Monday, April 25, 2011

"I like the struggle"


My partner Nancy was born and raised in New Orleans. She has tons of friends and family there and is deeply identified with the food, culture, music and weather. I just returned from visiting New Orleans for the first time. The architecture alone makes you feel like you're in a different country, but it's the energy--slow, humid, debauched-- that makes you feel like you're in a different world. Utterly refreshing. Old men with no teeth sauntering beside frat-boys in Bermuda shorts, both drinking from forty-ounce cans of beer in paper bags.... at eleven o'clock in the morning. Two hundred Catholic Bishops marching beside raggedy street musicians and a lone cop wearing a tight-fitting Village People-esque uniform. I never thought an uptight native Chicagoan like myself could enjoy the jello-paced lifestyle of New Orleans. I was worried it would drive me mad, but I'm happy to report that I loved it. All of it.

Nancy gave me the royal New Orleans treatment. She took me places no tourist would normally go, places I wouldn't have ventured to on my own.  One night Nancy and I went with our friends Simon and Nadine to a bar called Bullets (see image) in the 7th Ward. A man named Bingo set up a huge BBQ in the "neutral-ground" (basically a median strip) and his wife, Miss Fanny, decorated a long card table with vinyl linens, fake grapes and plastic wine glasses. We dined there before heading in to see the music. While Bingo prepared pork chops for Simon, Nancy and Nadine, and a massive barbecued turkey leg for me, Miss Fanny offered us some Chardonnay and then told us about her experience during Hurricane Katrina.

Miss Fanny's former husband had recently died and she was staying with some friends in Lakeview, an area of town horribly hit by the flooding. Miss Fanny and all the people she was with waited on the roof of their house in Lakeview for two days. They were finally transported to the a freeway overpass where they stayed for three more days. "The media", she said, "flew over us like we were animals in the zoo" ignoring the reality that those stranded on the freeway lacked food, water, clothes and places to sleep. After five days, Miss Fanny was taken to Lafayette where her information was processed and her family was able to locate her. She then ended up in Washington D.C. for close to a year before returning to New Orleans. Two of the three people I was with that night had also been displaced during the hurricane, but they sat with me, jaws dropped to hear Miss Fanny share the struggle she endured during the storm and its aftermath.

While we ate and talked, Miss Fanny, Nancy, Simon and Nadine (all who had lived through Katrina) nodded and smiled, non-verbally expressing a profound love and a pride for their city. Miss Fanny told us how her life has changed in the five years since Hurricane Katrina. Cocking her head and raising her eyebrows above her glasses frames, Miss Fanny told us, "I was doing pretty well before Katrina." Now Miss Fanny works six nights a week in a sports bar trying to catch back up to her pre-Katrina status. "But I like the struggle" Miss Fanny mused. "I like the struggle. Once I get some extra time, Bingo and me are thinking about getting a dog." After dinner, Nancy, Nadine, Simon and I went into the wall-to-wall people-packed Bullets to listen to music by local trumpet legend Kermit Ruffins. During Kermit's break between sets, one of the waitresses stuck her chewing gum on to the back of her hand and the audience whooped and hollered as she did a five-minute rap about Hurricane Katrina.

The day I returned home from New Orleans, I got a frantic text from Frankie telling me that a water main had broken at The SweatBox and the fire department was there breaking down doors and managing the flood of water. "A full-blown crisis" Frankie called it. Technically still on vacation, I did my best to let Frankie and the others on the scene take care of it. And they did. I stayed calm and rode the wave. Maybe this calmness came from my time in New Orleans--my exposure to the slower-pace, the absence of structure, the stories of rebuilding at every turn. Two days after our "full-blown crisis", things are almost back to normal for me and my little yoga studio. I can't imagine what it might have been like to live through a crisis like Hurricane Katrina, to have my life torn up like Miss Fanny. But, as I get ready to go in and finish cleaning up the studio, putting the pieces back together again, I picture Miss Fanny's gorgeous card table set up on the neutral ground in the 7th ward outside of Bullets Bar. Miss Fanny made something beautiful out of her struggle. And so will I.

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