I went out to Lafayette on Saturday for the Festival International. I got a little carried away, stayed too long, skipped out on my ride back, drank too much, spent too much money, said the wrong things and spent the next morning hung over wandering the streets of Lafayette, feeling like Johnny Cash’s Sunday Morning Coming Down. Lafayette is a pretty town, and feels affluent; everywhere I saw happy, well-fed Cajuns. Of course, every American city I’ve gone to looks affluent after New Orleans.
Made my way down to the Greyhound station and borrowing a cell phone I met two other New Orleanians, a girl going to school at Loyola and Eddie the Cake Man.
Eddie lived in the seventh ward before the storm, in an apartment building on Claiborne next to the freeway painted purple and yellow. When I met him he had a small bag at his feet with his rolling skates; he was headed fifty miles away to Baton Rouge to go skating and would come back tonight on the Grey Dog. Ed is fifty-seven and a veteran. He is soft-spoken, and gentle, and looks you straight in the eye when he talks.
Eddie’s story came spilling out of him like an open bag of rice falling over.
Ed’s mother died during evacuation in Michigan. He showed us pictures of his mother on his camera phone; kind of like a digital version of the photos of my ex-girlfriend and little sister that I have in my wallet. He had several pictures of her in there, and scrolled through them for us. Another Katrina casualty; an eighty-year old woman in poor health who had to take a road trip that lasted more than twelve hours. He says her house was almost fixed up when she passed in Michigan.
Ed’s father died a year before, and his sister a year before that. A friend of Eddie’s and his whole family died in their house in the rapid flooding in the lower 9th. Eddie tried to move back to New Orleans and live in a FEMA trailer, but the formaldehyde off-gassing made him sick (like most people he didn’t know that you are supposed to run the air conditioning all the time to help deal with the toxic gas chamber that FEMA trailers are). He says the city was just too much of a mess, so he came out to Lafayette to live with his daughter.
Eddie got a job with a baker here, he says he just called him up and he hired him. His specialty is cake decorating, he says he can do everything including comic book figures for kid’s cakes. Never went to school just taught himself. He says his website is on the way.
Eddie says that the Prozac helps, that before he started taking it he would just ball of on the sofa. He can’t afford individual therapy but is going to group therapy. He speaks slowly and with no shame. The thing that really helps him, though, is skating; before the storm he would go to the lanes on Terry Parkway in the West Bank. And now he waits for the Greyhound to go to Baton Rouge.
Someday he says he wants to move back to New Orleans but he doesn’t know when.
I wonder how many people there waiting at Greyhound stations like Ed. And it matters, because it’s more significant when two people suffer than one. On the other hand the mathematics of suffering can be misleading; the other people aren’t Ed and they aren’t standing in front of me with their soft voices, steady brown eyes and roller skate bags. There is aggregate of human misery, the numbers and statistics, and then there is Ed the Cake Man.
Ed tells us that a doctor he saw in Lafayette told him that the Hurricane was two years ago and that he should get over it.
“What a bunch of bullshit”, I respond.
“Thank you”, he says quietly. And he goes on to explain the thing that everyone down here knows and that for some reason people in the rest of the country seem to have a hard time grasping. The hurricane is not over for Ed the Cake Man. And it won’t be any time soon.