"I never forgot New Orleans."
~ Anne Rice
I went to New Orleans for the first time almost five years ago, in May, 2006, just shy of a year after Katrina.
People told me I wouldn't get it, that it was such a shame I hadn't been there pre-storm. I wouldn't be able to know it the same as those who had been there before the levees broke, before the SuperDome went far beyond football, before images on a loop of people on rooftops and the National Guard.
Maybe not, certainly not, but all I could say to them after I got back was that when I went there, my heart changed. I don't know exactly how much or in what direction it shifted or what difference it makes, but in some fundamental way I have never been the same beyond the usual way you're not the same after the chemical shift that travel and new experience cause.
I remember flying in low over the tops of RVs attached to houses that I'd see just minutes later from the cab on the highway. The water lines were unbelievable. The still-ravaged neighborhoods. Everything on the television was real.
And when I made it downtown, it was the people. The soul and pull of the people were realer than hurricane water.
I went on a so-called "disaster tour" put on by a tourism company, because I was told not to go to certain areas alone and I generally trust the locals with a little help from the concierge. The guide was a hustler, but beyond that a man whose home was destroyed, who spoke his particular Cajun truth into a boxy microphone while a desolate block drove me to tears.
If I'm honest, it was at that moment where my forehead hit the window and I wept silently into the glass that this city sprang through me like resurrection fern through cracked concrete. I never saw it coming. I don't know how you could.
I knew that man's loss as much as I possibly could for an outsider at the end, as he punched the steering wheel and cursed the tourists who didn't tip him on his drop-off rounds through the Quarter. I prayed I'd given him enough.
I go back at least once a year to this city now, lucky to have a friend with a house where I can stay, just up on higher ground. It is one of my favorite places in the world, some of my most comfortable streets to walk, music, food, vibe, air.
I get to go back tomorrow.
I don't know if how I saw this place when I finally did is how I would have seen it pre-storm. Maybe, maybe not. I obviously can't say. But what I do know is that only New York lives in me when I'm not there like this place does. New Orleans is my heart and New York is my soul. New Orleans is my soul and New York is my heart, either way.
My pictures talk back and tell me I love it, that I see its very best side.
And that's something I don't question. That's something no one else can know. My eyes are open to its challenges, to its darker edges, to the rough road many of its people walk.
But that's not all of it by a long shot. Thank God it survives, that it's still there, as water be damned it will never not be, not in general and not for me.