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Katrina Memories: Helicopters and jalapenos

Sharon Litwin (photo by Jason Kruppa)

Sharon Litwin (photo by Jason Kruppa)

Tap the memory banks of those who lived through the hurricane and you’ll likely find one sound, one image, one smell that is seared into their senses.

For me the sound is the never-ending flap, flap, flap of hurricane blades overhead. The image: miles of neutral grounds stacked sky-high with storm debris. The smell: jalapenos grilling in my backyard. Yes, jalapenos grilling in my backyard.

To this day I cannot pass a grocery store display of tiny, glossy green jalapenos without thinking of the days after the storm. Hang with me here; I’ll tell you why in a minute, I promise.

I knew a storm was out there when I left New Orleans for Chicago to celebrate one of my grandsons' August birthdays. But, how many times had we all been through the threat of a storm, opting to stay anyway? We just made sure there were candles, battery-operated radios and lots of bottled water in our houses in the event one landed in New Orleans. Heck, I even moved into my house the day of Hurricane Camille and slept through the night only to be awakened early the next day by a phone call from my mother in London who told me that British papers were reporting sightings of alligators swimming on Bourbon Street.

So my big decision in August 2005 was what clothes I should take for a few days to the Windy City.

We all know what happened on the 29th and its aftermath. It was clear I wasn’t going South for awhile. So I went out and bought some additional cheap clothes to hold me over for a short time, hardly comprehending what that meant. I wore those clothes for days as I watched in horror and in tears what had and was happening.

As soon as I could, I did what everyone else did: checked up on my friends, my house and my colleagues, both musicians and staff, at the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. I spent weeks on the computer in the Chicago house basement. Calling people, coaxing national foundations to support the country’s only musician-owned, collaboratively-managed professional symphony orchestra, wondering if we would ever play again in the Crescent City.

An early trip back to New Orleans revealed that I was one of the fortunate: a house in good order, with just one slightly below ground-level room in need of gutting and repair from a one-inch invasion of water and its ensuing mold.

It took no time to discover that all the good contractors were obligated for months into the future. House renovation was not a world I knew anything about and the stories of morally corrupt con artists were rampant.. So  I went back to Chicago to figure out what to do. And that’s how the jalapenos came into my world.

My wonderful son-in-law introduced me to George, a tree-trunk of a Greek-Chicagoan willing to travel South with me and a small cadre of Mexican workers who came along to help.

Growing up as a child in a London still struggling to overcome the ravages of the Second World War, I remembered all the shortages my family and others had to put up with; powdered eggs, no butter or meat, ration cards that ruled everyone’s life. So I knew, even though my own children thought I was being somewhat melodramatic, that there wouldn’t be much available in the Crescent City. So we picked out  cabinets and flooring in the Windy City with orders to deliver them to one of the few Home Depot stores open in New Orleans. And then we caravanned all of us humans back down South.

On one of the first days on the job, a couple of workers spotted an old, very old, BBQ pit in the garbage pile in front of my house. Would I mind, they asked, if they took it and used it? I couldn’t quite imagine why, but, of course, take it.

Life became a routine of my going quite often to a fabulous tiny Honduran start up food shack in Metairie to pick up lunch for them, standing in the long line of hungry, hard-working Latinos who were saving all of us in our broken city.

Always thanking me profusely and politely, the crew ate their lunch. After a few days of doing this, one of the crew asked softly if I knew where to get jalapenos. I figured out where to get them, but couldn’t imagine what to do with them. In short order, I learned. They were grilled on that beat-up, dead BBQ pit over leftover charcoal still dry in one of my outside sheds.

Over the following weeks I bought pounds and pounds of jalapenos wherever I could find them and daily they were grilled in my backyard. The workers were happy. I was happy. And because I was happy, my out-of-town daughters were happy too. It took so little in those dark days to be happy.

So now, a decade later, while I still look up at helicopters overhead (it’s reflex action) and marvel at the remarkable appearance of out re-planted neutral grounds, it’s really jalapenos that always remind me of Katrina. Not so bad when you think of all the other things I could be thinking about.

For the tenth anniversary of Katrina, NolaVie will be running five days of personal Katrina accounts from our contributors and community members. Check back each day for raw stories from the people who lived through, within and around the tragic hurricane.  

Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]