Ruin and Rumination

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com September 25 2005 11:00 PM ET

I left Louisiana
20 years ago and have not been back since. I’ve
always promised my partner, Christopher, that we would
visit New Orleans

together—he’s never been there—so I
could take him to the places I loved. Like proper
tourists, I envisioned us standing through a too-hot,
too-crowded performance at Preservation Hall; having
late-night beignets and chicory coffee at Café du
Monde, followed by a walk along the French Quarter
levee; getting up for a breakfast of melt-in-your-mouth
fresh croissants and homemade hot chocolate at La
Marquise bakery, half a block from Jackson Square.

I feel guilty
that baked goods are so prominent in my mind when I try to
comprehend the staggering destruction and suffering the
people of New Orleans have endured in the past weeks.
There’s Anderson Cooper on CNN, slogging
through the poisonous floodwaters and yelling at the
governor about dead bodies, and here I am in Los
Angeles, haunted by the spectral scent of melted
butter and by memories of the distinctive clatter of the
St. Charles Street trolley through the Garden District. But
as former resident Christopher Rice points out in his
moving essay, we each grasp massive loss by focusing
on the one thing that’s particular to us. For
all the wreckage and tears I witnessed on the news day after
day, I didn’t shed honest-to-God tears for New
Orleans until I read my friend Chris’s worries
about the fate of his late father’s grave.

The devastation
of a hurricane—or a tsunami, or an earthquake, or a
wildfire—is just statistics until something punctures
your emotional defenses. Masses of struggling humanity
may leave you awestruck but unmoved, while the image
of one man clutching the beloved dog he can’t
bear to leave behind will reduce you to sobs. Helicopter
shots of inundated streets may look like so much alien
landscape until you listen to one amazing woman named
Charmaine Neville describe how she barely survived for
days and eventually stole a bus to get her loved ones out of
town, crying as she drove by people for whom there simply
was no more room.

Once someone has
made it real for you—as we hope some of the stories
in this issue will—what do you do? You donate
money, time, clothing. You write your elected
representatives and demand that FEMA get its act
together. You think of anyone you’ve ever met who
could have been affected, and you reach out to them,
see if they’re OK, see if they need anything.

For me, that
person was young Matthew Cardinale, a Point Foundation
scholar and journalist who has written for Advocate.com and
whom I knew was in New Orleans working at a shelter
for homeless youth. He rode out the storm, and for
nearly a week after the flooding his fate was unknown.
Then, finally, Matthew phoned from temporary quarters in
Florida to say he was OK. He just hoped his cats would
still be around when he got back to New Orleans.
Again, irrationally, I welled up with tears.

First the
croissants, now the cats. Am I so shallow? Maybe so. But if
I feel bad about that and pick up the telephone and my
credit card to make myself feel better, maybe my guilt
can do some good.