Borrowed Time

Claudine came calling on a hot August night.  Skinny, loud, and a fetching tabby orange, she wandered off the street and onto our front porch mewing insistently for food.  In the coming weeks we would joke that someone should oil her.  We called her Squeaky.  We called her Eenie-Beenie.  (She was both.)  Two weeks later, we packed her into the car along with the two other cats, some of Greg’s instruments, and my hard drives, and made off for Austin.  Our windows boarded, our neighbors bid adieu, we joined the legions on I-10 crawling east and west, carrying, along with their select possessions, differing degrees of fear and dread.

Gustav was my first evacu-cation, and once we heard New Orleans was fine and our neighborhood had power, I eased into the vacation aspect of things.  We ate tacos and swam in Barton Springs and watched Sarah Palin make snarky remarks on TV.  We shot little Claudine full of vaccinations, and several days later, drove home, swapped stories, and went back to life.

It was easy for me.  Gustav unleashed no Katrina memories, no post traumatic stress or anxiety.  I was still living in Brooklyn in 2005 – a lover of New Orleans, but not yet a resident of it.  I watched the horror from a safe, outraged distance, making frantic calls to friends’ cell phones which never rang.  But for those whose home was then New Orleans, Gustav was an emotional time machine.  The week Gustav meandered to Louisiana (coincidentally, the week of Katrina’s three year anniversary), the news was on in every room at work -- first in the background, and eventually, the event all ears and eyes turned to.  We leaned into desks and absorbed ominous terms like cone and eye.  We calculated winds and rains and directions, and scrutinized experts, and offered our own analyses.  I heard it over and over again: if this one is like Katrina, I am not coming back.  I can’t do that again.

I remember the pivot point: a sunny January day in 2006.  I was sweeping the kitchen floor in my Brooklyn apartment.  The radio was on, and a woman on NPR made a plea: if you care about New Orleans, go there for Mardi Gras.  I stopped mid stroke, and my eyes went from the plants in my south facing window, bathed in a bright sea of winter light, to the five framed photographs hanging on the wall behind me -- of trees and shadows and Creole cottages -- suffused in a different kind of light: New Orleans in April at dusk.  This woman, this voice on the radio, of course she was talking to me.  Who else would she be talking to?

I called Ann Marie, who hadn’t moved back yet, but whose sister Monique had.  I called Chris, who was working in Shreveport, but would be back in New Orleans for Mardi Gras.  I cobbled together places to stay and booked a flight, and not long after, I was riding in a cab down Dauphine Street, looking everywhere for signs of anything.  It was Thursday morning, hours before Muses would roll, hours before I would dress as a pirate amongst pirates and exclaim “Aargh” as a means of communication.  At Monique’s house at last, a cute boy, fresh from sleep, answered the door.  His name was Greg.

This that I am writing is not a love story, but I love my husband very much.  It is convenient for me that the man I love also loves New Orleans, for it is him who finally got me here, away from the land of work-too-much and connect-too-little.  Five years passed between my meeting New Orleans and my moving to New Orleans, and in those five years, we nearly lost her.  Yes, she changed, but New Orleans is still the closest thing we have to New Orleans.

Before I moved, when I still lived in Brooklyn and realized I was moving, what scared me wasn’t New Orleans’ weather or water levels or even its violence.  What scared me was the years passing, with New Orleans still being New Orleans, and me not being there.  Me missing that.  What scared me was the inability to make up for what I did not do, for the time squandered, for the time which is now, which is all we have.

Here on Saint Claude Avenue, Greg and I live in one half of a double shotgun with three cats: Sabrina, Sunshine and Claudine, otherwise known as Eenie-Beenie.  Of the five of us, Claudine is the only one from here.  Sabrina (the foul natured but charming cat) and Sunshine (the mentally challenged, frightened cat) -- are from New York.  As is Greg, though he is from Central New York, not Brooklyn.  I am from Maryland, by way of New York, and when I am being thorough, I answer the question that way. 

But Eenie-Beenie is from here, a native, a true New Orleanian.  She bounds through the backyard, amid her native grasses, around her native trees, killing native rodents, frolicking in native ways.  She hides behind the banana tree and romps through the wild asparagus.  The lead levels in our soil are frighteningly, dangerously high, and so our lettuce and mustard greens and basil are in elevated beds filled with store bought soil, and Claudine dashes between these too.  She circles and pounces and turns on a dime, running in one direction and then the next.  For a few moments at a time, she sits on my lap as I swing in the hammock Greg bought me for my birthday, and then she leaps off in pursuit of something.  Lucky girl.  This is the only home she’s ever known.
Undoubtedly my accent gives me away, my mid-Atlantic blankness.  I’m fairly textbook in my execution of the English language -- a shame in this land of eccentric elocution, where inflections vary with the crossing of a street or generation.  I pronounces my r’s like r’s (rather than oi’s, rather than not pronouncing them at all), and I speak quickly, without a lilt.  (I am, however, becoming rather fond of saying “baby.”)  People ask all time where I’m from, despite the local doctrine that it’s the mix which matters. 

We hear a lot about the gumbo here in New Orleans, the French-African-Spanish-Native American-American-Caribbean-Creole-Italian-German-what-have-you mix.  In this metaphor, New Orleans is the bowl which holds the parts, and I am an ingredient dunked in it.  An older gentleman I recently met, of the sort who pronounces New Orleans using a minimum of four syllables, whose family meandered here circa the Louisiana Purchase, told me it’s the people from elsewhere who care most about preserving the city.  Born of other lands, he posited, we most appreciate the uniqueness of this place.  We know how different New Orleans is from the land of stripmallconcrete.  We value the music in the streets, as well as the oaks and palms at their borders.  We work to keep it it.  I like hearing I’m of use, especially from a former King of Carnival.

There’s no denying the power of the mix.  The yield is noteworthy: Jazz, French Quarter buildings, Vietnamese po-boys, Mardi Gras Indians (to name but a few).  Even more important is the message of the mix: you too can be a part of this place; New Orleans is here to accept you.  In other words, if you understand the need to eat and parade and congregate and play and listen and sing, space will be made for your particular way of doing these things.  We will not be surprised by your outfit.  We will not tell you to lower your voice.  We will call you whatever name you declare your name, whether it be Shaggy or Firefly or Junior or Dookey.  In New Orleans you get to be who you say you are.  Names mythic or fanciful or normal, names which appeared on nary a birth certificate, appear here and form identities both familiar and absurd.  My declarations have been conventional, but transformative nonetheless.  I’ve said “writer” and “radio producer,” and voila, I am.

Claudine, the night she appeared, said the same thing over and over again, and transform her life it did.  I brought her food, and moments later, I brought her inside.  Greg told me to get her out, but instead I gave her a flea bath, and put her on the back porch inside one of our cat carriers, with more food and water.  Greg made mild protestations, and I ignored them.  The next day, when I called home from work, Greg told me he’d made her a bed in the bathroom and that he’d named her Claudine. 

We tried to find space in a no-kill shelter.  We took ridiculously cute pictures and sent them to friends.  We listed her many charms: incessant purring, fuzzy orange appearance.  But no one took her, and each day we loved her more.  Then we evacuated, and somewhere between Louisiana and Texas and Louisiana she became ours.

In a few months, the weather will turn subtropical again.  Sabrina and Sunshine will begin their summer activities: laying around in earnest.  On the wooden floor boards and under the tub and in whatever room the air conditioner is turned on, they will be supine and immobile, for hours and days and months.  Meanwhile, at a point unknown in the endlessness of summer, Eenie-Beenie will pass the one year mark and officially leave kittenhood behind.  What will become of her zip zapping about, her bullet-like sprints across the lawn?  Will young Claudine begin to show the maturity of her age?

It’s impossible to know, for New Orleans moves at such iconoclastic speeds.  It’s hard to miss how s-l-o-w life can be here, how utterly uninterested we are in efficiency and expediency.*  But equally amazing is how fast life is.  Hanging above my desk is a photograph of our house taken right after the storm -- when it was just Greg’s house, before it was mine too.  The gingerbread is slightly less grey than the rest of it, and between the shuttered shutters is a message spray painted in black by lord knows who, quoting either James Baldwin or the bible: “FIRE the NEXT time.”  It’s a color photograph, but you have to look hard to know it: the scattering of weeds at the very bottom, tussling between the two stoops, are green, not grey. 

Underneath this photograph is another one, taken by the same photographer, from the same angle, a year and a half later.  The house has been painted a Caribbean green with yellow trim.  Gone is the spray painted note of cataclysmic abandon, and in the foreground, where once there were weeds, are the young oleander, crepe myrtle, and Mexican palm trees we’d recently planted.  The only thing not bursting with color is the sky -- a bland white, just like in the photograph above it.

So different are these two images, of this same place, they look as if they were snapped in different decades.  But it’s a year and a half that separates them.  And if you took that same shot today, the oleander and the palm would tower in front of the house, obscuring the grillwork on the porch all together.  So too the willow we planted a year after that, which climbed ten feet up and wept abundantly down, showering the strip of grass between sidewalk and street with wispy fronds of delicate green.  Expanding boundlessly, blossoming in every conceivable direction, these trees are the definition of lush.  From nothing to lush, in less than two years.  If this isn’t fast, what is?

It’s the sun and the rain, of course.  Nature’s steroids.  Leave during the summer, even for a few weeks, and you risk returning to a jungle.  We have a bush in the back, a weed tree with lovely yellow flowers, which doggedly loves life.  It easily quadruples in size every several months, pushing out branches in every conceivable direction, taking up as much of the yard as you allow it.  Along with shutters for the windows, New Orleans homes should come with machetes. 

The star of our plant show is the Mexican palm, robustly unfolding its spiky, deep green self in perfect (and eventually ragged) fans.  We almost didn’t buy it.  The man at Bantings, the walking-plant-encyclopedia-man, warned us that in 30 years, the palm could grow so big that it might upset the sidewalk, or the electrical wires, or even the house.  But I reasoned that we didn’t know if New Orleans would be around in 30 years, that in all likelihood, the Gulf waves would by then be lapping at our levees, working to subside even this land where we live: the high ground, New Orleans’ treasured sliver by the river.  Greg told me I was terrible for saying such things.  But I am a realist, on top of a dreamer.

It is hard to explain this dichotomous way of living— the planting of a garden, the building of a career, the investment of time, money, and love in a place you are thoroughly unsure will survive.  But you only think this way when you think about it, which you generally only do during hurricane season.  The rest of the year you don’t remember to consider such things.  You forget about the articles and books you’ve read  -- about wetlands and sea level rise.  You don’t notice the puddles on the neutral ground or in the backyard, forming in the rain but staying around long after.  The tires of your car, like donuts dunked in coffee: you don’t notice these either.  You put a bag over your head.  It’s the same bag you wear when you buy something cheap which says “Made in China,” or when you eat chicken from a factory, or when you drive your car to the gym rather than bike the mile on flat, sunny streets.  This is living in New Orleans, or maybe it’s living in America, and in either case, this is where I live. 

But just to be on the safe side, we planted the palm next to the curb, rather than the house.  You never know.  We (our state and country we) might get smart and do something.  Or perhaps the disappearance of our delta will take longer than the current statistical trajectory suggests (a whopping 24 square miles of wetlands are lost per year --subsided or eroded out to sea**).  Maybe science, or god, will come to the rescue.  In any case, we’re renters.  We won’t be living here, in this house, in thirty years.

Before I moved from that other sea level city, up North, I thought about these things, and I decided I’d squandered thirty odd years not living in New Orleans.  Now I wanted her, for as long as I could have her.  Life is borrowed time anyway, no matter where you are or what you do.  We get a handful of decades, and for the most part, I’ve been lucky enough to choose where I spend them.

For now, until I can’t, I chose here: where the air smells of trumpet flowers and jasmine, where I feel beautiful and lucky to be alive, where schizophrenics and boys with instruments and people with plastic cups roam the streets, where I know and love my neighbors and my hair gets frizzy fast, where the universe is made of stories (thank you Muriel Rukeyser), not atoms, and where everything is seeped in layers – strata of dirt and plants and time and lineage.  I choose New Orleans, where life is thick with living.  Call out your food metaphors!  Your images of swamp, bayou, and roux!  I pick this perilous, faulty place.  Because I love it, and what better reason is there?

Eenie-Beenie won’t live to see the palm imperil the house, the city saved or submerged.  Cats get less time.  They don’t generally make it past twenty, and if Claudine lives that long, romping and then ambling through this green, hot, pain in the arse paradise, I’ll consider myself, and her, quite lucky.  She’ll be one of those New Orleanians we read about, the kind born and bred here, the kind who tend not to go anywhere else, at least not for very long.   And even when she’s old and grown, even when it’s no longer remotely true, I’ll still call her Eenie-Beenie, because that’s her name now, and that’s how we do things here.



* Why, for example, bother to have more than one bank teller deal with a line of fifteen people?  Why change into the other absolutely empty lane next to you and drive on, when you can sit behind an unmoving car -- which, lack of turn signal aside, appears to be making a left -- and wait until it is no longer in your path?

** Louisiana Department of Natural Resources


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 © Eve Abrams 2010