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How can I characterize my love for a place I only came to know after its devastation?

I first traveled to New Orleans in 2006 with a group of student volunteers half a year after the failure of the levees. The city never knew I existed until it was undone by Katrina’s storm, when it was ravaged and its insides exposed on national television. My love for this place is the other side of heartbreak, and sometimes the line between the two isn’t so clear. It is a strange kind of attachment, one that comes from seeing destruction, persistent injustice, and, sometimes, resilience.

Through a local grassroots relief organization, my group was sent to work in Violet, Louisiana, a small city in St. Bernard Parish, located east of New Orleans proper. Katrina pushed a twenty-five foot storm surge into St. Bernard, leaving oil-tarnished water with nowhere to drain for weeks. All of the Parish’s homes were declared “unlivable.” I knew little of what to expect, though I understood residents had to clear out the site of their former home to qualify for a FEMA trailer. Our job was to tear everything down, leaving only the bare wooden frame.

I thought I knew the scope of Katrina’s wrath from photos and videos, but looking out the window while driving into St. Bernard Parish for the first time brought the reality into razor-sharp focus. It was seven months after Katrina and all the traffic lights were still broken along the four-lane road into town. There were virtually no other cars and certainly no people walking down the street. No businesses were open. We passed a gas station where the typical T-shaped roof had completely toppled over, its legs folded and buckled. I saw rusting cars in the grassy median and a motorboat in a ditch by the curb. A small wooden house with light blue siding lay off its foundation in the middle of the street. Even the most iconic American corporation didn’t survive, the golden double arches of McDonalds bent into an unrecognizable shape. As we drove deeper into St. Bernard, the accumulated mountains of trash and debris grew larger, more sinister: couches, tree stumps, broken furniture, refrigerators, mattresses, and entire chunks of wall and insulation.

ImageI come from a long line of whores.

In my nine decades on this earth I have never uttered these words, let alone seen them written, in my own hand, indelibly staring back at me. But now, as a summer storm rages strong enough to send the Pontchartrain right through my front door, I sit with a curious sense of peace and clarity. My past is more than just my own history. Although this story shames me in so many ways, it is the legacy I leave. I must embrace the very truth I spent my life denying.

I come from a long line of whores.

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1.

On the day we call the cops on him, L. tells me he’s always been a fighter.

No guns, though.  He looks up at me from where he’s hunched, a skinny kid sitting on a rickety chair.  Not before what happened.

What happened before was L. was riding his bike and some bad boys shot him in the spine.  He wasn’t supposed to walk again.  He walks fine now.  He swaggers.  His khaki pants are too big and he cinches up his belt higher than the other boys.  I don’t think he can handle wrestling with the constant creep of a sagging waistline.

Next Week: Chris Christie busted for steroids–the inside story.

 

“The drugs!  Ditch the drugs!  He’s coming!”

When Pete doesn’t immediately comply with my frenzied request to jettison the narcotics I grab his backpack and attempt to throw it into the brackish water.

“Take it easy man,” he says, wrestling the bag away from me. “We’re gonna be fine.”

Stanton has no reaction. He silently and expressionlessly pilots the boat from his position in the back.

Seized by terror I pull my knees into my chest, bury my face between them, and tell myself that if I don’t look at the boat creeping ever closer this nightmare will somehow end.

The day I fell in love with Irma Thomas I drunkenly slow danced with the Abbey bar’s jukebox to one of her songs, waiting for the night to fall out of focus. She had a voice that culled drunkards from their cups, and brought them to their feet. Mostly, her songs made you want to get up and dance, drunk or sober.

I fell in love with her sixties songbook.  I fell in love with her voice. Most of all, I fell in love with the simple elegance of each song.

The next day, hung over at work searching to blot out the Quarterflash record Wes, the store manager, was playing, I realized the stunning eloquence of Irma Thomas. In the midst of Quarterflash’s soulless bleating I managed to reconstruct one of Thomas’s soul gems note by note. Quite a feat. I was really hung over. Usually, when Quarter Flash made their appearance- a regular occurrence- I bounded upstairs to the store room where thousands of New Orleans R&B and Jazz records sat in boxes gathering dust, ostensibly to catalog them, but really just to free my ears from the garbage.

I thought you OD’d.

Is that a question?

 

I mean, I keep hearing rumors that you OD’d –- what’s up with that?

I‘ve heard those rumors, as well – apparently, fans and others can’t understand why I would choose to lay low in New Orleans as opposed to whoring out my celebrity status after White Zombie broke up, so therefore I must be dead. I must say I appreciate the rock’n’roll ending they’ve given me, up there in the company with Hendrix and Joplin with the whole OD thing. It’s especially amusing since I never did any hard drugs, ever. In the past fifteen years I’ve had to respond to the question “Are you dead?” at three different points. It’s always an interesting phonecall to receive, and perhaps next time I will say “yes” just to see what happens.

 

It’s been fifteen years since White Zombie broke up –- why a book on your days in the band now?

It was in reaction to going through my storage room two years ago – I found about ten boxes labeled White Zombie, and began to open them up for the first time since I packed them and shipped them to New Orleans in 1996. This was because our management had contacted me for tidbits for our upcoming boxset at the time. With dread I went to dig through my boxes. What had ended as a bad memory suddenly exposed itself to me for what it was –- an amazing, triumphant adventure in an era that not many people know about, unless they were there. The whole story of us coming out of the ratty, arty Lower East Side and becoming a huge 90’s metal band is ridiculous in itself, but those bands, the intensity and extreme testosterone-driven music – it just brought back a whole world that is so distant now. I felt the need to share it.

 

Do you consider this a coffee table book, or something else?

The book did start off as a coffee table book, filled with my photos from backstage, passes and tickets, flyers and other ephemera. As I began collaging pages, certain flyers or photos would remind me of what happened that night, and I started adding written stories. As I did, people started saying “More of that!” So I wrote more and more, enjoying it a bit more as the details came out of the woodwork. It felt as though I was making a director’s commentary on a movie made in the distant past. I think the book is a hybrid – part autobiography, part documentation of the 90’s in rock and metal, part coffee table book.

 

Do you feel that using the word “chick” in your subtitle is self-deprecating and/or sexist?

No. I’ve never had any problem with that word. Who ever says “chick” in a bad way? It’s a funny and silly word. It’s the female equivalent of “dude”, and nobody has a problem with that being sexist! Those were the tags in the metal scene, and that is what the fans called me, in a very sweet way. I was officially dubbed “the chick in White Zombie” by Beavis and Butthead. They also loved the Butthole Surfers and Iggy Pop, so I am more than happy to claim the title from such arbiters of good taste!

 

When did you join the band?

I hate that question! I never joined the band; I helped form the band. Nor did I ever leave the band; we broke up. Ever since my ex decided to take the band’s name as his last name, the world has been led to believe that Rob Zombie is White Zombie and vice versa. This could not be farther from the truth. Rob and I started White Zombie, and while I was doing the graphic layouts and typography, he was doing the illustrations. While I was writing riffs, he was writing lyrics. In the first five years I did all of the booking and handled all of the expenses and business, due to Rob being extremely quiet and anti-social. It was a true band and family, and although Rob and I did most of the work, everyone worked hard and contributed.

 

You’re familiar with the worlds of music, art and design — did you find starting something new like writing to be difficult?

The realm is familiar to me, although I’ve never tried my hand at it before. My father was a writer and my mother helped him with all of his research and editing. (He wrote five definitive Hemingway biographies and became president of the Hemingway Society before he passed away.) Growing up with two English professors for parents definitely got me used to the whole process, and combining so many of my photographs with short stories definitely took away the intimidation of completing an entire book. My publishers, Soft Skull, were also extremely helpful by letting me structure and design the book however I wanted, and making it as long or short as I wanted.

 

Between your photography, design, music and now writing is there one area you would like to focus on?

I would love nothing more than to do one thing, and do it really well. Unfortunately, as soon as I start working on new music, I get an idea for a photography show. As soon as I start that, I get an idea for my designs. Classic Gemini behavior, I suppose. Since I can’t I manage to pick one, I can only hope that as I put more and more years into all of these fields perhaps each will become more refined.

 

What are you working on now?

Besides book tours? Writing with my New Orleans band, Rock City Morgue, preparing to record with my new band Star&Dagger, developing new items for my home décor line, and prepping for a new photography show. Now that Mardi Gras is over I might actually get some of this done. It’s not easy living in the Big Easy; lots of party demands.

 

Last words?

Have a good time, all the time.

 

 

I flew from Miami to New Orleans last weekend. There is a gallery there showing some of my paintings and I wanted to go to the opening.  Victor came along because he really likes the food in New Orleans.

At the same time as the opening in New Orleans, there was a huge on-line auction of outsider art.  We had previously sent in some bids, but you could also bid live, on-line, with the people on the floor who were actually physically at the auction.   Before we left the hotel for lunch, we bid on a wax replica of Tiny Tim from the Barnum and Bailey Circus.  He was around about three feet tall and wore a little suit, complete with bow tie.  It appeared that we won him and we were ecstatic.




We walked to meet Ronlyn Domingue and Todd for lunch at Galatoire’s.  I had Victor practice their names.  By the time they came, he had it down as Toddlynn and Ron, having gone through many other permutations. (One was Scrodlynn and Dodd.  You get the picture.  I really can’t take him anywhere.)

When they arrived, they were just so young and happy. It lifts your spirits to be around people like them.  They told us that they heard that only the hoi-polloi are given seats upstairs, so we were relieved to be seated downstairs with the hoity-toity people.  Oh, and they were genuinely impressed that we now owned the three-foot wax figure of Tiny Tim in a suit!

I learned that I had been mispronouncing Ronlyn’s name forever.  I was saying  “Dominique” as though it were French, but it actually is Domingue which rhymes with Meringue, the dessert, (not the dance.) Victor is not the most patient photographer.  Here is a picture he took of Ronlyn and me:



When we got back to the hotel we got back on the auction web site. We then won a seven-foot tall, three- foot wide wooden door painted by Molly Proctor.




We were really doing well.  Then we bid on something and the bid came up green and then it said that we won the item, also in green.  Then we realized that if someone else on line clicks the next bid on his computer a fraction of a second before you do, they win the item.

Tiny Tim didn’t come up green.  Molly Proctor’s enormous door didn’t come up green.  We hadn’t won them.

Bummer.

But now we knew the rules.  Coming up soon was a repulsive pair of wooden carved figures: one of a crouching naked man and a matching one of a woman with three breasts and, um, a hoo-ha.  I really didn’t want this item, but Victor really did and he promised to put it somewhere where I’d never see it.

When the picture came on we were ready to click to raise our bid if we had to, but nothing happened for a while and then they said they couldn’t find the figures and went on to the next item.

Well, after losing Tiny Tim and a seven-foot wooden door, we were livid.  Someone had actually stolen those two repulsive wooden statues!

That evening we flagged a cab to take us to St. Claude near Spain.  It’s just Southwest of Treme, made popular to the rest of the country by the recent TV show by that name.  The Gallery was a madhouse.  Andy Antippas is the owner of the Gallery and I think he’s always been in New Orleans.  The show was very eclectic and wonderful. The gallery was filled to bursting with interesting pieces of art.  Some pieces were beautiful, some were shocking, some were kind of nasty; there was something there for every taste.

There were so many fascinating people there of all ages, each with his own idea of appropriate dress.  Some of the attendees had piercings and oddly shaved hair, and others looked like ordinary businessmen and women.  It was really fun to be there among all of them.  The weather was perfect.  I felt good seeing some of my paintings lined up on their very own wall.

(This is the web site for it:  http://www.barristersgallery.com/
in case any of you feel like buying three creepy weird paintings.)



It had been a wonderful weekend.  The weather forecast called for rain, but it hadn’t begun yet. This was a good thing because the taxi taking us back to the airport only had one windshield wiper, and it was on the passenger side, and that lone wiper didn’t come near to touching the windshield, it just shook in the wind as though it had taxi windshield wiper Parkinson’s.

A few days after we got home, we got an invoice for the Molly Proctor door.  Victor forgot that he had previously sent in a bid for it, so we were bidding against ourselves!  (HA!)  Pretty soon an enormous door will arrive that will have the power to make me smile every time I look at it.

Hurricane Katrina was still 24 hours from New Orleans but I was already bruised, bloodied, and exhausted to the point of nausea. My fiancé Mike and I were up until midnight the night before putting boards on all the windows in the house and bringing all the porch furniture and potted plants inside. I’d hardly slept, but I was up early to finish battening down the hatches and preparing to ride out the storm. We were glued to the weather report and trying to decide whether we were going to ride it out at home or head for higher ground Downtown. Evacuating wasn’t a consideration.

 

The boarded up house was dark, and the air was stagnant, so I went outside to clear my head. That’s when I saw Mr. Anthony getting in the car. “Oh shit!” I thought. I figured we’d have a few of us on the block: the family across the street, Mr. Anthony, and the two of us. Everyone else had already high-tailed it out of town. The family across the street said they didn’t have anyplace to go. Mr. Anthony had lived in his house since he came home from his service as a Marine in the Pacific during World War II. Though well into his eighties, it was easy to see the handsome soldier he once was. Tall, neatly dressed, and with a carefully slicked back full head of gray hair. Despite his cane he still exuded the confidence of a much younger man. Of course I knew he was elderly, but I never imagined that a hurricane would drive him any farther than his porch.

 

I was trembling as I walked over to him. He was carrying his cane in one hand and a tumbler of amber-colored liquid in the other. Stupidly, I asked if he was leaving. He said he’d never left for a storm but this time he thought it was best. His sons wouldn’t let him stay alone and he couldn’t ask them to risk their lives to stay with him. They had families to consider.

 

I started to cry. He told me not to worry. Good New Orleans Catholic that he is, he removed his rosary and Father Seelos medallion from his breast pocket. He said, “I know you’re Jewish, but Gawd don’t care bout dat.” He waved the medallion in a circle toward all the houses on our block and said, “Father Seelos, protect us.” “Now,” he said, “we got nothing to worry about.”

 

“You kids staying?” he asked. I told him we were. “Well then,” he said, “there’s something you’ve got to do. You put on your helmet, tighten that chin strap, and … Semper Fi.” With that, he stood up more erect that he likely had in 30 years, saluted me, gave me a kiss on the cheek, took and big swig from his tumbler, and slid into the passenger seat.

 

Once the car had turned onto Magazine Street and was out of sight, I walked in the house and told Mike that Mr. Anthony had just left. “Oh shit,” he said.

 

Within a half an hour we were packing the car to head Downtown.

 

Now I’m usually incredibly uncomfortable with anything military-related, but there were literally dozens of times in the following days, weeks, and months when all I could do was put one foot in front of the other and ruminate on that U.S. Marine Corps motto, Semper Fi. Always faithful.

 

When windows exploded in the building where we sheltered from the storm. Semper Fi.

 

Watching desperately poor people ransack grocery and convenience stores for food, water, and diapers. Semper Fi.

 

My mother sitting next to me in the passenger seat of my car with a gun in her lap as we drove out of town. Semper Fi.

 

Waiting in hours-long lines for gasoline. Semper Fi.

 

Sleeping in the car and enduring the brutal August heat. Semper Fi.

 

Screaming at Mike in frustration on the side of the road somewhere in Mississippi. Semper Fi.

 

Realizing that I was making a huge mistake marrying Mike and breaking our engagement. Semper Fi.

 

Going to the cemetery to see if the family tomb had been submerged in the floodwater. Semper Fi.

 

Cleaning rotting food and maggots from my refrigerator. Semper Fi.

 

Filling and hauling I don’t know how many contractor-sized bags of debris from my house and yard. Semper Fi.

 

Ripping out walls and floors by myself. Semper Fi.

 

Deciding to sell my house and move. Semper Fi.

 

Saying goodbye to my favorite restaurants and coffee shops, friends, and my home. Semper Fi.

 

Making a new life in a new place where I knew no one. Semper Fi.

 

Coming out. Semper Fi.

 

Sleepless nights when I first adopted my daughter. Semper Fi.

 

Feeling the loss five years later. Semper Fi.

 

It was a couple of weeks after the storm before I was able to speak with Mr. Anthony on the phone. He was chomping at the bit to get home. He asked me if it was bad. I tried not to break down. I told him I’d remembered to Semper Fi. “I knew you could do it,” he said. I told him I appreciated his confidence in me but that I wasn’t so sure. He said, “Now you know if I didn’t think you could handle whatever happened I’d have gone in that house and told Mike to get your butt out of there.” And I know that he would have.

 

So it’s five years later. I visited New Orleans recently, and Mr. Anthony was on his porch, right where I’d left him. The only thing that had changed was that he had grown a mustache. He’s Semper Fi-ing through the dwindling months of his long, brave life. New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are Semper Fi-ing through the worst oil spill in history. And we’re all Semper Fi-ing through the anniversary.

 

RIP my former life

July 27, 1967- August 29, 2005

We got into New Orleans as it was getting dark, with no idea where to sleep. As Zara drove, I rummaged through her bag and found the card from the Holiday Inn we’d stayed at the night before and called their national helpline, aware that the battery on my phone was seconds away from torpidity and getting lower and lower.

I frantically navigated my way through the help menu options, stabbing at the buttons and praying that the battery would find a last ounce of charge.

At this point in time, I may or may not have been visualising Schwarzenegger in the final scenes of Terminator 2.

I was seven months old when I attended my first Mardi Gras parade. It was cold by New Orleans standards, so I was bundled up like a teeny tiny Michelin Man. From what I can tell from the photos, I couldn’t bend my arms, much less catch beads. I’m sure my grandmother took care of that for me anyway.

Mardi Gras nuts run in my family. My grandfather and great grandfather both rode in multiple parades each year. My grandmother’s house was right on the parade route, and her porch was THE place to be. She’d cook tons of delicious food throughout the Carnival season. She dove for beads and dabloons like a woman half her age and kept an ice chest of cold beer at her side to trade for the most prized throws.

I definitely got the Mardi Gras genes. At the height of my participation in Mardi Gras, I was in four parades and made nine costumes, including one for the dog. I bought my house in 2001 partly because of its proximity to a particularly choice portion of the parade route. When I decided to leave New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I set the closing date for the sale of my house after Mardi Gras so I wouldn’t have to find another place to stay.

I’ve been a NOLA expat for nearly four years now, and I’ve only been back for Mardi Gras once, the first year. I met other expat friends down there, and we had a ball. I did all my usual things, but it was different.

Since then, I’ve had really good reasons not to go back. In 2008, I had just started a new job. Finances were tight as I was still paying for the adoption of my daughter who would be coming home later that year. I teared up a bit in my cube that day. Last year, I was a new mom and not ready to take on the Mardi Gras crowds with my baby. We went home for St. Patrick’s Day instead. As I boarded the plane to return to North Carolina, I swore that I would be back for Mardi Gras this year.

The economy has caused me to tighten my belt quite a bit, but in all honesty, I could have afforded to go home this year if I really wanted to be there. Fact is, it just didn’t seem that important. As the time grew near and I knew I wasn’t going to be there, I waited for the homesickness to rear its ugly head but all I felt was, meh…

Mardi Gras is a magical time, but it’s more magical when you live there. Waking up in your own bed, wading through the glitter and feathers covering your house to find your costume, and making your way past neighbors who are dressed as butterflies, giant crawfish, or demon George Bushes is what makes that magic. Once you’ve had that experience and you go back as a tourist, it just doesn’t measure up to the memories of having Mardi Gras happen in the middle of your regular life. 

I don’t feel sad that we aren’t down on Frenchman Street this afternoon. I grieve that my daughter will never know what it’s like to run into her teacher dressed as a cancan dancer in the French Quarter. And beyond Mardi Gras, she’ll never be playing in the back yard on a regular Saturday afternoon in the spring, hear a brass band leading a Second Line parade in the distance, and run through the house to the front door to join the folks dancing behind the musicians. She won’t go around the corner to a neighbor’s house to get a lucky bean or delicious Italian cookie from their food-covered St. Joseph’s Day altar. Even though those things are really wonderful, New Orleans lacks many of the other things our multiracial family needs. Despite all the magic of the City, I’m not willing risk my daughter’s future on a place as fragile as New Orleans.

So it’s two o’clock in the afternoon on Mardi Gras, and I’m in a coffee shop nowhere near New Orleans working and writing an essay. I’m okay with that.

Super Bowl Sunday. February 7, 2010, 2:00 p.m.

If the hereafter has a switchboard, it’s jammed today.

There are prayers going out to the saints, for the New Orleans Saints. St. Jude might be getting a break this afternoon. He heard pleas for four decades, I’ll bet, for that lost cause of a football team.

My own grandfather requested divine intervention for his home team, year after year. Some weekends, I sat within earshot of him and my uncles as they shouted and prayed. Lord, the noise! Dear Blessed Mother, the fumbles and fouls! In my smart-mouthed youth, I might have asked aloud why they continued to cheer every season for such losers. I am almost certain I, too, muttered the slur, The Ain’ts. All involved, please accept my apology.

In a certain Web 2.0 kind of way, I’ve checked out of mainstream media. I loathe the local radio stations where I live, and in an effort to save money, I’ve disconnected my cable TV.

As soon as we entered the aquarium, I heard a familiar yet unidentified sound. As we got closer, the little hairs on my forearms stood on end. I could see what it was before we crossed the threshold. An indoor waterfall. That’s really cool. It was aesthetically pleasing. Many people find the sound of water soothing.

So why was I beginning to quiver? Why was I sweating? Why did I feel compelled to run?

In order to keep my toddler from falling headlong into the exhibit, I approached the waterfall. For some reason, I looked up. The nanosecond I spied the juxtaposition of the waterfall and the timber ceiling, my knees buckled a little and the room began to spin.

I felt certain that I’d vomit if I did not get out of that room and away from the sound. I corralled the kiddo and, in a fake sing-song voice, calmly encouraged her into the next room. But the sound was reverberating in there, too. And the next one. Finally, I spotted the river otter exhibit ahead and bribed her along with the promise of furry cuteness.

It worked, but I couldn’t stop shaking. I tried to breathe. I took an overly generous dose of a homeopathic remedy I carry in my bag for the babe. I knew I was having a PTSD moment and I knew exactly why: Hurricane freakin’ Katrina.

I was supposed to be done with this. Katrina was four and half years ago. I was cured of my helicopter and breaking glass-related PTSD symptoms years ago by cranial sacral therapy. Fuck.

************
I rode out Hurricane Katrina in a turn-of-the-20th-century warehouse near downtown New Orleans with my then fiancé, my mother, my fiancé’s friend, two dogs, and four cats. It wasn’t just a random warehouse mind you. It had been renovated into an arts center in the 1980’s, and my fiancé worked there.

Since we were in an interior gallery space with no windows, the majority of my memories of the storm itself are aural rather than visual. That is except the waterfall, which is traumatically both.

I can’t say how long Katrina raged. It felt like days, weeks, months, but was likely only a few hours. During the full fury of the storm, the wind made a crazy whooping noise. It would start slow and relatively quiet. It sounded circular. The level and speed of the sound would eventually reach a crescendo that felt completely intolerable and then there would be a loud crash of windows shattering followed by a moment of eerie silence. Then it would start again, low and slow on its way to crazy loud and the inevitable crash.

At one point I realized that my joints ached from my clenching in panic. I harkened back to a friend’s story of her highly successful natural childbirth experience, where she relaxed more and more in direct opposition to the intensity of the pain.

I tried it, and it worked. I was impressed with my new-found ability to remain clam and self-soothe.

At one point, something above us exploded. I mean really exploded. The huge, century-old brick building shook as if made of paper. I wondered if anyone knew the identities of everyone sheltered in the building. They knew about my fiancé (he worked there), and they knew I was with him, but what about my mother? Would they have to identify her body through comparing her DNA to mine? What about my fiancé’s friend? The dogs and cats, would they be buried properly or scraped into a dumpster?

My relaxation techniques were much less effective after that.

Toward the end of the storm, we heard the craziest sound ever, like rushing water. We gingerly made our way to the door of the gallery where we sheltered and peeked out of our second floor perch into the four-floor foyer of the building and saw… a four-story indoor waterfall. It was one of the most extraordinary things I’d ever seen.

We wouldn’t find out until later that the water had come from the sprinkler system reservoir that was located on the roof, which had exploded during the storm, most likely from pressure or wind. But without this knowledge, we were pretty dumbfounded. It was so much damn water.

I have to admit, I didn’t think about the danger of the situation or the potential damage to the artwork. Instead, all I could think about was the shattered windows and water, water everywhere. They would never get this cleaned up and repaired in ten weeks.

Why was ten weeks so important, you ask? Well, we were supposed to get married in the exact spot where the thousands of gallons of water were landing and pooling.

Was this a bad omen? Why, yes. Yes, it was.

A couple of weeks later, while exiled in North Carolina, I would walk away from this relationship and into a future I could never have imagined.

************
Four and a half years later, I was in an aquarium on the North Carolina coast with my two-year-old daughter, and yet I wasn’t there. I was back in that warehouse with the four-story waterfall. The space-time continuum was disrupted.

Not for long, of course. The river otters calmed me. Plus, the mommy role trumps PTSD. I was back to doling out her snack, wiping her nose, and discussing fish poop in no time.

But the experience left me wondering, how many other ticking time bombs are out there? Will I one day freak out while sitting my rocking chair at the old-age home because I hear or see something that reminds me of Katrina? I guess I won’t know unless it happens. Until then I’ll just make snacks, wipe noses, and talk about poop. After all, how often do you encounter an indoor waterfall?

Like a grown-up version of musical chairs, speed dating was all the rage during the post-9/11 urge to merge. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center left some couples clinging to each other as if their very survival depended on it. Other relationships snapped under the pressure. Young singles who were previously perfectly happy on their own suddenly felt compelled to pair off.

As with everything in those frightening months, time was of the essence. Activities that separated the wheat from the chaff were in high demand. We wanted to spend quality time with our loved ones, write our wills, donate to patriotic causes, and contemplate the meaning of life. All of this while being slightly suspicious of everyone around us.

Speed dating was just what the doctor ordered: a single location for multiple, time-limited dates in one evening without the bother of having to offer or receive awkward rejections.

Several months after the traumatic break-up of my almost three-year relationship, my friend Karen asked me to accompany her to a speed dating event. While I knew that we were both feeling the urge to merge ourselves, I was stunned that she’d consider such a thing. Of course I told her no way, but she reminded me that I hadn’t had a single date since my break-up. I honestly don’t know what possessed me, but I agreed.

The plan was that we would meet in the restaurant’s bar where the event was being held. That way, we could walk into the special event room together. The bar was filled with couples holding hands while they waited for their tables. The tables were filled with couples who ate from each other’s plates and finished each other’s sentences. The acoustics created by the high ceiling in the cavernous space made for a carnival-like experience. I waited and waited. Finally, my phone rang. I started for the exit as soon as I saw Karen’s number on the caller ID. Of course she wasn’t coming. Stuck at work. Of course I wasn’t staying.

Then she reminded me that I had already paid for the event so I may as well attend. I should “be open to possibilities.” She wanted a full report later, and she offered that perhaps the evening would make a funny story one day.

Um, yeah right…

I walked through the dining room filled with happy couples toward the event room. Dead woman walking. Perhaps I should have paused for my last meal. The Pasta Bolognese smelled amazing.

For some reason, I feared I would be the lone geek in a room full of poised and accomplished young professionals. I envisioned well-dressed lawyers and doctors sipping sophisticated cocktails and partaking in witty conversations about their stock portfolios, foreign policy, or literature. With quivering knees, I entered the room to find men segregated on one side and women on the other. Good Lord, it was eighth grade with pink girlie drinks for the women and beer for the men!

The men were clumped into small groups pretending to be in deep conversation, while sneaking quick glances to size up each woman as she entered.

The women seemed oblivious to the men. They were all gathered around one woman at the bar who was rather loud and who sucked down drinks in single gulps. The woman was statuesque, a redhead, and the sister of a friend I’d dated briefly. She turned to welcome the newcomer into the tribe and immediately recognized me. She proceeded to introduce me as her brother’s ex-girlfriend, which was definitely not how I would have described myself. Looks of pity followed from the peanut gallery.

Hey, I went out with him for a few months in the course of a ten-year friendship. And we’re all single here. Why else would we put ourselves through this torture? Keep your pity to your damn selves! I thought.

The organizer, Patrick, was obviously a cheerleader back in high school. He rang an obnoxious bell and called everyone to the middle of the room. Women were in a semicircle to his right, and the men mirrored us on his left. A peppy spiel about being open to everyone, balanced with warnings about inappropriate behavior, ensued. He provided extensive directions about the proper way to fill out the scorecard. He didn’t actually call it a scorecard, but we all knew what it was.

There were several tables with numbers on them. Each woman was directed to pick one and have a seat. The men were told to approach a table one at a time for our seven minute “dates.” We were not allowed to talk before Patrick rang the begin-date bell nor were we allowed to speak after he rang the end-date bell. At the close of each date, the men were required to switch tables. They were not allowed to return to a table they’d already visited.

The first gent to approach me looked very much like Bill Gates. Not rich, just incredibly and stereotypically nerdy. Now New Orleans is not known for its beautiful people, but you generally think of people this geeky living near Silicon Valley, MIT, or Microsoft headquarters. I took a deep breath and prepared to be “open to possibilities.” He’d moved to, as he called it, The Big Easy (cringe) from the Midwest. I wasn’t surprised. I was being open. Nothing inherently evil about the Midwest. I have friends from the Midwest.

I asked him what his favorite things were about living in New Orleans. His answer: the food. Great, we had something in common. I could work with that for the next five minutes. I asked about his favorite restaurants. Chili’s and Applebee’s. Um, dude, you could have stayed in the cornfields and eaten at chain restaurants. Good grief.

Okay, next subject. I asked what he thought about Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, and our general party culture. He proudly informed me that after living in New Orleans for five years, he thought that this year would be the one when he “would go to the Bourbon Street to see the Fat Tuesday.”

For the uninitiated, the syntax of this sentence was utterly bizarre. It’s akin to someone in New York going to “the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue to view the celebration associated with the annual advancement of the Gregorian calendar.”

Ding!

In retrospect, Bachelor Number Two turned out to be the most promising of the lot. He had lived in New York making a living as a writer but had returned to New Orleans to run the family plumbing business after his brother suddenly died.

I’m sorry, did you say plumbing? As in pipes and poop? Okay, I had a big ick reaction but rallied on. After all, this guy was creative and responsible. What were the odds? I was opening to the possibilities more by the moment. We talked about his writing, which was heavily influenced by Charles Bukowski. Uh oh.

Now, here I must digress. Many people have types. Some men like women with blond hair. Some women like men who are really tall. My type was incredibly specific. For years, I dated men who played chess, juggled, ran cross-country in high school, and yes, were Bukowski acolytes. What can I say? Apparently, I liked them smart, agile, and highly dysfunctional. It wasn’t like I looked for them. I attracted them. It was an odd gift.

I never found out whether the plumber fit my other unconscious criteria. Once Bukowski was out of the bag, I was done. After all, I was there to break patterns, not repeat them. I somewhat sadly said goodbye when the bell rang.

Ding!

Bachelor Number Three’s appearance immediately set me back in my chair. He was wearing false eyelashes. Seriously. Not, I have a dermatological condition and have lost my eyelashes so I wear these so I don’t look weird false eyelashes, but Mary Tyler Moore from the Dick Van Dyke Show false eyelashes. It was stunning.

Somehow, I got over my mute shock and started a conversation. As it turned out, we were both Jewish and originally from New Orleans. I knew we did not belong to the same congregation because I’d surely have remembered this guy and his lashes. I asked him if he was affiliated. Yes, he did belong to a congregation, but he wasn’t too crazy about it. I asked if he’d attended services there all his life, and he said no. Apparently, his parents paid for his membership. They’d belonged to a number of congregations over the years because his mother tended to fight with people. Uh, how many Jewish stereotypes can you fit into a seven-minute date?

Ding! Thank G-d.

Now, I feel really guilty about describing Bachelor Number Four. He was very nice and seemed like a heck of a lot of fun. But he was remarkably short, maybe five feet tall in shoes, and a rodeo clown. Yes, you read that right. A rodeo clown. I was born in New Orleans, and I had no idea that there was enough rodeo work in the area to make it a full-time job. And maybe I’m being snobby here, but it seemed to me the speed dating people used a mighty liberal definition of the term “professional.”

I tried to maintain a conversation, but my mind drifted to the image of the little fellow emerging from a tiny car with 20 of his friends. Or maybe only circus clowns do that. Anyway, I feared I was going to hell for thinking these thoughts, but the night was so surreal. I felt like I was dating on acid: distortions of space and size, warping time, ringing bells.

Ding!

When Bachelor Number Five approached my table, I exhaled. He appeared perfectly normal, handsome even. He was dressed neatly but informally. He did hold his head at an unusual angle, but I thought he was just being flirtatious. I had no idea what the next seven minutes held.

As soon as he sat down, we agreed that it seemed like we’d met before. We didn’t live in the same neighborhood or hang out in the same places. Was it work? I told him what I did. He told me that he had his own business related to the casino industry. Definitely not work.

Okay, was he Jewish? New Orleans has a small enough Jewish community that sometimes you just know people because you’re Jewish. He responded by asking me if I was Jewish, and I said yes. He said he was not, but that I’d have known that if I had looked in his wallet. No money. Dude, I’d just told you I was Jewish and your reply was an anti-Semitic comment?

By then, I was kind of checking out, so he filled in the conversation with talk of his work. Apparently, the name of his business, 1-ey*d Jack, had special meaning but not for the reason people assumed. He said that he’d had the recent experience of presenting his business card to a “n***** woman” who worked in a casino on the Mississippi Coast. After she saw the name of his business, she indicated that she knew why it was named 1-ey*d Jack—by pointing to his crotch. At this moment in the story, he gestured to his groin. Dear Lord, was this some sort of Neo-Nazi screw with the racially-sensitive Jewish feminist Candid Camera?

No, he was getting to his point. It seemed his business was actually named 1-ey*d Jack because, although his name was not Jack, he had only one eye. The other eye was glass. He tapped it with his fingernail to prove it. I nearly vomited on the table.

Ding!

Throughout these seven-minute increments of hell, my friend’s sister was having a jolly good time. She whooped it up with one and all. I kept thinking she was so much better than I was at embracing the moment and being open to possibilities. Yeah, she is generally a much more go-with-the-flow kind of person than I am, but there were also the cocktails. I wished I’d followed her lead on that.

After 1-ey*d Jack, I was done, so the final bachelor was a dream. He spent the entire seven minutes on his cell phone. Oh, he’d occasionally glance in my direction and nod, but other than that, nada. I didn’t even get his name. As I stared off into space, the rodeo clown winked at me from across the room.

Now, I have to admit, there were a few other fellows there who were decidedly less remarkable than those I’ve described. At the time, they seemed only slightly less wrong. Maybe, between the nerd, the plumber, the eyelashes, the clown, and the penis, I missed a gem. I guess I’ll never know.

But Karen was right. It did make a damn good story.