“We'll go see lites in St. Bernard
And what they got that's gone…
Atlantic Thrift...Ain't dere no more
Drug store was Trist...Ain't dere no more
Jerry LaVie's...Ain't dere no more
--Benny Crunch and the Bunch
Carol didn't believe the name of my grammar school - Our Lady of Prompt Succor. “What does ‘prompt sucker’ even mean?” she said, convinced I was having her on. Even when we'd walked to the school and I showed her the sign, she still didn't believe it. “What is a prompt succor?” she asked again, staring at the sign in great perplexity.
I explained that prayers to the Blessed Mother was credited with saving New Orleans from a fire, stopping just as it approached the Ursuline Convent, and another time She was credited with us winning the Battle of New Orleans at the last minute. “Prompt Succor,” I explained, “means ‘quick help.’”
Carol shook her head. “Still doesn't make any sense to name a school after ‘quick help.’”
Carol would discover there was a whole lot of things that didn't make sense during our walking tour of my hometown of Chalmette, a perniciously corrupt and mosquito-infested atoll of reclaimed swamp just southeast of New Orleans. Later that afternoon, I would be surprised at how much I enjoyed revisiting the place, given it was home to so many childhood memories I've spent a lifetime trying to forget.
Pausing by what had been my grandparents’ house (now a vacant lot, as a result of Hurricane Katrina) I told Carol about how we would sit on the porch eating sno cones, and watch giant sewer rats frolic in the drainage ditch in front of the house. I showed her the little street that I'd crossed on my brand new bike in defiance of my parents’ prohibition against crossing it, and how the moment I rode through that boundary, my parents drove up to the intersection. “It was that day I learned I was the type that would never get away with anything, so I straightened up right then and there.”
On Judge Perez Drive (named after a Sheriff who ran the parish of St. Bernard like a tinhorn South American dictator) I explained how that street had, in my youth, been unpaved and separated by a large drainage canal (now paved over) and also populated with huge gamboling sewer rats.
“Wouldn't that canal have helped with the flooding after Katrina?” Carol asked. I explained that the brain trust of the parish had traditionally erred on the side of projects that enhanced flooding during storms, “such as the Mississippi River - Gulf Outlet that became a superhighway for the storm surge that inundated the parish during Katrina.”
At the now vacant lot that had been my childhood home with my parents and brothers, I shared the experience of evacuating in advance of rising floodwaters in the aftermath of Hurricane Betsy in 1965. “We left the house in ankle deep water, and by the time we arrived at the shelter three blocks away, the water had risen to above our knees. “There was nothing set up at the shelter, no water, blankets or supplies of any kind. “Dogs were crapping in the hallways and stairwells and the toilets were not working. In other words, it was the same as the Superdome after Katrina forty years later. Nothing changes here.”
But things had changed, as I was happy to note. The house where I grew up and the one where I spent so much of my youth had both been wiped off the face of the earth, as if they - and by extension, myself - had never existed here.
Which somehow suited me just fine. We Ubered back to the French Quarter, and I felt a great sense of completion.