In a sense, all stories are about escape. From time to time, we find ourselves in places we’d rather not be. We rage against the padlocked gates of our fantasies. Occasionally, to our surprise, those gates swing free. Still, freedom is no panacea and for each person in search of the new, the exotic, the unbelievable, another traveler is aching for return. Sometimes our vital connections–those ties that bind us to family, home, and identity–grace us with a second chance.
I wrote the following essay for the University of New Orleans’ amazing Storyville Project and performed it on WWNO. If you want to begin to understand life down here in the Big Weird, then you should listen to all the Storyville radio essays.
“Just get in your car and drive, George.”
That’s what I think whenever I watch It’s A Wonderful Life, my favorite film about a man who either is visited by an angel or has a psychotic break. I love quaint Bedford Falls, and the Bailey family is straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Remember when his adorable daughter, Zuzu, gives him the flower petals? But what tugs at me hardest is George Bailey’s dream of escape. His brother leaves to become a war hero. A friend makes millions selling plastics in the biggest of big towns, New York City. But George stays in his drafty, old house with Zuzu’s petals, those symbols of what matters most to him.
George and I have a lot in common. In the 90s, I told my high school sweetheart and eventual wife that I wanted to leave New Orleans at the first chance. The city was shrinking, and I wanted to live somewhere — anywhere — lively, metropolitan, hopefully someplace where they knew how to make pizza. Then Katrina gave me my getaway car.
It was early 2006. Through a series of extraordinarily unlikely events, my wife and I found ourselves streaking down the Santa Monica Freeway at 5 a.m. We were riding in a $100,000 Benz convertible as Three Six Mafia’s “Stay Fly” thumped from the premium sound system . We didn’t talk much during that ride. It was a lull in a days long conversation. The living was easy in Southern California. Meanwhile, back in Louisiana, our 100-year-old home was flooded. Our cars rusting. Family photos reduced to porridge. Do we go back? Do we start new?
Fate had punted us into an alternate reality. My wife got a legit offer from a television producer to join the cast of a show. And I was a poker legend. Sort of. Winning at poker was easy. A dealer later told me, I bore a passing resemblance to poker great Phil Ivey. My opponents’ hands shook every time I placed a bet because they thought I was him, even though Ivey had just won a million dollar championship, and we were only playing for two bucks a hand.
Still, one day my wife and I turned to each other. We have to go back. Why? We didn’t need to say it. We knew. We missed gumbo. We missed the blare of brass on a Sunday morning. We missed conversations like this one: Hey, Baby, how your mama and them? Good. How about yours? They making.
We missed home.
So we flew south, even with no coop to return to. We reclaimed 700 square feet of livable space in our otherwise gutted, shotgun house. Amid tarp and fresh two-by-fours, we ate étouffée cooked on a two-burner hot plate in the bathroom. Our bed was about as wide as a child’s sleeping bag.
But we loved every second. Why? Because running away is something you do when you don’t realize what you have in your drafty, old house. And peace comes when you finally understand what matters most.