You Can’t Go Home
I went on a field trip yesterday, really a wild goose chase that bore no fruit. It led me to the neighborhood I grew up in. The area was very badly damaged by Katrina. As I drove toward my old address, I passed the hospital I was born in, the library I used to spend hours in, street names that immediately reminded me of my childhood. Simultaneously, everything, all I remember, was different. But the same. The buildings are, for the most part, still there. But most are no longer what they were when I moved away over 15 years ago.
So as I was driving not recognizing a thing, I was turning on the streets without having to look at signs. I know that area like the back of my hand. I always will. And it was the oddest emotional mixture being reminded of dance lessons and summer school and swim lessons and the house that kept their glass Christmas tree in their front show window all year ’round while at the same time seeing just the skeleton of those memories. The neighborhood is still raw, exposed, vulnerable. It’s like someone took a huge swath of duct tape and stuck it on all the surfaces and then YANKED. Underneath it all, it is what I remember, the past. But on the surface, what is the current, real situation is destruction and slowness of recovery.
The Catholic Church that was right down my street, that housed my Catholic grammar school, is in good shape. They obviously worked to get it re-opened. It looks different. Again, the buildings are the same, but there was a new street and new paint that changed the appearance. It no longer felt like “my” school.
Then I turned on my old street. And I got butterflies in my stomach. I remembered so much! Our friends’ homes; the house of the cranky old man who had a hook instead of a hand (he was a fireman and lost it in a fire and was very bitter about it); the big house with the fountain in the center that we’d go through as it was being built; the house of the architect and his family–he built it off his own design ala Mike Brady; the houses surrounding my old house that house more memories than I could maintain in the moment.
And for each house that had been worked on and had a car in front, four houses were still empty with the tell-tale watermark and spray-painted “X” on the wall. Some had painted over the “X” but when your house is brick, paint is hard to cover. The one bright spot was that there was a car in the driveway of my old house. It wasn’t a vacant, forgotten house. It had no watermark. It looked surprisingly like we left it, even down to a sticker we left on a small window in the front. That sticker! I have a shrinky-dink of that sticker in some box somewhere.
I do not think a single neighbor from 15 years ago still lives there. The empty lot across the street had a “new” house on it. It was vacant all those years we lived there. It had been flooded, and the For Sale sign had a Mississippi phone number. Another NOLA ex pat.
I pulled away and drove the block and a half to the location of my first job–a hardware store. It is still open. Just after Katrina, when we were still rather numb but functioning, I recall being at the corner of my street heading to drive to Baton Rouge (an hour away) to go to the temporary office my firm had set up. On the local talk radio was a familiar voice. My first boss. He was pleading for help in getting electricity back on at the shop so he could sell, you know, HARDWARE to folks that needed it desperately. I almost cried when I heard his voice. I had been thinking about him, the store, the old neighborhood, knowing it had been hit hard. But he is tough and survived and was fighting to get back on line. It was the first real sign to me that the city WOULD recover. Because of the business owners like him that just wouldn’t walk away and would make it go even with no help from our government (fed, state or local).
I walked into the store yesterday. He’d expanded the ol’ place. One of the doors was boarded. The front desk has a watermark a foot high. I sneaked to the back and saw him doing something so typical–bending over a lawnmower with a wrench. He sharpens chainsaw, lawnmower, and edger blades and fixes their motors, too. He looked up and said, “Can I hep ya… [then he recognized me] … Girl, get over here and give me a hug!” And we embraced. And caught up on the last five years, focusing mainly on his recent heart surgery and his troubles post-Katrina.
He was like a second father to me back when I worked for him. Two of my brothers worked for him before me. And his key employee is the same as it was 15 years ago. And many of her siblings worked there over the years too. It is a quintessential family joint.
Damn. Writing this is getting to me. I titled this post before I started writing it. And I realize I am wrong. My home wasn’t that house. It was the people that housed my life back then. And many are relocated but still around. And seeing my old boss, my dear friend, WAS going home, at least a little bit.