threat from the stench. I know I have never smelled anything that bad in my life, but still it was only a smell. A horrible horrible smell. Evil and yet so real. Once again I see in my mind the news footage of people up to their chests in that water, wading through miles of it with their children on their backs.
I had passed a small amount of it at a distance, filtered through a car air conditioner. And felt faint.
We are stunned. We need to keep moving, start the car again and turn onto Baronne. At the first stoplight an eighteen-wheeled generator truck is powering up the Pere Marquette Hotel, and on the ground floor Louise’s favorite restaurant, Renee Bistrot. Across the intersection, Louise’s building, the old First National Bank of Commerce Building. Her offices on the 18th floor. We pull over on the opposite side. The lobby doors are partially boarded but one has the top glass door broken out. I climb over, but find the inner doors are locked and no way to get in. Climbing back out over the broken glass proves harder. Louise tries calling some of the building’s other occupants on her cell while I walk down the block looking for another way in.
All the buildings are lined with a dark brown horizontal smudge about three feet up their sides, the high water mark. The smell is muted but fouls every breath.
Every shop on the Baronne street side of the building has been looted. All the glass fronts are broken in. I go in one and another to see if I can get through their back inner doors into the building lobby but the first three are locked. These are a stationery store, copy shop, photo processing drop. There was no food here, just something to steal. The places have been uniformly and violently trashed. There seems to be human feces everywhere, some beneath pools of residual water. A grey vapor rises a few inches above surrounding pools of flood water.
At the fourth doorway I see that the rear door has also been broken through and there is a way to get inside the office complex.
I call to Louise. We do not hesitate. We can’t at this point. Inside, the wide hallways are pitch black. We stumble over dark objects, but don’t look down. We turn on our two battery-operated pocket mag-lites, and aim them forward. They create small circles of light which we keep just far enough ahead so that we can see where we are going but can’t really make out what is beneath our feet. Better that way.
I hear noises.
The Bad Guys. And me armed with only with a four-inch-long flashlight. I call out. No answer. No sound now. No turning back. We keep moving, find the elevator lobby, then the staircase. I open the door to an even deeper blanket of darkness, now wrapped in unbearable heat. The stairwell is acting as a chimney. There is a floor below us, below ground, and The Smell is back, amplified by the temperature of the closed stairs. We rush upward, breathing through our mouths and sweating. Sweat that quickly absorbs the smell surrounding us and begins dripping off our clothes.
I feel infected. I keep climbing, keeping just ahead of Louise. More noise above. I am braced for what might be there. I keep climbing, and calling out. No answer. I think of The Pistol. If only I had The Pistol, my heart would not be racing like this.
I truly believe for a moment that I would not be afraid the building was still being looted. I would not be worried that around the next turn of the stairs there would appear one of those twisted faces from the television screen. I wouldn’t be afraid.
No. I would still be afraid. Probably more of myself holding the weapon.
Suddenly, on the next landing there is an air vent and some light. Then at floor five, there is a small square open window. Outside air comes in, and the sickness of the atmosphere begins to lessen.
We are at the eleventh floor when a man in shorts and a t-shirt surprises us by emerging loudly from an open door steel door. He carries a computer and several accordion files.
He is exhausted, not threatening, and turns out to be a very young lawyer, as grimy as we, and on his fifth trip of the day carrying his possessions down from eleven. He drops his burden and sits on the floor, tells us this is his second day of bringing things down, and his legs are giving way. He doesn’t want to abandon clients’ records and cases, but no one will help him, and he just cannot make one more trip. He estimates it will take him ten more to get the major pieces from his office.
We can’t stop, Knowing this one trip may be all we have. Up to eighteen.
At twelve we realize that only one of the steel staircase access doors we have seen so far has been open, the door just below us at eleven, where the winded attorney still sits. Louise knows what I am thinking and tells me that even if the door isn’t open at eighteen, she has been told that the door to the utility floor at nineteen has been taken off its hinges. We can go up there and descend another internal staircase that does not lock.
Sixteen. My shirt and pants are heavy with sweat and the absorbed scent of the building. I have a mad urge to rip them off and run upwards to escape into the open air. Logic tells me the clothes are protective and that the air above is just as bad as in here. Logic tells me. But I am getting claustrophobic, in the building, the staircase, and my clothing.
Seventeen. The staircase window is open, and the heat lessens again, ever so slightly. I look around every corner as I turn it, hoping the open door will be ahead. I reach the landing at eighteen and there it is.
I mount the last flight with more energy and stand looking into the floor of offices with renewed hope.
It is then that I notice Louise standing one landing down, going through her purse.
She looks up at me, her face twisted.
“I don’t have my key,” she says.
“The key to my office door. I think I left it in the car.”
I lean on the wall and stare ahead. Out of breath. Out of will. It is all I can do to stand there, hoping I am not hearing what I am hearing. I make myself do something.
“I’ll kick down the damned door,” I say. The cowboy syndrome takes the lead. I am hugely angry, and trying not to be. She has walked up eighteen floors, too. I know she is hurting.
But she maintains her poise. She thinks and moves.
“Let’s go see first. It may be open.” Louise leads the way.
I follow. I had no idea this was such a huge warren of offices spaces, corridor upon corridor, hot, stuffy, airless. I am lost instantly. Louise stops. Points.
“It’s locked,” she says.
We are deflated again.
I am a male, and males think in a certain way. We are reinforced to do so by the cultural stereotypes in which we are immersed every day. So the first thing I think is: “It’s a glass door.” I start looking for the fire extinguisher. I saw this in a movie. A fire extinguisher and a glass door.
“I’ll pay for it if they ask,” I declare, starting my search for a battering ram.
Louise has more sense. Puts her hand on my arm.
“They probably have a duplicate key in the office administrator’s desk,” she says. “Don’t do anything until I get back.”
I agree and sit on the carpet in the hallway, then quickly get up again. If I rest, If I stop moving forward, I will not be able to regain the energy to get moving again.
I am already physically and emotionally drained. I look at my watch. It is 9:30 in the morning. I look at it again. It is still 9:30.
Louise approaches, her hand in front of her. She holds two keys.
“I think it may be one of these,” she tell me, not meeting my eye.
The first key does not work.
She takes another breath and slides the next one in, turns the knob. The door opens.
We look at each other, feeling our lives simultaneously turn another corner. This is all real. Small triumphs in the middle of hell. Small bits of hope being dispensed one at a time. We need to cling to the hope that this will be over. That what we are experiencing will not be the new normal day.
The next half hour we gather and sort only the most necessary files. I have to carry the bulky desktop computer, so everything else must fit in a single box to be carried down the eighteen flights by Louise. The house insurance papers. Deeds, bonds, pending cases. Judgment call after judgment call. We find a couple of bottles of lukewarm water and drink, trying to replace what we are losing. Louise takes what remains and waters the plants that are still alive in her office. I admire this, even while I impatiently pace the room. Here she is, trying to nurture life, knowing we may never be able to get up here again. She is giving them one more chance at making it. What the hell. Great that she can still think that way.
We start down. The staircase is getting hotter as the day progresses. The hurricane has been followed by record heat. We are both sweating freely now, and I am having a hard time holding onto the metal computer CPU. I have to carefully place it on the stair railing and change my grip every few flights. Louise too is stopping frequently. Her glasses keep slipping off her nose and she cannot see without them. Then we hit the dark floors. She cannot hold the box and a flashlight too, so she gets close on my back as I try and to balance the computer and aim the small flashlight directly on the stairs at our feet.
We descend two more floors, ever more slowly. It is getting hard to breathe, the heat and smell rising exponentially. I estimate we still have four more floors to go, when a landing door bursts open right in front of us. I almost drop the flashlight. It is an elderly gentleman, on a mission like ours, carrying a small bag. Louise knows him, and his partner. They are developers of historic buildings. He has no flashlight. In return for us leading the way, he takes on Louise’s burden and she takes his lighter bag.
We exit the stairwell into the excrement-filled lobby. The man tells us he knows a better way out, a side hallway that leads to an adjoining building lobby for condominiums and a hotel. He tells us there is a security guard there, but it is a bit far from where we have parked. I volunteer to go back through the looted store to the Merc, and tell Louise I will make the block and meet her there.
Walking toward the daylight I can see how completely and senselessly the place has been ransacked. The room’s stock, printer ink cartridges, pens, notebooks, have been knocked off shelves, torn and thrown about for sport. Pads ripped apart and used for toilet paper. I hold my breath until I get to the sidewalk.
I place the computer on the back seat gently, like it is some priceless relic from a tomb. I try and clean my shoes before I get in, realizing how filthy and wet I am myself. The engine turns over and the air conditioner comes on. I am again temporarily safe. I needlessly squeal the tires taking off around the corner to pick up Louise, then try and calm myself. No need transmitting anxiety like this to someone else.
But there she stands at the curb, box at her feet, waiting for me. She picks up the box and drops it into the trunk, unperturbed, much more at peace than I can even pretend to be. I decide I need to buck up a bit more.
We cross Canal again and head away from the river. The streetcar lanes are packed with emergency vehicles and army trucks. The outside lanes are solidly filled with generators and air-conditioning trailers, each attached to a different building, sucking out moisture, mold and foul air. Many of the hotels are occupied, with people going in and out onto the sidewalk in droves, mostly emergency workers, soldiers and media. I drive slowly, inspect the faces we pass. They don’t seem to care. There are no smiles here, no joking. These are all very different people, from very different walks of life. Joined by the horror. They walk in a controlled stumble, looking straight ahead. Few conversations can heard over the roar of the machinery. There is no small talk. Every jaw is set. Every body is stiffened, a fighter awaiting the next blow.
The living are a hard vision. I try to watch individuals as I drive, but they all merge into the same person, a slightly bent figure carrying the weight of these last three weeks, a human burden heavier than can be imagined by those of us who are just now entering the City. I have seen death and dying on television, and groaned in pain. These people have seen it and felt it, smelled it, heard it. They have the taste of death in their mouths. All of them.
They are now a single human, turning over one mossy tombstone after another, looking for life in a graveyard.
We drive two blocks to Burgundy and turn right, heading through the Quarter to the house on Marigny. The Quarter is empty. There is rubbish everywhere, dead limbs, but little damage and no people.
I had never expected the emptiness to affect me this way. You have heard the term “ghost town” all your life, I am sure. But until you experience the reality of that concept first-hand, especially in a place which you recently inhabited -- a place so packed with life and energy -- you have no idea what it means. And how that reality physically affects you. I am again tiring of the assault. My brain and body seem to be ricocheting between extremes, and I am trying desperately to find a center, some calm emotional plain from which I can act.
“Breathe deeply,” reminds Louise.
This has been our mantra for the last three weeks.
“Breathe deeply.” I take the advice, reach far down, and let out a breath through my mouth. Sit there turning the steering wheel, pressing the gas and brake, concentrating on breathing. I continue to drive toward the Marigny.
I am not in New Orleans.
I am in my mother’s car.