2006Public Service

The family's back

Where adults see darkness, the kids see cool
By: 
Chris Rose
December 27, 2005

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On Aug. 27, my family left our home in New Orleans with a duffel bag full of beach clothes, three sleeping bags, three teddy bears and a basketball.

I always travel with a basketball. It's my security blanket. I never knew how much I'd need one on this trip.

There was a hurricane coming to town and, well... you know the rest of that story. I returned to New Orleans a week later. My family wound up in Maryland, in the town of Somerset, just on the D.C. border, in the house where I grew up.

There has always been much hand-wringing over what you were supposed to call people like us -- refugees, evacuees, etc. -- but the terminology I prefer is that my kids were "embedded" at their grandparents' house. They became mini-celebrities in my hometown. Katrina Kids. A name recognized the world over.

When I went to visit, it seemed like everyone knew who we were. Several times, while trick-or-treating on Halloween, other parents stopped me and said, "We've heard about you." People gave us clothes and toys and tuition (thank you, Concord Hill School) and such an outpouring of generosity that it boggles the mind to realize just how kind strangers can be. My sister loaned us her car for four months, and if that's not love, I don't know what is.

My wife and kids used to spend weekends at my brother's house in Poolesville, Md. -- 45 minutes away -- and one morning, three bicycles appeared on the front lawn.

No note. No explanation. Just like that.

They'd heard about us.

We made the Somerset town newsletter, but not the local daily like some of our friends did in smaller towns across America. That's the price you pay when you become Katrina Kids in The Washington Post distribution area; you have to fight with Tom DeLay and Saddam Hussein for front-page space.

On the other hand, the crew at the local Starbuck's wouldn't let my wife pay for coffee when they found out she was from New Orleans, so it was a two-way street, the good and the bad.

My wife and daughter became social mavens in town; the women of Somerset smothered them with attention and invitations. They thrived. It is a great place, that old town. But the gig is up.

We said goodbye to our extended family and new friends last week, and here's the thing about that -- from the Can't Catch a Break files: What should have been the happiest day of the year for us -- our homecoming -- was actually Teardrop City, saying goodbye to my sister, my brother, their families and, worst of all, my parents, who let us turn their house and their lives upside down and asked in return only that we not break the frail staircase banister or destroy my mother's favorite old sofa and, naturally, we did both.

My parents are heroes. Among the tens of thousands of people who allowed their lives to be jolted by those of us who came seeking shelter from the storm. I felt like we broke their hearts when we left.

But my kids got to know them, and if there's one thing I can thank Katrina for, it's that. And also, my kids got to see snow, make a snowman, throw a snowball, catch flakes on their tongues.

That was a nice finishing touch.

But I'm tired of spending all my life surrounded by goodbyes. That's a lyric by Fred LeBlanc, the Cowboy Mouth drummer, but it captures my core right now. Every day, it seems, it's goodbye to somebody.

But bringing my family home also brought with it the very welcome sound of hello. It was a sound I needed to hear. Hello to all -- well, some -- of our old New Orleans friends and neighbors.

And it's funny: It wasn't until my wife and kids walked into our house that I realized I had been living with a bunker mentality for a long time.

For instance, I had cleaned out our refrigerator months ago, but the shelves were still in the back yard. My back deck was still a repository for seven red gas cans, even though I hadn't run a generator since September.

My closet and drawers were almost exactly as they had been the day we evacuated; I have worn two sets of clothes since everything went down. Jeans, T-shirts. I look at the suits hanging in my closet and wonder what use I'll ever have for them again.

What did I used to do?

Some folks say it's insane to bring children into this environment, this beaten-down town, and certainly there is merit to that argument.

Is it depressing here? Yes. Is it dangerous? Maybe. The water, the air, the soil . . . I don't know.

And there's little doubt that the kids have picked up the vibe. My 6-year-old daughter started writing a book this week -- a writer in the family! -- and she has a page about the hurricane in it and it says: "A lot of people died. Some of them were kids."

Mercy. God in heaven, what lives are we handing to these children of the storm?

Then again, there is much about the aftermath that amuses them greatly. For example, where adults see rows and rows of spoiling refrigerators fouling the side of the road, children see mountains of empty appliance boxes to replace them.

It used to be that, when a neighbor on the block bought a major appliance -- a once-a-year event -- we would commandeer the box and make four or five days of fun out of it. A fort. A playhouse. A cave.

With all these empty boxes around, I thought it would be nearly criminal not to make some lemonade out of all these lemons bestowed upon us, so I borrowed a friend's truck and brought six refrigerator boxes home and built a Christmas village for the kids.

They disappear for hours. In all the muck, you gotta dig for the magic.

When we drove to City Park the other night to look at the holiday lights, we plowed through blighted streets, total darkness, total loss and devastation on the sides of the road.

"Ooh, scary!" was all my son could muster. They thought it was pretty cool, actually, and I'm not going to call them out on that and tell them that, in fact, it's not. In due time, they will find out.

They will learn what went down in this town.

They see the ubiquitous brown stain that marks where the floodwaters settled for three weeks, and they see -- not the criminal failure of the Army Corps of Engineers but ... a bathtub ring around the city.

What other place has that?

They love this town, my kids. They had a blast in Maryland, but they all said they wanted to come home and they've not spoken otherwise since they got here.

They know that Al Copeland's house is all lit up for the holidays like some crazy Disney castle and they know we'll go check it out this week, and that alone, for them, is a reason to live here.

They'll go back to their schools in January and we will move on.

It's a big deal, what's happened here and what lies ahead. Rebuilding this city is history in the making, and my family -- as we're fond of singing around here -- is going to be in that number.

This is not just Anywhere USA we're talking about. This is New Orleans. This is our home. Our future.

It's a hard-luck city right now, and you can look at it as a half- empty, half-full conundrum, although, in New Orleans, the truth is, the glass is shattered.

But we're going to help pick up the pieces. Starting today.

Public Service 2006