You Can't Go Home Again
November 2005

In my fantasy the world is destroyed. We deserve it, of course. In these flights of fancy, however, I could always return to New Orleans.

The cruel irony that is life will not be denied or evaded. New Orleans has been destroyed. The New Orleans that I knew, anyway. My exile has become permanent.

I hated my hometown by the time I left it. Despised is too light a word for the contempt I felt when seeing the wasteland it was. From geography to demography, it was the wrong place for me. I could get out or go under for the last time.

I did get out and have prospered. My view of New Orleans has mellowed after a decade away. I no longer hate it; it's just not important enough to care about.

My yearly-or-so visits home have been another matter altogether. Superlatively pleasant and positive. I would often simply drive the city and reminisce. I've taken my wife on such sojourns and I always remember something I had forgotten. A peripatetic form of personal archaeology.

Act I

We arrived from the East, into some of the hardest hit areas. The destruction is total. Mile after square mile laid desolate. The flimsy, recently-thrown-up apartment complexes teetering. Subdivision after subdivision w/o hope. The smell, dust and dirt are omnipresent.

It is a post-apocalyptic scene. Everything tells you this is a place people used to live, and haven't in a long time. Why? The undisturbed dust in the street. A powerful subtle visual cue to the mind, suggesting a virtual truth.

As we continued west towards the Industrial Canal (the border between New Orleans East and the rest of New Orleans), the damage did not get better. Every once in a while we'd see a house that had been, or was in the process of being gutted. The gutters standing around, dazed and depressed. And those were the commercial folk. The owners weren't in any better shape.

Crossing the canal at the Lake, things almost seemed normal. Then we turned into the neghborhood next to my father's house. Everywhere it's the same. Houses inundated and left for dead. At a few, it seemed desperate folks had set up a tent. Desperate is too mild a word. The smell was a stench here. The debris and totality of destruction everywhere.

We arrived at my father's house and I stepped out of the van into the pictures my brother John had sent. I could change the angle and see around corners. It didn't help, really. Things were just as I expected. Destroyed. We wandered about for a while, taking it in, but the pictures had told the story adequately. Worth far more than a thousand words.

We drove on to Gentilly. The Bakery is a shell of a building. The large coolers lying haphazardly outside the no-glass storefront. In Albert's old neighborhood, it was just as bad as my father's. The water here was almost 9 feet, reaching high into even raised homes. There was no one about except a monster truck gathering a few refrigerators from the curbs.

Continuing west we approached West End, near the catastrophic 17th Street Canal breach. The city-block wide and several-mile-long neutral-ground (median to you non-New Orleanians) is piled 20-30 foot high with refuse. And I tell you, they have not even begun to move trash here. Over 95% of the homes have had no visit/work other than rescue/body searches. I found a large step van with water levels above my head. The homes here lie open and undisturbed. There is no need for the scrawled "we shoot looters" signs. There is nothing to loot.

As we turned to cross the canal into Metairie at the foot of Veterans, I said to Justy "we now return you to your regularly scheduled civilization." She looked puzzled until we crested the bridge and saw the bustling suburb in all it's vitality. Mere feet from utter destruction.

Act II

Shelley cooked us dinner that night. Just her, Justy, Dave, me and Dad. We made plans to start picking at his house the next morning. We weren't really motivated, but a bit curious. What could we find?

David had already been to the hospital after puncturing his arm on a rusty screw. Got a discount tetanus shot. The place is a pit of danger. Our plan involved some directed destruction of windows and doors, to let more air in. This would facilitate staying in the house longer w/o having to completely disconnect the gag reflex.

We'd also search for some specific things Dad wanted. Some we knew we wouldn't find, but others I had a Quixotic hope for. The demolition went well, and we even located an envelope of irreplaceable documents for him. Things were looking up.

Dad, however, was being photographed by Justine for a feature on Louisiana Chemists and Katrina. Justine got a contract to shoot the photos and one was chosen for the cover of the magazine. We cut short the digging to upload the photos and the narrative Dad recorded (to be posted later). We had accomplished very litte.

The next day we had fresh targets a head of steam. More windows were removed and a few items recovered. Dad continued to be a bit reckless about grabbing things without looking first. He dropped to his knees at one point, almost giving Justy a heartattack. He just doesn't appreciate the danger.

Glass is everywhere. Broken furniture lurks like a shark below debris and books. Without your full attention, you will be cut, impaled and otherwise violated sooner, rather than later. I thought I was being very careful. I did not step anywhere without testing it. I did not grab anything without being mindful of what it was and where.

I did not, however, pay adequate attention to the ceiling.

I was closer to the ceiling than normal, because I was walking on a 3 foot tall sea of books. I shattered a glass cover to the ceiling light. By a miracle, most of it missed me, but in the slow-motion moment of the event, I did see the large triangular shard of glass pierce my left wrist.

Fuck! I said. Indeed.

Blood oozed out. I surmised (correctly) that a vein had been cut. It missed the artery and did not cut a tendon. I was very lucky. The glass had not been immersed in the toxic soup of the flood, but was quite moldy. I knew my tetanus was up-to-date, but the thought of an infection was terrifying.


The emergency room at Touro was quite mellow. Not very many people. Not a long wait. The staff could be overheard talking about their FEMA trailers. I got multiple x-rays which showed there was no residual glass in my arm. Good news. I got a buttful of a heavy antibiotic and a mere 4 hours later, was on my way.

Justy says I got peace in that visit. I'm not aware of it, but the house problems just don't seem as important after. There's nothing left worth salvaging. Here's where the problem arises. Dad believes it is worth salvaging a wooden table, or a rusted scale. I suppose I can't blame him, but it is ridiculous. And we won't be part of it. We will help him dig, but it's not for us.

I'm glad the visit had a predetermined timespan. An open-ended visit would be an invitation to conflagration. Small doses. Better for Dad to not have to deal with my negativity; me to deal with his particular idiosyncrasies.

We'll go back soon. Dad has finally fulfilled one of his 3 life goals. He got the others years ago, but only now can he say he's lived in the French Quarter.


It's over. I should be happy. My assessment of irrelevance to New Orleans has been made real by Katrina. And my fellow New Orleanians.

The levees weren't strong enough. They never were. A generation of well-connected folks lined their pockets and hundreds of thousands of people suffered for it. Business as usual in the Big Easy.

No one will take responsibility for this utterly unnecessary disaster. One so unbelievable it stunned people into inaction. But then we're already so stunned by the actions of our government, we lack the energy to rebel.

The folly of building a city below sea-level is finally clear to the current occupants. The no-less-forgivable hubris of believing you're more important than reason is currently on display. New Orleans was a melodrama run too long. Rebuilding it wholly would be an utter waste of money (although still better spent than our current national priority: ensuring generations of warfare).

A smaller New Orleans is a better New Orleans. Remove the innocent victims and let the truly guilty skip merrily on. Everyone wins.