me Refugee. Katrina Refugee.
To the media, I’m one of the
evacuees from New Orleans. “Evacuate”
sounds so uncomplicated. Makes
it sound like you can go back if you
want to. But I’ve found
out there’s no going back.
That’s why I have to be honest,
although politically incorrect, and
claim refugee status.
Some say refugees cross recognized
national borders. Well, if you’ve
ever been to New Orleans, you probably
realized that it’s not like
the rest of the United States.
Residents there pride themselves on
having French, Spanish, and African
heritages — not British.
On letting the good times roll —
not on adopting the Protestant work
ethic. And on eating crayfish —
that’s right, “mudbugs.”
That fateful Sunday I headed away
from New Orleans just 90 minutes after
a friend phoned. “What
do you mean you want to stay?
I’m coming to get you, buddy.
You’ll have to drive.
I have a bad back. Be ready.”
And I was. I switched on the
automatic pilot and grabbed the same
things I had two years before when
a hurricane sent most of us away for
“fall break.” A
couple of suits in case this turned
out to be the ultimate disaster and
I had to find a new job somewhere
else. I was laughing then.
But not for long. Actually,
I wore one of those suits when I interviewed
at Our Lady of the Lake.
I call myself a refugee, but don’t
get me wrong. I’m not
looking for sympathy, compassion,
or even the time of day from anyone
else. I just need to figure
out for myself what exactly happened,
what changed, and what my responses
really tell me about myself.
I have to admit I consider myself
incredibly lucky. Only five
inches of water in my small house.
No mold crawling up the walls like
you’ve probably seen in photos.
Oh yeah, the roof did blow off the
back room. A twister went through
my back yard. Put my neighbor’s
shed in my lawn, but left all his
stuff stacked right where it had been
for years! Lucky, I say, because
I can see the humor in this.
Even more lucky because I was insured
— and was paid right away.
Not like most of my neighbors.
Elderly and poor, they had dropped
their flood insurance as soon as they
finished paying off the mortgage.
Today their homes are gutted and ghostly.
But even these folks had a little
bit of luck. Harry Connick,
Jr. came down Calhoun Street in his
boat and rescued them from their roof.
The guy can do more than sing
and act. Even took them to his
house, which was not damaged in the
On weekends much like the pleasant
ones San Antonio has enjoyed this
month, I drove back to the ghost city
to gut my house. Now I’m
working on gutting my mind.
I dragged sofas, beds, and appliances
out to the street. Packed what
was left. Truck loads of stuff.
Most of it meaningless to me now.
Across 90 miles of south Louisiana
in friends’ houses and barns,
I left those boxes and plastic trash
bags stuffed with belongings.
Right. I used trash bags.
And the irony didn’t escape
me. Most of what I had accumulated
was as useless as trash, and I’m
in no hurry to unpack it even now.
Folks will tell you about the smell
of mold when they went back after
Katrina. Not just inside buildings,
but everywhere. Just as memorable,
the absolute silence. Of course,
no buses passing by on my street.
But no cars either. In fact,
as I built that huge trash pile at
the street, no neighbors anywhere
to admire my solitary progress.
And for a few weeks, not even any
birds. Talk about quiet.
I was actually glad that the curfew
had me heading out before sundown
left the city in total darkness.
Most days, the National Guard, heavily
armed, would pass by and ask for my
ID. Just to make sure I wasn’t
a looter. You’ve seen
me around campus by now. Do
I look like a looter? But Katrina
changed us all. So who knows?
One day there was an SPCA volunteer.
Wanted to know if I’d seen any
stray pets. To ward off the
curse of mold, she was wearing an
incredible amount of perfume.
The expensive kind. That stuff
really works. Right away I had
visions of something more pleasant
than what I was doing. I think
I stank like the insides of my refrigerator.
Chicken breasts and peeled shrimps
decomposing in the heat for weeks.
After a month or so, the Red Cross
wagon started passing with free lunches.
Made by volunteers from Wisconsin.
Bologna on white bread. They
had never heard of New Orleans style
stuffed po’ boy sandwiches.
Honestly, I abandoned my provincial
gastronomic elitism and literally
wolfed down that bologna.
As I said, this fall in San Antonio
I’m at last getting deep into
the back rooms of my mind. The
gutting is going well. I’m
not sentimental about what was destroyed
by the water and has decomposed into
a moldy mass. But I do spend
lots of time pondering how best to
box my memories, identities, accomplishments,
and failures. I want to save
them all for the future, and I’m
going to need to be a lot better at
labeling contents so that I can grab
what I need when the right time comes.
I’m going to start renovating
right away. I’ve decided
to do the work myself. Not contract
it out like I did for the house.
I want to lay a hardwood floor that
makes the whole house resonate when
I put the top up on my grand piano
and play. I want to sheet rock
walls that I can decorate with new
paintings. I’m ready for
rich colors on those walls, a different
hue for each room, distinct yet harmonizing
with the rest. I learned a lot
from observing my professional color
consultant. And I’ll be
ready to select colors on my own when
I get to that stage of my interior