52 Sundays, A Year After Katrina.

A Requiem for The Condo

It was the future. It was a place for my parents to go when both finished their long carreers. It was a home to my uncle, who lived there cheap, but was always there for a good laugh and a game of cards. It was a condo on the Gulf of Mexico, in a sleepy little town called Pass Christian. We simply called it The Condo. Other people named thiers, but not us. It was more than a name. It was a state of mind, a home away from home…

It was washed away 52 Sundays ago.

My father had gone to the Biloxi conference center for work. It was one of his last few road trips before he decided to retire. He fell in love. I remember the phone call to my mother when he checked in from there.

“There are casinos down here Con,” He said, appealing to my mother’s love of the nickle slots. “and a beach. And it’s an hour away from New Orleans.”
The last was important… No one left New Orleans. An hour was an eternity to them, and a nice road trip for us. It was close and it was private. It was the perfect place to spend our summers.

The search was exhaustive. It was me, mom, dad and my foundling brother Maurice. My parents visited every condo, every development for sale. I remember my parents last dip into real estate. They were contemplating a flight from Minneapolis into Bloomington, or Edina, or Minnetonka. I remember the poor real estate agent who showed us house after house. I remember mom decided that she wanted to stay put. I knew this wouldn’t be easy.

Once again, my parent’s showed a knack for punishing a real estate agent. Less was his name. He showed us condo after condo. It was an adventure! Open houses with the residents eying up the black potential neighbors. Clandestine notes of those looking to sell on the windshield. Appliances measured, balconies relaxed on and parking evaluated.

It was a chance trip down the beach that brought us to The Condo. Then an almost finished developement, it wasn’t much to look at. However, it was perfect, 1400 sq feet of wide open, single leve design. A large balcony fit for sleeping on, and a quiet, out of the way location. Best of all it had Joe. Joe was the developer.

“I build ships.” He said as soon as the introductions were finished. “Good ships. I’ve bever built a condo complex… If there are corners to cut, I don’t know where they are. This sucker is built like a ship. It can float.” And a good look around showed that it was more than a sales pitch. The walls were 10 inches thick. Spanish tile, and a whirlpool tube. Every component was top shelf. This was no fly by night development.

“21 feet off the ground.” Joe said. “22 feet was the storm surge of Camille, the biggest hurricane to hit here in a century. We built her to withstand another Camille. Although your feet are gonna be a little wet.” He winked. 21 feet was high. 21 feet was safe.

Everywhere we went down there bore the scars of Camille. There was a little toursit shop carved out from a ship boat washed 10 feet ashore from Camille. Every resident who lived through her remembered her. There old, 150 year old houses where flooded. There lives disrupted. Everyone remember Camille, she was a legend.

We had the condo for ten summers, no, ten years. Ten years of furniture, and vacations. Ten years of Mardi Gras and drinking. Ten years of my father and uncle playing cribbage every night. Ten years of me emailing my friends, telling them how bored I was. Ten years of a nice, easy existance. We had a telescope to watch the stars, and a foam puzzle parrot that was our official mascot.

Joe moved on to other developments. Then it was discovered that he used steel from a government ship contract to help build the condo. His father and brother killed themselves over the scandle, and he was to serve time. Ten years. He’ll be out of jail soon enough.

His condo wouldn’t be there though.

He built it well. He built it to withstand another Camille.

Katrina was not Camille.

We knew she was big. My uncled boarded up the condo and evacuated. Everyone with a lick of sense evacuated. Some didn’t though… especially those who lived in 150 year old houses. 150 years and as half as many hurricanes didn’t wash them away. Camille didn’t wash them away…

Katrina was not Camille.

40 feet. 40 feet of water, in a wall pushed by Category 5 winds. 40 feet of water wieght moving at 60+ miles per hour; the hammer of god. 40 feet was too much.

Camille had moved a shrimp boat 10 feet on shore. Katrina moved a Casino 100 feet or more.

40 feet of water washed away 10 inches of walls, and 10 tons of stolen steel. 40 feet of water washed away ten years of history, and an unknown future. 40 feet of water came and went, and took The Condo with it.

It was confusion those first few days. Confusion as to what was left, who was left. It took a news helicopter to show us that nothing was left. No 150 year old houses. No shimp boats or casinos. No tourist trap… and no Condo.

“Oh well,” my father said.”Such is life…”

I smiled and agreed with him. But I could help thing about those nights on the balcony, or those games of Cribbage. I couldn’t help but think about those nights after Mardi Gras spent in drunken slumber, or Joe’s dream, or that damned foam-puzzle Parrot.

I felt the loss, all those summers wiped away. All those things…

My father was right, they were just things, but things mattered I thought.

I was wrong….

I had lost a small piece of myself, but there worse things I could’ve lost.

That I would loose.

Over the next 51 Sundays.

Beyond the Levees

What can I say that cannot be said better? What can i write that has any importance? I feel like some distaff second generation son of a immigrant family writing about his homeland.

All I can write, all I can say, is what New Orleans meant to me.

You’ll have to grant me some pulp, so exaggeration. This is an old city, born of blood and emotion. Every step of it is history, both personal and epic. Every street has as story, from Desire to Frenchmen, from industry to Esplanade, from Agriculture to Taunte. Every house, every lamp post. New Orleans is an old city, with old ghosts, old dreams and history. History written in the blood of the innocent, the sweat of the exploited and tears of sorrow. History written in water.

I remember being 5, and being in my grandfather’s back yard. Being young and curious, I began to dig a hole.

“Don’t dig too deep now…” came my grandfathers thin, mocking voice. “You’re going to hit water…” That only made me want to dig deeper.

It was three hours, three cousins and three feet later when the water came bubling up. I remember thinking that no one could ever go thirsty… half a days work and you’d hit water. That’s the way I learned, the way I still learn. Cognitive leaps.

My dad took me out that day, to see the cemeteries. I could appreciate them now. Tombs everywhere, above the ground. History there in stone. There was no burial under the ground, there was not ground to bury them in. He showed me the ships that passed above the levees, above my head. Cognitive leaps. He showed me the river, and made me count the steps it took to reach it, 15… Cognitive leaps…

The city was besieged by water…

As I grew older, I came to get the feel of New Orleans. The city was like an old person, always dying, never dead. Perhaps I was tainted by my relationship with my grandparents. I was the youngest, and they were old, and slipping away summer by summer. The city seemed the same way. Corruption and dirt seemed to seep more and more every summer. The place stank of death, and brimmed with life. For every Mardi Gras, there were a thousand foundations crumbling.

New Orleans was like an old man’s memory, always better in the past. My parents would tell tales of great Magnolia trees and Oaks draped in Spanish Moss. My grandparents would gloat of misbelieve trees. “A man couldn’t go hungry with a misbelieve” and azaleas growing on every corner, blooming for only 2 weeks, but making the city an ethereal dream. Well, by the time I saw the city, the Magnolias were freeways, the Oaks were confined to city parks, and the azaleas were weeds.

What will I tell my children?

Once there was a city here… Once there were creoles… Once once once…

Not anymore.

The city was besieged by water, and then the walls fell….

127,000 people could not evacuate…

1 in 100 of those people died.

My Aunt’s house had over 12 feet of water.

My grandmother’s had 8 feet.

Everyone I knew had left the city except for my blind, paranoid-schizophrenic uncle. He stayed in his mother’s house, his house as he figured. He climbed into the attic, and cut through the roof. After he was rescued, he was taken to the Superdome. A friend of the family tried to take care of him but he was too difficult. They found his seeing eye dog 5 days later, alive, by some miracle. I don’t know where he is now, I imagine he’s in Huston.

That’s what New Orleans is to me.

A lost homeland, Moria. A place that my grandmother live for 80 years, and will never see again. 22 summers…

I went down there this summer. Saw the shell of houses ringed with FEMA trailers. PVC sewers above the ground. There was still water down below. My grandfather’s house was long since turned into a lot. Katrina turned it into a junkyard.

The abandoned cars had mostly been cleand up, mostly. But a few upturned carcasses littered the street.

New Orleans had fallen. New Orleans was dead

A fallen god, dead but dreaming.

What can I say that cannot be said better.

What do I know that others cannot say.

What did New Orleans mean to me?

A past I will never know… That no one could know.

“Ma belle amie
You were a child of the sun
And the sky and the deep blue sea
Ma belle amie
Apres tous les beaux jours
Je te dis merci merci”

Memories

Are our memories a gift? Or are they a curse?
Do we choose what we remember? Do we choose what haunts us?
Or are we gifted in having some small, foggy, piece of the past to carry with us at all times.
In some ways I envy those who have total recall. The depth and width of their lives are avaliable in their mind’s eye, ready, waiting. At other times, I envy Homer’s Lotus Eaters… To forget and start anew everyday, with out pain, with out sorrow, with out memory…

We mortals are stuck somewhere between. Between what was, and what was fogotten, given a small sliver of where we have been, what we have done, and who we have known, a bare nothingness to grasp on to. Something so small and so desperate that we at once hate that we have so little, and adore that we have so much.

I cannot hope to recall all that my father was… I wish I could. I wish that I had every moment, good, bad, at my finger tips. I wish that I had something more concrete that random recollection. Such is that nature of existence, immortality is beyond us, all of us. We all will only exist in the memories of those to come…And we shall fade, from memory to legend, and from legend to tale… and then we are forgotten. Such is the way of life, and death and humanity. And yet, there is so much that I remember…

I remember the dreams. Me, standing up there, all dressed in black, deliviering the speech that all sons fear to give. I had that dream for ten years before I lost him. Before what I feared came true. Before I lost my dad. There is an empty place, a place where someone should be. A place where you can’t imagine them not being. Sometimes when I go to my mom’s house, I look at the dinner table and his place is not there. Sometimes, when we watch the Vikings on Sunday, I look to where he would sit, and he’s not there. I miss our conversations, I miss our little trips, I miss my dad.

My father never wanted children. He made that clear enough. His father was a deadbeat, who sectioned either out of the military, couldn’t hold a job and cheated on his wife. My father, the oldest son, was the father to his siblings. No wonder he didn’t want kids. My mother, however, did… She wanted six, he wanted zero, so they had three. When she told him that she was pregnant for Nathaniel, he said “Oh no…” When she told him about Jennifer, the reaction was “Not again…” Me, it was “Con, you’ve got to be kidding me…”

Even though algebraically, it wasn’t a compromise, mom was happy. If Mom was happy, Dad was satisfied.

My brother and sister were born almost three years apart. My parents were the tail end of the silent generation, but their two kids were the harbingers of Generation X. They spent there childhoods in the seventies, and teenage years in the eighties. My mom raised them, my dad brought home the money. My sister always told me that they didn’t know my father very well as children. He was just a guy who brought home a paycheck, ane took them for icecream when my mom couldn’t deal with them.

I was born as my brother entered high school, and my sister entered sixth grade. My brother likes to say that he was entering college when I was going into kindergarden. My realtionship with my dad probably would’ve been the same, if my mom didn’t get sick.

She had a tumor the size of a golf ball in her stomach. It was 1984, no one survived a tumor the size of a golfball in thier stomach. My dad took care of my mom, my brother took care of the bills, and my sister took care of me. He was 39, my brother was 16, and my sister was 13. After my mother miraculously survived surgery and chemo, we were all changed. Than moved on to college, Jenny ran wild, and I had an 80 pound mother that was weak as a kitten, and a father that was forced to watch over me.

He used to love to read to me. Inviticus, and Hiawatha, and the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. The last was our favorite…He who loveth best…I remember his voice, deep and strong, and full. He used to emphasise the rhythm of the stanzas, and taught me the meaning of each metaphor. My dad was a chemist, but originally wanted to be an English teacher. He loved the language, and taught me to love it too. He read to me so much, that I learned how to read before I learned how to talk. Technically, I’m dyslexic because of him. And that makes me smile.

Jenny always said that I was his favorite. And perhaps I was. She said that they were never invited on li9ttle errands, they never hung out with the old man the way I did. He didn’t want them as part of his day to day life like he wanted me. She would always say that without jealousy, infact she thought it was cute, like dad finally learned how to be a dad….

I know I disappointed him with my academic performance. I was a terrible, inattentive student… He knew that I had a flexible, intelligent and curious mind, and every poor report card hurt him.Whenever we were alone, he’d describe a problem, and ask how I would solve it. He’d tear aparat my more fanciful answers, and smile sadly at my more creative ones… He sigh at the potential I was wasting in school, but he’d never lecture me. He believed that, for good, or for ill, I would become the person I chose to be…and that it was his job to guide me, but not tell me who that was.

My dad loved music… As long as it wasn’t rock or country. I grew up listening to Bob Dylon, Joan Baez, Neil Simon, James Taylor and Marvin Gaye. He also loved his hometown musicians: Marcia Ball, Professor Longhair, and the Neville Brothers. He loved that damned Irish Tenor too… and the soundtrack to Les Miserables. I, being a merciless teen, would make fun of each of those.

There is some much I could write here. If I had the will, I could write a novel… But I don’t.

I told him I loved him, that last night I spoke to him. I told him about my bathtub being backed up, and he told me to hire a plumber. I told him that was too expensive, and he told me not to worry about that… And then I said it. I told him I loved him. It wasn’t commont that I said that, but that night I did. I don’t know why but I did…

The next morning was beautiful…Clear and bright… cool but nice. I remember checking my email downstairs on my laptop. I remember the phone ringing and my brother was on the other end…He said that he would be at mom’s house soon, I asked him what was going on… he told me to call Mom… I remember calling mom. “It’s your father,” she said…”He’s dead…” I don’t remember sending the email into work, but I do remember reading it later. It was hautning. “I’m sorry, I can’t come into work today, I just got off the phone with my mom, my dad is dead.”

The rest of the day was a blur… I was the first one there after my mom’s next door neighbor Louis… I remember the paramedics pretending like they could revive him…He had been dead for hours… I remember crying when one said “I’m so sorry…” I remember the police officer calling the corener, and not needing an investigation… I remember my uncle coming in and breaking down and me holding him… I remember telling my sister not to play the irish tenor cd that my dad loved so much for the sake of my mother being there. I rememeber talking to the Star Tribune reporter, who was trying to sum up my father’s life in so many words… so few words… and that’s all I remember…

That day was when I understood loss. That was the day I knew what it was to cry on your own time.After that, I had to use all of the lessons my father had taught me. Rely on your friends, be there for your family, be strong for those who need your strength, but be aware that there is only so much you can do.

They say that the 31st is the day of the dead…367 days after he died. I wonder if he’ll come back that night… Part of me would trade every moment of joy I have from this day until the day I die to have one night to talk with him, to see him again, to hold him and smell him… to be wisked into his arms like I was when I was a child… To talk with him and joke with him and fix his computer after he’s broken it. Then again, another part of me hopes that he has passed beyond the cares of this world. Cares that weighed so heavily on his heart, that drove him to an early grave.

Part of me hopes, beyond everything I know and can touch, that when my time comes, on some far flung future day, I will see him again. I will know him again…

Now all I have is are memories…doomed to fade as we are doomed to die…faulty, forgetful and prone to lie.

52 Sundays have passed, my grief fades but always be there, taking up a smaller and smaller portion of my heart. I will laugh again, and love, and I will tell stories of a man named Alton Joe, who gave me everything worth having in life. And oh so many memories….

Dad

Do you still know me?
Will you still hold me?
Will I ever be
again in your arms?

Do you still see me?
Can you still hear me?
Do you still love me
from where you are?

I have struggled. I have triumphed.
I have loved. And been defiant.
And I’ve lost, and I’ve fought,
And I can forget, but never you.

Are you still out there?
Somewhere still waiting?
Anticipating
when I’ll come?

Will you love me?
Will you remember?
Will you embrace
your youngest son?

For I have been,
And I shall be

Only who I am.