Guest Post From a Firefighter’s Wife

Sep 16, 2008 by

Here is a contribution from one of our regular readers. Etoile is the wife of a New Orleans Fire Fighter, hence the pen name. In this post she raises thoughts that are very hard for us to contemplate, although I am willing to bet they have crossed every NOLA resident’s mind at least once or twice in the last three years. We have to examine these feelings and what aspects of our city engender them. This is the true crime perpetrated by our political class: the despair felt by even the best of us. I invite your comments and dialogue on this matter.

-Loki, Founder HumidCity

Every day I ask myself why we stay.  I know why we stayed in New Orleans after Katrina: it was a mix of loyalty, determination, and hope.  We were all in it together and we were going to make New Orleans a better place to live.  Three years later I think stubbornness might be the only reason we stay.

If it’s loyalty, it’s the misguided kind you see from the chronically abused: love, hate, and fear combined into a state that mirrors paralysis.  We do still feel a sense of loyalty toward this city that watched as we were thrown to the ground.  We feel like we owe something to this city that raised us as children but kicks us over and over again now that we’re down.

My heart breaks each time my husband leaves for work as a New Orleans Firefighter, because I don’t know how he does it.  It’s not the running into burning buildings that I don’t understand; he does that because he was born to do it.  What I don’t understand is how you stay after Katrina, you do your job, and keep doing it long after the storm has passed, paying a huge price in your family life, then go back every three days even after the Mayor has spit in your face and called you worthless.  Some days I’m not sure if that’s loyalty or insanity.

I guess determination was what kept us going when we moved out of the house we own because we didn’t feel safe anymore and started paying rent we really can’t afford in a neighborhood where the police actually respond when you call them.  I think it’s determination that makes my husband go to his second job doing construction so we can pay our now-$450 electricity bill every month.  We’re not poor enough to qualify for help with our Entergy bill, but we will be soon if we don’t find a way to change things.

There’s hope, too.  It was hope that kept us in New Orleans, inspired us to make the city a better place to live and to start a family here.  Hope, for us, has come in the form of great new neighbors, a City Council that really seems to care about the firefighter pay raise, a small group of pissed-off citizens in front of the Ritz Carlton, and the people who move to this city every day to try to help.

Most days, though, hope is just one thought away from despair.  Despair that we own a house that is virtually worthless because we bought in an “up and coming area” that lost its footing after the storm and the police tell you not to get involved.  Despair because, no matter how much the City Council cares, they can’t get the Civil Service Commission to give them what they need to pass the pay raise.  Despair that the momentum I felt in August dissipated and all my energy was spent on Gustav.

The first couple of days I spent worrying about my husband.  I’d spent hours helping him pack in case it was another 17 days of work in a row like Katrina had been.  Every pair of socks and underwear we could find, fire department shirts galore, deodorant, and a book all stuffed into a backpack.  I knew that I’d done everything I could but I was scared for one very clear reason: If this city cares so little about its first responders, what would they do to protect them?

I had a few paragraphs here about the fire department, but as last week’s news about Fire Union President Nick Felton shows, retribution is alive and well in New Orleans, and I know my husband would like to keep his job.  I will say this, though:  The brass showed a wicked sense of humor in setting up camp at the Convention Center, ground zero for hopelessness and ineptitude following Katrina.

Meanwhile, I evacuated with our dogs to my dad’s house just outside of Alexandria.

This is where hope and despair collide.

Alexandria transformed before my eyes in the week I was there.  In my mind, it went from the slow, conservative, boring town I’d hated visiting my entire life to a kind, country-life-isn’t-so-bad, sort of backwards but so cheap town.  I think it was the grocery store that did it.

The Alexandria Kroger was hectic but clean, and filled with employees who actually ask if you need help finding something.  They had a cashier at nearly every lane, and they didn’t act like they were doing ME a favor by ringing me up.  The produce section looked like something from a movie.  There were Pluots!  And organic produce, followed by organic dairy, and what seemed like a whole aisle of preservative-free shelves.  There was a whole section of cake mix for people who are allergic to peanuts.  Oh, and it all cost a lot less.

I noticed something else in Alexandria that’s hard to put a finger on, but a few things happened that surprised me.  With a storm bearing down on the area, no one was hoarding food, water, or gasoline.  When we showed up for sandbags without our own shovel, someone immediately offered to share theirs, even though they weren’t finished.  Parents had their children with them, and no one seemed panicked.  Just determined.

When the storm had passed, neighbors began checking on their neighbors and the clean-up began immediately, not just on an individual level, but on a municipal level as well.  I heard the Alexandria Mayor on the radio thanking the area’s firefighters for doing such good work, and I got tears in my eyes.  I was reminded of listening to Mayor Nagin on Garland Robinette while sitting in Baton Rouge traffic after Katrina, and how proud I was that our mayor was screaming at the world, “Help us!”  I never heard that Mayor Nagin again and I’ve often wondered where he went.

While Alexandria faced widespread power outages, I got in line for a generator-A Line!-at a local hardware store.  No one complained, no one threw trash on the ground, and oddly enough, everyone seemed to feel pretty lucky, even though they were probably about to spend all their savings on a generator.

When my husband got a couple days off, he came up to Alexandria and went straight to work helping my dad get the power situation under control, even though I could tell he hadn’t slept for days.  We watched the dogs acting like goofballs and laughed because they didn’t know what to do with so much space to run around.  I took my husband to the Kroger just because I wanted him to see it, and it turns out they don’t stare at you for having tattoos up there.

But I felt like I was about to cry every time I thought about going back home.  I stalled, stayed a couple more days than I really needed to, but finally came back, not so much for work or school, but for my husband, and for the city.

I wonder if, as loyalty, determination, and hope faded in us, they were replaced by fear.  New Orleanians are really good at being scared.  For us, maybe we’re still here because we’re afraid we just won’t fit anywhere else.  And we don’t, because there’s something about being from New Orleans that separates us from everyone else.  You can catch it, visitors do all the time and they stay, and they become part of us.

I think I understand now I was so shaken by my week in Central Louisiana.  It made me wonder if maybe we could be happy somewhere else.  I can’t even say the words aloud, and I feel like a traitor for even thinking them, but I can’t shake them either.  Maybe we could live where they appreciate firefighters for the job they do.  Maybe we could live where we wouldn’t always be looking over our shoulder.  Maybe we could spend more time together.  Maybe we could have a real yard.  Maybe we could afford to take a vacation if we lived somewhere else.  Maybe I wouldn’t feel so much resentment.  Maybe we should have kids somewhere else.

-Etoile

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