The first time I stepped onto the streets of New Orleans, it was Labor Day weekend in 2000. I had a brand new friend whose band was playing there, and a few of us decided to take a trip over in support. I left the city that weekend with an attachment that I never been able to really describe. When pressed, the best I’ve ever managed is that the city feels like the home of my soul.
Seventeen years and countless trips later, I am thankful I live a short day’s drive away so that I can make it over a few times a year. And although my priorities when visiting have changed since that inaugural introduction, the intensity of my love affair with the Big Easy has yet to diminish.
In 2005, like most of the world, I sat in front of my television screen, mouth open, heart aching as I watched the levees start to crumble and fail. A few miles away, a friend’s family had evacuated to his home here in Pensacola, and word slowly trickled in about their homes, their friends, and the remaining lives they’d left behind.
Here in P’cola, we knew a thing or two about hurricanes and the aftermath. Just the year before, we’d been on the receiving end of Ivan’s wrath. The hours, days, and weeks following landfall were nothing short of brutally destructive on my community. Yet even with what we’d gone through here, Katrina seemed intent on one upping Ivan’s attempts to level us.
It would be about a year after the waters receded and people started to return that I would make my first post-Katrina journey over. The farther West we drove, the more the destruction became pronounced. We traveled in near silence the last hour or so, and the FEMA Xs and architectural remains were constant reminders that while our lives had gone on, too many here were still on hold.
If you’ve ever been to New Orleans, then you know that there is a vitality in the way the city breathes; there is a life that it seems to possess. Yet this time, every moment seemed strained, and the shadows of loss and pain eclipsed the vibrancy that typically oozes from just about every crack and crevice in the Quarter. And even though the crowds were more subdued than I was used to, there was something deeper that just wasn’t there. It would be a few hours before I realized that the city was suddenly very quiet, and it was the music that always littered the air that was missing.
Until it wasn’t.
The low wailing of a trumpet drifted across busy streets. A tuba’s easily overlooked undertones started to stretch its legs, and a snare drum’s whispers quietly began to hum along.
We found the band of small boys—no more than 12 or 13—pouring their everything into Armstrong, and I cried the tears that suggest you’ve accidentally stumbled your way back to the place where it all began in the first place.
I don’t know how long we were there; everyone just watching and listening. We gathered there until the boys finished their set. I don’t recall any of us ever speaking to each other, but in that moment, I felt the threads that connected us. The commonality of loss. The struggle of rebuilding. The recall of memories and the ache at forgetting.
Those boys have surely grown into men by now. They may even have children of their own. Maybe some moved away; maybe some stayed. I just know that they came to represent for me the best in us, the strength in our collective ability to get up and get doing, when the world seems like it can’t get any heavier. They were the sign I needed to see at the time I needed it most, and their determination reassured me that we are all going to be okay.
There’s a storm moving its way through Texas’s borders right now. I want to be optimistic, but initial reports suggest it has been a rough night. The aftermath is going to take time to process, and the efforts to reclaim and rebuild even longer.
When we find ourselves pointing fingers and politicizing, just remember this—somewhere in some city or town in the storm’s path, there is a group of little boys and girls. Maybe they’ve been in school together. Maybe they lived in the same neighborhood. They could be waking up to destruction and loss on a scale that few of us will experience in our lifetimes, and I bet they are scared. They may have lost favorite toys, but they may also have lost access to a warm bubble bath in the chill of the air conditioning or a bed with their favorite superhero sheets.
These kids will manage to get up tomorrow morning—and the next—and they are going to need us adults to listen. To comfort. To remind them that while their world is in chaos, there is someone who cares and who is doing their damnedest to make it better. They are going to need us to give, and they are going to need to know it is okay to be on the receiving end of that giving sometimes, too.
Most of all, they are going to need to make music again. Not because they have to, but because they need the melodies and bass lines to get through the day. And while those kids are really going to need to find some sense of normal in the forthcoming days filled with uncertainty and potentially of pain, so do we.
To anyone in the path of this storm, my only wish is that you wake up this morning wrapped in the comfort of a home that is standing surrounded by people who care about you. To those who have friends or loved ones in an affected area, may they be well.
I think I’m going to listen to a little Louis this morning. Just to remember that day and those tears and those boys. The ones who survived the storm of a lifetime and who managed to keep on smiling.