Friday, July 07, 2006

Monsoon Afternoon

It rained again today.

So what? you ask. This is New Orleans, where the weather forecasters peer into the past and tell us to expect 57 inches a year.

Still, the drought of recent years makes this seem a remarkable event. Before the flood came, the trees that shade our city were already in distress due to the lack of rain, and people were in a postdeluvian panic a few weeks ago when they found cracks in the levees caused by the lack of rain.

I had grown unused to a daily deluge. The drought in our subtropical outpost of North America does not compare to the decade I spent on the steppes of Dakota, where the average rainfall is 10 inches a year. I know those cracks in the levees. Miniature versions plagued my yard in Fargo if I went away for more than a few days in the summer. I could almost watch the earth heave and close as I stood over a garden patch with the hose after an absence. Come back in an hour and the cracks that crazed the ground are gone.

It seems this past week in New Orleans that the drought has broken, although it will take more than a week of afternoon thunderstorms to reverse years of not enough rain. Still, I imagine the cracks in the levees slowly closing up, and the grass that holds the cover earth on those mounds of earth and clay slowing greening up as water pours from the skies and is taken up by the parched ground.

I worry now about too much rain, as the pumps that drain the lumpy, camp pottery class bowl that is New Orleans are not in good shape. The flood after Katrina submerged them, damaging the wiring of the tremenous Wood Pumps that can move millions of gallons and hour. Then there are the new new storm gates that will close the drainage canals that carry those millions of gallons away when next a hurricane come to call.

I think about that as I watch the water running down the gutters to the storm drains when fan behind me stops whirring and the radio goes silent. The power has gone out again, a more mundane concern when the thunderstorms blow and lightening flashes, but too frequent in New Orleans. Nothing down here works quite as well as it does in places to the north, a situation the late flood has only aggravated. So for now, there is no A/C and no working computers in my home office, so I linger on the porch a little longer.

As the storm pours down around me and the fan sulks quietly in the corner, I think: gin-and-tonic, no ice (best not to open the ice box, old boy). Time to take up the white man's cocktail and succumb to the climate here on my comfortable mini-veranda. No, I correct myself.. Just because I'm sitting on a porch in New Orleans in shorts and sandals in the cool of the downpour, I am not on vacation. This is my home. Inside is my office. The power will come back, and I will have to take up the burden again, to make the world a better place through the automation of banking.

I pad into the house, leaving the front door open to let in the storm cooled air, and make my way back to the kitchen for more iced tea. Taking the advice of my inner nabob, I head to the back shed to take some ice from the trays in the outside fridge. Nothing out there but ice trays, nothing to spoil should the power stay out. As I open the back door to the house, the rain-chilled air rushes in, reminding me that the shotgun floorplan was not built for easy target practice. The design allows, among other things, for the circulation of air through the house, front to back. It is an accommodation to the climate from the days when light came from lamps and ice was a rare treat this far South.

Europeans and their African slaves lived here for centuries before the widespread introduction of air conditioning, or even the simple relief of an electric fan or an ice-cooled drink. They built lives and houses and customs that made it livable. I had learned to live in this antique climate before I left, to make the same accommodations. My partner of some years was allergic to the nasty critters that make their homes in the damp of air conditioner condensers, and are blown out with the frigid air in search of sinuses to aggravate.

And so I lived for a period mostly without air conditioning, choosing old houses built before even electric fans were common place, running up the water bill instead of the light bill with more frequent showers. I chose my clothes in the same, sensible way. When left back in 1986, I arrived in Washington, D.C. with a suitcase full of Haspel suits and short-sleeved Oxford cloth dress shirts, a straw hat perched on my head.

I was quickly corrected against such a quirky if practical wardrobe. Here in America, with ubiquitous air conditioning and in-the-door chilled water and ice dispensers, where Ready Kilowatt had spit atom and electricity would someday be too cheap to meter, my wash-and-wear suits and short-sleeved shirts were a silly anachronism, an affectation inappropriate to the serious halls of Congress. Never mind that the climate of Washington is the same as New Orleans, simply a few less weeks of it. I succumbed and bought a new wardrobe.

When I came home to New Orleans in May and became a full-time telecommuter, I had promised myself I would dress every day in collared shirt (perhaps a polo, I allowed myself), with chinos, shoes and socks. I would dress as if I were headed in to the casual-every-day Midwestern office I had left behind, the company logo pin we are all encouraged to wear clipped just beneath my collar. It would be, I told myself, an important psychological aspect of becoming a full-time home worker.

Yesterday I wore socks for the second time since I abandoned this resolution. The last time I dug through my sock drawer was for dinner at Galatoire's, and that seemed a worthwhile reason to clap myself from neck to ankle in tropical wool (dreaming of my long lost seersuckers), and pull on a pair of the lightest socks I could find. Today I still have on a polo adorned with company pin, but have reverted to shorts and sandals below the belt for most days at the office. This way, I reason, I can keep the air turned up and the fan turning and likely manage to both eat and pay the utility bill.

It's not slovenliness or affectation to dress this way. It's just how to live in a country where the air is as thick as rain even on a sunny day, where thunderstorms are as routine as the passage of the mailman every afternoon, and the storms can sometimes steal away your modern lifestyle, and leave you sitting on the porch with a glass of tea, debating whether to open the freezer to steal some more ice.

The mailman (who unknowingly prompted this entire train of thought) makes his way through the curtain of rain under a blue poncho, the top held off his face by the bill of his ball cap. I wonder when the local mail carriers stopped wearing shorts and pith helmets, something I haven't seen since I came home. People increasingly retreat into their energy-efficient homes and forget how to live here. It's not just simple matters of dress, either. In the recent past, we delegated the worry about our levees and drainage to the government, and forgot the world of the flood of 1927, when citizens mounted their own patrols of the waterfront and every man jack was pressed into service to keep the water at bay.

We paid a terrible price for that negligence. If we don't rediscover how to live here, how to live everywhere by accomodating to the realities of climate, we won't make it. I feel a diatribe creeping up my gullet, but I'll resist it for now. Today, I'd rather sip iced tea, watch the rain fall and enjoy the cool.

When the storm passes and the convection from the thunderhead is gone, the heat will come back like the wave of a tsunami. I'll get up and close the doors to the house, and trap the storm cooled air inside. I won't save the world, or even that much on my light bill, but I will have reclaimed some of what I've lost over the last 20 years, what all of us have lost over the last generation. I will recapture another small piece of how to live in a place called New Orleans.

Ya know, I only spent two years in an air conditioned school when I was growing up. Franklin, Karr, Alice Harte, all were AC-free.

Actually, I think at Harte the principal's office had a window unit so finding an excuse to go there was always a treat.

You tell kids that today, they don't believe you. It's like when you tell them that doubloons used to be way cooler than beads, and that spears were almost impossible to get, and that cartoons were only on for a few hours on Saturday morning. They look at you and shake their heads...
Yikes. My wonderful Middle Son is fond of saying, of the weather in New Orleans, "It only sucks when it's not raining."

There's something about living in synchronization with nature that just feels right. This is a very interesting post, Markus. Your return to NOLA, after so long, so far away, really has provided some insights that might have been lost on one who never left.

I remember unairconditioned schools. You guys have little kids. You can't possibly be as old as all that! ;)
I"m old enough (49) to remember not just unairconditioned schools, but a good bit more. (A streetcar ride up Canal Street for example). This post was inspired, in part, by approaching the city with both a knowledge of the past and a fresh eye, and I plan to try to write a number more in that vein. I find it increasingly hard to keep up with other bloggers on news of the day, when Oyster and Schroeder do such a damn fine job, and da po blog's back.
Thanks for the visualization. Though not a native (grew up in Massachusetts), I've been here for going on 30 years and love the afternoon rainstorms.

I'm glad you've returned to document some of the reasons that make this part of the country the most alluring, sensuous and dangerous at times.
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