(by Caitlin Corrigan) Note: A Post-Katrina Update: In a twisted turn of fate, Hurricane Katrina swept inland on the very day I was set to pick up a truck, pack up, and move to New Orleans. Instead, Monday, August 29th found me scrutinizing news and weather updates and packing half-heartedly, naively disappointed at our journey’s delay. As the afternoon wore on, the signs seemed good enough: limited flooding and damage, and Katrina well on her way up North. Okay. I went to bed late that night amidst boxes and suitcases, and didn’t turn on the television again. New Orleans had survived, end of story.
The following morning, my partner Matt and I started the last leg of packing, only to be interrupted by phone calls from family and friends, telling us of the stealthy levee breaks that had reduced the city to the teeming “toxic gumbo” everyone had feared. The figures seemed unreal–80% of the city underwater?–but the images we saw that afternoon were painfully concrete. Families on rooftops, hungry people “looting” unmanned grocery stores, the unimaginable crush of bodies awaiting rescue in the now infamous Superdome. The newscasters spoke an alien language, describing “two cities of New Orleans,” as if explain the chasm between those left behind, and those evacuated to Houston or New York or Chicago, glued, like me, to scenes of a drowning city.
I write this now from Buffalo, NY, where I stay with family, literally waiting out the storm. I feel lucky to have just missed this disaster, but also shocked and scrambling for meaning, for what to do next. Though I never got to live there, I ache for New Orleans, for the poor and abandoned, for the wind-stricken trees, for the buried homes, the pets in the attics, and the water, water everywhere, which has consumed more than a city, but a culture of both glorious decadence and unforgivable tolerance.
I first met the city of a million nicknames, my beloved New Orleans, my future home, at the start of last summer. The June sky outside Louis Armstrong airport greeted me in vivid pinks and purples, with huge, low-slung clouds and a sudden hug of early evening humidity. I was taken already, rushing headlong into infatuation as I boarded the downtown express bus to a little hostel just off Canal St. Did I know then that a year later I’d plan a cross-country move to the Crescent City? The bus ride wasn’t noteworthy–typical first and second ring suburbs dotted with chain restaurants and gas stations–but the feeling inside me, that anticipation of exploration, kept me craning my neck, searching for the city ahead.
I arrived at the India House Hostel, a rambling bohemia of three houses, one swimming pool, and a big communal kitchen cluttered with pots, mugs, and freeform murals covering most of its walls. This place, this colorful, full, layered mess of a place, would serve as home base for my week in New Orleans. With my traveling buddy, Maria, I explored miles of the city on foot, bicycle, and streetcar. We rode our rented cruisers through the Warehouse District under thick rain, we spotted a small ?gator in City Park’s meandering bayou, we ferried over the churning Mississippi to Algiers Point, and we listened to music from Bourbon Street to Frenchman, studying the mysterious, leaf-shrouded balconies of the Quarter as we walked.
Sometime around our third or fourth night, Maria and I, childhood friends and natives of Buffalo, NY, started flirting with the idea of living here. Oh yes, we said. We could definitely see ourselves here someday. Not now, of course, sometime years down the road, I thought, though it was uncanny how instantly I fell for New Orleans. It had the small town warmth of our tough, tender little Buffalo, and the gritty edge I’d seen while an undergraduate in Baltimore. I felt a kinship with New Orleans, a deep familiar connection that an acquaintance described so accurately when she told me her first impression of the city: “I fell in love with it the way I’d fall in love with a person.”
The week ended too quickly, and soon I was gone, far from the lush gardens and fragrant courtyards, the gumbo and jambalaya, the flat, curving streets so perfect for cycling. I missed the drenching sun, the flooring friendliness of nearly everyone we spoke with, I even missed the plastic hustle and bustle of Bourbon Street. Weeks turned into months, summer ended, and I left Buffalo for Portland, ME, where a graduate program and my partner, Matt, were waiting.
Portland welcomed me easily–a lovely city, small, and New England hip–but winter dragged on and I planned a trip back to New Orleans for the famous and fabulous Jazz Fest. My feet grew hotter as temperatures stayed low, and by the time spring came around, I’d decided to give my love a second look, and this time, start thinking about commitment.
Maura, another longtime friend and Buffalonian, met me for the festival. I stayed at India House again, and though it was just as funky, it wasn’t quite enough. I wanted a real home in New Orleans, not just a bunk bed to cram my body and backpack, but a home. We alternated walking and taking the streetcar to Jazz Fest, charmed by all the little single story houses squatting low and cheery on the streets near tree-lined Esplanade Avenue. The city opened itself up to me like an old friend, and I started trying out my plan in conversation with people at the festival and in bars and restaurants.
“We’re thinking about moving here,” I said to our waitress at Mother’s, a soul-food institution loved by tourists and locals alike. Maura had caught the bug by now, and the two of us courted New Orleans together, lauding its praises to any who’d listen. The woman beamed at us, a fellow believer.
“Honey,” she said, “I’ve lived all over the world, I’ve lived in New York, everywhere! But this,” she leaned closer, “This is where I was born and this is where I want to live!”
Helplessly enamored, I returned to Portland with near missionary zeal. Matt, trusting, adventurous soul that he is, quickly signed on to the plan, and our friend Tom jumped aboard as well. I scoured classifieds and posted ads, while Maura left countless messages with realtors and landlords. Nothing. We were asking a lot–four bedrooms, one cat, and a central location–and May turned to June without any good leads. I priced moving companies and trucks in the meantime, growing more daunted by the day. How do people do this? Just up and move across the country because they happen to love the way a place makes them feel? Because they love the sense of unshakable history, the murmurs of pirate ghosts and antique music in every old building, the fat green leaves trilling up balconies and eaves?
Then: an e-mail in late June. A flurry of e-mails, a phone call, and a lease in the mail. Could it be? Photographs show our future house–a century-old shotgun double, an old Creole architectural style where the rooms sit one behind the other, everything connected. It sits in Esplanade Ridge, the center point between sprawling City Park and the French Quarter and walking distance to groceries, coffee, and the secret delights, dangers, and mysteries of our new city.
I know my life in New Orleans will be banal at times (though honestly I can’t believe it), so I’m relishing these next few weeks, trusting this decision made out of love, and feeling the anticipation, once again, of arriving to a city with fresh eyes and an open, home-seeking heart.
by Caitlin Corrigan