A Tale of Two Toasts
It was dawn on Oct. 5, 2005. My husband, Jamie, and our friend Nick and I had been driving since 6 p.m. the night before. Knowing that my ’88 Chevy Nova didn’t have a chance of making it from Columbia, Mo., to New Orleans, I’d bribed Nick, the proud owner of a new Honda Civic, with a six-pack of beer and the promise that he could be the godfather of my firstborn child. We’d been taking turns driving and trying to sleep in the backseat. We’d stopped for gas and coffee and not much else. We were finally here.
As we drove over the 17th Street Canal into the city, Jamie remarked, “Jesus. It’s like The Wizard of Oz in reverse. The color just went out of the landscape.”
When we got to my dad’s house in Mid-City, he started the generator and made us some more coffee. Running only on caffeine and adrenaline, we immediately got to work, pulling up mildewed carpet, spraying walls with bleach, rinsing Katrina scum off of my dad’s album collection, lugging furniture and appliances to the neutral ground.
Around noon, we wandered a few doors down, where some neighbors had made jambalaya that they were insistent we share. My dad brought a few bottles of warm white wine he had lying around, and someone located a corkscrew. We had no clean glasses, though, and no clean water to wash them in. Luckily, Nick’s a former Boy Scout from New York City, which means he’s equipped to handle almost any situation in the world. And so he took a half-dozen empty Dasani bottles, cut them in half with the X-Acto knife he’d been using to cut sheetrock and passed them around. With the cap screwed on, the top half of a Dasani bottle was a fully functional wine glass, and we all raised our makeshift glasses and toasted the city of New Orleans. “We will rebuild better!” my neighbor screamed at the top of his lungs, and we all hugged and cheered and cried.
I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.
It was 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 5, 2010. I opened my e-mail to find the following from Ben, one of my oldest and dearest friends, a true-blue Saints fan who now lives in Washington, D.C.: “Our flight on Saturday was canceled due to Snowmageddon. For about two hours, we had a 5:25 p.m. Friday flight; then it was canceled, too. And no remaining flights out of BWI, IAD or DCA were available until Sunday. Rental car companies allow one-way rentals, but not from D.C. to New Orleans. We then purchased tickets on Amtrak. Amtrak canceled all southbound trains out of Washington, D.C., today –– all trains but those destined for Miami and New Orleans. At 6:30 p.m., we departed from D.C. Union Station on Train No. 19, the Crescent, and into the blizzard we go. Twenty-five hours or so from now we are scheduled for arrival in New Orleans. Depending on our condition, we will be heading to Café Prytania at 11 p.m. Saturday for a pre-Super Bowl party with the Soul Rebels Brass Band. If you’re in town, we hope to see you there. WHO DAT?!?”
On Sunday, Jamie and I made jambalaya that we were insistent people come over to share. And after the Saints won the Super Bowl (I still laugh every time I say that), we popped the cork on a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, took our best champagne glasses and toasted the city of New Orleans. My daughter –– and, because I keep my promises, Nick’s goddaughter –– screamed, “Who Dat!” at the top of her 3-year-old lungs, and we all hugged and cheered and cried.
I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.
Whether it’s driving through the night in someone else’s car or braving a blizzard on Amtrak, New Orleanians who feel the pull to get back –– for happy reasons or sad ones –– will find a way to get here.
And even though I wanted to help my dad with his house and Ben wanted to watch the game, our reasons for having to be here weren’t about home repairs or football. We wanted –– needed –– to be here because we wanted and needed to be around people who understood –– people who get that no matter what happens, we will make jambalaya and share it with our friends and toast the city and scream and hug and cheer and cry –– and not ever want to be anywhere else.