Monday, December 1, 2008


The most powerful Katrina stories I have heard have been from cab drivers.

Two precursors to this thought: 1. My students probably have very good Katrina stories. Most of them spent a very long time in Texas because of the storm. But it's one of those subjects that comes up on its own, and generally, my students don't let it come up. There have been times when I have asked, of course. Once a student told me about how he watched someone get raped in front of him at the Superdome. But see, it's too painful, even for me, and we change the subject; talk about math instead, or Biology, or Final Fantasy, and pretend like Katrina was a long time ago, and that everything is safe and okay now. For some, that's what school is for. So that's the first thing. And 2. I am very, very good with cab drivers. I would say that my way with cab drivers is among my greatest talents in life. Almost without fail, I can get a cab ride for half the asking price by being personable. Keys to this trick: Be female, be wearing something kind of tight and/or skanky, and be sitting in the front seat. Sometimes I can even get the ride for free if I'm lucky, but I always pay anyway. I am genuinely fascinated by cab driving.

I mean, it has to be a pretty amazing profession. First, you have to be a map. I don't like riding in cabs with GPS systems. What's the fun in that? Part of being a cab driver is that you're supposed to be able to hear "Mount Avenue on the South Side" and know exactly where that is. I like maps, so the idea of being a human map is very attractive to me. Second, I hear people have sex in the backs of cabs, so that would be interesting if you were a cab driver. Third, I imagine you meet a lot of terribly interesting people, see a lot of terribly interesting road blocks, and witness a lot of little punctuations in your usual scenery every day because you spend all your time staring at it. From the bottom of my heart, I love to talk to cab drivers.

In New Orleans, the conversation in the cab always starts about the weather. "Isn't it cold?" "Isn't it warm?" "It's been raining an awful lot, hasn't it?" This segues kind of naturally into the subject of hurricanes.

I'm amazed by this, but ten out of ten of the last cab drivers I've had in New Orleans came back after Katrina. I don't know if I would be able to come back. But people here regularly impress me with their strength. They wear it like a beard you know you can't grow: "Yeah, whatever, I'm emotionally strong and weathered, what're you going to do about it?"

Once a man told me about how he plucked his indignant mother off her lower 9th ward property days before the storm, but how her best friend stayed and drowned and they saw her on the front page of the Texas paper, facedown in the deluge. "That was the week I learned how to text message. Because sometimes your phone wouldn't work but you could somehow text message. All I wanted to do was text message."

And the driver who came back and didn't have electricity for a month but he and his wife started to write short plays for each other to perform and they'd stand behind the kitchen table and pretend they were the television.

And yesterday, coming home from Thanksgiving break in Oregon, the man who came from India, who had family in Mumbai. And I said, "That must be awful, you must have been terrified last week, is everything okay," and he said, "It was nothing next to Katrina. My daughter still cannot drive through a puddle."

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