New Orleans is on my mind this week as the 5th anniversary of Katrina approaches. On the day the levees broke and my beloved city began to flood, I was on vacation in Maryland, just feet from a lazy Chesapeake Bay. It became a mockery, those calm waters, over the surreal days that followed, as my heartbreak became complete. It had been years since I'd been a full-time resident of New Orleans, years since the sorrow of my initial departure, but the tears and heartache were all too real, as was the helplessness that so many of us felt, displaced or not.
New Orleans was a city that left its imprint on me early in life. I had an odd childhood here, the observation of sorrow and brutal reality mixed in with the more normal childhood passions of neighborhood friends, games that lasted until daylight faded, bike riding and roller skating and playing dress up. And then there were the unique New Orleans experiences - the fever of Carnival season, crawfish boils and Saturday night seafood dinners with my grandparents, riding the ferry to and from Old Algiers, class field trips to the French Quarter, and weekend beignets at Cafe du Monde.
I lived in a large house, in a terrible neighborhood, where my parents ran a drug rehab center. There were mornings I awoke to junkies on the doorstep, another place setting at the table, cops who might pick up one person and drop off another, a swirl of multihued humanity becoming part of my everyday experience. My neighborhood was so bad that I wasn't allowed outside, except for my comings and goings to private school. Even today, I couldn't tell you much about my neighborhood, because I never really saw much of it. I can tell you what it sounded like, sirens throughout the night. Oddly enough, I can still be lulled to sleep by the sound of sirens, which served me well during my years in New York. There were adults who said it was no place for a child, no life for a child, but I am no worse for wear - perhaps just a bit more observant than the average adult, able to discern sorrow in the most benign of expressions.
My other, more normal, life took place over the weekends. I spent that time with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I had my weekend friends, my weekend toys, and all the experiences that most children in New Orleans encounter in their life here. I loved it. In fact, I loved it all - good and bad.
My immediate family left New Orleans just before I turned eleven. The sorrow of leaving this city is still so vivid to me. It ruined me for any other heartbreak, and I have always been able to say goodbye to other cities with little more than a backward glance. In the eight years that followed, I lived in three more towns and cities, none more than an hour-and-a-half from New Orleans, but it was never the same. There are cities that simply take hold of you and never let go. New York was like that for me, but it was the right city for the person I would become; New Orleans has always been the city for the person I was born to be.
It is no accident that I've returned here. It felt there was no other real choice after Katrina. It is my duty and my pleasure to be here, to help rebuild and strengthen a city. I do this with great love, for this city gave so much to me. And for those who question whether it's really worth it to rebuild, whether we should employ extraordinary measures and spend vast amounts of money to ensure its survival, I say to you with certainty - there's no other city like this city.