Apr 16, 201012:00 AM
Living, loving, laughing, and learning in the new New Orleans
I still can’t eat pound cake. Such an innocuous food, right? Who could object to pound cake? But one day at Sam’s Club, I mindlessly picked up a sample, a little pasty half-frozen morsel of Sara Lee Pound Cake on a frilly toothpick. I popped it in my mouth, and even before it touched my molars, I was gagging. I reached for a napkin as quickly as I could, tried to spit it out inconspicuously.
“Very nice,” I said to the relentlessly smiling woman in the hairnet who was eyeing me curiously. And then I hurried away, still a little shaky.
Pound cake is what everyone brought over to the house after my brother died. I was 7, and I couldn’t use the stove, and every adult around me had gone too crazy to cook. And so I ate pound cake. Pound cake for breakfast. Pound cake for lunch. Pound cake when I woke up sad and confused at 3 a.m. Cake for every meal didn’t seem like a bad deal back then –– if anything, it was a highlight. I’d forgotten about it, really.
When I did the whole song-and-dance about my brother’s death, the cake wasn’t something I’d even think to mention. By the time of the Pound Cake Incident at Sam’s, enough time had passed and I’d gotten so inured to it that I could run down the goriest details without so much as a tear: “Yes, we were close. Yes, he hanged himself. Yes, that does sound like the worst way to kill yourself. No, that’s not the way I’d choose to do it either.” I could have those conversations as easily as discussing what I like on my pizza or whether it was supposed to rain this weekend.
And yet that pound cake stopped me in my tracks. It was Proust and the madeleines, almost exactly, though the taste didn’t take me to a sunny house in his mythical idyllic Combray but to half of a double shotgun on Ponce de Leon Street in the middle of a very real, very sad summer in New Orleans in 1988.
No matter how far I think I’ve come, how together I seem, there’s still a part of me that’s 7 years old, pigtailed and bewildered and grieving. When I tasted that pound cake and then spat it out, all I could think was, “Oh, please, don’t make me go back there.”
When I recently moved, I found my old junior high yearbook. These days, I honestly feel popular, likeable and extremely blessed. I love my job, which gets me out into this vibrant community where I meet the most incredible people. I have a kind, funny, handsome husband, and we have a perfect, adorable, brilliant daughter. I have an amazing, loyal, diverse group of friends.
But flipping through my yearbook, a thick musty smell rising up from the thin faded pages, all I could remember was the summer Kelly told me she didn’t want to be my friend anymore and then Morgan said she didn’t either. The time I impulsively and inexplicably told my orthodontist to put green rubber bands on my braces and then spent an entire month being teased and laughed at for having “nasty moldy teeth.” The constant taunts of, “Hey, Summer’s Eve, are you feeling not-so-fresh?” The boy who told the entire school that I was a terrible kisser, even though we hadn’t kissed. The fact that I joined the Library Club so I could spend my lunch hour shelving books instead of acknowledging that no one wanted to sit by me. The aching. The awkwardness. The acne.
Suddenly, I was mired down in the pain of early adolescence, and somehow the pleasant trappings of the successful, happy life I’ve built for myself couldn’t make up for the fact that the only people who signed my yearbook that year were teachers.
No matter how far I think I’ve come, how together I seem, there’s still a part of me that’s 12 years old, with braces and the remains of an unfortunate perm, skinny and lonely and shy. When I slowly paged through my yearbook, all I could think was, “Oh, please, don’t make me go back there.”
When Treme came on last Sunday night, I didn’t even make it through the opening credits without crying. The image of Katrina swirling in the Gulf, the water rushing in … I made it through that, through the obvious triggers. But when they showed all of the pictures on the wall, I knew in my gut what the next shot would be: those same photographs after the storm, waterlogged, streaked with wavy lines of color that almost look like tie-dye. How many of those pictures have I seen, have we all seen?
All through the 90-minute episode, the smallest things kept rocking me back on my heels, taking me back to late 2005. They were things that would be meaningless to outsiders: a shot of an alley cat reminded me of the packs of dogs that roamed the city back then; the scene in Lil Dizzy’s made me remember how the restaurants were almost all buffet-style, with paper plates and plastic forks and how grateful we were for it anyway; the fancy restaurant scene reminded me of a piece an old teacher of mine –– indeed, one of the ones who signed my yearbook –– wrote for Slate about a meal he had at Herbsaint and how hopeful it had made me that the city could get back to normal; the frantic, manic energy that everyone moved with back then. Even the bit about lemon ice got to me because I remembered, so clearly, sitting in Washington Square Park in mid-September 2005 with a group of friends and eating lemon ice. The trip to New York City had been planned as a celebration for my 25th birthday, tickets booked long before Katrina, and I’d gone anyway, despite being in no mood to celebrate. At the time I’d planned the trip, I’d been crazy in love with New York, desperate to move there, eager to get back. But just then, sitting in the twilight of a chilly Northeastern autumn day, I started to cry. I was in one of the best cities on the planet, surrounded by all of my favorite people, and I couldn’t have been more miserable. All I wanted was for New Orleans to be OK and for me to be there.
I know why Treme starts when it does. That’s where the drama is; that’s where the story is. But God, it hurts to watch.
A few days after Katrina, when it seemed like nothing would ever be right again, I flipped my wall calendar to the last page, as far forward in time as I could go. On Dec. 31, I scrawled, “Will it be better by now?” Months later, when I flipped the page from November to December and saw my desperate scribble on that last square, I cringed at my naïveté. No, it wasn’t better; it wasn’t going to be better for a long time. It might never be better. And right then, right at that turn of the calendar page from November to December, is when Treme is set.
I know how far we’ve come. We’re not fighting to justify our existence anymore; we’re just existing. We’re not wondering if the Saints will come back; we’re celebrating their Super Bowl victory. It’s dramatic irony –– of the happiest sort. What we know –– and what the characters don’t –– is that it’s 2010, and New Orleans is still here. That we had Carnival that year, and it was the best Carnival ever. That Brocato’s is open. That homes have hot water and power and walls. That days go by when we don’t think of Katrina. That everything we were fighting for back then was worth it, that we made a difference, that we were right not to give up.
But no matter how far we think we’ve come, how together we seem, there’s still a part of us that’s back in late 2005, moldy and shaken and shocked and lost. And when I watched Treme, all I could think was, “Oh, please, don’t make me go back there.”
Painful moments make up who we are, as individuals and as a city. The role that Katrina played in our history cannot be denied any more than the role my brother’s death played in my childhood. But has reliving it been as painful and visceral for anyone else? Does it feel therapeutic or more like needless dwelling on the past? I know the show is good for the city. But is it good for us?