Tuesday, December 27, 2005

What Runs on St. Charles

Lately, in an effort to get some sort of normalcy back into my life, I’ve been running again, using the old route, up St. Charles towards Audubon Park across from Tulane and Loyola and then back. The first thing I learned was that along with everything else, Katrina has taken whatever modicum of physical fitness I had been able to achieve. I guess no exercise during 5 weeks of evacuating will do that. However, when not gasping for air, stumbling in pain, and wanting to die, I have been watching the changes on one of New Orleans’ main thoroughfares over the past three months.

(Has it really been that long? I still feel like life is frozen at the beginning of the school year and here it is the end of the non-existent semester. Einstein was more right than he knew.)

When I first went running back in October sometime, the stench was pretty pervasive, even Uptown. The French Quarter stank of the raw sewage we were dumping in the Mississippi, and the flooded places reeked of mold and death, but even Uptown smelled of rot, mostly from the duck-taped refrigerators lining the streets, including St. Charles. Even though I ran on the neutral ground (median to you non-New Orleanian uncouth masses) and the refrigerators squatted and leaned on the curbs, I would still get whacked with the smell as I passed. It was always present, but when I approached a group of dead Sub-Zeroes it would suddenly become overwhelming and I would have to hold my breath until I got by.

Most of the mansions, huge old Southern homes of columns and tall windows, that line St. Charles had plywood over all their windows, and I had to jump over tons of dead branches, downed power lines, and broken poles. The huge oaks didn’t provide the shade they usually did, stripped and broken as they were. The police had taped off several spots, so I had to run off the neutral ground and into the street. No problem, though, because there were very few cars around. Mostly I saw Humvees, camouflaged green at first, then more and more tan ones as people and equipment came back from Iraq. I waved at all of them, and they all waved back.

By Thanksgiving, the smell was mostly gone, as were most of the refrigerators. The majority of the plywood was gone, too, telling the story of who had returned and who had not. I still had to avoid tree limbs and power lines, though I pretty much ran through the taped-off spots, going over or around the fallen and forgotten tape. A lot more cars zipped up and down St. Charles, many with out-of-state plates and not much regard for speed limits or understanding of how to negotiate a 4-way stop intersection (still common here in the city of little electricity and few working stoplights). We had all mostly stopped waving at the National Guard. A FEMA/Red Cross station had opened up in the Jewish Community Center, and I wiggled through the cars and trucks that constantly crowded onto the neutral ground there. The streetcar tracks, unused since Aug. 28, had disappeared under dirt, grass, and overgrowth.

These days my biggest obstacles are the deep divots and mounds of mud left by the heavy trucks driving and parking on the neutral ground, providing runners with a path that couldn’t be better designed to twist an ankle. They’re mostly repair trucks, though plenty a Hummer or SUV driver has decided that staying on roads is a law that doesn’t apply to him in Post-K N.O. The only limbs I have to jump over or run around are the ones cut down by repair crews and I haven’t smelled rot in quite a while. Of course, St. Charles didn’t flood and marks the border of what I think of as the operating corridor of New Orleans these days – the swath of town between St. Charles and the river that is the only part of town really up and running.

The streetcar tracks remain overgrown, so much in some sports that if I didn’t know where they were, I wouldn’t be able find them. Streetcars have started running limited service on the Canal and Riverside lines already, but transit officials say they won’t be rolling past the mansions and under the oaks of Uptown for at least a year. Until then, I’ll keep running along, watching the plywood come down and the trash get hauled off as the city comes back to life, inch by slow, painful inch.

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