The Badge

We wear our Katrina stories like badges of honor. The rest of the world has moved on, and to the unskilled eye, it probably appears that most of us have, too. But no matter how successful we appear, we’re forever scarred. Fear hovers just below the surface, waiting to rear its ugly head at the least opportune times. Our lives were shattered, pieced back together, then put into this weird holding pattern that sometimes seems like it will never end.

We persist. What more is there? You’ve got to rebuild your house, find new clothes, start paying off bills, find a man, find a woman, find yourself. But at the end of the day, you’re still sitting in your motel room, jaw clenched, tears queuing at the corners of your eyes, watching that wall of water roll over everything you love. Your band will never play again. But how could it, when your heart hurts too much to sing?

Years later, and still we can’t help but wait for the other shoe to drop. Sure, we’ve got jobs, homes, friends. But that lost time just seems to stretch out before us. We’re getting older. We wander. We’ve made new families out of those who hear our stories, our fear reflecting back in their own dilated pupils.

We compensate. We rehash the funny bits of our evacuation stories, check and recheck mental lists of all our long-lost possessions, and cry into our whiskies every now and then, late at night, bathed in shadows at the end of the bar. Somewhere, Aretha still sings “Ain’t No Way” on the Banks Street jukebox. Our souls leak over our shoes. We tell our tales – sometimes stripped down, others embellished – to our drinking buddies over and over again. Talking makes it easier, but it doesn’t make it go away. Drinking only makes our skin thinner, brings the fear bubbling up.

On nights when our hearts beat faster, when the pain needles (or knives), when it seems stupid to keep going, our friends hold us. We tell our stories. We listen to theirs, all the while letting the two versions mingle and overlap. We try not to cry for lost time. We tell ourselves that this time, this is the time that makes all the difference. We vow to keep putting one foot ahead of the other. We stretch out our hands and make a human bridge, then wade into the world, blinded by fear and sorrow, waiting for love to soothe this grand lostness.

Then we laugh it off. We polish off our drinks, then polish up our badges with a wry smile. Wasn’t my story more dramatic than yours? You didn’t even have it that bad – at least you had your family. I have a friend who saw a dead baby floating out there, all alone.

No one bothers to mention that we’re all still floating. We’re all face-down and blue. What’s the use in stating the obvious?

Sweet Home Chicago

If you can only see one possible turning point in your life, slow down and take a second to reassess your past. Every day holds many potential turning points. What if you got a coffee at the gas station instead of a Coke, and then accidentally dropped that coffee in your lap in traffic, then swerved into another car as a result? Would the coffee have been your turning point, or was it actually a result of choosing that gas station? Or maybe it all harkened back to oversleeping that morning. Who can predict the future, and who wants to?

But for me, a very easy turning point to pick out of the billions in my lifetime was Hurricane Katrina. When Katrina hit, I had just moved into a brand new 1 bedroom shotgun apartment, where the bedroom and closets were huge, I had my own washer and dryer, a front porch with a stray kitty who came by nightly for kibble, and a kitchen that was about to be painted Dragon’s Hide Green. Yes, that’s actually a shade – I picked it off of a paint chip. I was singing with a band, and we’d just had our third or fourth live show. I was working at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in the French Quarter, but was getting ready to reduce my hours because I’d just been accepted to grad school at Tulane. In short, it was a REALLY good time to be me. I even had these super-soft cream and brown paisley sheets that were the nicest sheets I’ve ever owned, and I’d got them on sale at Steinmart, so they were cheap, too. I’ve been looking to replace those sheets for the last 8 years *sigh*.

The bed in my new apartment, just before Katrina. The bunny on the bed is Frank the velveteen rabbit. My grandfather gave him to me the Christmas before he died, and my landlord threw him out after Katrina. I was devastated, as he was the ONLY thing I had asked her to save.

The bed in my new apartment, just before Katrina. The bunny on the bed is Frank the velveteen rabbit. My grandfather gave him to me the Christmas before he died, and my landlord threw him out after Katrina. I was devastated, as he was the ONLY thing I had asked her to save.

So Katrina hit, and long story short, even though I’d planned to stay in New Orleans, and could have done so quite safely since my area of town didn’t flood, I evacuated with my band. I really didn’t have any say in the matter, since the bass player and his girlfriend, the other singer in the band, showed up on the morning of the storm, pounded on my door, and watched as I packed up my things and left the house. They were good people. We picked up the guitarist and headed out of town in the bass player’s car – a United Cab. We kept the meter running all the way to Arkansas, and after some time there, once it became apparent that there was no New Orleans to return to, we made plans to go our separate ways.

United Cab is the most well-known taxi company in New Orleans. The first number you memorize here as a Tulane freshman is the United Cabs number (522-9771) and the next is the number of Tulane’s lawyer. During Mardi Gras we used to Sharpie the lawyer’s number on our hands, just in case. Photo by Eliot Kamenitz, from The Times-Picayune archive

I evacuated with $30 to my name. My paycheck was due that week (and to K-Paul’s credit, they did send me that check after they got the office back up and running in Baton Rouge). I spent a lot of time on the phone with my parents, and while I was going through a particularly difficult time, so were they. My dad was OK, but my mom was worried sick about me. She was so worried that she basically shut down on me and got angry at me for not coming home immediately. My grandparents called and said that if I came back to NC, they’d pay for me to get an apartment in the Raleigh area near my aunt, and would help me find a job, etc. Every phone call with the family got more and more tense, until things eventually went awry.

Because here’s the thing…I really don’t like living in North Carolina. I disliked it when I was a kid, I wasn’t fond of visiting later when I was in college, and I still consider it a horrible waste of vacation days today. Don’t get me wrong, I love my family, and I get a sense of nostalgia when I think about certain parts of home, like the BBQ, and nature, and the way the sunset looks on an Ocracoke beach. But I’m not from the beach. I’m from the middle of fucking nowhere. There are no jobs, and lots of rednecks, bigots and religious zealots. The folks who don’t fit into those categories are often rich, snotty jerks. There’s a small subset of educated, normal folks, but their kids end up moving away. Big surprise.

If I were to move back to NC, the only way I’d do it is to move to Ocracoke Island. It’s the most beautiful place on earth, and one of my favorite places to spend time. Click through to see vacation rentals at Ocracoke Island Realty.


And even when you live in the city in NC, you’re still living in the middle of nowhere, just with big buildings and an inflated sense of pride. There are a lot of Northern transplants in NC cities, which explains some of the normalcy and more liberal attitudes that happen there, but why would I bother living in a tiny enclave of OK when I can just live in a bigger enclave of GREAT in another state? In my opinion, the only things worthwhile in NC are the mountains, the beach, and the trees, and none of those things involve civilization. I’d never move back there of my own accord, and my worst nightmare is having to move back to take care of a parent one day. Sorry if any dedicated NC folks are reading this and getting pissed off. I know there have to be lots of you good folks somewhere – I just don’t have that experience, and don’t want to keep hanging out there in the hopes of someday changing my mind.

Sooo…

When the family asked that I come back to NC in 2005, I thought hard. I had no money at all, and was stuck in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Would I rather let my family pay for me to come back to NC, knowing that without any money the odds were very high that I’d never be able to escape the state again? Or would I rather wing it, hope that some of my friends might be able to take it on faith that I’d pay them back for helping me out in my time of need? You can probably guess that I choose Option B. And it was a major issue. My mother, the nicest woman I’ve ever met, seriously won’t even squish an ant, disowned me for a few weeks. Refused to talk to me. My grandparents were mad for awhile, but eventually sent money. My father, who was not supposed to be talking to me, called me in secret and wired me a little cash to get me through. I am, always have been, and always will be, Daddy’s girl.

Forever Flood's First Concert

Forever Flood’s first concert at The Red Eye, with Evan on guitar, me on vocals and tambourine, Helen on bass, Matt on sax, and Travis on drums. Helen, Danny (not pictured), Evan and I evacuated a few months later.

From Arkansas, the band all went our separate ways. The lead guitarist went home to Staten Island. The bass player and other singer went on a road trip to explore the American West. I got a ride to stay in Memphis with one of my best friends from college, and she put me up for a week. She also helped me buy some work clothes, fed me, and took me to the gym to work off some steam, because she’s awesome like that. During that week, a little money came through and I spent it all to rent a car. Another old friend from college had agreed to let me sleep on his couch – in Chicago. So I packed up my things (and my cat, Matthew – did I mention that I was lucky enough to evacuate with my cat?), and we drove to Chicago. It was terrifying. I wasn’t a very confident driver, and the highways around Chicago are just nerve-wracking.

The marquee at The Underground Lounge - our beloved home away from home.

The marquee at The Underground Lounge – our beloved home away from home.

I checked into my Chicago friend’s house, then we pretty much immediately left to get a beer at the local bar, The Underground Lounge. Just down the street, The Underground became my center of existence for the next five months. In fact, it changed my life. When Al (the friend) and I walked in, my homeless, travel-weary self glanced around for a moment. I could use a beer, but I didn’t have the cash for it. I didn’t know anything about Chicago. I’d never been there before, and until the last week, had never even aspired to visit. So here I was in this dark little basement bar, with a friend I hadn’t seen since college, about to try to pick up the pieces of my life, no idea what to do next. I was scared.

But that didn’t matter. Friend after friend walked up to say hi. For some reason, I didn’t know that a bunch of people I had partied with in college (mostly friends and classmates of my two best friends/roommates Trin & KT) had all moved to Chicago and remained friends after school. Besides Al, my friend Colleen was there, and Nate, and John, and AJ, and Al’s friend Zach and his girlfriend Stacy, and their friend Kristy (who would soon introduce us to Aaron and his roommate Paul), and everyone wanted to 1) offer me hugs and encouragement and 2) offer me a beer. The bartender Dave soon grew to be one of my favorite people, and it turned out that the whole crew met here every Wednesday night.

At US Cellular Field, watching one of the playoff games leading up to the White Sox winning the World Series!!! This was before I was into baseball, so I didn't know how lucky I was to be at this game. Left to right: John, Nate, AJ, me, Zach & Stacy.

At US Cellular Field, watching one of the playoff games leading up to the White Sox winning the World Series!!! This was before I was into baseball, so I didn’t know how lucky I was to be at this game. Left to right: John, Nate, AJ, me, Zach & Stacy.

My surprise birthday party at a hookah lounge! From left to right: Al, Neal, Nate, Me, Colleen, Stacy & Zach

My surprise birthday party at a hookah lounge! From left to right: Al, Neal, Nate, Me, Colleen, Stacy & Zach

Stacy, me and Colleen at the Kristkindlemarkt, just before Christmas 2005.

Stacy, me and Colleen at the Kristkindlemarkt, just before Christmas 2005.

My going away party - everyone's singing "Don't Stop Believing." That year during the White Sox winning hubbub it became the traditional birthday song for our group, but this is the first time I can remember them singing it for me. Aaron's the one with his arm raised - he rules this song at karaoke night.

My going away party – everyone’s singing “Don’t Stop Believing.” That year during the White Sox winning hubbub it became the traditional birthday song for our group, but this is the first time I can remember them singing it for me. Aaron’s the one with his arm raised – he rules this song at karaoke night. From left to right: Al, Jason, Aaron, Zach

Colleen & Anna making a Dave sandwich with the best bartender in the world!

Anna & Colleen making a Dave sandwich with the best bartender in the world! This was my last night at The Underground before heading back to New Orleans.


Pretty much everyone from the group in 2005.

Pretty much everyone from the group in 2005, plus a few mysterious faces and minus a few essential ones. New Year’s Eve at The Underground Lounge.

I lived in Chicago from September of 2005 until January of 2006, when I moved back to New Orleans to finally go to grad school at Tulane. It was one of the best times of my life. I reconnected for good with old friends and met a bunch of new ones. These people are still my very favorite friends. The group (plus significant others and associated friends, like Jess, one of my best friends, whom I absolutely adore, who eventually dated Paul and now dates him again, and occasionally stalks my blog though we’re the worst ever at calling, texting, emailing and letter writing) ended up becoming a huge part of my world, and my growth. When I decided to move back to Chicago from New Orleans in 2008, it was because I had missed the city and my people for the entire time I’d been gone. It was really hard leaving that community of awesomeness when we moved back here. I’d love to go back again, but jobs are hard to come by, especially for The Man, who has a painfully specific job.

Anyway, this post is one long ramble, but the basic point is this – if Katrina hadn’t have happened, I’d never have found the personal strength to just go with the flow. If I hadn’t made that leap of faith to explore what the world had to offer, I wouldn’t have showed up in Chicago. If I hadn’t moved to Chicago, I’d be about 15 friends lighter today. That’s an incredibly sad type of weight loss. Also, I wouldn’t have experienced what it’s like to live in a city that functions with some sort of efficiency, and offers an incredible array of opportunities and personalities. Not to mention, if I’d gone to North Carolina instead of Chicago, instead of broadening my horizons after New Orleans, I would have lessened them. I would have once again been surrounded by small minded bigots and churchmen, and though I’d probably have become more outdoorsy in an attempt to escape the people, my health would not have been half as fun as drinking with friends in Chicago and eating late night cheese fries at Clark Street Dog.

If I’d moved back to North Carolina, I wouldn’t have had enough money or the family support to get back to New Orleans in 2006 to start grad school. If I hadn’t started grad school, I would have saved $30k, but I would have missed out on one of the best things that’s ever happened to me (or the most irritating, depending on what day you’re talking to me) – meeting The Man. We would never have had class together, or worked together to measure the roof of an old plantation, or had that first date and conversation about the future over sushi. So where would I be now? Probably waiting tables in coastal NC, or maybe working as a secretary. I’d have less debt, and my own car, but I’d be considerably less cultured. I wouldn’t have tried so many new things or gone to Europe as many times. I wouldn’t have a host of funny & awesome friends. I probably wouldn’t have heard of Gogol Bordello. Hopefully I would have moved to the beach, but I’m not sure that I’d be that kind of person, really. I think I started becoming more of a beach person after I met The Man and hung out with his “island life” parents. Oh man, I’d never have The Man’s family, who have become so much my own in the past seven years. That’s just awful and not at all worth considering.

I’m sure I could think of more ways that life would be different, but thank goodness it’s not. I’m me, and you can’t strip the Chicago out of me. Now, if you’d like to give me a way to put it back in my current life, I’m definitely willing to listen. I’d love to go ahead and find the turning point for my next adventure…

The Moonlit Ride

Victorian Bicycle, by Kitschy Kitschy Cool (click thru to visit Etsy site)

Back in the pre-Katrina days, I was an avid biker.  I rode my bicycle everywhere, at any time, for any reason.  I wasn’t crazy-over-the-moon about my bike in the way that hipsters seem to be, but I loved it. It was a blue Raleigh mountain bike that I spent a pretty penny on in college, and got some good use out of around New Orleans until 2005. I used to ride through deserted patches of the Garden District and Uptown in the middle of the night, breathing in the heady scent of jasmine, listening to jazz on my CD player (I hadn’t caught up with the whole digital craze yet), dreaming all kinds of big dreams. Then one day someone stole my tire, and not too long after that, I evacuated the city with a cat, a laptop, my photo albums, and an extra t-shirt. Like every other thing I owned in the entire world, what was left of my bike was left behind.

My story is not even close to as sad as that of inhabitants of half of the city. I lived in a part of town that didn’t flood. Sure, they broke both my doors in anyway, in search of left-behind pets (none there), but other than that my things were safe. All was well. Except. I left town with $30 in my pocket, and didn’t get a FEMA check. I didn’t go home to rural NC for fear of getting stuck there forever, and instead went to Chicago and slept on a friend’s couch. It was a month and a half until I was able to secure a job, money, food, and other than some much-needed assistance from my sainted grandparents, I was in bad shape. In the end, I couldn’t afford to make it back to New Orleans in time to claim my belongings before my landlord threw them out. She was nice about it, don’t get me wrong, but my life from 1999 to 2005 was tossed out on the street, including my bike. An old friend managed to save a few pieces of original art, my jewelry, and a few other odds and ends, everything that would fit in a small box that he could cart back to his temporary residence in New Jersey. I met up with him that Thanksgiving in Long Branch to pick up this tiny box of belongings, and ended up giving half of my jewelry away to another Katrina evacuee I had known for a few years. She left town with a few changes of clothes, but no baubles for dressing up, and it seemed only right to share. There’s nothing like something sparkly to cheer a girl up, after all.

I eventually moved back to New Orleans in 2006, with barely enough belongings to fit into the back seat of a rental car. In the time between then and when I moved away again in 2008, I never scraped up the cash to buy a bike, instead borrowing friends’ on occasion. By the time I got to Chicago, land of ice, snow, and terrifyingly busy intersections, I had forgotten what it felt like to ride free in the moonlight.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when my boyfriend, The Man, gave me a beautiful little vintage bicycle, candy apple red, complete with a basket and working lights on the front, rear, and wheels. I’ve ridden it a few times back and forth to the gym, and last weekend all the way to the French Quarter. I was scared of the traffic, but it turns out that there are actually bike lanes in the CBD now, and a year of defensive driving in Chicago has endowed me with nerves of steel for New Orleans biking. Tonight I rode it again, to the Marigny and back (about 6 miles in all), the cool breeze on my neck, the moon beaming down as if to say it has missed me all these years. I felt good, strong, capable in a way I haven’t felt for some time.

It’s nice to be home.