Wednesday, June 07, 2006

What Once Was

For some years now we’ve made our weekly grocery shopping expedition into a family outing. Every week, usually on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, we take my mother and however many daughters are in town at the time, and head for the Whole Foods at Magazine and Arabella. We have dinner outside if the weather permits (which it usually does), then split up to fill our grocery carts.

There used to be a shop on Carrolton, near Tulane Avenue, that we’d pass every week. It reminded me of something you’d see in a Middle Eastern souk or an African market: cheap vinyl bags hanging up for sale on the sidewalk, garishly colored polyester rugs displayed over a nearby fence. I used to smile every time I’d see it, and wonder about the immigrant who’d obviously opened it, and about his customers. The first time I drove up Carrolton after Katrina, I looked for the shop and saw it shuttered, an ugly water line some three or four feet high across the front of the building. And I wondered again about the dark skinned man who’d once hung all his wares for sale out on the sidewalk, and what had happened to him.

Most of the shops in the area were hit badly by the storm, especially the groceries. When Steve, Danielle and I first moved back down here in October, people were lining up in the streets for the distribution of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat, the modern version of army C Rations). Since we try to avoid preservatives, we decided to drive up to Baton Rouge once a week to have dinner and shop at the Whole Foods up there. We became quite friendly with the staff at the pasta and seafood counters, giving them weekly updates on the reconstruction of our house and the repopulation of the city, while they would pass on to us reports on the progress of the reconstruction of New Orleans’ two Whole Foods.

The Whole Foods on Veterans was the first to reopen—sort of. They cleared out a small section near the door, lined up three or four short aisles sparsely stocked with food, hung big sheets of plastic to seal off the rest of the store, and set up two cash registers on card tables at the front. It was like stepping into a time warp back to the old USSR. Every few weeks they’d expand a bit, with the meal service area being the last to reopen in February. The Whole Foods on Magazine took a different approach, staying closed until they were ready to reopen entirely, also in February. We were some of their first customers.

I thought about those days as we set off on our weekly grocery outing last night. It seems as if we’ve been back in our old weekly Grocery Night Out routine for some time now, although it’s actually only been a few months. There used to be an old Victorian house across the street from the sidewalk tables on Magazine. A fortuneteller lived there. While I ate my dinner, I used look at her little neon sign hanging in the window of that Victorian house and smile. The house is gone now, bulldozed after a significant chunk of the Whole Foods roof slammed into it. Last night, while we were having dinner, my mother looked across the street and said, “It’s amazing how nature can reclaim the land. Look at that. You’d never know there’d ever been a house there.” I turned and saw a thicket of weeds and shrubs where once a fortuneteller had practiced her art.

On our way home, we drove up Carrolton and I watched, as I always do, for signs of rebuilding, my heart aching at the sight of so many abandoned homes and businesses standing forlorn in the fading light. And then I saw them: row after row of cheap vinyl bags, garish polyester rugs. I cried, “Look! He’s back! The souk guy is back!”

And then I thought, This is how it will be. In some places, weeds will overgrow what once was. But in other places, the human spirit will prevail, and what once was will be again.


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