Hello Again, My New Orleans
 

Kristin K. Fouquet
 
 

© Copyright 2007 by Kristin K. Fouquet
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

Photo of Zoe eating crawfish.

Epiphany

Twelve pounds of bright red crustaceans sat piled up in a steaming mound, saturating the newspaper with their spicy, aromatic juices.

“More crawfish,” my three and a half year old daughter, Zoë, ordered.

My fingers, yellow with crawfish fat, tried to regain their former skill and efficiency. Laughing, I said, “Okay, Okay. These are for you.”

As I placed the tails in front of my eager daughter, it finally hit me. I realized that I was home, really home.

From Here to There

A year and nine months is not such a long time if you leave a place, return, and nothing has changed. Yet in our family’s journey home again, much had changed.

When I was five months pregnant with our second child, Katrina hit New Orleans. The breaking of the levees flooded most of the city, including the house we were renting. With the loss of nearly all our material possessions and my husband’s job, we sat in an Austin motel room for three weeks wondering what would happen to us.

Thanks to a loaned laptop, the Internet, and Errol’s diligence, he was offered a new job in North Carolina. So; we packed the car with our toddler and cat and hit the road to start a new life in a place we hadn’t even visited before.

North Carolina is a natural beauty. It was clean. It had good schools and little crime. It was a great place to raise a family. Errol had a wonderful job. It seemed to be ideal. Yet, the feeling of home remained elusive. Errol and I were homesick.

Still, we gave it our all, even buying a house in the town of Cary. Errol and I continued to pine for New Orleans but we were committed to do what we thought was best for our children. We made some friendships and had some great times. Yet, after being away for a year and four months, we conceded that it was time to go back. Errol beseeched his boss and was surprised, though, to find that relocation was possible. It would take another five months to prepare for the transition. On Mother’s Day, we headed out, homeward bound.

Going Home

The return trip was more challenging because we had acquired another child and a household of furniture. With the kids in back, I drove the car while Errol and the cat followed close behind in a tightly packed 24’ truck. Listening to New Orleans music for the two day trip, I wavered between hopefulness and anxiety. I hadn’t been back to New Orleans since we evacuated, not even for a visit. I was apprehensive.

As we approached the city, I gazed in the rear view mirror. Both kids were knocked out. It was a fitting touch that they would wake up in New Orleans. My cell phone rang. It was Errol.

“Baby, you’re home,” he said.

I cried. “Yes. Thank you.”

A light shower fell from the sky, as if to mock my sentimentality.

We were still on I-10 but I could see the devastation of New Orleans East. I saw the torn apart houses and blue roofs that I had only seen on television. I tried to muster up some courage.

I saw the New Orleans skyline again and the Superdome. We exited I-10 onto Claiborne Avenue. Zoë woke up.

“We’re in New Orleans,” I said.

She peered out the window and squealed. “It’s beautiful!”

I laughed. “Yeah?” Noticing the trash on the street and the rundown businesses, I added, “This is not the beautiful part.”

After turning left onto Napoleon Avenue, I pointed out the hospital where she was born. She noticed beads, still dangling in the oak trees, months after Mardi Gras was over. I noted the restaurants that were still in business and those that had shut down. A drug store on the corner of Napoleon and St. Charles was gone.

Taking a left onto Laurel Street, my anticipation increased. I was about to see, for the first time other than a few digital photographs, the shotgun house we were buying. We parked across the street. The homecoming would be bittersweet.

The house was adorable. However, the promises that the renovation would be complete on our arrival were unfulfilled. The house reeked of paint thinner. The walls and floors were covered with a thick layer of gray dust. Appliances were either not hooked up or missing. The cabinets and drawers looked naked without doors and fronts. There was no hot water and (horror of horrors), the air conditioning was not working.

It would have been easy to escalate from disappointment to anger. Yet, we took a deep breath and accepted that we were home and this was a usual delay in the day to day life of a city on the mend. We took up the offer to stay at some friends’ home and straightened out our priorities by drinking champagne.

We were patient in the weeks leading up to closing the deal on the house, but in the end, all parties were satisfied. We had bought our first house in New Orleans; this was a big deal, since it had been an unrealized dream before the hurricane.

The Honeymoon Period

In the next two months, we were caught up in a whirlwind of activity. We reestablished relationships with family and friends. We ate raw oysters, crawfish, gumbo, and po-boys again. There were festivals: The Bayou Boogaloo, Greek Fest, Freret Street Festival, and The First Annual Seafood Festival. We went to them all. Wednesdays in The Square offered free music and a family friendly atmosphere. My kids danced to live music. We were having a great time.

Critics of the plethora of free music concerts and new festivals claim that they are a distraction for the citizens of New Orleans. They warn that they are a clever diversion implemented by local dirty politicians to avert awareness of the problems and delays in the rebuilding of the city. I think they are wonderful and reinforce the vital sense of community in a city still vulnerable and bruised from the storm. I’d go so far as to say, we need them as an incentive and reward for living with the daily stress of a broken city.

The collective personality of the city has changed. Before Katrina, there was a distinction between local natives and implants. This distinction no longer exists. If you live in this city and are committed to its future, you are a local. There are still many people who can’t wait to leave New Orleans and find a better life elsewhere. But, the people who want to be here are passionate about being here. It’s inspirational to see that passion in action. I had never seen such pride and determination in my fellow citizens. They have suffered, some more than others, but most are stronger for it.

I embraced New Orleans. I was motivated by the attentiveness and fortitude in my fellow Orleanians. I did my small part by painting the rooms in my house bright colors to cover the gray. I did some gardening. My greatest offering to this city was the mere act of bringing my children here. Zoë’s pediatrician had committed suicide shortly after the storm. Perhaps, he was moved by his skepticism of his patients’ return. Residents are grateful to see kids again in New Orleans; they are a symbol of hope.

Anxiety and Fear

New Orleans has never been a city free of crime. Many of her earliest inhabitants were murderers, thieves, and petty criminals imported from France. Some of New Orleans’ most notorious criminals have been high ranking politicians. Tolerance of corruption was sadly but humorously demonstrated during the 1991 governor’s race between the infamous Edwin Edwards and the former Ku Klux Klan leader, David Duke. Bumper stickers emerged with the message “Vote For the Crook. It’s Important.” Another stated, “Better a lizard than a wizard.”

Before Katrina, violent crime was high. I remember that there was at least one murder a day. I was scared but like many, I quieted my fears by repeating to myself that most of those murders were drug-related and in far away neighborhoods.

After relocating to North Carolina, we kept up with the daily news from New Orleans. Its crime statistics ebbed and flowed. Some heinous murders occurred. Citizens marched on the steps of City Hall. I was impressed by the march, not because I thought it would be effective, but because it was a strong message for a city that usually turned its head from crime.

Education and crime were the two topics we debated when deciding whether to bring our children to New Orleans. After finding a few good schools, we focused on the crime. We talked to friends and family members in New Orleans. Errol and I studied crime maps around the city. No one area was free of crime. In post-Katrina New Orleans, many neighborhoods were still in a state of flux. We decided that we would find a house in an area that we could afford and that was less riddled with crime. We would just have to be aware and cautious.

The Honeymoon Period ended about the time I heard that there had been violent crimes in our neighborhood. Two incidents occurred less than ten blocks away. In both cases, between 10:30 and 11:00 p.m., a man kicked in a woman’s back door and robbed her before sexually assaulting her. Errol worked from home but one request was that he had to return to North Carolina quarterly. For the week prior to his leaving in July, 2007, I was anxious and fearful. It would be the first time I would be alone with the kids. I was worried that I couldn’t protect them against an intruder. To calm my fears, Errol had an alarm system installed two days before he left.

During the week he was gone, everything was fine. The only major headlines were about David Vitter’s sex scandal. On the day that he and his wife were to give a press conference, I glanced out of my front window to witness an unusual and ironic sight. It was a sunny afternoon around 4:30 and across the street a couple was having sex in the back seat of a car. Directing my daughter away from the window, I mused to myself that no matter how rare an incident this was in New Orleans, it was certainly not something I would have seen in my quiet cul-de-sac in Cary, North Carolina.

After Errol’s return, crime came closer to home. We left the house one morning to see glass all over the street. A neighbor’s car had been broken into. Two days later, there were police cars around the corner. We never found out what had happened. One night, Errol, in our bathroom, heard shots fired. Soon, the red and blue flashing lights of the police cars were pulsating through our windows. Our next door neighbor’s son had returned from the store and had been the victim of an attempted car-jacking. He refused to give up his car; the car-jackers shot him several times in the leg.

Errol has already declared that if things don’t improve soon, we might have to move. I know he’s right but I’m not ready to give in. Fear, if given too much power, can run and ruin your life.

Crime is not our only worry in New Orleans. The hurricane season began on June 1st and will not end until November 30th. We have 89 more days to go. Many people live in a state of guarded anxiety, waiting to be told that they must evacuate. Most residents have their plans in order. I’m embarrassed to admit that we do not. I feel a little bit like a party guest who has arrived at a raided party. “What? I have to leave? I just got here?” Of course, we knew that another evacuation might be part of our lives. If a Category 3 heads towards New Orleans, we will be on our way somewhere to wait it out and hope that this time there will be something to come home to.

No Place Like Home

Why stay? We have friends and family in other parts of the country who scratch their heads and contemplate why we came back. It seems ludicrous to some outsiders. “So, you like festivals? Texas has a Renaissance Festival every year.” Or worse; maybe they think we are being selfish at the risk of our children. They might think that we are putting our children in harm’s way just so we can have a good time. Be careful, before you judge. We are also on a mission to preserve a culture.

In New Orleans, you quickly learn that you must take the good with the bad. We have inefficient city services, potholes, dirty politics, an unreliable levee system, crime, and litter. However, the good is very good. We have some of the best and most unique architecture, food, customs, and music in the country. We live with both the trash and the treasure. The litter is sometimes depressing. I occasionally pick up the debris from a night’s celebration like a beer bottle or a can from in front of my house. Yet, if things were too sterile, I wouldn’t have found a coveted Bacchus doubloon on the neutral ground on Napoleon Avenue, a three month old relic from the previous carnival season.

Another reason to stay is the people. You will never meet people like you do in New Orleans. They love life and the celebration of life. People here will throw a party for any reason. They are beautiful in their spirit. They are resilient. Almost all our immediate family and close friends live here. People all over this city are slowly building back their neighborhoods and their lives. My grandparents lost everything to Katrina yet rebuilt their house in Lakeview. They aren’t going anywhere. We understand that. People understand us here. We felt alienated outside of New Orleans.

Errol and I are native New Orleanians. That isn’t a real criterion for being a “local” anymore but it explains why we want our children to experience the wonderful aspects of this city, the same things that filled our childhoods with joy. We are fortunate that New Orleans offers many kid-friendly activities and places to visit. Along with the many parks and museums, there is a first class zoo and aquarium. Zoë wants to have a streetcar party for her fourth birthday.
 
Five days a week, Errol and I jog on St. Charles Avenue, pushing our kids in a stroller. Every Thursday night, you’ll find us at the Ogden Museum to hear music. Some patrons call us “the hat family.” Every other Friday, we’re at The Big Top’s Friday Night Music Camp, where the kids dance to live local music and make crafts. The music in this city has never been better. Every possible free outdoor concert planned in this city, we’ll attend. The four Fouquet’s will be at Mardi Gras, French Quarter Fest, Jazz Fest, Greek Fest, and all the others festivals.

In “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman writes, "If you want me again look for me under your boot soles." If you are in New Orleans, look for us. We are here. We are part of the landscape. We are New Orleans.

Photo of the hat family.

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