You know what is interesting? I used to always have the radio on, always on some NPR station, but now I don’t. If it’s on, I turn it off. I just can’t take the sorrow anymore. It may have to do with the Katrina coverage; I didn’t want to re-live that. It may be the combination of Katrina and ISIS, with some Boko Haram thrown in that takes me out. I think I’ve seen a lot of inhumanity in some of the places I’ve lived and traveled to, and if I’m going to continue in this life, I have to do what I can where I can to try and make the world a more humanitarian place. This is not to say that others have not experienced this, just saying that I’m full up. I am glad there are people out there who can take on the new sorrow and deal with it effectively. There’s too much of it in me now. It makes me sad that I can’t. I miss the happy stories on the radio, but there are too many of the others. Now it’s just me and the crickets in the morning. I can’t understand what they’re saying, but I pay attention if they get quiet. What just happened that made the crickets be quiet? Oh, there they are again. Oh, thank goodness.
My friend Dwight Lebran slipped away from this earth on August 29th. At first it seemed an interesting irony that he passed on the Katrina anniversary, but as I thought about it I knew it was quietly intentional. Dwight was never big in body — HUGE in character, but skinny, skinny, skinny. Katrina chiseled his spirit away, and ten years later I think she took it all.
A year after Katrina, Dwight told me this story. He was outside the day after the storm, grilling because it was such a beautiful day, as the days immediately following hurricanes usually are, when all of a sudden he became aware of a large body of water rolling his way. He heard it and then he saw it. Mysterious Lake Pontchartrain coming down his street.
That evening he and his family were in his house, sitting up on top of the furniture, with no idea what had happened since all electricity was out and with it, all the information. The storm had come and gone and everything seemed right with the world. And then it was not at all. It was hot, hot outside. So they had the windows open, the door open and the burglar bars on the windows and doors, closed and locked.
Suddenly they heard a great rattling and banging and looked out to see a huge-ass alligator slamming his tail into the bars over and over, trying hard to get in. His tail was not as strong as the bars, but he was there, he was hungry, and he wanted in. Go to sleep after that.
The next day Dwight learned from a neighbor that several blocks from his house, there was dry ground near the levee and, ultimately, buses that were taking people to safety. Dwight and his family slogged through the water, Dwight going back and forth carrying the family members who were too short or too infirm to go on their own in the same waters that had carried the alligator to his front door. They made it to the levee, got on the bus, Dwight sitting on an over-turned milk crate. There were so many people on that bus headed to Houston. On a good day it takes 6 hours to get from New Orleans to Houston. That trip took many, many more hours, and every time they tried to stop for gas or anything else, they were met by white folks with guns who said, “Don’t get off that bus.” Dwight, who had (as one does) withdrawn a fair amount of money from his bank account pre-storm, told me, “I asked one man, ‘Mister, I got one-thousand wet dollars in my pocket — can I PAY you to let me use the restroom?’ Man told me to get back on that m-f-kin’ bus. And that was how we went to Houston.”
Dwight had health problems for a while, but after Katrina he got smaller and his problems got worse every year. That did not keep him from being one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, and one of the smartest. But it finally took him out.
About Nan Parati
Nan Parati is a writer, the co-coordinator of the art department for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and the artist who creates signs for the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals. She publishes a column of personal essays in the monthly Ashfield News, and in her weekly emails for Elmer’s Store, the general store and restaurant she runs in the foothills of the Berkshires. Nan bought Elmer’s when vacationing in Ashfield at the time that Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, her longtime home. She worked as a playwright before Katrina, and plans to return to that chosen genre in the future.