I Can See Lincoln From Here
The month before Katrina I quit my job, totaled my car and the cat died.
There are hundreds of thousands of Katrina exile stories and that's the start of mine. The day before the levees broke I was visiting family on a week-long vacation when it became apparent that my husband and I weren’t going home any time soon. After cashing out the 401K, we stayed out on the road for four months bouncing between family, friends and FEMA rooms.
We went on morning shows across the country talking about displaced New Orleaneans and I sang a version of “It’s Raining,” that I would not want Irma to hear. Ever. But it seemed to get the point across. We downloaded some of the thousands of digital photos from home as background - I didn’t have any photos of the wreckage until we came back.
As we received text messages from our musician friends around the country, Jeff and I founded the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund, Inc. The 501c(3) tax-deductibility was achieved between Starbucks internet connections and many, many e-faxes. It came through just as Wilco did a fund-raiser in Chicago and NOMRF was able to start sending out cost of living grants to displaced musicians. NOMRF has sent out hundreds of grants so far and may go out in a blaze of glory if donations dry up, but for now people around the world are still reaching out.
Being displaced ourselves made for strange interviews - whenever a reporter asked when we were going home, we would turn to each other and start to discuss it. A woman I had never met put us up in Milwaukee for weeks – she left a welcome sign, a bottle of wine and three cats. One was a jerk but it was a cozy place to stay and the scratches have healed.
My brother and sister-in-law put us up in a nicely furnished basement room. At the time they had a bald cat in an orange polka dotted sweater that seemed to run a temperature of 200. She may have had intestinal problems and after each noxious smell everyone would yell “Wendy!” My other brother would drop $50 dollar bills and say they were mine because he’s too polite to offer a loan. I wouldn’t have survived without them.
A commune on Martha’s Vineyard put us up while we went on the Plum TV Network. They kept telling us they weren’t a commune but the communal living indicated otherwise. I didn’t care for the draft from the compost toilet but it is good for the environment. They were very, very kind people as many across the country were at the time. I was looking for a new home.
At one point I called a woman from a housing web site who was offering a 1950’s Winnebego in Maine. Her grandfather had rented it to his tenant for 60 years at $100 a month. “And if you don’t like vegetables just ignore them because grandpa will leave them on your doorstep no matter what. The cows will probably poke their heads in the windows but they’re just curious. They’re more afraid of you than you are of them.”
I was intrigued, but we passed on the farm.
I barely consider myself displaced because we’re home so much, but we did rent an apartment in Bloomington, Illinois because there were no other affordable options in December and I was tired of not getting mail. Our apartment faces a giant courthouse dome with a statue of Lincoln. He sits on a bench and you can lean against him and relax. Sometimes people dress him up and that makes me more homesick than anything else.
The town is throwing NOMRF a Halloween Masquerade and putting beads around the courthouse so that’s encouraging. They have a giant No Racism sign as you drive into town and another one as you drive out in case you forget not to be racist.
And it’s good to be near my father who’s battling Alzheimer’s. Some days I’m his favorite daughter and some days I’m his favorite niece, but so far I’m still the favorite.
We’ve come back to New Orleans for a toy drive, the Anti-Versary, to welcome Joe Topping who walked from Chicago, Jazzfest, Mardi Gras, instrument drive, basically at the drop of a hat. My brother’s hint for making new friends here is “Stop talking about New Orleans.”