The winter of 2010 had been a dawdling, long-haired mope that rippled through oversized scarves and rattled the chains of the playground swings, where I spent the morning of my thirty-fourth listening to terrible love songs and letting cold, bright, blustery February elevate my shitty malaise into something that felt heroic. I was, I thought, a failure, a particularly lonely failure, remarkable only in how unremarkable my plight was. I tried to fix it with long runs and whiskey, which I’d taken to drinking to keep me from wanting to smoke cigarettes, which I’d quit some four months previous, which I’d managed with the chemical assistance of anti-depressants, which my doctor kept refilling because this wasn’t my first rodeo.
The depression I felt I didn’t even want to dignify by calling it depression. On paper, I wasn’t even in a particularly bad place, just a place I couldn’t afford without a roommate. Mine—my favorite, my best friend—had decamped to Brooklyn the summer previous. We’d lived together for almost seven years. Nearly of which on a tree-lined, dead end street, one block from our favorite bar, two from the nightclub, half a mile from the record store, a mile from the university. Our best friends lived across the street. We spent nights under shade trees, talking until midnight, throwing extravagant parties. The house was an eternal drop-by, an endlessly fascinating conversation about everything and nothing in particular.
College towns are, by nature, transient places. It had maybe, sort of, occurred to me that my roommate and my friends might be merely passing through as well, and that their paths would only briefly converge in the 200 block of Maple Avenue. But it took them actually leaving for me to get it, and another three solid seasons afterwards for me to figure out that they weren’t coming back.
I had gone to visit my old roommate in New York on a snowy weekend. We’d trundled around Brooklyn, damp with weather. She was living in a place in Greenpoint, kind of a dump, but with one of those rooftop views that can cause you to confuse real estate with poetry, even when you haven’t been stung to tears by the cold wind off the East River and laid bare by a couple hours of immoderate Irish whiskey consumption at a bar full of Williamsburg douchebags. She tried to explain that what we were looking at was the fantasy and the tenement the reality, but lord, if it didn’t feel romantic as fuck. This was my best friend’s life now and she was living it and even though it was irrational, it didn’t seem fair because seriously wasn’t I the one who was always supposed to end up in New York?
It wasn’t her fault I was bitter and lonely and broke, but I was.
By early May, I was dead broke, sleepless, writer’s blocked, and plagued with a nervous stomach, which I decided to blame on meds. I tossed the pills in the bathroom drawer with the extra Band-Aids. I fretted over my credit card bills. I stared at thousands upon thousands of words of unfinished projects, projects I knew had clear and precise endings, but instead rewrote the beginning of a love story about New York or maybe to New York about sixty-eight times. No matter how many times I wrote it, it was still cliché and I was still in a house in North Carolina, unsure if, like, I actually wanted to move to New York. I couldn’t figure whether even thinking about the possibility was proactive or self-destructive. Was it possible for a thing to be both?
A friend’s former roommate called, out of the blue, one afternoon while I was counting quarters and trying to shake the pall of fourth day leftover curry and impending financial ruin. She needed a place to live and followed a hunch that I be desperate enough to consider letting her rent my spare room. I said sure. We negotiated a deal. She’d move in a few days shy of the first of June.
When I told my mother I’d found a roommate, she rejoiced, convinced an occupied second bedroom would alleviate, if not all, then most of my problems. New roommate was a working artist and a good one. Mom thought my proximity to someone else doing creative work might inspire me to pick a file on the hard drive and just finish it, damnit. She also thought I should come with her to Pensacola for four or five days the next week. My stepfather had recently started working on a project down there. We’d have hotel rooms—nice ones—right on the beach, overlooking the Gulf. Why not come down?
At the time, we were about four weeks out from the Deepwater Horizon explosion. I knew the state of things. I’d struggled to reconcile the vastness of it, and had tried to remain as blinkered as possible, given the fact that the last time a Gulf disaster had made nightly news I’d nearly lost my damn mind. Given my tenuous emotional state, I wasn’t sure I was ready to literally wade into Actual Environmental Catastrophe. Does that make me sound weak?
Mom told me I was being dramatic. Things were fine. She’d called the hotel. It’s not the end of the world, just a vacation. We can even go over to New Orleans if you like. You haven’t been there since the hurricane, have you? No. I hadn’t. It wasn’t her fault I was bitter and lonely and broke, but I was.
I woke up crying. I was at once relieved and horrified, because I couldn’t stop. My mother called and found me incapable of an answer about Florida because I was sobbing so hard. She thought maybe I should come home anyway because what the hell was wrong with me? I thought she was maybe right, because I’d been googling “brain tumor” and “uncontrollable weeping” (but not Wellbutrin-withdrawal) before she called. I packed a bag with all-purpose summer things—swimsuits, novels, unflattering sundresses, cheap sunglasses—and cried all the way to my mother’s house. At midnight, still crying, I decided to go to Florida.
“Notes from the Gulf, Saturday, June 5, 2010
“All of the seafood is from the Gulf,” said the bartender, who was either a young-looking forty-five or a hard living thirty and obviously tired of being asked the same questions. “It’s snapper season. Shrimp is good as ever. Still not oil-based.”
I studied the bumper sticker over the bar–Pensacola. A Drinking Village with a Fishing Problem.
Federal waters are closed here. So long as you keep your fishing boat less than twelve miles out from the coast, you can still fish, but that limits all deep-sea fishing (and has cancelled an annual deep-sea fishing tournament that our bartender tonight assured me has not been cancelled in forty years). This means trouble for guys looking for a bigger haul and certainly introduces some short-term complications for those looking to eat local seafood. As of four o’clock today (before the nasty, flooding thunderstorm I drove into this afternoon), the first large oil slick was about three miles off Pensacola Beach. There are booms (not enough) protecting the wetlands on the inland side. The fisherman, put simply, are pretty much screwed.
Of course, there’s another side to this. I overheard the bartender talking about his cousin to a couple of local customers. The cousin has worked piloting deep-sea fishing trips for tourists. Now, with that job effectively over for the summer, the cousin has taken contract work with BP. “They pay up to $1500 a day,” said the bartender, “which is a shitload of money for my cousin. “Apparently this scenario works out for BP, as guys like the cousin are prohibited from talking to the press, and unlikely to even talk to their neighbors as “there are folks around here who’d just as soon put a bullet in anyone that works for BP.” In the meantime, a bunch of small-time fisherman and small boat captains make more money in a week than they’re likely to make in a couple of months. The bartender grinned. “We call them oillionaires.”
Pensacola is a lot weirder than a town immediately adjacent to a giant naval base would suggest. Save few high-rises and Spanish street names, it didn’t feel much like Florida. It felt quite a bit more like Alabama, which I could see from my stepfather’s suite at the Pensacola Beach Hilton. Downtown is late afternoon porch nap of a place, charming even, especially perhaps, in its overgrown gardens and storm stripped stucco walls in the way that so many Southern towns are, so long as you don’t stray too far or think too hard about it.
To get to the Beach, I drove out through a rainstorm across a new bridge parallel to an old one that had been carved into a sinister ellipsis by Hurricane Ivan six years before and left to decompose in Escambia Bay like a monument to any human that rebuilds near storm-haunted waters ever since. I paid a dollar at a toll booth and saw a giant blinking marquee telling me Do Not Pick Up Tar Balls.
Jimmy Buffett got to town the same night I did. He joined then-governor Charlie Crist at a press conference at the Grand Opening of the new Margaritaville Resort Hotel. Together, they informed the public that the beach was open despite oil sludge and the fact that the entire strip smelled like an Exxon, or more accurately, a BP station. I got the giggles in the hotel lobby, which was equally packed with drawling tourists and members of the international media posting live from the shiny blue bar, because what the fuck was I doing there?
In the suite, I had my own room and my own balcony. I could look out at the gulf and see sharks and sting rays swimming in the water, round the legs of swimmers. I read a strange, dreamy novel about upstate New York. I watched the first ever episode of “Game of Thrones” on hotel HBO. I sat at the bar in the lobby, pretending to be a journalist, writing Dispatches from the Gulf for mostly disinterested audience of Facebook friends.
It was the second day, sitting at the lobby bar drinking gin and tonics with the Associated Press that I realized I’d stopped crying.
“Notes From The Gulf, Sunday, June 6, 2010
The desk clerk at the Pensacola Beach Hilton has a lot to deal with right now. There are news crews editing footage at the lobby bar and journalists hunkered over laptops. There are several weddings—both past cancellation date. There are visiting dignitaries. There are drunken frat boys. There are next week’s guests calling every five minutes or so to get an honest opinion on the beach condition.
“I tell them it’s a beautiful day outside,” says the desk clerk. “I tell them the beach is full of people. And they all think I’m lying.”
She’s not. The sky is cloudless blue. The sand still soft and pale as powdered sugar. The Gulf is clean and aquamarine. Hundreds of people have crowded onto the quarter mile stretch from the Casino Beach boardwalk to the far side of the Hilton. They’re surfing and sunning and plenty are swimming in the breaking waves. No one’s really paying much attention to the half-hazmat suited guys in protective booties, scraping pea-sized tarballs out of the seaweed that washed ashore in last night’s thunderstorm. No one’s paying much mind to the 30×30 foot square caution taped off and bearing the footprint of a not-quite-cleaned up oily mess. No one’s exactly noticed their oil stained extremities, and if they have, no one really seems to care (they probably won’t until they try to wash it off). But mostly, no one’s talking about the smell.
I’d tell you it’s sort of like a service station in August, but that doesn’t quite do it justice. Because it’s a smell that you can’t really get to go away. Even when you’re inside it permeates. Even when you’re two bays off the beach and walking through downtown Pensacola, you can smell it. To ignore that odor and all of its unmistakable implications (as most of my fellow beach goers are/have been doing) is a truly epic feat of fairy-dusted, calorie-free bacon level denial.
And maybe denial isn’t so bad. I mean, if the alternative finds you crying in the surf like the fifty-some year-old blond woman in a pink batik dress, who drew a crowd while scrubbing tar off her grandson’s knees. Or if the alternative finds (collective) you fleeing the gulf coast in abject terror for fear of contamination and taking all of your friends with you. Or if the alternative has you jumping to all kinds of nutty conclusions about why it’s happening (the Wrath of God/Mother Nature,/Greenpeace pipe bomb/ Obama-led plot to kick start his Marxist-Fascist-Totalitarian Muslim Regime/ Republican ploy to destroy the world) and to whom (the Gulf is full of sinners and hedonists who deserve it because they don’t love god/ the Gulf is full of bigots and bible beaters who deserve it because they vote against their interests).
There are thousands of people down here whose depend on these tiny, unsustainable spits of sand and surf that will play natural boom to the invaluable bays, wetlands and tributaries on the inland side of these barrier islands. However many more days tourists can convince themselves there’s nothing really wrong are days the local population can get paid. And I’m sure it’s stressful—the curious dance of the service industry in a tourism-based economy made even more absurd by the fact that they’re working on the outer edge of a disaster.
The conference rooms of the Hilton are packed with BP led seminars for new employees on the subject of cleaning white sand and coral, skimming oil off the water surface and (maybe) misleading the press.
Speaking of which, those guys that work for the AP certainly do have snazzy matching anoraks. If you happened to share an elevator with them today, you probably learned that AT&T has been mostly out (occasionally in) on Pensacola Beach all day today, preventing all of us from fully utilizing our iPhones.”
My stepfather took us on a tour of the town. We had dinner with a local socialite in one of the most beautiful houses I’ve ever seen. It sat way out on a toe-shaped peninsula in the middle of a bayou. She tells hurricane stories, showing how far the water came up by putting a hand to the knee of her white silk trousers, then the seat of the sofa, then over the wainscoting, up the wall. The priceless antiques and art and artifacts the live oat branches and cypress limbs barely missed when they stormed the parlor. I nod along, fascinated by extravagance at unsustainable places the way only someone who has grown up in the mountains can be. In Xanadu, did Kubla Khan and all.
I didn’t mention any of this, of course. We also avoided talking about the oil spill, because rich white people in the Deep South are generally a nothing but the weather and health unless they signal otherwise.
I sat by the pool during the day. I shuffled through muscle-d dudes with military haircuts and tribal tattoos to order frozen drinks from the tiki bar at the boardwalk. The drinks came out of neon boxes, refilled up top from pre-mixed bags of milky pastels and jugs of Bacardi. I avoided the blue raspberry bushwhacker and the Dixie Peach daquiri in favor of the pina colada, which was at least a color that existed in nature. One day, sitting at the bar, looking at the distant shimmer of oil on water, I saw a plane fly over, dragging a banner that read VOTE GOP: DRILL, BABY, DRILL!
I thought, you could not make this shit up. I thought so, gleefully we self-destruct. I did not think all of that would seem quaint by comparison just a few years down the line.
“Notes from the Gulf, Monday, June 8, 2010”
Gene Valentino, Escambia County Commissioner, headed up a televised press conference this evening on the Pensacola ABC-affiliate today regarding the oil spill. He offered assurances that the county would do everything in its power to ensure that high-paying BP clean-up jobs came first to local workers and that they would only utilize county funds to pay for spill related issues until the BP settlement funds appear. “The beach is still open. Tell everyone you know. Our local businesses depend on it,” he said, and then added that that the county had yet to determine whether it was safe for anyone to swim in the Gulf.
Everything changes on a day-to-day basis. Sunday night, the stench of oil was so strong I could barely sit on balcony seventeen stories over the water. And then the wind changed. The oil sheen drifted from a half a mile to a mile back out into open sea. And then it went west, to Destin. The cameras, the reporters, the sense of imminent doom went with it. On Monday, there was nothing. Hardly a tarball. Just kids building sandcastles. If you could ignore the big, white, clam shell-hinged hazardous waste containers lining the beach like robot cabanas, it’s almost like there was no oil spill at all.
“The oil spill didn’t just blow away,” said Valentino. “The winds could create a yo-yo effect, moving the sheens from place to place.” In other words, we’re not out of the woods. The deep, thick sludgy oil is still sitting out there in the Gulf, menacing out past the horizon line, thirty miles from land. There’s no such thing as being out of the woods when you’re dealing with a catastrophe of this magnitude. Not when questions like where we can dock the vessels being used for clean-up where their oil-slicked hulls will not further contaminate the water have no long-term answer.”
Mom and I take my car to New Orleans on a sunny June morning, with the heat making mirage pools shimmer off Interstate 10. I sit in the passenger seat and try not to be worried because it’s five years after the storm, and things are going to be fine, right?
I have a family connection to New Orleans. Several of my relatives–including my favorite great-aunt—lived there for decades, some portion of which in a house on Royal Street. My first trip there, years before, had been revelatory. It was a place I hadn’t expected to love, let alone love with such immediate full-throated intensity. But I did love it. And weeks afterward I still dreamed in filigreed wrought iron and found myself perversely driven to Proustian reflection by terrible smells—sun warmed trash and old salty rot and stale alcohol—because they’d remind me of wandering through the French Quarter in the morning, stopping in secondhand shops with my Dad’s old girlfriend to browse vintage Mardi Gras ballgowns and voodoo paraphernalia.
I’d never been to NOLA with Mom. She went with my stepfather, a Louisiana native with a French surname. Hers was the New Orleans of Commanders Palace and the carousel bar at the Monteleone. So, we ate lunch at a nice restaurant. We stopped in art galleries and fancy boutiques. We drank gin when the sky opened up and turned Jackson Square into steamy glass. It was hot, hot enough that even the tourists were in short order. We didn’t wander far. At vampire themed gift shop, I got a note from my new roommate, telling her that her first rent check was going to bounce but no worries, I’ll fix it. I stared at a wall of fanged rubber duckies and thought, is this the moment when everything falls apart?
We bought a bag of beignets for later. The ladies at Café Du Monde suggested we take a Styrofoam bowl of powdered sugar for the road, so we could sugar the beignets when we heated them up.
New Orleans was as New Orleans is. I drove us home and zoned out while Mom talked. I was relieved that I still loved it. It was comforting to know I hadn’t completely lost myself and that the city wasn’t totally lost to me. I wondered if I should move there. I wondered if I should move anywhere. I wondered at how it was that I’d become so resistant to change. That wasn’t supposed to be who I was at all. I was supposed to be adaptable, adventurous, a mossless stone. And yet . . .
I spent my last night in Pensacola, sitting on the balcony, long after my mother and stepfather had gone to bed, dunking gently reheated beignets into a bowl of sugar and staring out at the oil-slicked gulf. It wasn’t anyone’s fault that I was bitter and lonely and broke, but I was.
At night, though, it didn’t’ feel so much like disaster. And I didn’t feel so much like a disaster. I felt like I could put up a sail and, with the curious breeze or a double dog dare, let the wind and water carry me away to some place that wasn’t falling apart because of its own complacency, that didn’t need to be stripped and rebuilt and made whole again.
I didn’t, of course. Instead, I arose the scrape the tar from my feet and begin the long, slow business of making my life bearable again.
 Still unfinished.
 That wasn’t how things worked for me, not exactly, but you can’t really explain about process, mostly because whenever someone talks about process, they’re 99% full of shit.
 Katrina really fucked me up but good, y’all.
 My favorite places usually end up being the ones I don’t expect to love. The ones I imagine I’ll adore usually come out a little gray in the wash. The most famous example of this is how I thought I’d become a Paris devotee (I didn’t) and figured all of Italy would be overrated (it’s really, really not). There are exceptions to this rule. New York City is exactly as billed. So is San Francisco, or at least, the part of San Francisco that’s yet not entirely composed of entitled nerd bajillionaires.
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