You know what I love about NOLA?
You never know who you’re talking to. More than any place I’ve ever lived, New Orleans is a city of the moment. Sure we celebrate our city’s rich histories, its abundant traditions and its vibrant cultures like nobody’s business, but we do all of that as free people of the present, not as slaves to the past. Or the future. Put another way, more than any city I’ve lived, New Orleans is a city where people don’t ask what you do, who you know or any of those other reflex questions most people ask to figure out where you fit along society’s oh-so-conditioned ladder.
Which is a good thing for New Orleans…and all of us who live here. But, it can also lead to surprises. Like a few Saturdays ago.
It was about 7 o’clock at night and my friend, Marco, and I were driving in his truck along I-10 on our way to Tipitina’s. There was a 3 ft-tall, headless, silver Whinebot to’ing an fro’ing in the trucks cab. Marco and I were both painted silver from head to toe. He was wearing a wookie speedo and I a pair of ridiculously priced silver lame go-go pants from London (that’s another story). As co-captains of the new Mystic Krewe of PUEWC, we were on our way to a faux-test, protest to demand that the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus allow PUEWC into their ranks (btw, “PUEWC” stands for People for the inclusion of Unicorns, Elves and Whinebots in Chewbacchus).
It was a perfect New Orleans moment. And then it got even better.
As Marco headed for the Tchoupitoulas exit off, he mentioned that he had rescued a woman and her two boys in the citywide flooding that had occurred the day before. The woman and her boys were trapped under an overpass, the water was surging, and none of them could swim. Checking the rearview mirror to make sure we weren’t short a headless whinebot, Marco matter-of-factly told me how he had seen the panicked woman as he drove by, stopped his truck, and swam into the waters to retrieve her and her boys.
When I asked Marco how he had known what to do, he explained that he had been a lifeguard in a previous life, specially trained in open water rescue. “That’s how I ever came to New Orleans,” Marco said. “When Katrina hit, I was living in Houston. They were looking for anyone with the right training to come and help. Houston was close, so I hooked up with some Houston firefighters and came here.”
Driving down Tchoupitoulas and nearing the split with Religious St, Marco explained what it was like to be driving into a city as some people were still trying to get out. “We lived in Bridge City with other rescue workers. The SWAT trucks would circle us at night like in the wild west. You could hear their radios as they swept the levees. Then you’d hear ‘5,4,3,2,1’ followed by machine gun fire. It went on and on. Night after night.”
Crossing Jackson, Marco told me that for two-plus weeks, his days were spent on boats, traveling the massive “open water” lake that was our city. “We’d climb on roofs and knock. If there was a knock back, we’d take out our chainsaws and create holes to pull people out.”
I asked Marco how many people he thinks he saved. “I don’t know. I didn’t count. It wasn’t about counting. It was about helping.” And with that, Marco pulled his truck up next to Tip’s, jumped out and gingerly moved the wind-beaten–but still standing–whinebot from the back of his truck to its rightful place, standing sentry near the front door.
After a brief u-turn to his past, he was ready to get to the business of living his present. His silver body painted, wookie speedo present.
And live it he did. Into the wee hours of the next morning.
Because that’s what we do here in New Orleans.