I didn’t chase any ghosts, but they chased me. I didn’t need to go St. Louis #1 or walk the haunted alleys around Jackson Square to have them find me. They are everywhere.
New Orleans is complicated business for me. So when people ask, “Where’d you eat? What you drink?” I know it comes from a far different experience with this place than I had growing up and the one I’m having now, full-grown. Over the next few days, and weeks, as I get back to my regular rhythms of things — deadlines, interviews, column inches — I also have some serious thinking/writing to begin — about memory and chance and this business of trajectory — those messages from the soul.
Lots of confirmation, long walks odd stumble-upons that force reflection. One of the most moving moments from my visit was drifting through the Louisiana State Museum’s exhibit, Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond, at the Presbytere on Jackson Square in the French Quarter. The first image you’re hit with isn’t an “image” at all, but but the very thing — Fats Domino’s rescued piano. They’ve tipped it on its side — its insides exposed — soundboard, bridges, belly rail, dampers, its harp — its a metaphor. It’s transfixing. A survivor, too.
As you move through the rooms, the artifacts, the testimonials — the narrative recounts a progression of time: TV-newsfootage of the storm gathering ferocity, hour-to-hour, day-to-day as it builds to a hurricane. The next room is dark except for the blue-cast glow of screens projecting the wet road and flying debris coming at a windshield, the wipers useless — now *you* are attempting to evacuate, after its begun, after its too late…You are in their shoes.
I spoke with one of the State officers on hand about the exhibit, how affecting it was, most precisely the directness and lack of melodrama. He told me about what it was like to go in, after Fats Domino was found safe (despite wild rumor to the contrary) and the water had receded, to now retrieve the piano. “When I saw it in here again, I didn’t believe it was the same one. Just couldn’t have been…”
We spoke for awhile about the days after — he talked about what couldn’t be captured in a series of installations — the wall diaries, remnants of houses, interpretive pieces referencing open hands seeking rescue, water-ruined clothes — no matter how high-tech or sensitively specific: “You have to remember it was hot. Really hot. Then too, there was that smell,” he paused, “I tell people, seeing this is like an operation without blood. You get a sense of things, but when the real thing happens, it’s a whole lot different. Whole lot.”
So is the aftermath: What it feels like to walk among the ghosts: It’s strange not having the familiar rotation of immediate family in the city — who will put a pot on the stove, some records on the spindle, and spin stories in that machine-gun-fast patois. Many of them, the ones who had steadfastly been in it for the long haul, decided finally to cash in what was left of their hands. They couldn’t stomach the idea of any more loss, any future anxiety of displacement: “You know, baby, I came back from Baton Rouge, intending to stay. Just drove by my old house,” my cousin Kitty told me some months back, “and the door was open and all the wiring was pulled out the house, left on the front walk, like intestines, I just didn’t even stop, I just kept driving…”
This time, instead of gathering in someone’s neat front room dotted with crisp lace doilies and cut flowers, I sat within the stately elegance of the Historic New Orleans Collection, researching, collecting the names and numbers of streets and houses where they had once lived, reaching back to the late 30s early 40s. All the way back to my great-great grandfather, Louis Prevost, whom my grandfather referred to as, “The Frenchman.” Now, with better bearings, I realized just how close they all lived to one another; how those addresses fanned out from say St. Bernard or Esplanade or Orleans; how overtime houses passed from one family member to the next, how they nested under the same roofs for awhile until they headed elsewhere — Brooklyn, Oakland, Detroit, Los Angeles.
One thing I know now, after water recedes and property changes hands, or slides away like an old skin, I am beginning to better understand why my grandfather couldn’t leave New Orleans, why my mother watched endless loops of any old parade on TV for years and years afterward, and why every summer it was mandatory that we’d make that trek in the most intense part of the summer to this place. That’s why I don’t have to go looking for anything — it finds you, at every turn. It keeps calling.