The place I knew

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I’m sure everyone has heard this by now, but I am still shell-shocked to see the damage that is ongoing in Puerto Rico. I’ve been to the island many times – I was fortunate enough to go every year for a good stretch of time – and often considered making a second home there, or retiring in that region.

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As of now, those plans are on indefinite hold. I have no idea if Puerto Rico, and the towns of Isabella and Playa Jobos where I spent most of my time there, will ever be the places I knew again. Right now all I can see and hear are the terrible stories of suffering and uncertainty from good people who shared their island home with me.

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Is the Los Morillos Lighthouse still there? Are the Rangers who maintained the surrounding park safe? Did the nameless family that helped me when I got lost down a dead-end street in Isabella lose their home? Is Junior’s Pizza, always our first stop in Playa Jobos, even standing? People are telling stories of the long, winding route down 66, which used to wend through a dense tunnel of jungle foliage, now looking like a moonscape, with all the vegetation stripped away. Of El Yunque, the only rainforest that is part of the United States, scrubbed to bare rock.

I know everyone has compassion fatigue. There are so many horrible things right now. Houston. Miami. The Island of Barbuda completely uninhabitable. Earthquakes in Mexico. Volcanos in Indonesia. It feels like the earth is trying to shake humanity off, like a dog with a bad case of fleas. You feel – I feel – utterly helpless.

But please. If you have any ability, consider donating to one of these organizations to help the people of Puerto Rico, who so desperately need it.

OneAmericaAppeal.org  – led by five former presidents of the US

Unidos – run by the Hispanic Federation

GoFundMe – crowdsourced donations from individual groups. There is no good way to say this – the US government has fumbled this situation terribly and is causing active delays in aid. Small groups of concerned citizens – many with personal links on the island – are stepping into that space to try to make up for it.

All Hands Volunteers and PRVOAD are actively looking for volunteers to help. (The PRVOAD site is in Spanish, but can be translated through GoogleTranslate.)

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I’ve written before about the sickening feeling of watching a loved place descend into chaos, the gut wrenching knowledge that things will never be the same again. I also wrote about my immense relief when it turned out that I was wrong, and that people and places are more resilient than I had ever dared hope. I want so badly to be proven wrong again.

Be safe, and hold on to what you can.

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Hold On to What You Can

Horse Mounted Police in Jackson Square, 2006
Horse Mounted Police in Jackson Square, 2006

I have to preface this post by pointing out that I don’t live in New Orleans, I’ve never lived in New Orleans, and I have the same romanticized view of New Orleans that everyone who’s grown up on a diet of Anne Rice and only been to stay in the French Quarter two or three times has, and also that this wasn’t supposed to be the post for today. But watching the Saints play the Falcons last night (and beating them soundly I might add) brought back some memories that I felt like sharing, especially with this fall being the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

I have extremely vivid memories of those few days – I wasn’t in the city at the time, but two close friends were, people I had gone to New Orleans with the year before, and I was getting phone call updates from them, hearing that they were okay, and then not so okay, and then cutting short their trip and running to the airport, where they quite literally got on the last plane that took off before they closed the airport down. My mother was in the hospital with a health scare, and I remember watching helplessly on CNN as the storm bore down on the city, in part because it took my mind off why I was sitting for hours in the antiseptic smell of a hospital waiting room, watching as the frightening initial story turned even more terrifying as the levees broke and the entire city seemed to descend into a scene of chaos and fear that made my mom’s surgery look like a manicure and a hair set. And I thought, this is the end of that place. I will never see that beautiful, romantic city again. 

Exactly one year later, I was back.

I got taken onto a commercial project that was shooting in New Orleans, and while that was normally out of my geographic range, a close friend was working on it and asked me to come down, she wanted the company and a lot of crew was coming from Atlanta and would I wrangle possibly hundreds of real people talent? I don’t think I even let her finish the pitch before I said yes and started looking for flights.

I got to spend a week or so back in the Quarter, in a little mom & pop hotel that was, I think, a converted carriage house, and because it was an easy walk 10 blocks or so to the production office I got to stroll every morning and evening through various neighborhoods, soaking in the clean, clear sunshine and admiring all the neatly restored houses. The Quarter was largely spared the storm damage, but most people hadn’t come back yet (and in fact many still haven’t returned) so all the restaurants were hopelessly understaffed and the hotels put apologetic notes on your pillow explaining that they could only service the rooms every third day, because they just didn’t have enough employees, but as I wandered and poked and ate crawfish with beer, I didn’t care. It was enough to see the town come back to life and see the bright flowers and paint, and eat beignets and smell the good smells of Creole food wafting out thru all the windows.

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Something else was wafting out the windows, too – broadcasts of Saints football games. It seemed wherever I walked, whenever I sat down to eat, someone had a TV or stereo or crappy AM receiver tuned to the Saints – the games, the replays, the analysis and commentary. It had become the background hum of the city. The Saints used to be a joke in the NFL, a team so bad that people said that the Superdome must have been built on a Native American burial ground, and fans would go to the games in disguise, saying they didn’t want people to know they were supporting the worst team in football. And then came Katrina, and the Superdome itself became a symbol of terror and death, with some of those same fans stranded there for days with no communications, no food, no way to let their families know that they were safe or find the loved ones that were missing.

And yet the next year, cleaned and renovated, it reopened. And the people who had been thru so much welcomed back their horrible team with open arms. They had this crazy new kid, Drew Brees, who had come to the team after a horrible injury in another town, and the team seemed to catch fire and damned if they weren’t making it work. Everywhere I went, people hung on those scratchy broadcasts like a lifeline, until if finally penetrated my thick skull that that was exactly what it was. As they cleaned and repaired and struggled, there was an almost subconcious psychic hum: The Saints are making it. The Saints are home. They are holding on for one more day. I am home. And I can hold on for one more day too.

I may be reading too much into the connection, but I can still feel that intensity, that feeling of joy as people watched and celebrated and hung on as their team went on to have their (up to that point) winningest season ever, a season in which they actually went to the second round of playoffs, a concept that would have ranked up there with, I don’t know, pigs flying or hell freezing over or cats and dogs living together. And I think – though I am probably wrong about this, too, I’m wrong all the time – that the team’s success fed as much off that energy as off their new coach and hot young quarterback. It was a mutual admiration society. You are our team. You are our city. Take my hand.  We will not let go.

This is the end of that place, I thought. I will never see that beautiful, romantic city again.

Thank god I am wrong all the time.

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(The project, in case anyone is interested, was this campaign, which involved interviewing real people about emotional experiences, and to this day is I think the finest commercial campaign I have been involved with, because it came out so beautifully, and not as horribly cheesy as I’d feared. New Orleans was chosen as a site for obvious reasons.

Also, if anyone is interested, there is a documentary called The Man Who Ate New Orleans – which was, full disclosure, produced and directed by a cousin of a close friend – and it follows a pastor who moves to New Orleans after Katrina and his experiences there. You can get it on Amazon, and possibly also on Netflix. I liked it a lot.)