Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Blue Tarp Town

ROSE: Flying over a blue tarp town
Flying over a blue tarp town

Collective memories of loss and perseverance bond us together

Chris Rose

The first time I came back to New Orleans after Katrina, I'll admit that the whole specter shook me to my core. After spending eight days reporting in the city, my hands were shaking and I had lost about 10 pounds. It was time to take a break.

As I drove to Baton Rouge to catch a flight, I pulled off at the first interstate exchange with any life to it - Laplace - and went to the McDonald's and got a Big Mac, a fish sandwich, large fries and a large coke.

I inhaled the stuff as a I drove and, two exits later - Sorrento or somewhere like that - I pulled off and went to the McDonald's there and got a Big Mac and a large coke to sustain me for the rest of the drive, my own personal take on "Supersize Me."

After a brief respite with my wife and kids in Maryland, I returned to the city for more.

The second time I left New Orleans, Armstrong Airport was open and again my hands shook as I drove away from town but when I settled in my seat as we went aloft, my troubles, too, stayed behind on the ground.

I looked down over the region as we rose and - maybe you've seen pictures of this - the sea of blue color beneath me was nothing less than awe-inspiring.

At first I had this vision that I was flying over Beverly Hills until I realized all that blue beneath me was not swimming pools but roof tarps and coverings. It is the color that bonds us in these times, maybe even more than that weird purple hue that Rex, LSU and K&B seemed to conspire to make us love so many years ago.

The Blue Roof Town. Man, there's a great country song in there somewhere.

There are a lot of heartache songs in this whole ordeal, no doubt assisted by the syncopative double-whammy of Rita/Katrina. Somewhere, right now, someone is writing a song that will make Tim McGraw a million dollars; I just hope that someone is from New Orleans.

On my most recent trip back to New Orleans, earlier this week, I was waiting for my connection in Memphis and listened while the gate agent called the names of standby travelers to come forward: "Passenger Cheramie. Passenger Bettincourt...."

The gate agent's Tennessee drawl mauled these names but it was a wondrous thing, to hear these beautiful French names being called and to know that our people were coming home.

Settling into their seats, almost everyone turned to the stranger next to them and asked: "Have you seen it yet?"

It. That is our home. That is our place.

Such a haunting quietude consumed the plane as we descended over Lake Pontchartrain. You could tell that most of the people on the plane were coming home for the first time, and instead of the usual world-weary travelers burying their noses in paperbacks or trying to catch a last wink of sleep, everyone craned for looks out the windows to see what "it" looks like now.

It felt like a plane full of kids on their first flights, like they had never seen such a vista from the air before. And, of course, they hadn't.

I wanted to pipe up: Man, you should have seen it a month ago; it was so much worse. Or maybe tell them all: It's not as bad as you think it's going to be.

Or I thought I could harness more practical advice from recent experience and tell them: Whatever you do, DO NOT open your refrigerator. Ever. Again.

But, even though I have one of those profoundly annoying personal compulsions of talking to (at?) strangers all the time - particularly at inappropriate moments - I found myself lingering on some advice whose providence I have long forgotten (and seldom followed), but which seemed so apt for this anguished moment: "If you cannot improve upon the silence, do not speak."

Words of wisdom, to be sure. At a time like this, a flow of platitudes from a self-absorbed dilettante veteran of the War of 2005 - a dilettante with shaky hands, no less - is not what anybody needs to hear.

So I kept my mouth shut and let the passengers' heads wrap around what was about to happen to them when they got out of the plane and drove to their homes for the first time.

For some, it will be a foul-smelling but mildly comic discovery that they forgot to empty their Diaper Genie before they left. For a friend of mine who accompanied his mother to their home off Paris Avenue in St. Bernard Parish over the weekend, it was the discovery of two tenants in the rental side of her shotgun double - two tenants who had been dead for 33 days.

Wrap your head around that.

For those who return to the area and those who do not and those who never left, these are our collective memories now, our marks of distinction and suffering, small stuff like Aunt Ida's meatloaf sitting in your fridge for five weeks or big stuff like dead people on the other side of your living room wall.

Like our blue tarp rooftops, these are the bonds that we share forever. They are the bonds that will hold us together.

Columnist Chris Rose can be reached at


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