Down The Road

Last night, a powerful tornado ripped through a neighborhood less than two miles away from where I live. About thirty minutes prior, a tornado warning alarm had gone off on my phone. While I was a tad worried, I thought, “What are the odds?” I had already cleared any potential projectiles from my yard earlier in the day, in preparation for a day of rough winds and possible torrential downpour. There wasn’t much more I could do, and anyway, I thought it probably didn’t matter that much.

Then around 7:30pm, my pets (three cats and two dogs) did something creepy: all at once they all perked up, listened, and made a beeline for the bathroom, which is our only windowless room. It would have been weirdly cute, if not for the timing. Knowing that their ears are much better than mine, I went with them into the bathroom, shut the door, and sat in the tub while the electricity flickered off and on a few times, then stayed off for good. A few minutes later, the sirens started, and I knew the threat had passed us by, but others hadn’t been so lucky.

Here in St. Bernard Parish, the locals say “down the road” with a particular inflection. It is more than a wayfinding description. It implies favor and familiarity, a sense of community pride, even a feeling of shared possession. When you ask someone where they got that extra spicy batch of boiled crawfish, and they tell you “I got ’em at Restaurant X, down the road,” they’re saying, “Restaurant X is one of the things that makes this community worth loving, and I’m proud to tell you I give them my business.” If you meet a local at a party and ask if they’re from here, there’s a good chance the answer will either be, “I’m from down the road,” or “Yeah, I grew up in ‘da Parish.” They carry a not-so-secret message: “This is my home, and I belong.”

Since last night, I’ve been thinking about the things I love about my community. The grocery store that has the best cheap floral bouquets, and carries that good boudin in the hot deli case. My friend’s gym where he trains local kids to be award-winning cheerleaders. The yoga studio that offers free classes to anyone at any time, no questions asked. That sweet little vegan soul food place that just opened up, with the quiet, businesslike husband who cooks up a storm, and the outgoing, lovely wife who always manages to sweet talk me into appetizers and dessert. My birthday buddy, Wheels, a dear and constant friend for 16 years now, who stood on the porch of his brand-new house–a hard won victory, long in the making–and watched a giant rotating cloud destroy other people’s houses just five blocks away. Homes of all kinds blown to bits in a corridor all the way from the river straight up to New Orleans East and the lake.

Last night, my partner heard that the authorities had put out an all-hands call for anyone who could volunteer to come and help rescue folks who were trapped in houses. We drove as far as we could down the two main roads out of town, Dan frantically reaching out to friends who lived close to the tornado’s path, me reminding him when to stop at now-defunct stoplights. The police had set up barriers on both streets; no badge, no way through. No way to help.

We drove back home in silence, but soon enough, phone calls and texts began to light up Dan’s phone as every single friend checked in, alive and safe. My own phone started to light up as friends checked in with me, too. “No,” I told them all, “we’re safe. We live two miles away. Everything’s OK.” But it doesn’t feel OK. Twenty-four hours later, my heart is in turmoil, and my nerves are shot.

I’m no closer to understanding what home means to me, but I do know what it means to have a down the road, and that’s something.

I just wish it hadn’t taken all this to figure it out.

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