November 24, 2005. 6:00 p.m. 10,000 feet over New Orleans and descending. Below the plane, most of the I-10 East bridge has vanished into Lake Pontchartrain, swallowed by the gray, invariable flatness. More than five miles of lonely, sun-baked highway now lie submerged, fighting tidal waters that still refuse to ebb.
Land curves into view, and through the smudged windowpane, I notice a black, creeping mass on the beachfront: power outages threatening a loose confederation of sodium streetlights. "That's Lakeview," says George, my boyfriend. Slouching in the window seat next to me, he casts swift, tightened glances at the ravaged earth below. Somewhere, down there, is his family. "Over there," he gestures vaguely. "That's where the levee broke."
Through the foggy glass, I can make out other patches farther inland and to the south, and the Lower Ninth Ward is like a thick, dark nebula nestled among orange terrestrial constellations. In the deepening twilight, the water glistens.
Three months after Katrina, the greater New Orleans area is still a war zone without a war, a battleground of castaways, driftwood and foam. With hundreds of thousands homeless, residents here have become refugees in their own city. It is almost December, and the Red Cross supply trucks still patrol the streets twice daily, doling out MREs and clean drinking water to families camped in FEMA trailers. Immense, ancient oaks still lay in and on roofs, where bright blue tarps have bloomed around them. And on every street corner waits a mound of refuse and rotted wood, guarded by broken toilets, washing machines and refrigerators.
That people still live here, that some of the evacuees have returned to their homes, that must mean something. But what home can stand firm on a foundation of mold and tears?
For weeks I've grappled with guilt and fear, at a loss for how best to prepare myself for this trip. I knew, for instance, that I wanted - needed - to give George's family a gift; not just something to replace what was lost, but also something for peace of mind: a housewarming present for a home re-occupied. But gift giving in the South is a tricky, subtle beast, especially in times of need; charity is the worst offense to Southern pride. How I should reconcile convention and my want to help, I did not know. Could I bring clean sheets? Dishtowels? Plungers? A toaster oven?
I couldn't decide. So I brought my DS.
The Nintendo DS had only been out for a few months, and not many games had been released for it yet. But I figured it might appeal to George's younger brothers: two sturdy, weedy teenagers who, when I last saw them, had prattled on in tandem about the handheld's impending release. They'd lost most of their gaming devices in the floods, and perhaps a round or two of Mario Kart might ease their minds, if only for awhile.
At least, that's what I told myself as I stuffed the DS into my carry-on. But who am I kidding? The DS is really for me as my last resort; it is a warm hat into which this rabbit may vanish should there be a need. It can be my reserve of sanity, just in case I close my eyes and am unable to erase afterimages of this broken city, this graveyard of mud and jazz.
But even when lying to myself, I am true to my word. Not long after we arrive in Louis Armstrong International, I reluctantly present my DS to the boys. But both appear politely yet fundamentally uninterested - bored, even - as if I'd offered them Prada handbags or hairdryers. They exchange glances, and I realize that my offer is so absurd, so tangential that it would be rude, if it weren't so clueless. As it is, I know they're thinking of me as yet another nice but ridiculous person who just doesn't get it.
They're right, of course. I don't get it; not at all.
We assume that in times of crisis, people will flock to diversion; that we'll deify our books, TVs, computers and other escapisms like modern messiahs. The truth is, only the safe, comfortable people can do that, the ones saddled with the luxury of survival. The rest become painfully conscious of the transience of frivolity, growing heartsick at the thought of having fun when there is a city to rebuild. This self-reproach is like some secret breed of survivor's guilt: No matter how fleeting or momentary your escape would be, you feel you just can't leave everyone else behind.