The following is an excerpt from my memoire, “The Kid Who Got Away.”
The Silence. That was the first thing I noticed. The Silence. No birds singing, dogs barking, cars cranking up…nothing. Nothing but silence. We had awakened in Hell.
There was an indefinable stillness that greeted us as we drove towards our new home in the French Quarter. Everywhere we turned we saw destroyed houses, rubble pulled high, boats in trees, dead pets in the gutter…the detritus left behind by a monster with no mercy. Many had left meat and other perishable foods in their refrigerators. No electricity and extremely hot weather had rotted everything inside. Upon opening those refrigerator doors, unaware returnees were greeted by a stench unlike any other. This odor would linger in their homes for weeks. Up and down the shattered streets of New Orleans, these refrigerators were left on the curbs along with the other trash, trash that would not be picked up for weeks. Some folks had written in bold letters, “Please deliver to President George Bush, The White House, Washington, D.C.” on the refrigerator doors. New Orleanians have a way of finding humor in just about everything, no matter how terrible.
My Angels had been watching over me, as usual. Three days before the storm hit, I had moved my belonging from my apartment in Mid-City to our new place at 624 Dumaine near Royal Street in the heart of the French Quarter. My Mid-City digs wound up under eight feet of water for three weeks. All my belongings were high and dry in the Quarter. Not so for Gipsy. She had argued for staying. That’s what New Orleanians did. I insisted and eventually convinced her.
When we returned, her apartment in Metairie was totally destroyed. The entire second story had collapsed onto the first. Her bottom floor apartment looked like something out of a science fiction novel. The black mold on the walls was alive and made breathing difficult. There’s a good chance she would not have survived Katrina.
I began performing immediately to early returnees and the armed cadres of the U.S. government. I guess they were in New Orleans to save us from ourselves. The returnees had that same “deer-in-the-headlights” look I had seen throughout my travels. Nighttime was especially strange. There were no street lights and no traffic signals. The vast majority of buildings were dark. Most people walked to local bars lit by generators. There was a great deal of drinking going on, more so than usual in a town fueled by alcohol. After a week or two, a woman and her daughter parked their air stream each night on Decatur Street, across from Margaritaville. They would serve up home-made pastries that were delicious and seemed filled with love. We’d stop there nightly, enjoying the camaraderie, sharing a laugh or two in the dark before heading home. Those women were a ray of sunlight amidst the darkness. We knew at least somebody cared.
One evening, a few days after our return, I walked through what seemed to be a totally abandoned Jackson Square. I came upon a lone trumpeter silhouetted against the facade of majestic St. Louis Cathedral. He was playing a mournful tune that brought tears to my eyes as I stood there and listened to him playing to no one in particular. He was blowing his horn ’cause that’s what you do in New Orleans. You play ’cause you have to. It was then that I knew that the music was truly back. I knew then that we were gonna be OK.
My neighborhood, Colonia Guadalupe, is a quiet place, especially at night. The rain-soaked cobblestones painted a glistening tapestry beneath our feet as Marcia and I headed to Hansen’s Restaurant. Not to eat but to bring our friend,Ulises, leftovers from the great meal we had just shared at Marcia’s dinner party. The unseasonable rains had forced us from the outside courtyard into the cramped interior of her store, The Black and White. There the guests enjoyed a disparate gathering of visitors from the Northwest along with a Chilean Muralist (he had also cooked the meal), the New York floral arranger and the New Orleans musician.
We noticed nothing unusual on our way to Hansen’s. Ulises was grateful and we headed back to our perspective homes. Then, I heard it. The Meow. Not “A” meow but “The” meow. It was coming from behind two 10 foot high solid steel doors protecting what I would later find out was a parking lot. I told Marcia, “That’s my cat!” She asked, “How can you tell? It just sounds like a cat.” I said, “I know that meow.”
There was just an inch or so of space between the steel doors and the sidewalk. I got on my hands and knees and said, “Hey buddy.” His response was a chorus of plaintive meows. Marcia said that her neighbor parks her car there. She felt it was way too late to wake them up. I said, “Wake them up! That’s my cat! That’s Boudin!”
We woke them up but the folks behind the steel doors had already respondedto our banging on the doors and opened up. At first, there was no cat. I cried out, “Hey, bud.” Out came a scrawny, barely recognizable Boudin, along with a string of those meows. He’s been missing for a month and, I’m sure, missing those regular meals for as long. Again I said, “Hey buddy!” He practically jumped into my arms.
He was a little freaked out so I put him back down on the sidewalk and said, “Come on, bud.” He followed me the six blocks to my house. When we got home, he could barely get his face out of the cat food bowl. My other cat, Princess Tofu, was not amused. She smelled the unfamiliar smells of the streets of Guadalupe and was not very welcoming to her old roommate. After some highly unPrincess-like hissing, they seem to be fine. Boudin has not left my side.
Anyone who has lost a companion like Boudin understands the hole in my heart he had left behind. Now, once again, I am never alone.
Be excellent to each other and remember: Think twice before hitting “Send.”
He’s baaack: Meow