Hello, Mr. Soule

Stick around while the clown who is sick does the trick of disaster

— Neil Young, “Mr. Soul”

After a numbing week and a half of wall-to-wall CNN and MSNBC post-hurricane coverage, first thing in the morning and last thing at night, I could bear no more reality of the electronic kind. I couldn’t take any more live feeds or endlessly looped images of destitution or conservative anchors looking increasingly sullen about having to report at least once an hour on that dirty old Gulf Coast and the incompetence of government across the board. The levels of debate were rising perilously and Katrina was already feeling less like a real catastrophe and more like a season-ending event for the most extreme of extreme sports, the event being not nearly as important as which team had the strategic edge and who would prevail — bigger government or more tax cuts? Would there be more moral outrage about the treatment of mostly black and mostly poor victims of Katrina, and of poverty itself, or more of the same stoic indifference? In the midst of all the broadcasts, I started anticipating commercials like the ones featuring NCAA players with game faces who advertise March Madness with declarations like “Win or go home.” The displaced people of New Orleans had lost big-time but couldn’t go home at all. Game over, at least for now. With some effort I turned the television down, then off. It helped that I had some actual family to visit who had made it out of New Orleans. Most of them migrated to L.A. decades ago, but some stayed put, including my cousin Shirley and her husband, Ed. As Katrina approached, they had evacuated and gone first to Baton Rouge, then Little Rock and, after some deliberation, were now here in California. They were staying with their son Elmore in Santa Clarita, and Elmore and his wife, Janine, had invited the rest of my family and me to an afternoon gathering at Janine’s parents’ place in Altadena. It was a reunion and a welcome, a bolstering of spirits among all of us New Orleans-bred people who were suffering the city’s wounds, maybe its death as we knew it. On Saturday the sky was clotted with unseasonable gray clouds that hung over the San Gabriel Mountains, which rose sharply about a mile in the distance. Shirley looked worn, but relieved to be among family. She was plainly dressed in a button-down shirt and oxfords, her silver hair cropped short and a gold crucifix at her throat. She greeted me out on the front porch almost as easily as if this were her house, in her town. Elmore was manning a massive barbecue grill on the patio that had neat rows of ribs, chicken, carne asada and hot dogs. This was part party, part wake — a typical New Orleans affair. Ed was a bit less jolly than I’d last seen him, but not much less, especially after he got to nursing glasses of wine. He and Shirley sat on a couch and told us the story of their escape in great detail, how their other son, Ed Jr., had stayed behind but made it out of the flood because Shirley had insisted that he leave the family boat in the driveway, just in case. After making it out — at one point he paddled under the 10 freeway — he bummed a ride with a motorist to a nearby parish, La Place. He managed to call his parents on a cell phone (though they couldn’t call him) and they agreed to drive down from Baton Rouge to collect him on a certain street in town. That was a nightmare unto itself; most of the highways were barricaded, the police were uncooperative, and Shirley and Ed were forced to take back-roads they didn’t know at all. By the time they reached the appointed place, it was nighttime and pitch-black, with no working electricity anywhere. They found Ed Jr. only after passing him up on the side of the road more than once. One of the many things he told them was that he had ditched the boat and donated it to ongoing search-and-rescue efforts in New Orleans. “And his dad told him, ‘You gave away my boat,’” Shirley half-whispered to me, sounding indignant. “What? We almost lost Ed. Imagine that, thinking about his boat! He was never going to go back and get it no way. It would have been gone with the house.” Shirley said nothing about her beloved cats, which I know she had put in a room upstairs in her house before she fled; she had told them there was nothing more she could do for them. I didn’t ask. She told me about how she’d gotten a hurricane-victim debit card from the Red Cross with a limit of about $700, not a bad thing. But when she got up to the cash register at a store, the card wouldn’t scan. People in line behind her started getting impatient and she started getting anxious, feeling conspicuous. “I guess they thought I was a person using a welfare card, you know,” she said, laughing, but looking a bit pained. She wound up using her own money. The barbecue yielded stories I didn’t expect. Janine’s 86-year-old grandfather, Louis Soule, a New Orleans resident who had also been home during Katrina, had an even more hair-raising escape than Ed’s. He’d walked some four miles from his apartment building in water that ranged from ankle- to neck-deep, looking for help. Finding none, he walked four miles back. Younger men who’d begun the journey with him fell by the wayside, exhausted. “I’ve never been sick a day in my life,” Mr. Soule said proudly. He was small and wiry, his skin the color of walnuts, his eyes burning intensely blue. “Never even had a hangover.” Eventually, Mr. Soule hacked a hole in the roof of his building; crawled out and waved down some help. He said he had no choice. “I couldn’t go north, couldn’t go south, couldn’t go east, couldn’t go west,” he explained to me. “So I had to go up.” He was picked up by Marines in a chopper. When he took out his wallet and showed them a picture of his son, a former Marine, they assured him he would be taken care of. Instead of being dropped at the Superdome, where he was supposed to go, he went to Texas, bypassed the Astrodome, and wound up at a military hospital in Austin. Through the luckiest of coincidences, the brother of a friend of Mr. Soule’s son lived in Austin, and heard he was there. The friend, who Mr. Soule didn’t know at all, tracked him down at the hospital by wandering around with a hand-lettered sign bearing his name. Next thing Mr. Soule knew, his son Jerome, the one with the house in Altadena, was flying in to get him and bring him home to California. . . . He had landed in the best place possible, at least in theory. “God was watching over me,” said Mr. Soule, shaking a bony finger at the sky, his blue eyes tearing briefly. “Baby, the Superdome was an awful place. I might have died.” The only obvious ill effect of the whole experience was a pronounced ache in his legs, which had taken a beating as he navigated the oil, debris, trash, tree limbs, rats, alligators and dead bodies in the water, all of which I imagine litter the dark River Styx on its way to hell. Even so, Mr. Soule insisted, “God was walking with me.” My mother agreed. The afternoon ended with a surprise anniversary cake and toast to Shirley and Ed, who for the past year had planned a 50th anniversary fete in New Orleans for Sept. 3. I was thinking of going to that event, but schedules didn’t permit. One of the only good things, if I can call it that, to come out of the Katrina tragedy is that I — and my mother, and some others who’ve been holding down the New Orleans fort for years on the West coast — didn’t miss the party after all.


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