Our plans started to look shaky right away when the Robert’s grocery store didn’t open like we heard it would so we couldn’t buy food and water. I’d only heard about the storm the day before from a friend out walking her dog. “Ah hell,” I laughed, “ a catastrophe a minute in this town.” My friend Renee (whom I was starting to fall in love with) and I planned to ride it out. Besides, there was nowheres outside Orleans parish we wanted to be and we had no way to get there. So we drank whiskey that night and got up early to prepare. But fate wasn’t with us. We biked into the quarter to have coffee and make new plans. The next few hours were a rapidly crecendoing blur of biking around, emotional phone calls, strategizing and running into our friends, the last denizens of summer. Some were frantically preparing to leave, some were laughing in café’s and some were barricading themselves in their houses with water, whiskey and guitars. St. Claude was deserted but Elysian Fields was zooming. Everywhere you heard the cacophony of sirens. I think every cop car and emergency vehicle in town must have flipped the switch and left them on full blast.
We were still planning on weathering the storm, though we weren’t sure where and we were rapidly losing faith. I was biking back to Renee’s house when I heard someone holler “Moose!” I turned around and it was my friend Eva, packing her van. “What are you going to do?” she asked.
“I’m not exactly sure at this second.”
“I’m getting my animals out of here. You wanna come?”
I asked if she had enough room for Renee, my dog Siddhartha and me. She said yes so I biked to Renee’s. She’d been going through some stressful phone calls and seemed really shaken. “I got us a ride outta here if you want to get out,” I said. “You wanna go?” She nodded yes with a quivering lip.
A half-hour later Eva and Renee came to pick me up at my house. We had to wait 45 minutes for gas at the one gas station we heard was open on Elysian Fields, where we then got onto the I-10. We crawled in traffic for two hours while the three dogs; two ferrets and Siamese cat were all panting in the swampslow heat and only making it to the Louisa street exit… like twelve blocks. We got off, cooled down the animals, stretched and plotted a new course down deserted, post apocalyptic St. Claude, over the industrial canal, and thru St. Bernard parish to catch the I-10.
When we came to a roadblock near the jail out there the police approached the van and laughed when they saw the punk rock petting zoo. We definitely turned heads with our punked out style. You learn as a matter of survival in New Orleans that being totally crusty will get you in trouble, but a little punk flair makes you into a “character” in the eyes of the cops, as long as you keep it jazzy. We told them where we were headed and they let us through. I’m not sure it would have been that easy for three black kids.
Before we got to the I-10 we saw Route 90 zipping along with virtually no traffic. We soon saw why. It was mid afternoon by then and though it was still sunny and only slightly windy the storm surge had already flooded yards and low-lying buildings and the water was lapping at the shoulder of the highway in places. In a few hours that road was gone altogether.
We kept on to Gulfport then headed north to avoid traffic and try to give ourselves some time outrunning the storm. We stopped for gas and a pee break at Hattiesburg. I was just going to remark at how the sky was split right above us between black clouds stretching south and a still light sky going north when the girls screamed and pointed behind me like a scene out of an 80’s disaster movie. I turned and got a face full of sticks, dirt, wind and rain. We yelped and hopped back into the van and I didn’t slow down below 75 mph til we hit Dothan, AL. We found that all the motels all the way to Atlanta were booked solid, so we went and found a field to hide the van in with a little old shack we could squat if the rain caught up to us. We took what bedding we had and lay out trusting under a worried but starry sky, exhausted on the stubbly earth.
We found a motel in Valdosta, GA thru Eva’s mom that allowed us and our zoo to stay for $50 a night. We kicked it for a couple of days alternately crying at the news and screaming at the TV. Finally Renee suggested we get loaded on some margaritas. There was a Mexican restaurant down the strip. We’d gotten some clothes kicked down to us at a thrift store (we didn’t pack for more than overnight), so we got gussied up and went. The folks there found out we were from New Orleans. They told us to come back the next day for free lunch.
Eva knew some guys in a punk band who knew someone we could stay with in Gainesville, FLA, so we headed there and chilled out a few days, drinking and playing music and sewing to stay sane. Punk coping mechanisms… they leave something to be desired but I don’t knock ‘em when they’re all I got. I felt really lucky to be with such a great team, these two beautiful bad-ass women that shared my values, who had skills and strength that I could rely on. I also had skills to share and my own strength. We were proud of our Ark full of storm orphans.
It became apparent that they weren’t going to let us back into New Orleans anytime soon. Eva needed to get up to Baltimore to meet her parents. Renee and I didn’t have anything better to do so we decided to go along with her, making a pit stop in Ashville, NC
On the way to North Carolina we stopped at a Waffle House. Some people in the restaurant curious about our looks struck up conversations with us and gave us money when they found out we were evacuees. I felt both grateful and a little ashamed. Would the same kindness have been shown if we were grubbier or if we, like most of our neighbors, were black? I’d been homeless and directionless before, so I could keep my head up. What about all the people who were scared and lost? What about the people that couldn’t get out at all?
In Asheville we again were able to make connections with our punk community who absorbed us into the fold like their very own. We saw some of the kids from home and found out what happened to most of our friends. We were comfortable and well-fed and drinking beers but we were worrying about those less fortunate. Even with all the work we’d done to undo racism, even though we shared our streets and homes with black neighbors and friends, this storm made sharp the divide between us, drove us back into separate worlds, ripped apart our fragile bonds, sent us to the center of our conventions and bared the truth of our weaknesses.
We continued to benefit from the radical and punk network as we drifted north. In Baltimore we split off from Eva and stayed at a house called The Jerk Store for a few days, then met other folks at Red Emma’s, an anarcho-syndicalist bookstore/café who let Renee, Siddhartha and me stay with them for a couple of weeks as we figured out our next step. On the invitation of more friends in the network we got a ride to Manhattan and stayed a week there in a beautiful apartment. Now we are at Sascha Scatter’s new home upstate and even though we’re not sure what we’re doing, we are able to be useful here at the farm, and caring friends surround us.
It puts a new perspective on have and have-not. I can feel proud of my friends, their generosity and skill and initiative to create alternatives of support that far outweigh a handout from the Red Cross, even though I do feel like the red cross has done a fuckin’ stellar job with what resources they had. And I can feel good about how having gone through hard times in the past has prepared us for things like this and made it a lot less difficult. I feel especially lucky to be with Renee and Siddhartha. You can face anything with partners this good. But I’m aware too that white privilege made this a very different animal for me, for all of us. It does every day. We work against it when we see it, usually, but we don’t always look for the deeper symptoms and causes. I know that at least for me, the difference between my experience and the folks at the convention center showed me that although I’m poor and weird looking, I still have so much more than most. Happily, some of us have really gone the extra mile to share our resources, though the government hasn’t made it any easier for us to do so. We should be proud of who we are and what we do, but we shouldn’t forget for one moment that we still gotta confront the racism inside us, confront our privilege and work to build alternatives to the racist infrastructure that we’re still dependent on to survive.
We’ll probably go back to New Orleans at some point. And as we rebuild, I’m going to keep these lessons and these gifts in mind.