The inaugural Candle & Cooler Party started by stacking all the bleach bottles in one corner of the house, icing down all the beer in coolers at the other end and planting candles on any surface in between. It ended just before the 2 a.m. curfew with my two remaining guests and I standing on top of destroyed Honda sedans still parked in the Mid-City street, their metal frames crusted with flood residue. On these platforms, each of us held candles and sang at maximum volume any tune we could all carry. There were no neighbors to complain about the noise -- or the dents in the ruined car roofs -- and the only audience we had was the occasional National Guard patrol, the headlights on their grumbling Humvees visible for blocks away like lanterns in a mineshaft.
The Candle & Cooler Party was an exorcism of the emptiness that had occupied my house during my two months of exile in Baton Rouge. The house is a 100-year-old cypress camelback raised on piers to about the average height of homes in my neighborhood just off Canal Street -- which is to say about a foot too low to save it from flood damage after our levees failed. Though battered, houses like mine are repairable and in many cases the work required is similar to a major renovation of a neglected historic home in our city before Katrina. The big difference, however, is that this work is going on in the surreal state of contemporary, storm-tossed New Orleans.
Four months after Katrina -- a third of a year -- my flood-damaged neighborhood is habitable but remains nearly empty of people after sundown. Streetlights returned to my block only in December, and just a handful of people have managed to rewire their homes to have their electricity restored. Over the holidays, I was still the only person on my block sleeping in my house at night. A block away, a cluster of neighbors has been back for months as well, living in a trailer or in non-flooded homes raised extra high. When they attended the Candle & Cooler Party, they walked the two blocks to my house with candles lighting their way, like country farmers from another century.
Routines have developed in the new Mid-City. Weekend mornings, for instance, start with a bike ride to Fair Grinds Coffee House, about a mile away just off Esplanade Avenue. Until renovations are complete here, owners Robert and Elizabeth Thompson hang out and brew pot after pot of coffee to give away to anyone who comes by. They've been doing this for months, and instantly the quasi-closed shop became a depot for generosity, a place where people who were not flooded brought clothes and food for their neighbors who lost everything.
Returning home each evening, the routine is to open my plywood-shielded doors, release my dogs for a romp and follow them with a flashlight and a can of beer. Thus equipped, the dogs and I take our walk through streets empty of everything but debris, and I sing as loud as I want to, usually an R&B or blues song with the lyrics modified to be about floods, girls from Mid-City or the federal government. Singing helps announce our approach to stray dogs or neighbors wondering if anyone else is around.
Mid-City had been a neighborhood where everyone knew each other and would wave from their porches at passing cars, where we organized our own little parades and had block parties in the middle of the summer, where an old man in overalls drove around in a farm truck hollering about the beauty of his vegetables for sale, where within a four-block walk you had your pick of 16 restaurants and bars.
The lack of people back in our neighborhood is the most distressing part about being home, worse than the lack of electric lights, the cold showers and the teeth chattering nights when we sleep in our coats. But I still would not want to be anywhere else on the planet. Emotionally exhausted and without an ounce of energy to waste on pretense, the people who are back in New Orleans now are starting to bring the old passion and magic back to our city. My few neighbors and I share the feeling that we are living through history and fighting for our home and culture.
The uncertainties can be crippling, the setbacks constant. But then you rollercoaster around for the inspiring examples of people opening businesses, sharing their homes and their resources and reinventing their lives in the current surrealism of New Orleans.
That's also why I held the Candle & Cooler Party. New Orleans is lost without celebration, so we carry on by other means. The Candle & Cooler Party will become an annual tradition in my house. When it's time for the 2006 party, my lamps will go off and the candles will light up, a tribute to the time when Mid-City lost its electricity but retained its power.