Salvation and a Bowl of Chili

Compared to the problems Hurricane Katrina had caused for so many other people, my plight was mild that Saturday in 2005 as Thanksgiving approached. We had returned for the weekend from our upstate exile to work on our home. The mold stench was still pervasive. Refrigerators with their door taped were appearing on curbs like ragweed. Piles of debris from gutted homes spilled over into the street. There was no beauty. A neighbor from down the street walked toward me while looking dazed as though he was 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, who each morning chopped away at the telephone pole, was silenced. 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 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, Louisiana to where we had retreated, there would be more places to eat this day than there was in all of New Orleans. But then a young man who was 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.

I paused for a moment when I saw the truck because on it 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 or 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 part of whatever was going to happen; but, just for one long weekend, I wanted a 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 ‘05, 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, plus 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 that, 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.


Have something to add to this story, or want to send a comment to Errol? Email him at Note: All responses are subject to being published, as edited, in this article. Please include your name and location.

SOMETHING NEW: Listen to “Louisiana Insider,” a weekly podcast covering the people, places and culture of the state., Apple Podcasts or Audible/Amazon Music.

BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.


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