September 15th, 2005

I Will Not Defame New Orleans.

Journey. Sans Steve Perry.

14 Sept., Baton Rouge, Our Lady of the Lake — Cancer Ward

It's been a long day and it's only 1:00pm. We left Nashville around 6:30 this morning to arrive in Baton Rouge. Our friend Greg picked us up from the airport. Now we're waiting for lab work results (I'm reading "Coping Magazine" for cancer victims — good tiiiimes!) for him before he drives us to New Orleans to see if our car that was left at the airport will work. If so, Greg will return to Baton Rouge and we'll go cat hunting in Metairie. It will probably be too late today to go to Clifford and get my kitties. We do not want to do this job in the dark. But Metairie is easier and not as dangerous.

I'm tired. So very tired. Scored some Xanax, which is helping me cope in real crisis moments of strategizing, worrying and stressing out. But the constant stress and strain of Not Knowing has gone beyond what I can withstand. Still I try to be strong. There is so much to do. So much to plan. Hard tasks to accomplish. And I'm not feeling as impervious and gung-ho-muthafuggah as I usually do. My performance is compromised. I am having a hard time breathing. Pains in the chest. Shooting pains. Kinda scary. Exhausted all the time, though not really physically. It's my brain and my spirit that is lagging.

Being so close to New Orleans, finally, finally, I am excited. I miss my city so much. And I'm terrified of what we will find. On the one hand, I need to see New Orleans in its torpid decay — need to see the damage with my own eyes. On the other hand, it's nothing I ever wished to see.

I want the next 48 hours to fast-forward on by, regardless of our successes or failures in our tasks, and regardless of what we find in New Orleans and at home. I want to be in our car, with lots of cats, merrily bopping up the road to Philly.

And I want Bush's head on a silver platter. But what's new there?

15 Sept., Jackson, MS, Hampton Inn

"Journey" isn't really the mot juste, is it. The rest of yesterday and today has been an Odyssey, and nothing short of it.

Greg picked us up at Baton Rouge. We drove to New Orleans, detouring off the I-10 at La Place and scootling down Airline Hwy. We got to the airport valet where I parked Ben's car before jaunting off jauntily to New York ten thousand years ago, and I almost choked with shock. Until then, we had seen buildings with wind damage, a few torn roofs, but the airport valet was completely destroyed. The huge inverted 'V' shaped shelter that houses the whole business had come undone and flattened dozens of cars as it came crashing down. Cars were vivisected in the lot, but a hand-written sign on the fence said, "We're open! Drive this way!" We went to the other entrance and met Stephanie, who, because Ben and I fly so much, knows me quite well. She was beaming, happy to see a familiar face. I gave her my valet ticket and we golf-carted into the lot. Miraculously, the car was not only safe from the crashing roof, but had never flooded. It started right up and I screamed with pleasure. Variable No. One was now a checkmark in the "success" box. There were so many more variables to encounter.

We then tried to drive to Greg's house in Old Metairie, which is almost in New Orleans. There were roadblocks and checkpoints, but through some sneaky maze driving through demolished, tree- and powerline-laden residential streets, we got to Greg's. The key opened the lock, but the door wouldn't budge. Neither the side door. I tried the kitchen window and found it unlatched. I pushed it up as far as it would go, about 1 1/2 feet, and slithered through the window into his destroyed kitchen. The refrigerator was upside down. The stove had caved in. The water line was four feet high, and there was still two inches of foul-smelling sludge everywhere. And a very scared cat yelling at me from the stairs. I sloshed through god fucking knows what and up the stairs to coax out the terrorized kitty, handing him through the window to Ben. Gathered a few other objects, and slithered back out the kitchen window. None of the doors would open due to the wood swelling.

We then drove to Baton Rouge to drop off Greg's cat and stuff (he opted out of the expedition as he wasn't feeling well, and we didn't want him around all the disease of flooded streets and houses). We stayed at our friends' Tom and Rosemary's who took us to an amazing Mexican restaurant and then, two pitchers of margaritas later, put us in a guest room with the most comfortable bed I've ever slept in. If it was to the quality of the bed, or to the end of a tremendously stressful day, I cannot attribute the blissful relaxation. Tomorrow would be even more difficult as we attempted to get not just into New Orleans, but all the way across it.

We awoke early, around 6:00am, got our things together and began our dubious drive to New Orleans. About 30 miles into it, Ben blurted, "We're fucked! I left the safe key at Tom and Rosemary's!"

He then began making negative comments like, "You know, we only have a 50/50 chance of making it into the city," and other disheartening things. I nearly punched him, but refrained, asking him through gritted teeth, "Do you think you can be more positive?" The shooting chest pains were returning. He understood, and switched his attitude. We drove the thirty miles back, got the key, and the thirty miles again.

Again, we detoured around La Place as the I-10 is shut down except for emergency vehicles. Airline Hwy. into Metairie. Familiar ground. It was past Causeway Blvd. that was unknown territory. We snaked around more back streets trying to get to River Road. One dead end after another. One completely blocks and destroyed street after another. Streets abruptly ending in piles of rubble. Frustrating, and slightly dangerous driving for all the sharp debris in the roads (a flat tire would have been just about the end of us), but no meddling from cops or National Guards who hardly looked at us as we tooled around.

Jefferson Hwy. seemed clear, so we took that. Incredibly, there was no checkpoint on this major artery into New Orleans, and we soon found ourselves driving down St. Charles Ave. amidst countless hummers filled with countless (extraordinarily cute) National Guardsmen. Again, no one gave us the time of day, which was fine with us, and we continued through Uptown, the CBD, across Canal, through the French Quarter, and into the Marigny and Bywater without the least resistance! As we passed through each neighborhood and got closer and closer to home, I breathed heavy, zen-like breaths, thankful for the progress we had made, and making all sorts of deals with all sorts of minor deities and demons if I could make it through the next neighborhood.

Crossing the tracks into the Bywater seemed iffy. National Guards had blocked the streets with sawhorses and concertina wire. They were out in droves with those huge, scary looking guns. But still, they took no notice of us as we drove past, found a tiny hole in one of their barriers, and crossed into the Bywater.

We drove down our street, passing Hummers coming down Dauphine the wrong way, and finally landed at Clifford.

My eyes were bugged out as I took stock of the house. No damage was apparent, and it seemed that the front door was actually closed! The reports of house lootings in my neighborhood had led me to believe no one escaped, especially not the really nice house on the block.

I went up the front steps and the door was locked! Oh my god, I thought, not only is the house standing, the street having never flooded, but the looters bypassed us as well! I unlocked the door and walked in to find everything exactly where it should be.

I went up the stairs and noticed at once the lack of Harley yelling her angry hellos at me, which I receive every time I leave for more than a day. No cat sounds at all were being uttered. I felt the initial pangs of loss and grief until I went into the dining room and Harley strolled out from under a chair, looked at me, and gave me a single, "Myuh!"

I grabbed her and hugged her closely against my chest and started laughing and bawling my eyes out, running around the house noting that everything seemed uncannily intact. This was beyond a dream come true, and Ben came to me holding his kitty and we stood in the kitchen laughing and crying and holding our stunned cats.

We looked in the backyard, and Gomez started meowing at us. We let him in and showered him with more kitty love. Theo, our little grey kitty, was nowhere to be found. We hope he's out feasting on tasty mice, and that he'll return one day. He's a scrappy little killer. I have complete confidence in his survival abilities.

Though Clifford itself seemed almost completely unscathed (a shutter blew off; a couple splinters of siding came down), my garden, which I had just put enormous time and money into, was destroyed. A large tree had fallen, and had it fallen one way, could have easily taken out half the house. It chose to fall the other way, and merely destroyed my fence. Another smaller tree was down. The hot tub was filled with green murky grossness, and, of course, all the plants I just put in were all dead. But seeing that the tree had fallen away from the house, I could hardly begrudge Katrina the loss of my garden.

I threw away all the food in the fridge, which was crawling with sebaceous maggots. The fridge, I fear, will have to be replaced. But, again, I can hardly complain. We were both feeling like a fucking angel was following us and protecting those we love and the things that mattered most to us.

We packed our office supplies, some valuables, some clothes and the cats in the car, secured the house shut, and drove on to nofunangie's and Keith's house to pick up a few things for them. Everything they wanted was in a closet, and with lights or flashlights, it was an unsuccessful mission, but at least I could tell them that their house was also completely unscathed!

In the time we had been packing our car, apparently Mayor Nagin had made an annoucement of a severe lock-down of New Orleans. So, oddly, while we had no trouble with the National Guard getting into the city, leaving was a bit more tricky. We were stopped at several points and brusquely asked our business. "Just trying to get out," we said, pointing to the three howling creatures in the back seat. In Baton Rouge that morning, we bought a bunch of Cokes and put them in an iced cooler. At each checkpoint, we handed our inquisitor an ice cold, dewy Coke, which lit up their eyes and made things a lot easier for us. A cold drink in a hot city without electricity is worth more than gold.

Eventually we got out of the city via Jefferson to Causeway to the I-10 west. Driving through this destroyed New Orleans, seeing all the trees down, the architecture damaged, and camouflage and Hummers everywhere you looked, all the while hearing the wonderful cacophony of our three saved kitties in the back seat, and knowing that our home was standing and safe — how can I describe the simultaneous, and profoundly strong emotions of both grieving for the city I love so much, and being reverentially grateful for the miraculous fortune which made Katrina give my personal life a miss? Driving up S. Carrolton at Riverbend, I was sobbing behind the wheel, and the sobs were an equal part misery and elation. Very, very strange.

We then drove out to Gonzales, LA to the Mega-Pet-Shelter to pick up our friend Rory's cat that was taken there. Rory is in Philly, and since we're driving up there, we offered to give the furry hitchhiker a ride. The pet rescue resort consisted of five enormous roofs, under which were hundred and hundreds of displaced dogs, cats, birds, bunnies, what-have-yous. The cats alone were in the several hundreds, and not arranged in their cat jails by any geography of where they were found, though each animal had paperwork on its cage saying from what address it was extracted. Miraculously (using that word a lot today, and with good reason), I came across Rory's Zelda almost immediately, filled out the paperwork, and we drove back to Baton Rouge to pick up the rest of our belongings.

We thought we'd have to ship some stuff forward after taking what we needed from the house, but I have twenty years of packing too much stuff in too small of a space, and so within half an hour, we had the car packed with our most precious belongings, and four cat jails with four confused animals in them.

We drove for several hours, landing here, in Jackson, MS, rather early (around 7:00pm), but it's been such a day, I just can't go any further.

We snuck the cats into the hotel room. I made them a litter box lined with a plastic bag filled with wood chips stolen from the hotel garden. Food and water in the bathroom. The cats have divvied up the room into their areas, with only Ben's deranged cat slithering around hissing at everything.

I am exhausted, but this exhaustion is physical. Some sleep and a shower will revive me. My spirit has been completely restored because of our successful endeavors in Metairie yesterday, and the numerous variables that proved successful today.

The moon is large and orange and beautiful, and with all the miracles I experienced today, I feel it's smiling down on me.

And I recognize the fact, and am grateful for it, and I told it so.

(Pictures to accompany this story coming in the next few days)

Addendum, 11:15pm:
I can't sleep. I thought, for the last two weeks, that once I was safely on my way to Philly with the cats, our stuff, and my boyfriend safely in his car, that the stress would subside.

I just took a Xanax to help me sleep. Should be kicking in soon. The funny thing is: I'm stressed about having four cats snuck into a hotel room. I'm scared of being yelled at by the hotel staff. And yet this morning, I didn't blink an eye at the heavily armed National Guard that I passed in umpteen clusters throughout the city as I drove my car with my forged, illegal entry pass taped to the windscreen. We could have been arrested. Or worse. Now I'm nervous about some hotel staff?

Ah, the Xanax train has arrived. Good night, all.