Four years ago this Thanksgiving we all might have been forgiven if we asked ourselves, “Just what is it we’re supposed to be thankful for this year?” With our houses – if they survived – smelling of mold, our lawns dead and possibly toxic and our futures totally uncertain, we nevertheless knew the answer: We survived so far and we were still alive. The rest would still have to be worked out.
We all have Hurricane Katrina stories to tell and every one of them could be worthy of a full-fledged movie – the problem is that there are millions of such stories and on matters of drama, sadness and even horror, they balance each other out. There is comfort in shared experience, but also frustration in that, for all we endured, the hardships were not even unique. In the land of the wandering no one person can get much solace from being lost.
So my plight was mild one autumn Saturday in 2005 when we had returned for the weekend to work on our home.
The mold stench was still pervasive. Taped up refrigerators were appearing on curbs like ragweed. Piles of debris from gutted homes spilled over into the street. There was no beauty. On my first visit home a neighbor from down the street walked toward me while looking dazed, like the last survivor from a riot. He too had his stories to tell, but strangely he was more concerned about the quietness. “Listen,” he told me – and I did. “There are no birds.” He was right, the peeps and chirping that we took for granted were missing. The hammering sound from the woodpecker that each morning chopped away at the telephone pole was missing. I never thought about it but a person should be weary about a place with no birds.
There were also no services. No neighborhood retailers had reopened. There were no drugstores, restaurants or gas stations. As noon approached on that autumn Saturday we thought about lunch and realized there was no place to get it – this in a city once packed with eateries and pubs. Had I still been in Marksville, to where we retreated, there would be more places to eat this day than there was in all of New Orleans. That too, was a story to be told.
But then a young man walking down the street yelled to me, “Hey Mister, would you like some lunch?” We were delighted. He told me that a truck would be arriving at the corner soon and I could get what I wanted. “Ah, a catered affair,” I teased myself.
I paused for a moment when I saw the truck because on its sides were written the words “Salvation Army.” I went to the window on the side of the truck to place my order. The selection was easy because there were only two choices, chili and chili with rice – that and a bottle of water. Moments later as we sat on the porch steps eating it hit me just how much my life had changed. I was relying on the Salvation Army to feed me. Not only that, but I was enjoying the meal.
That Thanksgiving I counted all those people who came to town to help us as being among my blessings. I never doubted that New Orleans would come back and I was certainly committed to staying here and being a part of whatever was going to happen – but, just for one long weekend, I wanted to getaway to a city that was working and where the lights were bright, where businesses were humming and people were signing and chestnuts were roasting.
So there we were on the first weekend of December 2005, transported to Manhattan. We walked past the ice skaters and the towering tree at Rockefeller center and gawked at Macy’s decorated windows. We heard the sounds of vendors hawking bags of chestnuts right off their grill, the honking from taxis and the ringing of hand bells coming from practically every corner. I was drawn to the bells. The ringers were from The Salvation Army. Only a few weeks earlier I had been sitting on my porch eating their chili which, for all I knew, had been paid for with money collected by the bell ringers the previous Christmas. I put some cash in the pot and told the worker about how important his group had been in New Orleans. I am not sure if he understood but he nodded and kept on ringing. I felt better though.
We flew back to the reality of New Orleans the next day. More importantly, over the next few months, so too would the birds.