Friday, December 09, 2005


Yesterday when I was running in my neighborhood, I saw two brown pelicans sitting calmly in the middle of the bayou, like nothing ever happened. I stopped and looked at them for a while until, aware of my presence, they flew away together.

Seconds later, four Blackhawk helicopters droned across the sky, their blades slashing through the air like knives.

For the rest of my run all I could do was wonder: which of those two things is more normal these days? It has become almost traumatic for us to ask ourselves this question. I think something that’s starting to affect all of us is that we’ve lost our frame of reference: we don’t know what to base things on anymore. We are drifting through this new city without our anchors; we don’t trust ourselves to put our roots back down into the earth.

I got heat a few days ago. It is December and even the New Yorkers are cold here these days. I’d borrowed a space heater, gotten accustomed to wearing layers of sweaters in the house and waking up inside the misty clouds of my own breath. And then one day we got gas service in our neighborhood and I can take three hot showers a day if I want to. Or more! The idea that heat is unlimited, that all I have to do is press a button and my house suddenly becomes warm and welcoming, has become unreal in its realness. I am more amazed at heat now, when I have it, than I ever was when it wasn’t there. And so I don’t really know the answer: is it normal right now, in the middle of winter, to have heat inside one’s house, or is it normal not to? And how do I think about that question inside the bigger context of New Orleans, where there still isn’t even electricity in so many neighborhoods: where bare branches and powerlines loom like ghosts against the gray night sky and the insides of houses gape blankly through their open doorways? What does my suddenly cozy house mean down all those lonely streets?

I was talking to an acquaintance at a coffee shop Uptown the other day and he said, “It’s amazing how quickly everything has come back to normal.”

Whoa. What planet are you living on, I almost said. But I realized that it has become completely possible for certain segments of the population to carry on essentially the same lives they had before the hurricane. There are people who live and work Uptown, or in the French Quarter or the CBD, who can wake up and drive to work and maybe go to a restaurant or a coffee shop or a bar, and go shopping, and go to the gym, and go home and sleep comfortably just like they used to. This is really happening for a lot of people. There are some relatively intact lives here. Is that normal? People (mainly white, middle-class people) buying lattes while a vast diaspora of our neighbors stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, so many folks without even a bus ticket back yet, without even knowing yet if there is anything to come home to? How can we say that anything is normal when our whole context has been entirely leveled?

But here’s the other thing I noticed on my run the other day: finally, in December, the trees are beginning to shed their leaves. Not all of them, mind you, but enough to where I might begin to be convinced that it’s wintertime. This is actually a really big deal, because for months the plants were not behaving. Right after the hurricane the city looked so much like a desert that there would be days when I couldn’t figure out where I was. I remember talking with friends about how we’d always imagined that post-apocalyptic New Orleans would be lushly overgrown, shotgun houses and corner bars drowned under heaps of jasmine. But after the storm everything died, and for weeks a fine yellow dust coated all the brittle plants. Nothing had lived through all that mud. Then about mid-October, when it was still warm enough, the plants started bursting forth in full bloom. Orange hibiscus clanging like firetrucks through the trash piles; the smell of old fridges on some streets almost entirely overpowered by sweet olive. “The plants all think it’s spring,” we said.

But slowly now the trees are starting to get it, and the weather is starting to do what it’s supposed to, and the birds are coming back to this water where they fish and sit in the sun with each other. Maybe normal starts here, in the natural world that played such a big part in humbling us all those months ago, while we still fumble through all our worlds of denial and emptiness. The other morning, seeing those bare graying branches against the white sky, all I could think was, “at least somebody’s starting to pull themselves together.”


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