There was nothing particularly special about the neighborhood. There were no historical buildings, no famous landmarks. It was home to a small shopping center, not unlike the strip malls you find anywhere in the United States.
The only difference at this moment was that it was under water. I stared at the picture of this familiar strip mall on The Times-Picayune website. At that moment, the picture seemed like my only connection to the real world. I had just completed my move from New Orleans to Gainesville, Florida a week ago. Now I was looking at what I had left behind. Water had risen all the way up to the Rite Aid sign.
There was a time that sign was a controversial symbol. When Rite Aid bought out the local drug store chain K&B, many residents were upset, myself included. K&B was one of my favorite places to go as a kid to scope out Halloween costumes in early fall, and of course, to buy chocolate éclair ice cream. That was the reason most people liked it – for the store brand ice cream. It was rumored that Rite Aid was going to continue to sell it, but after a few months, the ice cream disappeared from the shelves and was never replaced, at least, not with the beloved K&B brand. Eventually, we got used to Rite Aid, but in typical New Orleans fashion, people kept the memory of K&B alive by wearing t-shirts, buttons, even Mardi Gras beads, featuring the old store’s classic purple oval logo. The store was gone, but never forgotten.
At the other end of the strip, next to the Pizza Hut, was a P.J.’s Coffee – a local chain that managed to stick around, though this location didn’t hold the best memories for me. When I was a senior in high school, the boy I was dating took me to that P.J.’s and told me he wanted to talk about something important. I thought he was going to say that he wanted to be exclusive, to make me his girlfriend. After all, just a week earlier he told me that my kiss made him tremble, but we hadn’t yet had any discussion of this being a relationship. We grabbed an outdoor table, and as he began to talk, we were interrupted by a stranger with three dogs who asked if I would mind holding onto the leash while he went inside to get a cup of coffee. So there I was, holding onto three strange dogs, while the boy I thought was about to become my boyfriend told me, “I’ve come to think of you as a sister.”
I almost dropped the leash.
He went on to tell me he just wanted to be friends, and, not to worry, he would still take me to my prom. Gee, thanks ole buddy.
It’s not my fondest memory, but it makes for kind of a funny story, fitting the cliché: someday you’ll look back on this and laugh.
Even the parking lot itself held memories for me. When I was first learning to drive, my parents took me there after the stores had closed, and I practiced pulling in and out of parking spaces. Then I practiced driving up and down the strip center, from the drug store to the coffee shop. Driving in a straight line was a challenge for me, but if I did OK with that, I could drive home, only a few short blocks away.
Looking at the photograph on the newspaper’s website, I knew it was true. If the water had reached the Rite Aid sign, my old home – where my parents still lived – must be flooded to the ceiling. I didn’t know where my parents were. They had chosen not to evacuate, and until I saw that photograph, I was probably in as much denial as they were about what was happening.
But I don’t want to tell another Hurricane Katrina story. I’ve read more than I can count. I’ve heard the political slants, the conspiracy theories, opinions of ignorance and insight. I’ve heard the tasteless jokes, the horror stories, stories of inspiration, redemption, tragedy, courage.
After a while, I became sick and tired of all of it. I was tired of dwelling on the past, and I didn’t want to hear any new opinions. I even went through a phase where I avoided telling people where I was from, because I wanted to avoid the inevitable Katrina conversation.
It was just as so many New Orleans residents learned to ignore outsider opinions and get on with what they needed to do – whether that meant rebuilding their homes, cleaning up their neighborhoods, moving to a new city, or even burying their loved ones. There comes a point where you just don’t want to dwell on what was lost.
But I’m one of the lucky ones. I moved away right before the storm hit. I got to watch everything play out from the safety of my Florida home. For years, I carried around tremendous guilt because of this. I should have been there. I could have helped. I could have done … something .. anything. Why did I move away? This was a sign that I should have stayed. My family needed me. My city needed me.
Now when I go back to New Orleans, I feel better. My parents survived and rebuilt their home, and somehow the city has managed to get along without me all this time. No, it’s not exactly the same as when I lived there. But would it have been anyway? They say you can’t go home again. This is true. I can’t go back to the house I grew up in, because it’s been replaced by a different house, (though in the exact same spot as the old one). But I can’t go back in time and eat my favorite flavor of K&B ice cream either, or get dumped by a high school boy who suddenly thinks of me as a sister, or learn to drive again in a parking lot. These are only memories that have helped shape the person I’ve become.
Hurricane Katrina isn’t exactly something I look back on and laugh at, but at least I can look back and not cry anymore.