There were a good number of us in the city anyway, but in the days preceding Katrina our population swelled. It was not a planned thing. We are not an organized group. But something had brought us together, and we took notice. It soon became evident the severity of what was coming. Ordinary citizens passed us on the streets and muttered the same platitudes we always hear before inclement weather: Looks like a storm is brewing. Smells like rain. But then, some less common phrases joined the fray: Think it’ll hit us? You all stocked up? Where you gonna wait it out?
We are citizens too, we suspect. But ordinary citizens have homes, and we tend to not. Nor are we homeless, by our definition. You will not find us at homeless shelters, or, until Katrina, in large groups. Homes in this country have great monetary value, and thus play a major part in the system. It is this system that we distance ourselves from. We have learned not to trust money. Faith is wasted inside a pocketbook.
When the time came, we abandoned the tourists and vendors on Bourbon Street. We left the Ninth Ward behind. We even left the city park, our favorite place to be, in this city or any other. Our intuition said move, so we moved. We spend our days attentive, and mostly outdoors, and so maybe we’ve reacquired that barometric sensitivity most animals still possess. A large part of our existence is dictated by these impulses to stay or to be somewhere else. We are survivors. We have learned to suffer well. It is our best skill, though we do have others.
We looked for high ground with the pure intensity of hunger, of self-preservation. The ordinary citizens checked their weather instruments and soon the order was issued. Evacuate or head for the Superdome, said the bullhorns, but we’ve never been partial to sports, so we wandered our own way, looking for purchase strong enough to withstand the winds we could hear building in our minds.
Only hours before the storm’s arrival, we solidified as a definite group at the Audubon Zoo. Locked and gated, but it wasn’t difficult to find entry. A few remaining workers saw us streaming onto the grounds and voiced insistence we find somewhere else to dig in, but our numbers were sudden, as surprising to ourselves as we must have been to them. We simply pointed at the sky and continued on.
The reptile house seemed the only structure in the city built with any understanding of a tropical storm. We crowded into the main hall, sacrificing precious personal space, and our body smells combined into a pungent force. Even the animals seemed put off. The cascades of rain began, cleansing the air, causing us headaches as well as a palpable relief, that the tension we’d sensed building could at last uncoil. And with violence, it did. The winds whistled through unseen cracks, the rooftop gasped and moaned and reported abuse, but after only a few hours, the storm’s intensity seemed to have peaked. Our fear abated; our group began to solidify, to look each other in the eyes.
In day-to-day life, we rarely speak to each other. Our appearance does not do much to distinguish us from the true homeless, whom we try not to provoke with eye contact, as they tend to see us as competitors. While we do not run from pain, or for that matter, death, neither do we invite these things upon us. There in the reptile house, we were afforded the rare chance to connect. The electricity flickered, and as we waited on its expiration, we consoled ourselves with interviews, asking each other questions until our philosophies entwined, patching the gaps in our own identities.
In a system based on acquisition of power, as capitalism is, there is a continuum extending from those with an abundance of power to those with comparatively none. It has been this way since the days of slavery; the only significant systematic difference between slavery and capitalism is, simply, money. A small few thrive, the vast millions do not. But although money creates and sustains the illusion of the distribution of power, it also creates an often neglected option: to circumvent the system. We combined our self-discovered ideologies and nodded assent, acknowledging for each other, for the color-shifting lizards tucked into faux-foliage nooks, for the swirling winds of God above our heads: We are categorically powerless. We gave it all away. But this is how we know we are not slaves.
Our revelations proved relaxing. We stood and stretched. Revealed seldom-used smiles. Dared laughter. Began sharing our limited provisions, from tobacco to tampons. Rain fell in sheets so continuous that if we paid it any attention, we noticed ourselves holding our breath. So we turned our attention inward and relied on each other for distraction. If we gave it all away, we mused, surely we must have an analog at the opposite end. Someone who keeps everything, never loses, always wins. A man who benefits from every transaction in the system, a white man, certainly. To whom anything is available for purchase. He wouldn’t be a politician; if he chose, he could own the country, but then he would have to run it, and he does not depend on the welfare of others, nor their consent to be owned. Power is not granted, but extracted. It is not the ability to make decisions, but decisions made, accumulated like any collected thing.
He would be beyond most physical goods. Diamonds and toys, so much passive entertainment, he’s well past that now. In this respect, we are the same. But as we forage city parks with growling bellies, he dines in penthouses on dishes never before created, nor will they be again. He owns the patent on singular experiences. Feeling a submissive freedom, we could now tell our stomachs in the flickering dark: This hunger doesn’t even belong to us. He owns the patent. On thirst, on sleep, he owns the patent on the fire we create in striking a match. This is a man who owns waterfalls. Not the river before or after, nor the lake at the bottom, he doesn’t need these things, anyone could claim possession and anyone does, countries and states lay borders down the middle and divide them into halves. But the rarity of water-in-air interests him, like some invented physics. He owns the patent on invention, he employs great thinkers to sit around and think, to challenge assumptions, to ask why people do things the way they do. Why drink a beer like that, why not some other way, upside-down, through our noses, into our rectums, what other ways are possible, he owns the patent on possibility. On promise. On love.
Where there could have been resentment, instead we developed a fondness for the legend. We spoke of him like an old friend, with whom we shared similar roots but had long ago parted ways. He owns the patent on snakes, we said, pointing. Wears a rattler as a necktie. The snakes were not amused. Our smiles and laughter dampened the raging storm and flooded our restless veins with energy. Those with instruments started the concert, saxophones and trumpets, bongos, guitars. Even the thunder seemed to play along. Those with food started the feast, those with feet started the dance, those with shoes shed them to feel the rhythm in the cool concrete. We liquored and smoked, pouring out drinks to the he-who-owns-all. We laughed in symphonic tones, laughed harder when the power finally gave out, we cheered and groped the darkness to seek ourselves out, lit matches to find the yellow mop bucket for excrement, blew them out before releasing our bladders and bowels, the smell came and went, sucked out through those unseen cracks into the grand cacophony surrounding us.
Once we’d exhausted ourselves or overindulged, we lay down. But sleep proved difficult to achieve in the presence of like minds. The wind’s pace slowed by the hour, and our voices lowered to match. In tentative whispers, we asked the dangerous questions. What scares you the most? Which past hurt was the toughest to move on from, or lingers still?
What do you call your god?
We all expected only one answer from each other: Sorry—atheist. But no one gave it. We each confessed to a belief structure of some kind, and after further whispered discussion we realized not a one of us had ever actually met a true atheist, in professed belief and in practice. A true atheist would put the past in the past. As if a child at a theme park, he would spread himself thin, trying to experience every thrilling attraction this existence could provide, taking on no souvenirs to weigh him down. He would not procrastinate, make idle chat, reflect. Watch television. There is a certain faith displayed in the wasting of time, and we’ve never met anyone who doesn’t.
But that faith is a passive one. Like true atheists, we place high value on experience; we, however, relinquish all control. Life itself will bring ample fear, nausea, and pain, often without a clear end, often more than we think we can handle. But we do, somehow. We believe there is meaning in our suffering, and in our survival. To us, there is no theme park, no track beneath the coaster to offer the comforting illusion of control. Life as we live it is not a simulation, and therefore not a commodity. You can’t buy a ticket for this.
When at last we grew silent, we had trouble sleeping. It seemed our faith, by nature, was a solitary, unspoken thing. There was something unsettling about putting it out there to be shared, like the only blanket against the whistling dark. Eventually, though, the mortal danger of the hurricane’s final passes lulled us into oblivion. Even here, surrounded by many, if we died we would die alone. As expected.
In the morning, we emerged from sleep in piles of each other. The storm was gone, and we felt an oppressive heat on its way. Triple digits, as the ordinary citizens say. The reptiles stirred in their cages, expecting a regular feeding that we couldn’t supply. Instead, we supplied ourselves. Vendor carts, supply closets, we collected all the bottled water we could carry, leaving behind anything that could be replaced, which was most everything but lighters and matches, wrapped in protective plastic. We dumped the shit bucket and left it.
Individual pockets of flooding surrounded the zoo grounds, but we couldn’t have expected what we found closer to the city. Streets had largely disappeared, only demarcated by a grid of splintered rooftops, where the occasional owner had hacked his way out of the attic and into the dizzying humidity. It was as if Lake Pontchartrain had raised a massive hand and tried to pull itself into the boat, tipping the city in the process. We found the largest manageable tree branches and used them for floatation where our feet couldn’t touch. The silence buried us but for the water’s soft sloshing, and we had no urge to break it. We hid from every motor, from every voice we heard. The occasional helicopter flew overhead, assessing damage but not stopping. Powerboats appeared later in the day, but the sound carried well over the water and we were able to avoid them. We didn’t need to be saved.
We continued northeast, looking for the park.
Others who braved the water took us by surprise, but they paid us no attention. With stoic determination, they towed behind them collections of convenience store goods, bags of potato chips and bread, plastic-bound six packs, cartons of cigarettes, all they could carry and more. We traced their trailing overflow to the source and stocked up, whatever we could manage.
Near the end of the day, sunburned and exhausted from the wading, the swimming, and the self-enforced silence, we saw a highway overpass, and beyond it the Superdome. Exactly where we hadn’t wanted to be. Two or three helicopters visible at a time, and a general commotion carrying our way across the flat water. We hid from the helicopters under the overpass. The stadium appeared to have been scalped, the better half of the dome peeled off like an orange rind. Just then, the birds returned, or maybe it was only then we noticed them, entire flocks of seagulls and terns, frigate birds, black skimmers, apparitions like clouds from behind the dome, heading right for us. Some banked and landed. Others, as if themselves come only to survey, turned back towards Lake Pontchartrain, on a northwest bearing. We followed.
Further from the dome, we felt safe enough to travel by highway. The overpasses were all dry, the rest easily waded, and we abandoned our branches to ease our burden, drinking water to salve our salt-parched lips, capping empty bottles and floating them away. At sunset we came to another zoo, makeshift on an overpass very near to our destination. Seagulls and terns made preparations for the night, and as we climbed nearer, all manner of small animals evaded us in waves: rats a-plenty and bare-tailed squirrels, nutria the size of cats, actual cats, small dogs, large dogs, lizards clinging to the walls, spiders hard at work building their brand-new webby homes. At the top we paused, sitting or leaning against the barriers, to collect ourselves and allow the animals to do the same.
In the distance, the orange light caught the top of the park’s football stadium. A few treetops. Nothing else. The rest of it liquid dark. Our destination, too, was inundated. We should have known. Still, no one spoke.
When the sun was gone, we stood. Bullhorns in the distance beckoned us back to the blackness we’d just escaped, promising medical attention, safety. The city around us, quickly disappearing into an impossible visual silence. Not even moonlight. Darkness in New Orleans.
New Orleans? What New Orleans. We couldn’t see it.
We woke to birds’ wings and a relative chill, sunburned and dehydrated though we had water remaining, shivering in the early fog. We latched onto one another for warmth, conditioning ourselves to and accepting the pulsing ache from our skin, which anyway soon dulled and would not last the morning. The clouds, however, would last most of the day.
We’d made it to the football stadium, wading in black water up to our chins, sometimes carrying our shorter members piggy-back. Inside on the lowered field, the flooding had reached the horizontal rung of the goalposts, but the stands remained, wooden benches, softer than last night’s cement. Without conversation, we’d slept better, feeling a more familiar solitude. When the fog lifted, we took stock of our situation and wondered how we’d traded one football stadium for another. The flooding at the park was as bad as the majority of the city. No trails, indeed no solid ground could be seen in our immediate vicinity. To the west we could see the end of the park grounds, where the housetops began; to the north, highway 610 dipped into and out of sight like a woodcut depiction of a sea serpent. In every other direction, just salt water and the trees choking on it.
Then, on the other side of the highway, we spotted what looked to be a broad circumference of trees, suggesting what had formerly been a perfectly round body of water, now bleeding out its edges. We didn’t remember any such lake in the park. We felt the urge to move, but off the highway the water was deeper. For floatation, we took the padding from the goalposts and tackling dummies. Only when we were nearly there did we recognize the “lake” as the softball complex. Four fields comprised the pieces of the pie, with home plates commingling at the field house in circle-center. We docked on the roof; four chain-link backstops guarded each of our compass headings, and the diamonds of orange clay seemed to haunt the water with color. Collected against one of the backstop fences were five mattresses: three twins and two full-sized, one of which still wrapped in factory plastic. We towed them to our roof-island, laid the four wet mattresses out to dry, peeled off the plastic from the other and took turns sharing it, arms behind our heads, pointing out like children the fluffed shapes above us, though in the solid gray cloud cover there were none. A juvenile alligator crawled up the rooftop slant as if on a beachhead, paused there with mouth open, waiting on birds. Sorry, bub, we said. He owns the patent on dentistry. You’re going to have to make an appointment.
The first nonessential conversation since leaving the reptile house. Mercifully, it broke the silence.
On our rooftop island inside the four fences, we felt secure, isolated. Blessed, if that’s a thing. A city newly homeless, and we its divine-right kings—at least until they wanted it back. The flat water bordered by the outfield trees was our moat. We no longer heard the bullhorns, nor even the distant helicopters, there was no sound but the birds and what we made, and when we noticed this we made a lot. We stomped and smashed the already-damaged steeple, hoping to find stone or brick underneath. In a nearby tree, a young cow hung by its legs, dead, which we intended to cook for the feast. Party part two. Except we were without instruments, without liquor but for secret emergency stashes, likewise on the smoke. So we hooted and stomped, whistled and danced, sang impromptu songs, dipped dizzled dazzled and fell to our knees, to the shingles, rolling towards the water, laughing until wet. Then back to the apex again, shedding sopping pants and shirts, tired of their restrictive sag, all manners of body appearing around us, scarred with divots and valleys and moles, reds and browns and pastry-dough whites, unshaven underarms, big billowy crotch crops, little pokey peckers. Shrinkage. Hard nipples. Stretch marks and scars. We pointed and joked but the more we found, the more frantically we searched for other tales our bodies could tell. Emergency liquor and smoke appeared. All five bags of Cheetos, shared and soon devoured, we rubbed the orange off on each other’s shoulders, our smiles inviting more. Objects appeared in the water as if the drain were right beneath us. White and neon-yellow softballs, a deck umbrella only half torn, styrofoam coolers, a plastic hairbrush, a stuffed penguin. The mattresses weren’t yet ready for us, but we were ready for them. Small exploratory poking and prodding, quick kisses just for the taste of skin. The alligator slid back into the water. The fire in the steeple-hole at last was ignited, and as some supplied the flames with collected branches, others cheered; still others moaned. More stomping out rhythms, more dancing, more groping, more love. We lost track of form, of biology or gender, accepted each other’s needs. Maybe it was sex. Maybe it wasn’t sex but it was bodies, it was sweat and release and kisses and physical comfort, tongues cleaning each other like cats.
It went on like this for a while. Night came, but we kept the fire going. Bodies calmed, the frenzy softly expired. Most of us lay down, our legs tired from standing on a slant. A train of vehicles, military and large, eased their way through the highway water in the distance. This would not last much longer.
The air-beating blades of a low, slow helicopter startled us awake, the sunlight just tenderly touching the treetops to the east. The water had lowered a couple feet; some of us jumped into the water to hide beneath the field house roof. The helicopter came to rest on the overpass to the south, between us and the football stadium, but its engine didn’t slow; a man got out, ducked and dashed away. The aircraft lifted, banked, headed southwest, maybe to the airport.
Eventually an inflatable raft appeared between the branches of the southern outfield trees. Indeed, one single man, paddling our way. More of our numbers made for the water and what safety it held. He approached slowly, carefully, took one hand off a paddle and waved to his audience. We glanced around at our nakedness. No one laughed. At the roof’s edge, he stood in the raft, beckoning for help up. Caucasian. Head shaved clean. Lines at his mouth corners, from smiling or frowning, we couldn’t tell. Finally we offered him hands, pulling him up, then quickly covering our crotches and chests with scant palms.
Though his body seemed to belong to a three-piece suit, he wore cargo shorts and a tight, water-resistant top. He climbed to the apex, nodding politely at those he passed, and we shuffled away from him in waves, waiting on his first lie. He appropriated our fire pit just by standing next to it. “You survived,” he said, and we immediately wondered if in fact we had all died.
What he wanted, we couldn’t say. He looked around, sat down on the roof, wrapped his arms around his knees and said, “This is nice.” This is how we knew it wasn’t nice. No one spoke. It was as if he were waiting for the show to begin, his blue eyes brimming with anticipation.
Those in the waters beneath began to grow tired of keeping themselves afloat, and as they reemerged, we helped them back up onto the roof. They shook themselves off, meandered with weary eyes to the mattresses, ignoring him as best they could. This seemed to please him. Any behavior seemed to please him, like Darwin he watched as we stoked the fire, sliced away meat from the calf, stood at the edge and relieved ourselves. After a while he stood up and went to the edge himself. As he shook away his last drops, a flurry of splashes in the northeast outfield caught our attention. A waterlogged chicken making its last attempt to survive.
He dove in, right into the water where he’d just peed. With perfect form he swam out to the chicken, caught it by the neck and held it under, then returned with his prize. We helped him up, but we wouldn’t cook his meal for him. He didn’t seem to expect us to. He sat himself down at the low end of the slope and began plucking the wet feathers himself, an arduous task. He busied himself as if we were no longer there, and so we did the same, breaking off into teams to collect more wood for the drying pile, sharpening sticks to cook our food, making vain attempts to relocate and redistribute clothing. This last he noticed, and so he stood, emptied his pockets into a pile, and proceeded to nude himself. His clothing, once piled, he nudged in our direction like the last meatball, then sat himself down again and resumed plucking.
His body was familiar. Lean and lithe and sculpted, but not by disease or malnutrition. A sky-high metabolism and a sixty-minute per day workout regimen, pure top-of-the-food-chain fitness and it looked exactly like us. Except he was shaved clean. Not a grain of hair on him. Ab muscles winking out from beneath the skin like twilight stars.
With his task complete, he climbed back up to the fire. No one had yet spoken, and he too adopted the code of silence, only motioning to ask for our pocketknives to aid in dismembering the scrawny bird. We couldn’t resist him. It had been so long since we’d had fresh chicken, and it was obvious he meant to share. He pointed at our sharpened sticks for permission, stabbed them through leg and breast meat, handed them out as equally as he could. We gave him a bottle of water. He caught the ‘thank you’ before it escaped his mouth.
Once the meal had finished, he reclined on a mattress, but not the clean one. Sunshine was spotty, and when it came he closed his eyes. Eventually he fell asleep. Far from looking around for his helicopter to rescue him from our Galapagos; in fact it seemed as though he’d forgotten how he came to be here. His raft, caught by some breeze, was now tangled in the outfield branches, salvageable but at the very least a chore to retrieve. We whispered among ourselves who he might be, why he might have come. Maybe it’s him, we said. He owns the patent on nakedness. On rooftop islands. On us. We considered killing him in his sleep. Fetching the raft, urging him to leave. Refusing him food, he couldn’t always find a chicken himself. But time was short. The water was receding, and maybe that’s why he came, we said, he owns the patent on water falling from the sky. We imagined great pipelines, lowered by swarming hordes of helicopters, taking his water back into the atmosphere in heavy gulps, desalinated and bottled, there’s a profit in every tragedy and he alone would have the power to make this one happen.
In the end we decided against violence, but also against passivity. If he was here for the experience, we would give it to him. Bum, bum, bum, we thumped slow fists on the rooftop, searching for the rhythm. His eyes opened, bum, bum, bum, his attentiveness encouraged us, our pace increased, our mouths still unwilling to form words could yet find sound, beatboxed puffs of air, buzzing lips, we began to rise, to stand, to stomp, to dance. He sat up, enraptured, began to clap his hands like a toddler, but he hadn’t seen anything yet. We pierced the air with screams, ay-ay-ay, devolving into laughter, drunk with determination, we would frenzy him out or frenzy him in. Our numbers circled around him, swooping in with curious vulture hands, annexing his smooth skin, his laughter deep and braying with ecstatic surprise. Our drunk legs could not hold us straight, we tripped into each other but caught ourselves from falling and hung on, flesh pressed on flesh, symbiotic stumbling, guiding our private parts into contact with him, a breast on his shoulder, balls on his back, fleeting brushes and away again. Our arousal was only matched by his own, and his hands soon gave themselves permission to touch us back. We all got a piece of him, our fluids flowing, spit and semen and sweat.
Now and then, the sunlight peeked through the clouds and cast a glow upon our writhing, thriving ball of humanity. We kept at it for hours, groups in rotation resting, eating, hydrating, urinating, then picking up the rhythm and joining in again. Night appeared like a hallucination, and at last we all quit. The fire had died out. His patent on us had expired. Like a gentlemen, he spent the night.
The next morning, we awoke to hunger and thirst and sun. Distant bullhorns announced the complete evacuation of the city, as if to allow it to be alone with its disaster. We shared the last of our wrapped snack foods with him, but the uneasiness was in his eyes, and he checked the sky far more often than necessary. He jumped down into the water to rinse from his skin the ejaculate, dirt, vaginal fluid, excrement and rooftop grit. The water was so low it was all we could do to pull him back up. Just one short day he’d been with us. It was as if we had forgotten he didn’t belong. We were truly shocked at how swiftly he found his own clothes.
Before the sun reached its apex, his helicopter returned, hovering above us just long enough to toss out a bundle that expanded into a raft once it hit the water. The helicopter landed on the overpass. He stood on the slanted roof, hands humbly planted in his pockets. “They’re evacuating the Superdome today,” he said, how could he possibly know, he has the patent on telepathy. “Buses will pass by on 610, the highway right over there,” as if we had no other option, which perhaps we did not. He yawned, then hopped off the roof into the water, scrambled into his raft, was gone.
He left his wallet behind. Bursting at the seams with cash, as if to purchase our faith, not for his own use, but to leave us with none. We flipped through the bills, thick as a deck of cards. Like addicts, like arsonists, holding our own ruin in our hands.