Chapter 1: You Can Always Go Home Again
It was a New Orleans summer night in 2007. Dusk was just ending and the air was thick, like a cocktail of air and water. I ventured outside to walk the dogs. The street was dark, weirdly quiet. I looked back at the empty house we’d just moved into, a rambling mansion by my standards, but certainly not by the standards of New Orleans, a world unto itself, a distinctly American city with a romantic European grandeur.
I wondered what the new house, and a new city, would bring us. After twenty years of holy and unholy matrimony—including storms, hurricanes, wars, disruptive house moves that James always hated, raising two daughters into teenagehood and our own separate moments on the frontlines of political battles, presidential elections, punditry pontification and, yes, if I can go braggadocio on you, even history—we had worked out a way of living together, staying together and being happier.
There had been too many trials. Even more errors. One thing we learned: if peace could visit us, even illusively, it required well-thought-out living arrangements.
James and I needed space. Mostly from each other.
To be happy under the same roof, we required our own offices, our own bathrooms and our own closets. We needed a well-functioning kitchen with a double sink, a big icebox and enough room so our family, all of us—true foodies and amateur cooks—could concoct our meals. We needed a dining room for big gatherings, a lair for mass viewings of TV football games, and a hangout place where our daughters, Matty and Emerson, could be with their friends, inclusive of but not restricted to pajama parties.
I had my own personal requirements: windows that open for fresh air, a garden where all my animals could run. I needed bookshelves, lots and lots of shelves for my old books, loved and cared for and purchased over a lifetime, way before I had girls who grew up to be book junkies and collectors themselves. Once it had seemed like a huge luxury, but I was now dependent on a soaking tub for temporary escapes from reality. A fireplace wasn’t mandatory but greatly appreciated.
James had his own list of must-haves. He gave me explicit instructions: if we were going to move to New Orleans, we couldn’t live in the French Quarter (tough for kids), we could not be on St. Charles (too much traffic), and we had to be near his work (he was going to try teaching at Tulane) and a place for his daily jog.
But there was more: the house had to have super air-conditioning (Southerners are psycho about their fake chilled air), a killer shower with strong water pressure (no longer available in the era of environmental wackos and efficient toilet flushing). And most of all, he needed a private space where he could close the doors and never have to interact with any of my animals. And a special “steam” component in the shower was not mandatory but greatly appreciated.
Nobody got 100 percent of the must-haves on their list. These were the grounds for opening negotiations.
On a family visit to New Orleans, I had gone house hunting alone. This gave me a distinct advantage. But there was no other way. James hates shopping for real estate almost as much as he hates snow. He opted instead for daytime drinking and lamenting with his sisters over his wife’s out-of-control materialism. I didn’t expect to find the right house immediately—who ever does? But after viewing five or six houses that were in the realm of possibility, and thanks to the astoundingly astute Realtor queen, Carmen Duncan, I discovered the grand vintage New Orleans home of my dreams.
I was sure.
I was in love.
My father had just died and I had a feeling that the house was his parting supernatural gift to me. It happened so suddenly, so easily: it was meant to be. I’ll admit, it was a tad pricey given James’s parameters, but the house called to me. And the neighborhood called to me, and all around it, the shattered city, a place I loved.
I telephoned James, breathless with excitement and flushed with victory. “You have to come immediately and see this house!” He complied, and soon afterward he pulled up with his sisters in tow—so many Carvilles squeezed together in one vehicle that they could barely exit in a civilized manner.
After Hurricane Katrina, I couldn’t stop thinking about the fragility of New Orleans. What really sets it apart from almost anywhere else in America is this: its survival isn’t guaranteed. Washington is going to be there fifty years from now. Dallas is going to be there. Nashville might get a flood or a tornado, but it’ll be there. Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, they’re not going anywhere.
In New Orleans, that’s never a given. The city’s permanent existence is never assured. It’s environmentally fragile, it’s economically fragile, and it’s politically fragile. After Katrina, it really could have gone either way.
I couldn’t believe the stories I was hearing back in D.C. I understood what it meant that the levees had broken and that the water was going to go to the level of the lake. But it wasn’t only that two-thirds of the city had flooded. It was that the whole culture could go under. So many musical instruments had washed away, and the musicians who owned them were scattered all across the country. Hundreds of doctors left. Schools closed.
I started having visions that New Orleans would wind up as a little spit of land on the Mississippi, the size of Key West. I could imagine us sitting around a piano thirty years from now, playing a couple of old songs and telling the kids how it used to be.
I’d been raised sixty miles up the river in Carville, a little town named after my grandfather, who was the postmaster. I’d already witnessed pieces of old Louisiana disappear. My mother was Cajun, descended from the Acadians who settled in Louisiana, and she and my grandmother would talk to each other in French. I remember being kind of embarrassed by that as a kid. I wasn’t the only one. After World War II, everybody just wanted to be an American.
These days, there are relatively few French speakers in Louisiana, but that wasn’t the case when I was growing up. I worked offshore on a dredge boat, and I’d hear people say, “You know what, I just can’t explain it to you in English.” There were some French-language radio stations, but they’ve largely gone off the air. As I got older, I couldn’t believe that we were so stupid, as a people, to lose that part of our culture.
Culture is everything in New Orleans. If you live in Washington, you have three airports nearby. You’ve got stunning parks, breathtaking public spaces. The museums are world-class, not to mention free. You’ve got a world-class subway system. There’s a real quality of life.
But nobody does culture like New Orleans. Most people know exactly what a Mardi Gras carnival krewe looks like. You’ve probably got a pretty good idea what a New Orleans funeral looks like. Our food, our music, our architecture, our second-line parades—it’s all very distinctive. Think about it. Who ever went to an Ohio restaurant and listened to Oregon music?
After the storm, the thought kept gnawing at me: what if that culture doesn’t last? I had come to New Orleans and used it and abused it as a young man. I’d go down to the French Quarter to get drunk and stupid. Years later, Mary and I got married there. I always had a deep affection for the place. But I’d never done that much to really support it. For so long, I had taken for granted that it would always be here, all of that emotion and passion and creativity.
When it dawned on me that it might not, I went from simply missing New Orleans to feeling this gripping fear that it might fade away before I could get down there for good. As much as anything, I wanted to get back home before home disappeared.