Between Is and Was

A New Orleans boy in Houston ponders what nevermore may be

A satellite map claims that our corner of the Ninth Ward, back by the naval base 200 feet from the Mississippi River, is, somehow, dry. Four of five friends who remained -- and say they'll fight to stay -- concur. Our house survived: our huge, gorgeous, rented house. We own nothing, except Chauncey, our pygmy goat. Where else but New Orleans could we live with a goat?

For $800 a month, Chauncey had a thousand-square-foot backyard behind a huge double shotgun with an attic renovated into a comfortable hardwood bedroom in the most enigmatic, creative neighborhood in the United States. The Bywater was like a non-result-oriented Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It hurts to say was, but the present tense sounds wrong now. And now -- especially after each mounting governmental insensitivity -- New Orleans feels like the only place I could stand to live within the United States. And the Bywater is paradise lost.

The "real estate bubble" in New Orleans was due to pop months ago. We moved off Esplanade Avenue a year ago, when that idyllic area began turning from a neighborhood into a Monopoly board. But the Bywater's laid-back neighbors remained its big draw. Nobody would rat you out for selling egg tacos and coffee out of your bedroom window, or hosting a 20-band Noizefest in your backyard. Or harboring a farm animal. Chauncey, in fact, was a beloved Bywater celebrity. Walking down Royal Street, munching tropical plants and cigarette butts on his way to Sugar Park Tavern and past Vaughn's, Chauncey brought down racial barriers and introduced us to every one of our neighbors.

Chauncey is checking out  H-town.
Jill Hunter
Chauncey is checking out H-town.

Our favorite old, loud neighbor, who sold Viagra from his apartment, would, like many black New Orleanians, make barbecue jokes whenever he saw Chauncey -- to which we'd always quip, "Oh, haven't heard that one in four and a half minutes!" On the morning we fled Katrina, the old man laughed and told us no way was he leaving New Orleans for no hurricane. Most of our old black neighbors stayed -- probably died. Months ago, when the oldest Mardi Gras Indian, 89-year-old Big Chief "Tootie" Montana, died, the papers loudly mourned the loss of the man and the vast historic knowledge he took with him. It's old-timers like Montana who did not leave -- Katrina peeled the epidermis off the city's history.

My girlfriend and I wouldn't have left, either. But another neighbor forced his car keys on us. As I'd grown up in Florida, the false alarms, the stockpiling of canned goods, the window-taping -- all for naught -- had steeled me against panic. It only happens to the other guy. Then last year, after we bought Chauncey for $75 from a farm on New Orleans' West Bank, Hurricane Ivan threatened, and I evacuated, for the first time ever. We drove eight hours to Baton Rouge -- normally a 45-minute trip; I-10 from New Orleans is not suited for mass panic -- with Chauncey in our laps. And then, even Ivan turned away. New Orleans residents also play a silent psychological game -- especially we transplants -- trying to outdo each other with their loyalty to the city. And staying in New Orleans despite Mayor Nagin's begging his citizens to flee is a bold declaration of love. We almost love the city that much. We almost chose to tough out Katrina inside our huge, wonderful house.

But we grabbed our neighbor's car keys and crept along I-10 to Tallahassee, where we sat with friends of friends, eating pulled pork and roast beef and fried chicken like some inverted Thanksgiving, and watching our favorite thing in the world disintegrate on live TV.

Chauncey, despite living in a carrier, remained a peppy prince. Our friends of friends loved him, squealing with laughter as we punched Chauncey in the head. (It's how goats play. He loves it.) We are refugees, sir. Take us in, please. Our goat will do tricks for your amusement. After five days in Tallahassee, Chauncey's transport instinct kept him calm for another 15-hour drive: My girlfriend lost the argument, so we drove through the wounded South all the way to Texas, rather than flying over it, which to me would have seemed very wrong. We filled the tiny gas tank in Florida and hung north of the disaster areas, but still witnessed enough downed power lines, uprooted trees, brick buildings knocked off their bases -- but not another drop of gas until Natchez, Mississippi. When my girlfriend's cell phone died, she lost her cool. Chauncey kept his all the way to Conroe, to my parents' gated community.

But after three days in Conroe, Texas, Chauncey's ears are drooping. By now, our initial shock has worn off. I think of all our dead neighbors in Bywater, and somehow I see and feel it all less clearly than I did at first. Shock almost felt better. There was electricity running through us then, at least, even if it was a negative charge. Now we've deflated. We're puddles. And we're in Conroe: the exact opposite of New Orleans, of how I want the world to be. Chauncey doesn't like the manicured grass, the sterile uniformity of my parents' neighborhood, located somewhere along the 15-mile stretch between Wal-Mart and Super Wal-Mart, any more than we do. His movements have visibly slowed. Like he's as lost and despondent as his owners.

 
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