I've been in Las Vegas this week. Not to gamble--I never cultivated a taste for it--but to visit cousins who landed here after evacuating New Orleans six years ago. Like a lot of evacuees, Shirley and Ed were lifelong New Orleans residents before fleeing ahead of Hurricane Katrina. Their house got six feet of water and was eventually restored, but the New Orleans East neighborhood as a whole is a different story. "It's coming back," says Ed when I ask him about it. He's been saying that a while.
Shirley and Ed live in Henderson, a hard-by suburb of Vegas in much the way Inglewood is a suburb of Los Angeles. Their subdivision and house is very nice, ordered and quiet, but the harsh, bone-dry locale is about as different from Louisiana as it's possible to be. I miss the fact that they live in Louisiana. Ed thought that Las Vegas might be temporary, a far-flung stop on the road of return to New Orleans. I don't think that's in the works anymore.
My younger sister, meanwhile, spent the last week in New Orleans with her family. Heather has always had a connection to New Orleans that I can't claim; for years she did the winter pilgrimage for Mardi Gras. She hadn't been there or done that since well before Katrina. But whatever trepidation she had about coming back to a tragically altered city was overridden by the fact she reports having a really good time. She's staying with another cousin, Ed and Shirley's son, a former deputy city attorney in New Orleans and one of the last people I know well enough to look up when I visit.
If I visit. Between the lingering ravages of Katrina and the stories from the L.A. transplants that the great community of New Orleans is not what it used to be and never will be again, I don't have any big urge to go. That's not the same thing as saying that I don't want to see New Orleans: I do. But getting there feels onerous, and I don't just mean trekking the 1800 miles or booking the lowest plane fare possible. I don't inhabit the idea of New Orleans the way I once did, claim it as a part of me that was alive long before I was born. The fact I didn't grow up in New Orleans but that it produced me nonetheless shaped my L.A. identity in very specific ways. In the last six years I feel fuzzier, or maybe I'm just tired of trying to keep the faith. At moments I feel like I'm becoming that Angeleno of myth--ahistorical, unconnected, chameleonic. In some ways it's liberating because I am floating, no longer earthbound. But the liberation also feels like death.
I took a walk last night from Shirley and Ed's house just before dark. It's the best time of day in the desert; the wind is low, the air soft. The street that looks like it was paved last week wound up to a corner and then further up to a hill where I came across a new park with a brightly colored playground. I discovered a trail that started out in the park, a road flanked by carefully tended brush. It looked inviting. After walking for a bit I stopped and looked back. The tended brush and the park itself had abruptly fallen away, yielding to desert scrub and a pronounced emptiness on either side of me. This was Las Vegas as it really was, as it had been for centuries before there had been Las Vegas at all. I was moved by the sight; looking down the trail, I suddenly mourned the change.
And then I felt a creeping fear. It was fully dark by now. I didn't see anything in the desert void, but I imagined things--coyote, snakes, dead bodies that could go unnoticed for a long time. I turned and started back.