Six years ago this Thanksgiving we all might have been forgiven if we asked ourselves, “just what is it we are 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 had survived so far and we were still alive.
The rest would still have to be worked out.
On my first visit home a neighbor from down the street walked toward me while looking dazed, like the last survivor from a bombing. 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 had taken for granted were missing. The hammering sound from the woodpecker who had each morning chopped away at the telephone pole was missing. I had never thought about it but a person should be wary of a place with no birds.
Had I still been in Marksville, to where we retreated, there would have been more places to eat that day than there were in all of New Orleans. But then, as noon approached, 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, and chili with rice (that, and a bottle of water). Moments later, as we sat on the porch steps, I realized just how much my life had changed. I was relying on the Salvation Army to feed me.
That Thanksgiving I counted all those people who came to town to help us as being among my blessings. I had 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 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 grills, 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.