Sometime in the early morning, we leave a gas station and miss by twenty or so feet the on-ramp. The frontage road curls away and the GPS begins to howl. Charlie follows it a while. go 0.2 miles and take a right. We do this, passing perhaps ten driveways. go 0.8 miles and take a right. What? Why don't we just turn around in a driveway, I ask.
|Charlie pulls into one and begins to back up. There's a point where he stops and then decides to back up a little farther; even as he does so, I can feel inside that something's wrong, but the feeling and the action follow too closely and the van slides downhill away from the road leaving us in a predicament. Rocking, backing, down-shifting: none of it has any effect. It is 4AM.|
|About half of us sleep while the other half feed off of a hitherto untapped energy source generated by the ditch. A triple-A toe truck is out there somewhere trying to find us, but it's not clear that he knows what towns we're by. More than an hour and a half later he shows up and we, all cheering, clamber out of the vehicle.|
|I go back into a dozey sleep, coming in and out of consciousness as the sun rises. At almost exactly 9:15, I bolt up-right: it is time to begin the day. And such a beginning! The road we're on is elevated, the opposing lanes separated from us by a gulf and open space. We're elevated a good twenty feet or so and all around us there is a mixture of water, reeds, and unhappy-looking trees. Bayou! And it continues like this for miles.|
As we go on, we fly over a separate world of floating or stilt-walking houses and houseboats. Off-kilter power poles trek through the bayou at crazy-angles, supplying a tenuous connection to the outside world. I wonder whether they predate the interstate and what they think about it. Looking down, you can tell that they must clear vegetation from the waters beneath us, or maybe the run-off channels cut into the road create a toxic environment. There are questions about this road, but it's like none other, and I enjoy our trip along it.
Lake Pontchrain glides into view, we shoot a bridge, a few miles pass, and then the city grows up around us. I'm impressed by potted-roads, meandering utility lines (throughout much of the city these cannot be buried), and the haphazard intersection of urbanity and water.
We wend through New Orleans towards and (without knowing it) through the Lower Ninth Ward, terminating the morning's journey with breakfast at the Waffle House, and all its Important Decisions.
|Jake's leaving in just a few days on his bike trip around the country. Who knows what's going on inside his head right now.|
We follow breakfast by driving back to the Lower Ninth and parking by the group known as "Our School at Blair Grocery". Prior to Katrina, Blair Grocery was a family-owned grocery store. The owners' kids had gone on to work as lawyers, doctors, and at NASA—very successful. After the hurricane, the building, like so many others, stood empty for a time. Now its home to the organisation my companions will be staying with for the next week. They hope, one day, to reopen the store.
|While the group unloads, I poke about the store. The roads around the store are a mixture of asphalt and gravel, some of the houses have beautiful gardens out front, many are simply gone, and the rest are in various stages of crumbling. The whole place, right down to the drifting smell of dust and manure, reminds me vaguely of Haiti. Only, at this point, it's far more deserted. There's even a mangy little dog which, deciding I'm a playmate, begins to wrestle with my hand and leg; when the teeth come out, I beat a retreat.|
I end up conversing with a cute lawyer-in-training who's spent the past week down here from Georgetown University in DC. For the past few years they've sent an ad hoc group to help Our School at Blair Grocery with legal issues. There are the usual issues incumbent with managing a non-profit, but there are also issues relating to property ownership in the Lower Ninth.
One problem preventing people from rebuilding is joint ownership of property: some lots will have up to seven different owners and will have been in a family for several generations. Obtaining loans or selling the property requires notorised paperwork from all of them. Another issue is repossession. The City of New Orleans has been levying a $500 per day fine on lots whose weeds are taller than eighteen inches. OSBG has been trimming the weeds in order to prevent such fines.
|OSBG's involved with the urban farming movement, creating local sources of produce. They're also, as the name implies, a school—a home school—and the farming factors into that curriculum. This however, is something I don't know too much about because I left just afterwards along with Elora, Anya, and Charlie to go find the Other Jake, who (as you may recall) had flown down, though we didn't know his name at that time.|
|I drove us downtown and successfully parallel parked the fifteen-something foot van. I've been considering, with my new income source and continued residence in Minneapolis, that getting a car might1 be a worthwhile idea. Parallel parking was something I was a bit worried about, but now? HA!|
We found Jake in a hotel room and took turns using his shower. Lying, dripping, on one of the beds, I gazed out the twelfth-story window at New Orleans spread below me and felt happiness. Just a day ago, I'd been up in cold Minneapolis caught up in the swirls and intrigues of regular life, now everything was very simple and very new. Bripi and I spoke about this. One reason for traveling is that all your truths, obligations, and identities become immediate and localised.
The desk provided me some free toothpaste. If there's one thing I try never to forget when I travel, it's my toothbrush and toothpaste. Without these, I almost feel spiritually unclean. My phone rang. It was Bripi, and that meant it was time to go my own way.
1Maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe! I don't think I'm going to do it, though…