Her meaning is clear. Why am I not pulling on my gloves and strapping on my facemask and pitching in to help clean things up on Magazine Street, or at City Park, or anywhere else? Why am I not steeling myself for battles ranging from mold to schools to the levees? How could I -- someone who actually could have a job, a house and even a good public school -- now cash it in?
It's an often unspoken question in post-Katrina New Orleans: How dare you abandon us?
You can hear it in the "Bring New Orleans Back" campaign, which declares: "Jazz needs you, Creole cooking needs you, and New Orleans needs you now more than ever."
And you can hear it in conversations between those who are returning and those who aren't. The other night, I babysat for a neighbor. She'd decided to get a fleur de lis inked on her arm, and she and her husband were going to a local tattoo shop. "The tattoo artist appreciated the fact that we were going to be here for good," she told me when she came home. "She didn't have any tolerance for those who aren't staying. I was concentrating on the pain, but I think I remember her saying something like, 'F--k those lightweights.'"
"It's not much discussed because no one wants to say that they are blaming the people who are leaving. But there are loyalty issues," says Richard Read, marketing director for the NOCCA Institute and co-founder of the Running With Scissors theater troupe. "We're all mouthing the same thing: 'Oh, we certainly don't blame anyone who has to leave; people lost jobs and homes.' But the emotional side of it is, 'Why don't you people move back? This is a great time to make things happen in the city.'"
The hard truth is, our family might have been able to make it work in New Orleans. I still had my job as editor of Gambit Weekly. It was an important job when the storm hit, and it's an even more important job now. And yes, we have a house and school and a neighborhood. In New Orleans. After the hurricane. When friends who lost all they own are staying.
Here's one answer I give the woman at the party: My wife, Tami, lost her job as a pediatrician. In the weeks following the storm, when the news was that kids weren't returning to New Orleans, she found a job in the northern suburbs of Chicago. It's a better position than she had been able to find in New Orleans, even before the hurricane.
I sense the woman's skepticism. For New Orleans die-hards, the job argument only goes so far.
So I tell the woman more. I don't give all the details, but our story goes like this: Last year, my wife's mother visited New Orleans. She lives near Milwaukee, Wis. On her visit, we drove along St. Charles Avenue and passed Audubon Park, and she asked me if I remembered when I was stationed there with the Army.
We knew she had Alzheimer's. We didn't know how quickly it had progressed. That was her last trip anywhere. Now she can't leave her group home. When she does, a look of animal terror flashes across her face. She calls it hell. In a few months, when we live in Chicago, we can visit her. The children will bring pictures for her room. On good weekends, she might know who we are.
In fact, nearly all our parents, our children's grandparents, will be a day's drive away, in the Midwestern cities where my wife and I grew up. As years passed, trips to New Orleans would have become more difficult for them, too. When I can't remember any other reason for leaving, I think about the day drives to Grandma and Grandpa's house that we'll soon be taking.
So I tell the woman that we are moving closer to family. She nods. "I can accept that," she says.
I'm trying to accept it, too. We've removed the fallen tree from our back patio and put the "for sale" sign on our front lawn.
We're leaving home. Then we're going home.
We'd been putting off our family discussion for weeks. We didn't know that our 7-year-old daughter Cecilia had read a Lafayette weekly paper that is printing some of my articles. She saw a picture of her teacher on the cover and just kept reading. It was the first newspaper article she's ever read, and it was in an alternative weekly. I feel some pride about this. But at the close of the piece, I had written about moving from New Orleans.
"Too many people are leaving and I don't want to be one of them," she now announces loudly.
Cecilia is dressed as a witch. Three other witches are at her side. It's Halloween, and we're trick-or-treating in Carencro, just outside of Lafayette, where we've lived for two months. She's not crying; she's not laughing. She's just being loud. The local parents look over at us.
I stop and kneel down to Cecilia's level. But she doesn't want to talk more about it. She's gone back to trick-or-treating.
In fact, we don't resume the conversation until the next day, on our first trip out of Louisiana since the storm. We've flown to Chicago and are driving to the suburb of Evanston, Ill. There we are visiting schools and preparing to move in with family in mid-December.
I'm in the front seat. My kids sit in the back. Tami is in the middle, sitting between the seats of Cecilia and our 4-year-old son, Miles. We re-start the conversation about moving. I tell Cecilia that if she wanted to, she could finish up her school year in New Orleans. Tami could move up early, start the new job, look for the new house. I could stay back with the kids.
Cecilia pantomimes her response. First, she shakes her head from side to side. "No?" I ask. Then she tightly grabs onto Tami's arm.
There are 1.3 million households from the Gulf Coast now living somewhere else in America. We're in every state in the union. Illinois officials say that about 4,500 evacuees arrived in Illinois after the storm, according to the Associated Press. Nobody knows how many have stayed on.
Arriving in the Chicago area, I start trying to learn about other evacuees. I don't get very far. There are about 60 people remaining in an old mental health facility in Tinley Park, a southwestern suburb. But most seem to be scattered throughout the wide connection of cities, villages and communities that comprise the greater Chicago area. There must be hundreds of evacuees here, maybe thousands. But I don't yet know how to find them.
We know of one family that is relocating here: Megan Hougard, Eric Morrow and their children, Cecelia and Jasper. Megan tells me that she's been trying to find other evacuees in the area, too. "Supposedly there's a bunch in Chicago, but it's different groups of people who aren't crossing paths," she says. "But once you meet one other family, they've met two other families, and you build that natural circle."
Megan is a high school teacher; Eric worked at the Whole Foods in Uptown, which is still closed. They're selling their house in New Orleans. Like us, they might have found some way to remain in New Orleans. They don't feel like they were forced out.
"We made a decision to leave. We didn't have to," Megan says. "We didn't have our school, and neither of us had jobs, but when it came down to it, we could have figured out some way to stay. But I don't think it would have been in the best interest of our children, in terms of the environment and school."
Megan says that before Katrina, she never imagined she would leave New Orleans. Ten years ago, after finishing college, she moved there because the city reminded her of Brazil. She felt a commitment to improving education there. She also didn't think she had the spine to start fresh.
"We both felt tremendous relief in some ways when we decided not to go back," she says. "We'd been carrying this weight around with us for a while. This love-hate relationship with the city. You love the culture and the feeling of it, and that's where you created your life. But the majority of people living there were in extreme poverty with poor options for school and work and life. Those issues are everywhere, but it was so overwhelming here. And it just became a weight."
For three years, Megan taught at Frederick Douglass High School in Bywater. Her former Douglass students are now scattered across the country. Other teachers are working to bring them back to New Orleans. Megan isn't so sure that's the best course. "I really hope that they're better off where they are," she says. "I think that they are."
Like everyone else I know, Megan learned how to text-message in the days following the hurricane, when cell phones didn't otherwise function. She evacuated with her family to Kisatchie National Forest in central Louisiana, planning for a weekend camping trip. She had no television and was only partially aware of what was happening in New Orleans. Then she started receiving text-messages from former students who were trapped in the Superdome. She messaged them back about her house in the city's Irish Channel. It was dry and stockpiled with water and food, and it was walking distance from the Superdome. She told them to break in.
"They wrote back, 'There's a lot of us.' I didn't care. We had the water. I wrote back, 'Go.' Then they wrote back, 'They won't let us leave.'"
That was Megan's breaking point. "The people that I love so much were hurt so badly by this," she says. "I couldn't see the city the same way. The city was hurting them so much before, I couldn't believe that it could be worse.
"These kids were living in such horrible conditions. Yeah, they had Mardi Gras, they had the Mardi Gras Indians and all this history, but the reality for them was their homes and schools, and being beaten up and arrested. We weren't even figuring out a way they could safely get out of the city."
Early estimates projected that 40 percent of the city's residents won't return. But nobody knows for sure. I think that estimate is too high. But many who don't return will be African Americans, the poorest of whom have no jobs, no homes and no future in the city. New Orleans will likely become majority white. The political landscape will harden and probably become more conservative.
Megan says that even when she thinks she's made peace with her decision to leave, something unexpected will remind her of how painful it all is. Like the day she went to trade in her driver's license. "Once that license was gone, it was like losing my membership," she says. "I couldn't claim the city." She now carries around a photocopy of her Louisiana license in her wallet.
She also thinks that even if she doesn't return, many of her friends will. Eventually. Once they've refueled their commitment to the city.
Richard Read thinks so, too. "New Orleans is one of those cities that lures people back again and again," he says. "That's why I'm hoping that some of these decampments won't be permanent."
As I write these last words, I'm sitting in a New Orleans coffee shop, blocks from my house. It is filled with people; cars on return trips to New Orleans are crowding I-10. Across the table from me is a neighbor, Chris Poche. He has kids at my kids' school. They're back in our neighborhood, too. These evenings, he says, they sit on their porch and watch as Humvees, filled with teenage soldiers wielding M16s, lumber down Plum Street. It starts to feel like a bad episode of Survivor.
But the Poches are planning to stay. "When you live in New Orleans, you have to find a way to like being in the messiness," Chris says. "Here, you can't forget there are poor people in the world. It's all stripped bare and we just have to be in it."
One night during our visit to Chicago, I attended an event titled "Race and Hurricane Katrina." Organizers included Louise LeBourgeois, a New Orleans-born artist who was living in Italy when Katrina hit New Orleans. She woke up in the middle of the night screaming, "You son of a bitch!" and decided she had to do something. So she painted spirits rising from sugar kettles. And she helped organize this evening's event.
George Bailey, a professor from Columbia College, spoke about images of race and racism. Two actors performed the Ninth Ward poet Marcus B. Christian's "I Am New Orleans." We paired off for discussions.
Then an organizer asked if there were any evacuees here tonight. Three of us raised our hands. We were asked if we wanted to speak. I started by saying that this was the first time I'd been outside of Louisiana since the hurricane. It became hard to go on talking.
When I first started this series of articles, I never planned on it ending this way. I thought the story would be how one family found its way back to its New Orleans home.
For the past 20 years, I have loved New Orleans because it is different from any other place. Now, some of those differences must be preserved, and others must be obliterated. Anything else, and the city might not survive the next storm. It might not even survive until the next storm. At least not in any recognizable form.
I wish I could say that the city will flourish. I wish I could be sure that the city, the state and the country will keep its promises to the people who live here. I can't. So now I'll be one more New Orleanian living somewhere else, trying to find my place in the fight for the city. When I need to feel hope, I'll look to New Orleanians.
At the Katrina event in Chicago, before we broke for sandwiches and pralines, organizer Melissa Cook read from a letter that Tennessee Williams wrote William Saroyan on Nov. 29, 1941. The topic was World War II, but he could have been writing about the horrors of the autumn of 2005.
"I think there is going to be a vast hunger for life after all this death and for light after all this eclipse," Williams wrote. "People will want to read, see, feel the living truth and they will revolt against the sing-song Mother Goose book of lies that are being fed to them. A layer of thick, dull and insensitive epidermis is gradually being blasted off the public hide I hope!"