We know what we smell like, okay? Hours and hours under the sun or smothered by night heat have us sweating coffee, sweating Red Bull. The clench of old cigarette smoke. Fast food and soda breath. We are covered in pet hair or the sticky evidence of children’s fingerprints. We ceased to smell like travelers awhile ago. Now we’re full-fledged refugees. We can’t wait to get into the shower and come out scented, can’t wait to just sit with the towel wrapped around us, limbs spread wide to air out and cool. But before that we have to spread the scent through hugs and handshakes, the reintroduction of family members to our hosts. Or, for the lodgers, we have to shuffle to the counter, smile, hand over our credit cards, and act calm before they’ll give us the keys. In the shelters in the northern part of the state and across the border in Arkansas, in the community centers, high school gyms, and mega-churches converted into camps, the line we’ve been in since before we boarded the buses evolves and shifts. Lines for supplies, lines for food, lines for the constantly running, no-time-for-shame showers. There will be lines in our dreams. We’ve all got to wait just a little while longer, of course, before anyone will let us relax.
We explode wherever we’ve landed. The suitcases spring open and the clothes—warm, wrinkled, somehow moist—tumble out, get put into piles around the room or laid under cots. In the guest bedrooms we stack our boxes of assorted belongings, the things we don’t feel safe leaving in the car. The cat’s litter box goes in a corner. Coax her out from behind the couch and show her where it is. The dog is in the front yard, sniffing at everything and spraying. The shared bathroom gets cluttered quickly, all the women’s tools and bottles lined up in pairs or triplets, cords and plugs strung everywhere, waiting for their turn in the outlet. Our hosts push their food to the back and sides of the fridge, making room for ours. Some of us want to keep things equitable, so we label everything with magic markers. We know we are here by their mercy and fret over taking up too much space. The worry we have contained inside us about the storm starts to overflow and redirect into small panics about hospitality and cleanliness. In the shelters the rows of cots divide into little blocks, little neighborhoods, little family camps. All the borders are tested, overlapped by possessions and children and demands.
Yet we find a way to settle in, find the beginnings of our new and hopefully temporary patterns. When possible, the lives that have been interrupted by this mass migration find a way to unpause. Young couples sneak off to make out or lock the doors to the remotest bathrooms and make love in the tub, hoping not to leave a trace. Men with unaffected deadlines make phone calls, plug in their laptops, answer e-mails, push money around electronically. The thieves and pickpockets get back to work. Mom takes the kids to the multiplex (they look and smell the same in every town) to see the last of the summer blockbusters.
Yes, sure, we’d love a drink. We pop open cold cans of beer, stir up pitchers of margaritas, decide how many ice cubes we’d like in our scotch. The alcohol puts some of us prematurely to sleep, riles up others. With the stress and booze in our blood, not much is different from home: we get aggravated into arguments or find ourselves exhuming old memories. We laugh, if we can. The trash cans fill and rattle. The hotel halls are filled with people, unclaimed teenagers loose on disingenuous tours between the rooms, texting and chattering constantly. The vending machines empty quickly. We go four floors up or two floors down, searching for an ice machine that hasn’t been sapped. The gears grind against nothing. We wait for the water to freeze and form, for the next batch to overturn inside the chamber.
Cousins and uncles and nieces and brothers-in-law. Grandmas and old college roommates and family friends. These are the supergroups we’ve assembled for long overdue reunions formed under unexpected circumstances. Some groups bring along strangers, stragglers. Lots of kids representing the Bywater bohemians find refuge with their friends’ middle-class families. Their Depression-era costumes and freak-folk mannerisms seem so out of place now, sipping coffee from a Donald Duck mug in the wooded suburbs. Separated from the city, some of us for the first time, we are forced to acknowledge the different faces of America, all the strange ways a town can be arranged and operated. We all tell our stories, memories of last time, stopping short of saying, and if it happens again… We are stunned by the nighttime silence of small towns, made uncomfortable or impressed by cities that have found a way to divide all of their differing classes from each other with invisible lines. We taste regional food, suffer other women’s cooking, their odd ratios of spice and seasoning. Drifting through their grocery stores we can’t find half of what we need for gumbo or jambalaya and deep inland we wonder, ain’t you got no turkey necks?
Gustav is still taking his time, moving slow. We wait and wait for landfall, for the determination, for the result. We fear it, but we have to have it now. We can’t take the uncertainty too much longer.
The television is on everywhere. The national press is torn between two temptations: stretch out the long foreplay of another possible disaster in New Orleans or give in to the immediate gratification of Sarah Palin. We’ve all left, replaced by the famous faces of CNN and Fox News doing stand-ups in our neighborhoods, datelining weird prophecies from the tops of levees, filling in the rest of the country on what we’ve all known for years. New Orleans has patched up the holes, but done little to reinforce anything. We’ve waited for reports to be compiled, for budgets to be finalized, for lawsuits to settle. We’ve seethed at the Corps of Engineers and watch them test and test and secretly loathe their own responsibility. We’ve watched them miss deadline after deadline. We’ve waited for someone higher up to demand more. But these are just minor blurbs against another potential direct hit. They don’t make for good TV. Not as much as the images of empty streets, boarded up buildings, and the eccentric who have stayed behind. Not as much as that quirky brunette from Alaska and her daytime talk show life eating away at the tiny bit of gravitas that remains in presidential campaigns. We realize the people from the networks may as well be broadcasting from another country, that they understand nothing. We stream our local stations on the internet, imagine our favorites holed up in the studio, admiring their grandstanding grit. They know a little more, but not much. But at least they talk in a language we can understand. In the shelters its worse. The news comes in on small radios, then radiates through the crowd in rumors and garbled facts. The night before is restless, plans and scenarios criss-cross in fallible networks in our minds. At the bottom of it, there’s just no telling, and that’s what drives us impatiently mad.
Finally, Monday morning, it hits. Category 2 at landfall. The storm moves northwest through Louisiana on the city’s western side. Another near miss. The storm eats up Baton Rouge and all the small towns to the west, turns out all the lights in the southern part of the state, and urges the gulf to rush up all along the coast for a quick skirmish, but by the evening Gustav is weak, downgraded, tagged and filed.
We don’t know the extent of the wind damage, whether our roofs are intact, whether there is wild looting. But we know that the lake hasn’t been sent into a frenzy, that the levees have held, that we will be able to go home soon. Most of us celebrate. We stand over grills and pat each other on the arms. We let loose in Mississippi karaoke bars, gone on High Life and AC/DC. We let the kids jump on the hotel beds and order up movies on pay-per-view.
The mayor, the city council, the Jefferson Parish president, the National Guard, and the utilities companies all have differing opinions. The city is closed off by state troopers and local police. Any of the eager returnees are turned away. They have to take precautions, start clearing the major streets. They want power to be back on, mostly. They want the lights and the safety they bring. So we have to wait some more. Some of us are running out of money, can’t afford another night away in the hotel, another day of eating three meals in restaurants. We drive around and around on the highways, looking for ways to sneak back into town. Some of us want to know badly how our street is. The online forums are jammed with requests. People who stayed behind are biking through the neighborhoods with camcorders and uploading the videos to Youtube. The asphalt is wet, dirty, crowded with fallen branches and glass. We groan when they don’t turn down our street. We crane our heads as if we can see around the border of the frame, see through the video into unrecorded peripherals. The soundtrack is eerie: wet tires swishing and the rider breathless in the humidity. The city empty and exhausted after standing up to the winds.
We start getting in contact with people we know, people with advance passes (the gas station and grocery operators, the electricians and plumbers, the nurses and hoteliers) and assess the damage over the phone. The general consensus is that Those in Charge are being overcautious. Some of us take the news as a cue to pack up and hurry out. The city should be open before we get back. After another day of waiting the lines are forming on the interstate. Our numbers intimidate the mayor. There’s too many of us out there idling in our cars, yelling at the cops, even abandoning vehicles and walking in. He throws up his hands and announces the free-for-all. They remove the cones, open up the lanes. Be careful, they say. All right, just be careful.
For those of us with the luxury there is a self-imposed wait of another day or two. Let the others deal with the traffic, no doubt as bad getting back in as it was getting out, maybe even worse if all the stoplights are dark. We’re having fun, want another day with the family, want another day to transform the evacuation into a type of holiday—the Hurrication—to steal some joy from dark necessity. We want one more dinner, a few more drinks, one more night in that bed before the strain of being locked in the car again. We clean up after ourselves, launder our clothes, recharge the batteries. We write notes.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for letting us stay. Let’s just hope we don’t have to return the favor, that no one else ever has to face our annual threats and migrations.