Sucker Punched

Letters from the River, 2

Gary McMillen

Enough Doppler radar. It was Saturday afternoon when I drove out to Lake Pontchartrain to gather my thoughts and make a decision. Sitting on the seawall, listening to the splash of waves on the concrete steps, I noticed there were no seagulls. That's when I decided to evacuate. If the birds didn't want to be in New Orleans, I sure as hell didn't want to stay, either.

I soon became part of the human wave, looking for hotel rooms at any exit off Interstate 10. Standing in lobbies for hours, getting on a list to take a shower, chasing after rumors of vacancies and shelter, I began to accept that "normal" was something that did not exist anymore. On the outskirts of Lafayette a Vietnamese fishing family took me in. For three days and nights, we ate boiled crabs spread out on newspaper on the floor, drank beer, and watched the destruction of an American city unfold on CNN. Sleep was fitful. My son had promised he was evacuating to Atlanta, but I had not heard from him.

Excuse me for rambling, but in the days and weeks in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, thinking is a dull throb. The blurring effects of the storm's sucker punch have me wobbly. The rational mind, numb from the frantic pace of dislocation, avoids thinking of what was left behind: a home that got nine feet of water, books, business records, laptop computer, a samurai sword, music, and tapes. Levees can be repaired but not that photograph of my dad fly-fishing in a trout stream in California.

"Goodbye" to e-mail. "Hello" to life of the wandering gypsy. I live at the Best Western in Shreveport now. I eat biscuits, smoked sausage, and white gravy at the breakfast buffet before going to work. One morning, at the entrance to the Louisiana State University Medical Center there was a cardboard box at the door with a sign: "For Victims of Hurricane Katrina." I hate the word "victim," but went up and peeked in the box. At the bottom were a pack of diapers and a tube of toothpaste. I looked in both directions to see if anyone was watching and snatched up the Colgate. I am the first in the McMillen-Gallagher clan of Scots and Irishmen to have applied for food stamps.

In the midst of crisis, I have learned there are two kinds of people in the world. There are people who tell you that they have an extra room off the garage where you can stay for the weekend, and then there are people who throw you the keys to their house. There are people who bring you boxes of clothes that don't fit, and then there are people who ask for your waist size. There are people waiting for me to call them, and then there are people like New York trainer Danny Peitz, who kept punching my number into his cell phone until he reached me.

I'm drinking much more than usual: Old Forester, straight up, no ice. I have observed my state of mind and it's not all pretty. The dry wit, the smile, the appreciation for jokes and just plain silliness have dissolved. Pounded by the stress of uncertainty, I have turned into Joe Friday. "Yes," "No," "OK" are standard expressions from my new robotic personality.

My son and I found each other. That was a celebration with relief. But there is a long list of big and little things that I miss and am concerned about losing. I had some horses on my Virtual Stable. I imagine them all winning and paying $36.40. I wonder if I had flood insurance. I wonder if the Fair Grounds is still there. I miss my Q-tip moment after taking a shower. I'm still puzzled about why I threw my golf clubs in the trunk of the car instead of some socks and a comb. Here I am with one pair of sandals, some jogging shorts, three shirts, two pair of underwear and a 7-iron. If you want to go deep, what I am really afraid of is losing contact and not seeing my friends again.

If anyone from Enterprise reads this, I still have your rental car. It's a 2005 Ford Taurus, assigned to my Visa card and scheduled for return on Aug. 29. Bringing it back to New Orleans would have been a mistake for both of us. I think the Super Derby (gr. II) is coming up soon at Louisiana Downs. Maybe I'll hit the trifecta and we can settle up when I get back.