Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Flight of the Wild Geese

In a few hours, I leave for lunch at Galatoire's with a dear old friend who is forced for business reasons to leave New Orleans and move to (shudder) Ft. Worth, Texas. I will have to try to restrain myself and avoid any comparisons with the condemned man's last meal, but Brian (while a childhood transplant) is New Orleans to the bone, and it will be a sad occasion, the wake meal for some of the last remnants of the life I knew before I began my self-exile in places to the north.

My wife keeps asking me how I feel about so many of my good friends leaving just as I return, and I have to admit it is a sad turn. Still, I knew they were likely leaving long before I arrived, and chose to come anyway. I keep reminding myself of why I'm home, of the public pledge I made, that I am coming home in part to help prepare the city for their return. I don't share novelist and blogger Poppy Brite's anger at those who leave (scroll down to the 12:08 am posting). She says at one point:

I'll be honest -- I can understand people leaving, but I have a HUGE problem with people who say as they leave, "Well, I might come back in a couple of years." Yeah, after WE'VE done all the damn work to make things better. Regardless of my resentment, though, the city will still be here and will be better in a couple of years, should you leave but find that you cannot stay away.
I can't hold any grudge against those who leave, promising or at least hoping to come home, perhaps because I made the same sad journey and the same private vow myself long ago, a vow I have at last fulfilled. Everyone I know or have heard of who is making this sad march into expariot exile is, like the the Wild Geese of Ireland, driven from their home by events beyond their ability to turn. And each, like those dispersed Irish patriots, carries that sad longing for home, that skirling of pipes in the soul. And each I am certain has made the secret vow that they will someday return, if only to a whitewashed double somewhere near the intersection of City Park and Canal called Cemeteries.

The loss of each of these Orleanians is balanced in part by those like myself who are choosing now for the time of their return. Two new acquaintances met in the online community of expats and evacuees that grew up in the weeks after the flood are returning expats: Ray in Austin and Ashley. Ashley returned first, back in the Fall, when the prospect was much more daunting that it is today.

My nephew has long considered going to law school, and has decided to leave his career elsewhere behind and come to Tulane for this degree, and my sister and I are scouring Mid-City to find he and his wife and apartment. Others are coming home, or working at coming home if they can. Even my friend, the guest of honor at today's wake, has a sister who married an old friend from the West Bank, and they've come home and landing in Bywater, although she only lived here as a child and has long resided in California.

Those I know who are leaving are not the idiots of online forums who sit in their comfortable new home in Texas or Georgia and rail against the city's civic ineptitude or returning crime, the people who were probably going to abandon the city anyway, and who revel in its problems, crying good riddance and I told you so from a comfortable distance. Those people make me angry, too.

The people I know who are leaving have no real choice. One's law practice and his rented Lakeview home were both swept away by the flood. Another lived on Belle Aire, and if anyone wants to buy his ruin and perhaps make it possible for him to stay, I'm sure he'll welcome any reasonable offer. A third's eyeglass clinic on Canal Street, where the people I knew from the Lakefront religiously assembled to catch Endymion, was also taken by the flood. Do you think he voluntarily chooses exile in West Monroe? Would you?

These people are not running away from the problems; they were swept away by the flood, are a part of the problem Katrina and the Corps' left behind. The absence of these people weighs as heavily on me as the presence of a debris pile, will leave a hole in the city as raw as the empty lots of every demolished home, their leaving an unrepaired leak in the heart of the city as hidden but critical as those of the city's ruined water lines.

What I wrote for the Picayune in January is still true. Today's farewell feast is just another reminder of the long road ahead, of the reasons why some return and some leave, of the work that must be gone so that everyone can come home again if they chose.

I'm coming back because every person who returns makes it that much more possible -- to buy a house that would otherwise sit empty, to add another pair of hands to the immense tasks ahead.We're returning because I owe it to my father's memory, to my family and to my city. I'm doing it for the friends who've lost houses, jobs, everything, and can't come back right now, to help prepare the city for their return.
So, bon voyage, Brian. We understand why you have to go, that the same hand that converged the storm models on Bay St. Louis and pushed down the walls and loosed the flood, will someday steer you home. Come Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, the city will still be here, and we'll make room for you. When you finally make it home again , we will panee' the best parts of the fatted calf. Remember, the Wild Geese never lived to see it, but the Irish rebellion finally succeeded. We will somehow save this city from ineptitude and corruption at home and in the north, will clean out the bowl that is New Orleans, and fill it again with the gumbo you remember, ready for your return.

Since I don't any children myself, I'm perhaps too inclined to cut slack to the parents of school age children. In most cases, I can be sympathetic to any decision that they make that doesn't involve screwing someone else. Poppy Z. seems to go to the other extreme--most people who talk that have families, in my experience.

If you share the belief that the city doesn't seem to realize that the costs of waiting for FEMA to pay for things rather than marshall its extemely limited resources to pay for the things it could pay for, have outweighed the savings and set the recovery back a year or more, that's an entirely reasonable response. (Yeah, I know, that's an example of horribly mangled sentence construction) I might take that line of reasoning further than most, but it didn't develop in a vacuum--it's the product of many conversations. However, I'm unaware of it being an important factor in anybody's decision to stay or leave.
Excellent post, Markus. People gotta do what they gotta do. We came back early: in mid-September and would rather stay but one of our jobs teeters on the edge right now and if it goes, we may have to as well.
Beautiful post, Markus. I have another friend (IRL) who has returned after raising his family in Atlanta. Long divorced, with his youngest about to graduate from high school, he moved back, changing careers to do so, last November. Of course, you're all right. Everyone has to go where they can provide for themselves and those who are dependent on them. I also think that different peole have different natural responses to tragedy and, while some might be inclined to embrace a painful situation, many simply can't.
Beautiful post, Mark. I have been offline for a bit now but will be back shortly and addressing this issue myself from a different point of view.

My husband's father passed away a couple weeks ago, and then my 26 yr old daughter and my 6 yr old grandson moved here and are currently living with us---a really great but definitely challenging situation since we've been by ourselves for 8 yrs.

We really struggled with encouraging her to move here. She wanted to move here because she saw opportunity. She's right. I loved the fact that they'd be closer to us here. On the other hand, the what if's are staggering. What if there's another storm? We got our grandson into a great school, but if there's a disruption of school time like last year, how will that impact him? These are just the tip of the iceburg when it comes to our apprehension about whether we were being selfish in encouraging her. Should we have told her, wait a couple years, honey. Things will be better then?

We're still struggling with it, but they're here and so now our job is to help. Help the city as we've done since the day after Labor Day last year, in any way we can, and help her and our grandson to have a good life here. Maybe one day they'll be the ones to understand why our hearts are so merged with this place, and explain it to others who wonder why any of us stayed.

(BTW, it's been hard to find time to write when I have had to learn about how to tell Spencer from Thomas the Train! But my grandson and I hung a Jolly Roger in the backyard yesterday that I'd had for years. It had been in storage and was drowned by Katrina. It's a little the worse for wear, but since we were being pirates, we decided that probably some of their flags had been through bad storms too. He loved it and now I open my back door and smile as I see it flying in the freeze!)
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