Drinking in Hurricanes:
A Report in the Aftermath of Isidore
Jamie Joy Gatto
When New Orleanians are in peril, the wusses flee and the stubborn stay, gathering together at hurricane parties, where we literally throw caution to the wind by leaving our own homes to drink together. This is a tradition that could only come from a place known as "the city that care forgot." Why do you think they call those drinks at world famous Pat O'Brien's "Hurricanes"? The legend goes that they were invented at a hurricane party in the 1940s during a particularly nasty storm. They are now our most famous alcoholic libation, and it is a tradition for them to be drunk in the face of the storm season's latest terror. They taste exactly like cherry cough syrup, but they certainly do the job of making one forget that this may be the last drink ever sipped upon broad, wooden verandas flanked by shuttered French doors and windows, held together with ancient wrought iron that has already survived more storms than we'll ever live long enough to encounter. After imbibing a few, New Orleanians may consider stopping our novenas to the Blessed Mother, and instead decide to drink a toast (or three or four) to the impending storm at hand.
My husband and I met this year's hurricane, Isidore, with the same defiant attitude of our ancestors. After gathering together bags and bottles of water, wine and snacks, securing our own home and pets, we went over to our former neighbor's house right next to the empty house where we were recently evicted. As we sat on our neighbor's porch, looking at that vacant house, we all mused about how wonderful our new home is, and what a bad ordeal we had recently gone through. As if on cue, an expensive SUV pulled up in the empty driveway. A young, conservative-looking couple got out and anxiously put their key into the front door of what used to be our home of nine years. I wanted to tell them -- show them how to coax that stubborn, old lock -- "you shake it just this way...." Instead I folded my arms across my chest and suddenly became territorial, jealous. It was fine when the house stood there empty. Now these Republican uptowners were taking over our old place.
I had to laugh. It was all too ridiculous. The new tenants were moving in -- in the middle of a tropical storm that threatened to flood the very street upon which the house stood. As if participating in a Tennessee Williams play, we drunkenly watched our old neighbors meeting their new neighbors who would be taking our place while Isidore soaked the city. From inside, the TV blared the voice of our best weatherman, Bob Breck, who informed us that the pumping stations were all working well above their capacity. New Orleans was flooding. There was no reprieve. Again, I laughed a spiteful, little laugh. It had to be a doomed living situation for the new neighbors, the conservative, anxious couple who stood being drenched while we all simply watched on, dry under the stoop next door. In fiction, this would be an almost too blatant use of foreshadowing. In real life, things just happen that way.
While I can no longer drink the sugary Hurricanes, my husband and I kept tradition instead by drinking red wine. Our friends are all either artists, geeks, or both, so we gathered around and watched non-stop sci-fi interjected by storm updates, flash flood warnings, and tornado watches. Colorful, amorphous blobs decorated weather screen, which, we were told by our favorite meteorologists, represented the storm system that carried all these disruptions in its wake. The power remained on, steady as the rain. This was a good sign, something to hold on to. Usually the smallest storm will send our transformers blowing, lines down and out, leaving our city draped in humid blackness. The streetlights across the street had already gone out. Ours remained on, an island of light, a mere strip in a flooded city of darkness.
Inside, I decided to take a bold chance and partake of the pot being passed around. I'd decided that if I was going to die tonight, I was certainly going to feel good before I met my maker. I was practically tripping after one cough-inducing toke. The colors on the weather map were suddenly brighter than bright. My lips were numb. I was having little epiphanies, which moments later eluded me. My red wine started to taste like cherry cola. I couldn't remember if the words I had just thought were spoken out loud, or just ringing aloud in my brain's ears. When I went to ask someone about this situation, I started to laugh. How does one word this question? Impossible. Nothing is impossible. We are all impossible. What is possible? I just kept laughing.
I am sure that I wasn't the only one affected so profoundly by the bud, because everyone turned in so early. One guy suddenly stood up, announcing that he was going to take a six hour nap, then wandered down to his basement apartment, leaving his date and the rest of the party behind. Downstairs he handed me his key to leave with his date. When I tried to explain to his date what had happened, she was so paranoid that she was suddenly afraid to put the key in her pocket. She stared into her open hand as if I had given her a viper. I had to convince her that it was okay to put this small object in her pocket. Put the key in your pocket, you'll lose it. Yes, it is a key. You will need it to get to bed. It is really okay. It is only a key. You'll need this key. I promise.
Her fear and skepticism at once infected me. I momentarily became afraid of the key myself. The key is a metaphor. The key opens a door. The key is an answer. The key leads to more puzzles. Alice in Wonderland's key. She could never reach it. She was too small. Then she was too large. Life is too large. I couldn't think about the key any more. It was all too much. I turned my conversation to another party-goer. The last time I turned around, the date was stuffing her hands into both pockets, deeply, alternating hands and pockets, searching. Her face was skewed, her brows tangled. It was time to go.
As we stood outside in deep puddles with a few other guests, a cop car drove slowly down the half-darkened street, causing a wake of water to rush upon the already saturated lawn. "Get inside your house," a nasal voice rang from a bull-horn. "Mandatory curfew," it echoed, "all get inside."
Alex and I eased our car into deeper waters as we backed out of the driveway, waving to our host ascending his porch steps. One last look at our former home nestled next door made me realize that sometimes goodbyes are good. It took a natural disaster to make me realize I'd never said my true goodbyes to the old house, never walked through each room, thanking the home for its good, steady shelter. I said it silently as I sipped red wine from a large green bottle. Alex navigated our car through calf-deep water, and we somehow made it back a few blocks to our new home without stalling. Our street was clear, unflooded, nearly dry. Our house looked proud to see us. I blew it a mental kiss, and scurried inside, dodging heavy drops.
At home, I felt suddenly safe. My buzz wore off a bit with the familiar feeling of being surrounded by my lifelong possessions -- furniture handed down many generations -- the honor to be left this heritage consumed me momentarily. As I opened the windows, new lace curtains whipped in the wind, kissing my cheeks with whispery caresses. We greeted our cats, checked around for any possible damage, then peeked out our back door at our backyard, which was now completely underwater.
Hungrily we dined upon a feast of chilled blackened salmon with creole mayonnaise, shrimp cocktail, and crisp turkey bacon dolloped with guacamole and sour cream. The new low-carb diet that had caused me to lose fifty pounds in the last five months had served me well, changing my health, and offering me new life. Suddenly it seemed too decadent to be able to eat everything I'd never dared. The feeling passed as I gorged myself to satisfaction, knowing I would now live past fifty, knowing I was no longer doomed to what I thought was my inherited inevitable death: diabetes, heart failure, stroke. I am thin, I am alive. I will never be hungry. I will always be healthy. A new mantra, a new benediction. A spray of water hit my face, carried through the window by a forceful interjection from Isidore. It felt like a baptism.
By the time we finished eating, the winds had gathered even more strength. It was amazing: highly active, yet not feeling violent. I supposed Isidore had taken out all his murderous tendencies on Cuba and the Yucatan. Now he was merely beating his chest, a warrior victorious. But what was most impressive was the sound of it all. Not thunder -- that is what makes hurricanes seem so different from other storms. Other storms herald their approach with thunder, lightning, a strong, sudden change in pressure. The hurricane's approach lasts for days. The pressure drops. It rains. It rains. It rains. Then it simply comes. Winds blow, and blow in squalls. Rain begins to sheet. When you think there can be no more, it all becomes faster, harder, louder. The hot, tropical air grows cold. The winds carry their burden of water and then drop it upon us -- turning it into lashing whips which beat at doors and walls and shake the ground, slap at anything they encounter. They never seem to stop. Of course we had to throw open all the windows and doors. To feel Isidore was so much more sensually thrilling than simply watching him through glass panes. Of course it was wet, but we'd already been soaked for most of the day by running around during our storm preparations. We weren't about to stop now -- to not wait it out for the grand finale seemed pointless.
Soon our back patio flooded. I wondered what the storm would take and what it would leave. At the height of it all, stoned, drunk and worn out, I fell asleep listening to Isidore brag. By morning all the debris had actually been blown and washed away. Even the floods had receded, leaving on our patio a poor, dead pigeon who didn't fare as well as we had. Our house stood unmolested. No one was hurt. Our car hadn't flooded.
The air was still chilled afterward and the city was now sleeping, recovering. Some streets were still flooded, and most businesses were closed for a while. We got a new stockpile of candles, batteries, canned goods, and bottled water, in wait for the next storm of the season. People often ask if I will ever evacuate from the threat of an impending hurricane. Hell, I lived through Camille -- a "category five," which left many people homeless, injured, and even dead. I was only four years old, but I remember it well. I think I have these storms in my blood. Once you've seen one, once you've huddled with family and neighbors after a day of getting soaked to the bone from boarding up houses and windows, moving lawn furniture, putting cars up on the neutral grounds safely...once you've watched the city anxiously scurry to beat the fast-approaching winds, never knowing just how hard it will hit...once you've walked in the silent eye during the eerie calm and watched the sky swirling furiously, noiseless above you...it is hard to imagine heading north, away from any of those possibilities, from all the excitement, the wonder and thrill...and yes, even the danger.
Thirty-three years ago Hurricane Camille uprooted a large willow tree which lived in front of my bedroom window. The willow tree crash-landed upon our neighbor’s car, destroying the roof, hood and windshield. As workers cut my friend -- the willow -- into great chunks with noisy chainsaws the next day, I wept. The willow was once my only friend on the near-vacant block of a newly developing suburb, and as a child I felt like murderous Camille had stolen my only friend away.
Ten years ago during Hurricane Andrew, I walked barefoot into the rains with my then new lover, now husband. We held hands and scurried over fallen branches, met the wind and rains and found ourselves making love under ancient oaks on a City Park bench while the rest of the city hid themselves safely behind shutters.
Who knows? Maybe that pigeon on our back patio did fare as well as we had through Tropical Storm Isidore. Maybe even better. Maybe that bird did what I'd dare to do if I had my own wings. I'd fly into the storm fast and furiously. Defy it. Play with it. Fight it. Make love to it. Risk dying with it.
I think maybe it would all be worth it.
©2002 by Jamie Joy Gatto