blackbirdonline journalFall 2013 Vol. 12 No. 2
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Review | My Bayou: New Orleans through the Eyes of a Lover,
                by Constance Adler

Michigan State University Press, 2012

spacer My Bayou: New Orleans through the Eyes of a Lover

Credit Constance Adler with moxie. She’s taken on the moment when one of the worst, and certainly the most memorable, natural disasters in recent US history collided with one of the most storied American cities—storied in every sense of the word. When I began reading Adler’s memoir, a friend and I played a game of telephonic ping-pong on the subject of literary New Orleans: The Moviegoer (zap!)—A Confederacy of Dunces (zap!)—A Streetcar Named Desire (zap!)—Mules and Men (zap!)—and on and on, from Faulkner to Anne Rice to at least four series of murder mysteries.

As for Hurricane Katrina, which early on dropped the “Hurricane” and became, to most of the country, simply Katrina, a sort of American Kali, the goddess of destruction (although Adler says most of those in New Orleans “refer to her as ‘the storm.’ We don’t like to say her name”), no one with access to American media during the fall of 2005 could escape then or forget now the stark images of homeowners and their pets marooned on rooftops and of the starving, dehydrated, utterly lost castaways in the Convention Center. Nor can we forget the ineptitude and indifference with which government at all levels responded—or, more often, failed to respond—to the crisis. “Heckuva job, Brownie” did more to damage George W. Bush’s approval ratings than “weapons of mass destruction.” Katrina’s effect reached far beyond the immediate flooding.

A quick search of Amazon’s listings on the subject of Katrina produced upwards of eighty books, mostly reportage and memoir, but also novels, political analyses, and children’s stories. Adler shows wisdom in narrowing her focus. For one thing, she meanders in a not particularly chronological fashion through the fifteen years of her love affair with the city, beginning long before, and going on a bit after, the storm. Establishing her sense, not just of place, but of the peculiarities of this place, allows the reader to share in her experience of New Orleans and to care about what happens to it and the people who live there and love it.

Also, for the most part, Adler writes specifically about her own colorful neighborhood, the diverse area surrounding its eponymous body of water, her Bayou St. John, famous for Voodoo (or, as Adler insists, “Vodou”) rituals at least as far back as the nineteenth-century reign of Marie Laveau and still vibrant with eccentric characters and nontraditional spirituality. “The bayou,” she writes, “is a natural altar for ritual and ceremony, a magnet that draws people to its edge to conduct their spiritual transactions.” She mentions encounters with a devotee of Krishna, “wrapped in saffron robes,” and “a young man, naked to the waist . . . playing a berimbau, an Afro-Brazilian instrument.” Her friend Rachel goes to the edge of the bayou on Yom Kippur to contemplate “her misdeeds,” then “places bread on the water. . . . The bayou takes it all back and changes it into something else.” Other friends make plans to baptize their son at, or perhaps in, the bayou, and Adler herself becomes “engaged while standing on the Magnolia Bridge” and later celebrates her marriage there. “Everything happens on the bayou.”

Vodou rituals still take place on the bayou too, although Sallie Ann Glassman, the priestess in charge these days, a Jewish woman from the Northeast, describes herself not as a “voodoo queen,” but as “the Vodou American Princess.” We shouldn’t be surprised; before Katrina, New Orleans had always attracted its share of “come-heres.” Adler notes that “a popular conversation opener . . . is to ask, ‘So how did you end up moving here, anyway?’” Everyone has a story, many, she notes, with the “common theme . . . that New Orleans tends to be the place where people bottom out. . . . Once you’ve settled into this bottomland, you can rest easy in the knowledge that there is no farther you can fall. There is a certain pleasure in giving over to that slide.”

Adler’s own journey started with a dream when she was happily, she thought, living the life of “an ambitious young journalist” in Manhattan. In the dream, she found herself in New Orleans, which she had never visited in waking life, and met a mysterious woman who told her, “‘You know, you might become an interesting writer if you move to New Orleans.’” Wouldn’t Jung have loved that! It took her more than four years to make the move, a period in which “the shouting, the rudeness, the constant rush and shove” she had loved about New York had gradually palled, and in which she asked herself, “But where could I go after New York and not be bored?”

Adler complains about the racism, the heat, the infestation of nutria (South American water rats), the rumors of infestations of alligators, and much else in New Orleans, which “makes no guarantee of sweet dreams only,” but she never complains about boredom. Boredom can’t really exist in “the alchemical swamp” of the Crescent City. It took several moves before she wound up in her bayou neighborhood. “Here,” she says, “the city captured me in its spell for good.” Here she set out to discover everything she could about her new home. She devotes chapters to the ecology and history of the bayou and to its wildlife. (Yes, alligators do live there, but they’re “too small and too shy to be a threat.”) She writes lovingly and wittily about the pelicans, which she compares to the Marx Brothers’ favorite foil, Margaret Dumont, with her “harrumphing bosom.”

But Adler’s dog Lance provides the greatest entrée to the life of the bayou. She describes the bayou as “a muddy trickle of water” and Lance as “a muddy trickle of dog.” Adler encounters nearly everyone and everything while taking Lance on his daily constitutionals. His presence enables her to chat with her neighbors and their pets, as important as their human companions to Adler’s perception of the neighborhood. In fact, Lance and his doings and attitudes figure largely—even more largely and more sympathetically than Adler’s husband—in the memoir.

Adler meets Lance several months after the death of her first dog, Henry while she is still mourning him: “I wasn’t looking for someone to fill the opening left by Henry,” she writes, almost as if she were a widow,

but when I first saw Lance walk into [a jazz club called] The Spotted Cat, I felt a slight thaw in my resolve not to allow a dog back into my life. It was just a hint, but I noticed it. To begin with, I couldn’t take my eyes off the puppy on the other side of the room, nosing around, looking lost, looking for someone. A strange mix of foreboding and excitement rose within me. . . . My frozen bulwark of pain started to buckle and crack, and then I tipped right over. . . . In defiance of all good common sense, I realized I would do this. I would take care of another dog.

The puppy was a good candidate, but just to be sure, I decided to test him to see if he was mine. So, I squatted down on my heels and cupped my hands around my mouth. “Hey, Shit-head!” I yelled through the bar noise. Lance’s head snapped up as though he recognized my voice, as though he knew his name, as though he had been looking for me. . . . Like a puppy-shaped cannon ball, he shot through the crowd and threw himself into my arms, all wriggling butt and soft brown eyes and absurd skinny legs.

Is that a love story or what?

And Lance proves an engaging, good-natured, and downright goofy comrade, accompanying Adler not only on their daily walks but eventually on the long hegira following the evacuation caused by Katrina. Adler and her husband Sean, a native of New Orleans, escaped the direct experience of the hurricane despite Sean’s proud claim that “‘we never leave for hurricanes.’” By “we,” he meant not only his own family but many in the city. “The thinking follows the basic line that you earn your right to call yourself a local if you stay for hurricanes.” Adler speculates that those who sit out the assaults of weather “have a strong attachment not only to the actual house they live in, but also to the larger home of the city. . . . They show contempt for the leavers because they believe if you loved New Orleans as she deserves to be loved, you would never leave her.” Of course, many who stayed couldn’t afford to leave the city. Most of those “who went to the Convention Center and the Superdome didn’t have cars to drive out of town or a credit card to pay for a Motel 6.”

Adler and Sean have the means and, ultimately, the foresight to get out while the getting is, if not good, at least possible. Then she, Sean, and Lance embark on an exhausting and dispiriting gypsy life, bounced around from town to town, first to flee the storm, then because conditions in the city make it impossible to return, then because Sean, a yoga instructor and kirtan musician (kirtan is “a devotional practice that originate[d] in India . . . which consists of people gathering to sing in a group”), launches a national tour with his band to raise money for Katrina relief. Adler accompanies him as much as she can, but she eventually winds up staying with friends and family for long stretches. During this period, with telephone and electrical service virtually nonexistent in New Orleans, she knows exactly as much, and very little more, than the rest of us in the country do about what’s happening in the city.

In the course of this rootless and anxiety-stoking existence, the fault lines begin to show in Adler’s marriage. Even after others are heading home, Sean, on his way to becoming what Adler calls “the Yoga King of New Orleans,” drags his feet. In the wake of Katrina his career is taking off. He also, more strenuously, resists the growing urgency of Adler’s need for a child. Nearly two months after Katrina, when the mayor declares that residents can come home again, Adler finally gets one of her wishes; but she never gets the child. After doing as much of the work of digging out and cleaning up as they can, given the continuing shortages and the only-sporadic availability of electricity, Sean hits the road again. In Adler’s perception, he is feeding off his growing celebrity within the yoga-music world. At one point, Adler has to learn via his website (searched as she catches up on email in “the only coffee shop in New Orleans that had gotten their Wi-Fi back up and running”) that Sean has “extended his tour by a couple of weeks.” Not a sign of a healthy marriage.

Not unusual either, except in its specifics.

For some time I heard about other couples whose marriages ended in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It became commonplace to blame the storm for these divorces, another way of demonizing this force of nature. There may be some truth to it. The storm put a tremendous pressure on all of us. It’s only natural that under such pressure, we’d break wherever we were weak.

So Adler finds herself alone with Lance on her bayou. Although her house, elevated on brick piers, has escaped flooding, the heat and lack of power have created their own difficulties. She, like many of her neighbors, opts to jettison her maggot-infested refrigerator in order to save her energy for essential repairs. She begins to identify Katrina with “the smell of the dried mud. . . . [or, specifically] wet dirt and mildew, mixed with human dust that has been cooking in late summer heat, a strangely florid and fertile smell that suggested unwholesome life forms brewing in it.” During periods when the power fails, she listens “for the sounds that would normally be buried beneath the white noise. The birds had not returned yet, nor the crickets. There was nothing. Just the sound of the water lapping at the edge of the levee.”

As time goes on and some aspects of ordinary life rev up again in the city, Adler reconnects with her neighbors as they walk their dogs along the bayou and gather for coffee at the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse to commiserate about the damage and, somehow more dishearteningly, to share word of the local institutions that are not coming back (“the Crystal Hot Sauce factory,” for one, a favorite “gelato parlor and bakery” for another). “Here,” Adler writes, “is the status report”:

We are exhausted. We boomerang between hope and despair. Suicide has gone up, and many of the doctors who might help clinically depressed people have moved out of town. Divorce, domestic violence, and murder have also increased. The National Guard had to come back last summer [2006] because five people died by gunshot in one day in one neighborhood. There is a war here.

But Adler and the others would rather not focus on the status report. “Being a nationally televised victim is an energy-draining identity. We’d like to assert a new identity. Or have our old one back. We want a different story to tell.”

Eventually, slowly, Adler and her neighbors begin to find ways to help not only each other but also others in the city. Adler spends a day with the Arabi Wrecking Krewe, a “volunteer group” started by “a bunch of musicians,” who gut the flooded houses of fellow musicians so that the work of restoration can begin. On September 1, 2006, a “New Year’s celebration” marked “our first real break . . . from the summer’s heat” and, by implication, a year of life after Katrina. Little things, perhaps, but meaningful in the face of all the loss.

Despite the “loopy” optimism of some who claim that the catastrophe will make the city “better and stronger,”Adler has her doubts:

I distrust the big ideas. . . . I have more faith in New Orleans’s essential nature, which has been in place long before its birth three hundred years ago. That is: water, water everywhere. This element that so pervades the city ensures that its forms and structure will unravel eventually. Like the houses themselves . . . all the visionary proposals will be eaten away by slow damp rot. . . . The water at the base of New Orleans’s composition will undo any efforts to reform it into a sober, responsible city. . . . Humidity always defeats our best plans.

But she goes on to add, “that those of us who will stay in New Orleans and continue to call it home are the people [metaphorically as well as literally] who are good swimmers.”

By book’s end, Sean has moved out altogether, but Adler and Lance keep on dog-paddling their way through life along Bayou St. John. My Bayou presents us with such an intimate and downright endearing picture of the city, the neighborhood, and the bayou itself that such simple survival (and, shall we say, sheer doggedness?) makes us cheer all of them on.  end

Constance Adler is the author of a book of nonfiction, My Bayou: New Orleans through the Eyes of a Lover (Michigan State University Press, 2012). She teaches at the Bayou Writing Workshop.

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