When the saints go marching out

Published October 3, 2005

I was dozing on a screened porch in St. Petersburg, dreaming of home, when a call from out of the blue jolted me awake. My French Quarter friends Andy and Khaled, also evacuees from Katrina, were in town. I couldn't believe it, and held the cell phone tighter to my ear, pacing as we talked. After we shared specifics on Red Cross aid and how impossible it was to reach FEMA, they invited me to dinner that evening at their friend's house in Gulfport. My shapeless day suddenly stood at attention: No, I wouldn't be back home any time soon, but I'd be with people who understood what that meant.

Ever since I escaped the pitch-dark mayhem of a disintegrating city two days after Katrina slammed into New Orleans, I'd been surrounded by kind friends who had welcomed me into their homes like a long-lost brother. A vase of yellow roses appeared in the middle of the dining table, along with beautifully prepared meals. Freshly laundered towels were piled on my bed, and a pot of coffee awaited me every morning next to the newspaper. One friend loaned me her bicycle, another slapped my hand every time I reached for the check in a restaurant. I wasn't hungry and sick on a cot in the Superdome or Astrodome. I was flying first-class, but somehow all I wanted to do was jump out. The plane was traveling in the wrong direction, away from home.

I was there, but not there, listless and dazed. "Red wine or white? Coffee or tea?" my friends asked. I really didn't care.

My host treated me to a massage, and while the masseuse kneaded my calf muscles, torrents of nasty brown water swelled in my mind.

"Boy, these legs are really tense." The masseuse sounded alarmed.

"That's because I'm still running," I muttered into the pillow.

Years ago I had noticed the same shell-shocked gaze and twitchy muscles in the Asian and Central American refugees I taught at City College in San Francisco. I did everything but juggle fire to interest them in the English language and the culture of their new country. I spoke to them in Spanish or Chinese, and still no response. They stared straight through me, through the blackboard and the classroom walls, reliving an escape from a Cambodian rice paddy, an encounter with pirates on a leaky boat leaving Vietnam, or a crawl through a damp culvert from Guatemala into Mexico.

"But you're here now," I assured them, "safe and warm and dry. We'll take care of you."

But they backed away, paged halfheartedly through their texts, and glared out of the windows. They'd lost not only their countries and families, but faith in their fellow man. Like many Katrina survivors, they'd seen that only the thinnest veneer separates civilization from savagery. They had been there when the lights went out, and would never trust the light again.

After class in the hallways, these apathetic refugees would jump alive when they greeted friends from home. The most glassy-eyed of the skeletal Cambodians would be shouting like a cheerleader in the middle of a lively group of his compatriots. Whatever the news from home, what they were giving each other was even more essential: who they used to be.

Among the stately palms and banyans of St. Petersburg, who I used to be in the French Quarter was already fading into distant memory. I rode my bicycle from the Old Southeast neighborhood all the way to Pass-a-Grille, and along the way spotted few pedestrians and only one other bicyclist. Where are all the people? I wondered. What time does the music start?

When I met up with Andy and Khaled in Gulfport that evening, we clung to each other in a long embrace. Khaled, as usual, had prepared an elaborate feast, but I didn't taste a single bite. And I confess that I said little to our hosts, or even noticed who else was there. Along with another evacuee, a blond woman from New Orleans my friends had met opening a post office box, we sat in the middle of the living room in a tight huddle, swapping escape sagas and flood stories, nightmarish memories, names of friends in common, rumors, the latest news, our wildest hopes and fears.

"We'll be back by the end of the month," I offered, ever the optimist.

"I just read on the Internet that because of toxic sludge," Andy said, "the city may be uninhabitable for a decade."

The locals could only stare at us, startled by our intensity, as if a circle of Tibetan refugees had suddenly appeared on the floor of their sunroom, endlessly lamenting a long-lost Lhasa. All of our myths and references probably seemed as arcane as a foreign language. Slowly our group of numbed evacuees began to glow. All these weeks we'd been carrying around inside a lost New Orleans, like secret icons of the Dalai Lama. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, we suddenly made it come alive again, what the city had once been, and who we were there. St. Petersburg was lovely, we agreed, but only Lhasa was real, and we needed each other to prove that.

We talked and talked until we could almost hear a brass band strutting around the corner. But by the time we stood up to thank our hosts, the music was gone, and we were fumbling with maps of streets named after numbers, not saints.

- James Nolan, a widely published writer, is an alumnus of Eckerd College, where he was writer-in-residence for several years.