New Orleans Introduces To The World – 17 April 2004

by Jim on 2014/04/17

[Jimbaux liked those big-city – or Mid-City – nights.]

Accompanying one picture, this is a story about, among many other things, jealousy, desire, life goals, Mexico, New Orleans, personal growth, Hurricane Katrina, money, learning, knowledge, wisdom, understanding, experiencing life, railroads, and existentialism.  The vagueness of the title of this post is mostly a reflection of the difficulty of compressing the significance of what happened on this day into a headline.

Hurricane Katrina remains a sensitive subject, though less so with time; still, I have said little about my personal Katrina experiences before, and I am going to sum up much of what I can say about the subject in this post (that covers a great many other subjects) and not talk much about it again.  Still, please understand that this post is about much more than my Katrina experience; so much of the rest of my life ties in with Katrina in this post, but the post is not really about Katrina.

Since this post has only one picture, and since the picture today only serves to support the very long story that accompanies it, it might be best to switch the text and background to normal.  The black background on this site exists because this is foremost a photography site, but it makes reading the text difficult.  This is normally not a problem when there are plenty of pictures and only a little bit of text, but for posts like this, I don’t know how to make the rest of the background white without making the whole site that way.  I really would like for you to read what is below, and reader John Austin tells us “If you use Opera, then you can go to the menu and View -> Style -> High Contrast (B/W) and it will turn the entire page background to white and the text to black. Repeat the process to return the background to black.  If you use Firefox, again from the menu choose: View -> Page Style -> No Page Style and text becomes black on white. Select View -> Page Style -> Basic Page Style to return to background to black.”  Neither he nor I know how to do this in Google Chrome or Internet Explorer.  If that doesn’t work, just highlight the text.  If that is not satisfactory, copy and paste to Word, but then you lose all of the hyperlinks.

A Critical Moment Of One’s Development

On its own, purely in terms of image quality and specific, literal subject matter, today’s picture, while most definitely presentable, is nothing particularly special, but the story behind it is indeed critical to the development of the person whom I became, the person whom you know me to be, hence the hyping that I have done preceding the publication of this post.

Normally, if I have only one picture to post, I do so on the Facebook page; I’d prefer to not update the website itself just for one picture, but today’s story is long enough, important enough, and links to enough other pages that updating the blog is more appropriate for this most personal story.

By the time that you are reading this story, I have become known by many for railroad photography (I was actually already known in small circles for railroad photography, but since I was still shooting film back then and did not have regular access to a slide scanner, railroad enthusiast slide shows were mostly the limit of the reach of my pictures), but also known by many for railroad photography of the New Orleans area, and particularly the Norfolk Southern Back Belt; the archives of this site has numerous examples of pictures that I have taken in and around New Orleans and particularly on the NS Back Belt, and there are many more Back Belt photographs that I have taken that have yet to be published. I even receive inquiries from people who are not railroad enthusiasts, and these usually concern the “Middle Belt” project; a decade after today’s picture was made, I have been contacted by journalists and community activists regarding the Back Belt and trains in the New Orleans area.  However, on the morning of Saturday 17 April 2004, a consequential day in my life, I had never taken a picture on the NS Back Belt; that would change before the sun set on that fateful day.

Critical to the understanding of today’s story is that at the time that this picture was taken, I was still living where I had always lived back home in bayouland, and I knew embarrassingly little about the metropolis that was merely 50 miles to the northeast.  As today’s story will reveal, the events of Saturday 17 April 2004 would be a factor in my decision to move to New Orleans a little bit more than a year later.  By the standards of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, and even Houston, New Orleans is something of a small town, but it was a big and crowded place to this boy from the bayou.  As for Washington, my experience there with the Close Up program two-and-a-half months before convinced me that I needed to, among many other things, more urbanize myself, even if that meant merely knowing and experiencing more about urban areas.  All of that plus something else – Mexico – was in some manner on my mind on this date.  First, though, we need to know why I was in New Orleans on this particular day.

Earlier that week, Dr. Diesel announced on his foamer forum that he would be at the Plantation Coffee House, right next to the NS Back Belt on Canal Boulevard, and that others were welcome to join him to talk trains or whatever. I was one of I think fewer than 10 people to show up, and only two of them (aside from Dr. Diesel) are critical to this story: The Mid-City Marine and The Shadow Warrior.

The gathering was a memorable one.  It was the only time that I had been to the Plantation Coffee House.  Afterwards, The Mid-City Marine, The Shadow Warrior, and I went to check out what was parked at Marconi Drive, a normal crew change spot for westbound trains on the Back Belt.  We chatted for awhile, and we moved over to Orleans Avenue to get a picture – seen here in this scanned 35mm Fujichrome Velvia 50 slide – of this westbound train.

Yes, of all of the zillions of pictures that I have taken of trains on the NS Back Belt, this one right here was the very first one.

This train was, according to The Shadow Warrior, UP job AV-26 with what looks to my now-trained eyes to be a train from the CSX, but conflicting information in my archives seems to suggest that he also thought this to be NS train 393; those details, however, do not really matter to this story, except that I would today know such things myself, whereas I was very much a Back Belt novice back then.  Marconi Drive was one of The Shadow Warrior’s hangouts, and it and the area west of it through East City Junction were – and still are – “near and dear” to both The Mid-City Marine and Dr. Diesel, who had gone home after the coffee gathering while we three younger guys – and I, by a decade, the youngest of the three – went in search of trains.  I was not even two years out of college when this picture was taken and was working as a high-school world geography teacher at Central Lafourche High School, the school serving the area that includes my family homeland, at the time.

One of the many things that we discussed was the possibility that I would that summer go to school in Mexico.  I was close to deciding on doing so, and I eventually did decide on doing just that.  I’ll have much more to say about this in later paragraphs, but it does have plenty to do with the overall theme of experiencing the larger world that this bayou boy was contemplating on this day.

We talked about the sensitive subject of Iraq, but we didn’t get to the sensitive aspects of it; you might remember that there had been or was a war happening there involving US forces.  The Shadow Warrior talked about how he had offers to go work in Iraq in security and that he was very much against the idea.  We talked about trains, of course.

“I think that Taco Bell is in my future,” The Shadow Warrior said, as he prepared to depart the scene, probably to get some sleep, because he had to be at work that night.  At the time, he, with a military and law-enforcement background, did perimeter security at the ADM grain elevator and ship dock in Ama; prior to that, he had worked as chief of security at the Riverside Hilton.

What is far more important to this story, though, is what happened next.  By now, just The Mid-City Marine and I were left.  He and I were becoming friends!  I had only met him for the first time the fall before at a foamer gathering in Plaquemine, though we had communicated on the foamer forum for awhile before that.  As his name suggests, he lived nearby; Mid-City is the neighborhood about a mile to the south of this part of the NS Back Belt.

We ended up at his house, which was just a few blocks from the Bernadotte Line, the neat little NS urban branchline of which he was the only known photographer in the few years leading up to Hurricane Katrina just like I seem to be the only photographer of the line in the post-Katrina world.  Why?  We’ll get to that, though the answer should not be surprising.  His wife was home, but I did not meet her that night, apparently because she was not expecting and therefore not prepared for visitors, something to which I can totally relate; if I don’t know that anyone is coming over, I sometimes don’t welcome visitors unless it is some sort of emergency.

So, The Mid-City Marine and I were hungry and were enjoying hanging out with each other.  I knew nothing about the neighborhood (or much of the city, for that matter); he took me to Juan’s Flying Burrito’s, and we had a grand time.  Between that Juan’s experience and just hanging out on The Mid-City Marine’s porch and looking into the large oak-shaded neutral ground of Orleans Avenue, I started to fall in love – inasmuch as one can fall in love with a place (or even a person) in one afternoon – with Mid-City.  It was the first time that the idea of living in New Orleans seriously entered my consciousness.  Growing up 50 miles away, I had been to the city many times, but none were as yet significant and memorable as this day.

Mid-City, or at least the part of it that I saw, seemed to lack, or at least to a degree that mattered, the crammed and banal feeling that my little sheltered mind had associated with urban areas, as exemplified by that wide-open neutral ground on Orleans Avenue.  Especially as my recent Close Up experience taught me that I needed to get out of my sheltered little small-town bayou world, and I was actually even thinking of solving that problem by joining the military, I could see, maybe, myself living here, and even being happy.  Likely, when I get older and slower, I will want to be back in small-town or rural areas, wiser and smarter from my time in urban areas, but for the prime of my youthful adulthood, living in a larger city like this, especially where someone who was becoming a good friend already lived, seemed more and more like the right idea.

I knew, though, that I would not and could not act upon this desire for awhile, and the major reason was that I was in the process of pursuing another mind-stretching and life-changing experience that would sap resources of all kinds (i.e., money and time) that would be required for such a move to the city; as stated earlier, I was preparing to spend the summer in Mexico.  That topic alone is worth several more postings, and I indeed hope to post scanned slides from that experience soon too.  (The only shots that I have yet published from that experience are of a June train chase; much more extensively published is the 10-day-trip that I, this time with a digital camera, made when I returned to Mexico in late 2006 and early 2007 for the first time since going to school there.)

However, the topic needs to be mentioned in this already-long post, because it involves, for reasons that I have already mentioned, my reasons for and my timing of moving to New Orleans.  The cost of taking classes that summer at ITESM was nearly prohibitive for me, but the though of pissing away another summer frightened me too.  I would literally have gone mad.  I can’t just sit around and chill and do nothing for such a long period of time.

It was a very costly decision – the cost of the program and all associated expenses combined with giving up a job teaching summer school made the opportunity cost of going to school in Mexico that summer to be around $10,000 – and is still indirectly costly to me, but I have not for a moment regretted it.  I say that it is “still indirectly costly to me” because I could own a house right now if it weren’t for that, but I would hate myself and not be the person who I became.  What good would that be?  I was in desperate need for a sustained international experience from which I could learn and grow, and this is very much related to the rural-vs-urban theme of this post too; so, although this post is nominally and literally about my first picture on the NS Back Belt and other events of that day, it is about so much more.

Shortly before this time, I was influenced by the book Confucius Lives Next Door by T. R. Reid.  I recommend that all of you read that book, and I would provide details for any of you who are interested, but I will say a few things here about why that piece was so great.  The subtitle of the book is “What Living In The East Teaches Us About Living In The West,” which means that, just like learning another language makes you a better student of your own language, living in another area, another country, another culture, makes you better understand your own culture; studying distant peoples and languages is ultimately a means of self-discovery.  I was, too, discontented by the reality that although I had gone to and graduated from college, I had never gone “off to college,” having gone to Nicholls State University very close to home; so, my 2004 ITESM experience in Mexico, even if only lasting two months, was my first time actually going “off to college,” and that was kind of the point.

There are many aspects of both culture and language – and, remember, culture influences language, as language influences culture – that are so ingrained in our minds that we do not even notice them; we therefore lack self-awareness.  We don’t know why we do the things that we do, or even why the rest of our lives are like they are; this makes self-betterment and progress difficult.  In Confucius Lives Next Door, T. R. Reid describes, among many other things, that upon returning to live in the United States after many years living in Japan (where he was the Tokyo bureau chief for The Washington Post), he suddenly noticed and questioned many aspects of American culture that he had never noticed – again, because they are so ingrained – before he moved out of the country.  He notices this, though, while he is living in Tokyo, and he sets out to understand Confucian values as reasons for the differences; the book is full of wonderful examples of the cultural differences and what we can learn from them.

This was the frame of mind that I took to my Mexico experience, and, in addition to learning plenty about Mexico, I indeed learn plenty about the United States of America by living for two months in Mexico.  I look at the United States of America – and the rest of the world – differently now.  Language, too, is about far more than just language; so much mood and meaning beyond the literal is built into each language that I occasionally find myself unable to say something in English that I could more accurately express in Spanish, simply because there is no way to express it in English the way that Spanish expresses it.  For example, and as I would pound into the heads of students when I taught high school Spanish, in Spanish, compared to English, the role of the actor is greatly diminished; in English, it is more important who does something, whereas in Spanish, emphasis is by default placed on what is (or was) done.  As I would also tell students, learning Spanish made me a better student – and user – of English; despite my aforementioned example of being unable to say something in English as well as I could say it in Spanish, learning Spanish has made me a better writer of English.

What does this have to do with today’s picture, New Orleans, and the NS Back Belt?  Well, a great many things, really.  Being an urban-dweller has helped me understand urban areas better, but it has helped me to understand – and appreciate – small towns and rural areas better too.  The lessons of Confucius Lives Next Door can be applied to so many of life’s situations, even if they don’t involve different countries and different languages; still, I highly recommend to anyone with the ability to do so to spend a little bit of time living in a far away place that is unlike your own home.  The USA that I met at the end of July 2004 was the same place that I had left at the end of May 2004, but it looked very different to me; the place had not changed, but my way of perceiving had changed.

A few days after returning home to the USA and bayouland, I spent nearly a week in New Orleans at a seminar for social studies teachers.  This was one of the first times that I had ever laid my head down to sleep and spend the night in (or even near) the city, and not only did I get to know the city much more in this experience, but I was now making professional contacts.  Also, as you might expect, I now further considered living in this city.  I had grown plenty in one year.

With the Mexico experience now in the past, I quickly went back to work for what would be only one more school year teaching in bayouland, and I, in my teaching, of course used so much of the so many things that I had learned over that summer – just like I do here now on Jimbaux’s Journal!  I paid off many of the debts of the Mexico experience, and by the beginning of 2005 I was using some of the professional contacts gained at the seminar the summer before to arrange to get a teaching job in the New Orleans area.

The Mid-City Marine and I hung out again at a foamer gathering in Hammond in the spring, and we discussed the exciting possibility of being neighbors.  (I was actually planning on taking up his offer for me to go to their house for the Endymion parade, but a snowstorm had me stuck in D.C. for an extra night after that year’s Close Up trip.)  The summer of 2005 came around, and I went to the KCSHS convention in Sallisaw, Oklahoma, made my first visit to Pittsburg, Kansas, on that trip, finally converted to digital photography, went to a teacher workshop in Massachusetts and a teacher workshop in Michigan, and worked on moving to New Orleans.  I had it all planned out.  I would take the teaching job in a very urbanized area of the western bank of Jefferson Parish, live in an apartment near the school for a little while while I got adjusted to the place, and then about six months later move to Mid-City where I could enjoy that neat neighborhood where I already had a good friend, a factor that is important for an introvert like myself.

That was my wonderful plan, but then something happened: Katrina.

I don’t like to talk about Katrina.  Many people don’t like to talk about Katrina.  So, I’m going to say some things that I need to say about it now, while still leaving some things unsaid, and then probably won’t talk about it again for a long time.  The short story as it relates to today’s picture and the circumstances surrounding it is that The Mid-City Marine and I never got to be neighbors as we had hoped, something that still bothers both of us to this day.  The 29th of August 2005 was a “line of demarcation” date in the lives on many people, including The Mid-City Marine.  He and his wife were displaced to Georgia where they have – at first, begrudgingly – built a life.  They both miss home, but they both know that it is impossible to return.  The New Orleans that they knew ceased to exist on 29 August 2005.  There is something new – even good – in its place, but it is not what they knew; it is therefore impossible to return, since nobody has invented a time-machine yet.  If there is a such thing as a “dumb question,” it is the question that many of us got starting a few months after Katrina: are things getting “back to normal” there yet?  As I have already explained, that question erroneously presupposes that such a thing is even possible.

Katrina’s timing was dubious for me.  As you have already ascertained, I had just made a decision, which at times was agonizingly difficult, to take a job in the area and move there.  I had started the new job and felt very confident in it, and I had an apartment into which I was scheduled to move on September 1.  So, although I had a place with my name on it, I had no stuff inside of it and no key to it.  When Katrina struck, I wondered for a long time if I had a job anymore.  If there is a god, I thought, he surely is messing with me.  Now, I am sure that many of the theistic among you will claim that this is a challenge that God laid before me; as an agnostic, I simply do not know if that is true (because there ain’t a shred of evidence for such a claim), but I do see some merit to the idea, and by continuing to read along, you’ll see how I handled this challenge, regardless of the divinity – or lack thereof – of its source.

It may seem ironic to you, but me not losing any physical property in Katrina was actually a deep source of frustration.  Calling it a perverted form of “survivor’s guilt” would be somewhat accurate but incomplete.  It simply made me feel like I was not a “real” New Orleans resident, jealous of the experiences that would make one a “real” resident.  (More recently, I have questioned why that is so desirable in the first place, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.)  I felt supremely cheated of not being able to get to know the New Orleans that had ceased to exist; what emerged in its place was something worth knowing and was an offspring – in all senses of the word – of what had preceded it, but it was not what I had set out to know, and my best New Orleans friend was gone.  So, too, were The Shadow Warrior and Dr. Diesel, who would return in 2006 in an apartment before he retired later that year from his job and moved with his family to Texas; Louisianians moving to Texas is a very familiar story.

I actually did end up in Mid-City, though it took me more than twice as long as I had expected; I found an expensive side-of-someone’s-house apartment in late September.  On my first full day there, I repeated – for the first time – the shot that I did in this post, coincidentally with another lease locomotive leading a train bound for the Union Pacific.  That area around Marconi Drive looked like a moonscape in the months after Katrina (I first went there in October), and there were tents scattered about the area; it was a scary time.  There was such a sense of loneliness in all of my early pictures there, because I could not help but think about the railroad enthusiasts whom I had known who knew the area well but who were now gone, but I started to see the beauty of the reality that I was the only serious photographer documenting this railroad line in the post-Katrina world.

What I call a “perverted form of ‘survivor’s guilt'” for not having experienced the same suffering as “real” New Orleans residents is difficult to describe and probably difficult for you to appreciate, and I have never attempted as I am doing so now to put it into words.  Although the New Orleans in which I now found myself was different than the New Orleans to which I had decided to move, and although that previous New Orleans had ceased to exist, most of the residents of the city were from the old New Orleans.  Shared experiences, especially those that are difficult or are at least in some ways intense, are great ways for people to form bonds, but that dynamic also works toward the exclusion of those who do not have those experiences.  This made it very difficult for me to relate to them and them to me, and it caused further feelings of isolation for me.

Perhaps the most distinct example of this came some time in 2007 when I decided to attend a regular meeting of the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization.  I simply wanted to meet people in my neighborhood and become more involved, a good civic-minded thing to do.  I did meet some people there.  Two of them, separately, initiated conversation with me.  For both of them, the first question that they asked me was, “how much damage did you get from the storm?”  My sheepish response – to a question that I did not want to be asked – in both cases was that I was new to the neighborhood, had not been here for Katrina, and lived in an apartment and, therefore, did not own property in the neighborhood anyway.  Neither conversation got much further than that, as both of these people seemed to lose interest in me once I responded to their initial question, and I never bothered to attend another meeting.  I almost felt fraudulent, and I felt like I was no better than carpetbaggers from far away who had come to New Orleans for no other purpose than monetary profit (not that that there is anything wrong with that either); indeed, the timing of my initial move led many people to think that I moved to New Orleans because of Katrina.  That I truly lacked the noble and benevolent reasons of many non-profit workers who came to the city at about the same time that I did furthered my feelings isolation; I could relate to them about as well as I could to the pre-Katrina residents of the city for whom recovery from Katrina still occupied their minds, which is to say that I felt like an outcast.

Dr. Diesel, whose house took on about 10 feet of water, kindly reminded me that he had experienced Katrina from an air-conditioned hotel room after he and his wife evacuated, whereas I went to bed and awoke in puddles of my own perspiration in a dark house for a week after Katrina.  That was true, and I did appreciate him noticing that and pointing it out, but once the electricity came back on in bayouland, life quickly resembled its pre-Katrina appearance.  I sawed and hauled broken tree limbs, and I replaced blown-away shingles on my aunt’s roof, but things got “back to normal” there quickly.  Such was not – and can not be – the case for New Orleans.  This is partly why I have felt like a vagabond ever since then.

In May of 2006, one week before the school year ended, I was informed that I was one of a dozen low-seniority teachers at my school to be laid off due to projected population decreases.  Not only had I not come to New Orleans because of Katrina, Katrina had caused me to lose the job that I moved to New Orleans right before Katrina to do.  In a perverse way, I felt finally legitimized; I had finally lost something – a job, if not physical property – due to Katrina, and now I felt a little bit more “real.”  I spent the next year working in the construction industry, partly as a carpenter and partly as a project manager, which was the major source of the feeling that I had come to New Orleans for that purpose; it was as if history was being revised.  In the late summer and early fall of 2006, I sank into what could have been diagnosed as a bout with depression, but that hardly made me unique among New Orleans residents at the time.

Perhaps the best example of this was the habit of the deliberate practice of taking the long way from Point A to Point B because the more logical and more direct route took me through areas deeply devastated by flooding; seeing it a few times is one thing, but seeing it day-after-day, week-after-week, month-after-month, and for more than a year really starts to weigh on a person, and many other people also did the same thing.  In March 2007, my parents and another relative came to visit me because of a cousin’s wedding reception downtown.  They picked me up at my place, and on the way downtown, they could not stop pointing to the undeniable signs of natural disaster along the way – which were everywhere.  “Look at the waterline there!”  “Look at the flood mark there!”  It was only with the greatest restraint and respect that I did not yell at them to stop!  STOP!  Shut up!  I see this stuff every day!  In addition to avoiding devastated areas by taking longer routes, another practice was to drive through an area and force, as much as possible, one’s eyes to do “tunnel vision.”  Don’t look to the side, not even a little bit; just look straight ahead the whole time and drive.

Adding to the weird feelings of guilt were all of the outpourings of support that I got from people from around the country.  As I mentioned before, I had just spent a week in Massachusetts and a week in Michigan at teacher workshops, and I even went to one in Idaho in July 2006; I had lost my teaching job, but I had gotten a position in the workshop before I got the job knowledge, figured I’d be teaching again at some point, and needed to briefly get somewhere far away.  In each case, because I had not physically lost anything, I felt guilty at the sympathy that people expressed to me.  However, because the experience in Idaho in July 2006 happened after – and nearly a year after – Katrina, it was a bit different; I saw going to the Idaho thing as a means of getting away from Katrina and how it had come to define my life, but, in that regard, it only made the problem worse.  The best way that I can explain this is to simply show you an e-mail that I got from one of the Idaho workshop participants after I sent out a mass e-mail with pictures that I took at the workshop.

“I received your pictures.  You really got some very good pictures of those baby birds.  Thank you, you are a very good photographer.  I plan to show them to others.  I’m glad you found the experience in Idaho good, as did I.  I believe I have to take the time to tell you that you were a profound part of that experience. At the reception at Kathy’s house, I was the one who had the misfortune to ask you how you and your area fared in the storm. You responded you didn’t know how to answer that question and were “tired” with people asking it.  I truly did not know how to respond and apologize.  I was only trying to show concern and interest in how things were going.  I had been to the area several times before the storm,  loved it, and was truly interested.  Your rudeness was a lesson to me as to how I approach a fellow American in the future.  I guess the lesson I learned is to not show any interest in the important things that surround us, and impact our lives, as that may be too “nosey”.  I hope you are settled and have found a new teaching post.”

I don’t know where to start!  First, I never responded to this hypocritical message, and this is the first time that I look at it since 2006.  I share it partly because the emotional and interpersonal problems are part of the Katrina story and make them significant, and anyone who has not experienced such a thing does not really know how the real tragedies of natural disasters are the stresses and breakdown of interpersonal relationships because of those stresses.  Many of you who experienced Katrina – or, specifically, the aftermath – or some other such disaster can probably relate and probably have many such stories of your own.  Actually, the “aftermath” is really the important part; if you survived a bad hurricane but did not stick around for the recovery, you missed what is by far the worst and most difficult part.

Second, the fact that I responded to her by saying that I was tired of being asked about it should in some way actually be an answer to the question!  That should kind of tell you how we are doing after the storm!  I actually don’t even remember who this woman was and was even unable to put a face to her name when I got this message less than a month after the workshop.  My response should have indicated to her that the question hit a raw nerve, that, in my case, this was something too personal to discuss with someone whom I did not know, and the fact that I don’t even remember who she is should suggest that I would not answer “personal” questions to her.  It’s the exact same reason why I would not ask her questions about her sex life, her religion, her political views, or her personal finances so quickly upon meeting her (or at all, ever.)  There was a group of local women at this workshop whom I befriended, and only when we were well into the conversation – as in, once I felt more like I “knew” them – did I bring up Katrina.  One of the women then said that she had been curious but did not want to ask; so, there are some people who get it!

Third, she simply could not empathize.  I have already mentioned before the many ways that Katrina had been consuming me.  As I said, too, I was hoping to get away from it all with a week in Idaho, but I think that I thought more about Katrina there than I did at home.  In retrospect, it is easy for me to see that a week-long teacher workshop is not the best place to go to get away from it all, but I did not anticipate that nearly a year after Katrina that this would be a problem.  It was!  From the moment that I touched down at the airport in Spokane and the van driver started chatting me up, people (including that van driver) that whole week peppered me with questions about the very subject of which I was trying to escape.  If a person tells you that he is tired of being asked something, then he is tired of being asked something.  That’s all there is to it.  Your intentions in asking the question are irrelevant.  How far up your own ass do you have to be to think that this is about you?  You are not the one who experienced the natural disaster, and you are certainly not the one who has been consumed for a whole year of your life by the aftermath of the disaster, being perpetually unable to escape from any reminders of it.  If you were truly “only trying to show concern and interest in how things were going,” then you’d understand that one way to do that is to recognize that maybe sometimes people do not want to talk about it, especially with strangers!  Maybe they don’t want to talk about it because they need a break from it because it is such an emotional thing for them.  And I am the one who displayed “rudeness” to you?  No, you were not being “rude” by asking me that question; you were certainly rude, however, when you were not satisfied with my response, as if your need to know was somehow more important than the “concern” that you felt the need to “show” but apparently did not actually genuinely have.  (This seems to be a result of living in a culture that sometimes seems to be more concerned that people “show” support than it is that people “have” or “offer” support.)

People who had not experienced anything like it just did not understand that it was basically some years-long nightmare from which you could not escape – and that me being far away like that was my only chance to escape, and that others whom I meet there should not try to psychologically send me back there, or, more specifically, that if someone says that he or she doesn’t want to talk about it, an indignant response to that is itself highly rude and hypocritical.  Things did get better (for me, at least) in late 2007, but even by the time of my North Dakota experience in 2008 (the first time that I was put in a structured situation with people far away similar to the Idaho experience), I was still a bit sensitive about the subject, but much of the rawness had gone away by that point; that is combined with the fact that I wasn’t asked about Katrina in the five weeks that I was in North Dakota as much as I was in the one week that I was in Idaho!  Seriously, if you asked me about it now, I wouldn’t care as much anymore (obviously, I am writing this), but that is partly because I am almost never asked about it anymore.

The construction experience was a great one, though.  Things have a way of working out, even if not the way that you planned them to work out, which is a big lesson from all of this.  The theists among you might call this “God’s plan,” or something like that.  I was not hired to do construction work with any knowledge that I knew Spanish; I did not advertise my abilities in the language because they were not nearly extensive enough to be called fluent, but I quickly found great success working with members of New Orleans’s growing Hispanic community, and my Spanish improved every day; I put forth great effort learning more of the language, taught myself gerrunds and participles.  When I returned to being a school teacher a year later, I could communicate much better with Hispanic students, and the school administration would deliberately put them in my classroom because of this.  When I got burned out of teaching world geography, I taught Spanish briefly – but with success – at the end of my teaching career.  Isn’t it neat how all of this relates to today’s photograph?

In June of 2007, I took a night picture of a Bernadotte Line train stopped at East City Junction as a mainline train passed.  I showed it to The Mid-City Marine, and he told me that he was jealous because that is the shot that he envisioned for years but could never get.  Apparently, when I arrived in New Orleans, I had proverbially picked up the torch from the railroad photographers who had left the city, but I thought about the previous torch-bearers plenty; in response, I told The Mid-City Marine that I think of him, The Shadow Warrior, and Dr. Diesel all the time when I’m on the Back Belt.  A decade later, this is no longer so, nor do I think about Katrina very much; time heals wounds, and I guess I am less stuck in the past.

In 2008, I spent the summer in the northern Great Plains based in Fargo, North Dakota, as the June 2013 archives and July 2013 archives show.  That is important to this story for a few reasons.  First, the seminar that I attended in North Dakota that summer was the same seminar to which I had applied in 2004 but did not get.  My Mexico experience that summer, as awesome as it was, was an alternative to the North Dakota experience, my first choice!  I’m glad, though, of the order in which they actually happened.  Second, more lessons of Confucius Lives Next Door and of the Mexico experience were learned when I returned to New Orleans from North Dakota at the end of the summer of 2008.  The New Orleans that I left in early June 2008 was the same as the New Orleans that greeted me upon my return in August 2008, but it suddenly seemed very dysfunctional, dirty, and decadent; I guess, then, I learned plenty more about the Great Plains by returning to New Orleans.  I told this to the RailBaron, Dr. Diesel’s son, who left New Orleans for Fort Worth, Kansas City, Lincoln, Fresno, and other places a long time ago, and he said that that is the same experience that he has every time that he returns to New Orleans.

It was not until about 2012 that I became something of a “cultural rejectionist” and stopped caring about the things that I never subconsciously cared about New Orleans – or much else – in the first place.  I don’t much care about your parades or your Saints (the football team, not the real “saints,” but I’m not sure how much I care about them either), or all of the things that I am “supposed to” care about around here.  There are many people in New Orleans whom I respect today, and many of them are people who work to make the place better, but there are many “die hard” people here who think that New Orleans is the center of the universe to the point that other places wish that they could be like New Orleans; I no longer willingly associate with people who espouse that kind of arrogance and ignorance, and since many of those people are the “real” New Orleans people whom I felt guilty for not being after Katrina, disassociating myself from them has helped me to finally get fully over the guilt that I had about not being a flood victim in Katrina.  While a big theme of this post is the set of efforts to mature intellectually, I was incredibly emotionally immature at the time.  Getting to a new level of emotional maturity nearly 10 years later was a prerequisite for being able to write this at all.

Look, this is southern Louisiana, a very Catholic area, meaning that guilt is common around here!  True guilt, though, comes from within, as I have more recently learned.  That sense of guilt that I felt after Katrina was, I now so clearly realize, totally my own creation.  Guilt’s only positive purpose is to teach; once you have learned what you need to learn from it, guilt becomes useless and destructive.  I think that a decade later I would have handled the Katrina recovery, or at least the “guilt” aspect of it, better.  Embarrassment, like insecurity, can be a powerful motivator to do great things, but it can be terribly destructive too.  A decade later, I am largely done with those negative emotions.

You have come to know me and associate me with New Orleans and the NS Back Belt, and now you know how this came to be.  Being my first Back Belt picture, I have conscientiously attached some “significance” to the picture, but I learned upon Rie’s death that significance is a choice.  Another death a year-and-a-half later had a big effect on me too when The Shadow Warrior, who was standing next to The Mid-City Marine and me when I took today’s picture, died of pancreatic cancer in March 2013; a few weeks after his death, I published a photo essay about his life and what we can learn from it with some pictures from the three of us on Rich Mountain in February 2007, one of my better pieces.

So, somehow, I have managed to just say all of that in relation to this one on-its-own average Back Belt picture; one day shy of 10 years to the day after this picture, I was taking pictures just a mile to the east.  New Orleans is a major railroad gateway, but on Saturday 17 April 2004, it was my gateway to the rest of the world.

Peace, love, and thanks,


{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Angeline April 18, 2014 at 09:34

Great post, Jimbaux!
Living as far away from New Orleans as I do, the only knowledge I have of Katrina is what was presented to us by the media. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a first hand account of it before. I don’t think you have a “perverse” sense of survivor’s guilt; your description of what you felt IS survivor’s guilt. Also, the fact that you didn’t lose any possessions, or your home, doesn’t negate your experience. A sense of loss and pain is not defined merely by losing possessions; it’s much more than that. But then, you may have discovered that by now anyway.

As for the woman who asked the question about Katrina that upset you, I hope you don’t mind my saying this but I think that’s just something you’ll have to accept as being a part of human nature. I don’t think she had any knowledge that her question was inappropriate and I suspect she was probably looking for a way to connect, as misguided as it may have been. I don’t know, sometimes people simply don’t realize how many times a person has heard the same questions and comments about something. Speaking as someone who did not experience Katrina, I could have easily done the same thing myself and if I had received the same reaction I may have been just as confounded and upset by it. I do, however, know how it feels to be asked and be expected to answer repeated and sometimes completely inappropriate questions about personal issues that have affected me profoundly, and how utterly frustrating and hurtful that can be. In that way I can understand why you reacted the way you did; as I’ve felt like responding in the same way on numerous occasions.

It’s interesting that your view of New Orleans would change so drastically after experiencing the reality of what it is rather than the way it’s perceived.

I will have to put ‘Confucius Lives Next Door’ on my reading list. It sounds like a very interesting read.


2 Jimbaux April 18, 2014 at 10:41

“As for the woman who asked the question about Katrina that upset you, I hope you don’t mind my saying this but I think that’s just something you’ll have to accept as being a part of human nature.”
— I know, but, again, remember that the question itself is not the issue here; the issue here is her being unsatisfied with my answer and then going on to claim that it was a sign of my rudeness.

“I do, however, know how it feels to be asked and be expected to answer repeated and sometimes completely inappropriate questions about personal issues that have affected me profoundly”
— Having not experienced such a natural disaster that had such far-reaching (including time-wise) consequences, she could probably not see how “personal” of a question that it potentially was.

I do think, though, that part of my discomfort with the question stemmed from my feelings of not being “real” and therefore feeling kind of fraudulent; I am glad, though, that you realize that “a sense of loss and pain is not defined merely by losing possessions; it’s much more than that. But then, you may have discovered that by now anyway.” Yes! Yes, and I have figured that out by now. I think that another weird thing about it for me was that for my friends and family back in bayouland just 50 or so miles to the southwest, once the electricity came back on, the small amount of debris was cleared, and the small amount of damage was reparied, Katrina was no longer an issue for them, no longer on their minds, and not defining their lives.

Please remember, too, that New Orleans is far from the only place to suffer devastation from Katrina. The fact that people focus so much on New Orleans is understandably a source of frustration and idnignation for people of coastal Mississippi. New Orleans was a scene of homes that had sat in up to 10′ of water, but that was only because Katrina did not knock down those homes and blow away the debris as it had done in Mississippi.


3 Mid City Marine April 18, 2014 at 12:46

Well said. I look back and have fond memories of that day often. I have been meaning to dig out and scan my first pic from that special location as well. I still miss being able to walk or ride my bike there after work, or picnic in the adjacent field on a nice weekend day. It all seems like a different lifetime.

For those readers who don’t know, Jimbaux and I “met” through an online group hosted by Dr. Diesel. I read a short essay he wrote about the Lockport Branch and how it helped shape his interest in both railroads and photography. I was taken by this piece of writing because it sounded incredibly similar to something I would have written. The style, description and language was so similar to my way of writing that just had to become acquainted with this person. I liked the few photos of his that I had seen prior to this, and was interested in seeing and reading more.

Katrina is still a difficult subject for us, as it is for a lot of people. Time has passed, life has changed. Small sections of the pain and heartache have healed over time but many remain unhealed. I know that both my wife and I miss home terribly, but as Jimbaux has explained, the home we miss no longer exists. We plan on moving back someday, but it will not be “going home.”

I am thankful for meeting, and becoming a friend of, those who share my interests and helped me continue to learn about them. One may be gone but he is with us in spirit. As for my Whoadie Jimbaux, life and friendship continues.


4 Jimbaux April 18, 2014 at 13:33

Thank you, my now-too-far-away woadie, for commenting.

You did read and like that essay that I wrote on the Lockport Branch the previous December, but it seems that you forgot that, as I wrote in this piece, we first met at the foamer gathering in Plaquemine in November 2003, a month before that Lockport Branch essay. Also, I did finally publish the pictures with that essay here:

You had, however, before we met in Plaquemine, taken a liking to a piece of writing that I did around time time of the summer solstice in 2003.

Maybe if and when you move back, we can finally be neighbors! Of course, it’s not a guarantee that I will still be around either.

I think that one of the lessons of Confucius Lives Next Door – again, you should really read that book – is that even if Katrina had never happened, you would still find at least some aspects of New Orleans to be alien after having lived so far away for so long; you would just look at the place differently. So, if and when you do move back, remember that New Orleans is not the only thing that will have changed.


5 Bill Cummings April 19, 2014 at 10:35

Jim, I like that you are (somewhat) dissociating yourself from New Orleans. And that you correctly note that Mississippi and Alabama were hit much harder by Katrina. I used to live in Bayou La Batre, AL, a town that totally disappeared under the pounding of Katrina. You never heard them complaining, they just rebuilt.

As for the storm, NO was hit by a natural disaster and a man-made disaster at the same time. The levee failure was man-made. The portions of levee that failed, not by over-topping, which is a natural idsaster, but by being undercut was due to New Orleans graft during which levee repairs were completed shoddily while politicians pocketed the funds, and by Sen Kennedy of Mass who diverted levee replacement fund to his “Bid Dig” in Boston. Is it strange to you that the levees which failed were the most newly rebuilt ones (prior to the hurricane)? The old ones withstood the entire event.

Neither of these makes anything any easier for the innocent victims. Their devastating losses were real, regardless of cause. I’m really pleased to see you recognize that and have tried to do what you could to help out.


6 Nathan Kaufman April 24, 2014 at 15:56


While you have discussed your educational background previously, what in particular drove you to build an educational aspect into your two month cultural experience? I would like to think of myself as an avid, though infrequent, traveler, and count a small handful of countries as places I have visited. My most extensive trip was a 2009 backpacking trip across Europe, where not only did I immerse myself in a general European culture (the EU has homogenized things in my opinion to an extent), but I also got to experience many individual countries and even cities as individual places culturally. This includes both large cities and rural towns, something you discuss. Would something so unstructured have served a similar purpose to your two months in Mexico?

Enlightening discussion as always!

Nathan Kaufman


7 Jimbaux April 24, 2014 at 16:17

“While you have discussed your educational background previously, what in particular drove you to build an educational aspect into your two month cultural experience?”

I don’t understand your question. When I was applying for school in Mexico, I knew that it would be a full, immersing, cultural experience; I knew that my own curiosity would lead me away from campus and through the cities, towns, deserts, and canyons, to the railroad tracks, and that I would pick up – and even give – so much along the way. I also knew that there would be unexpected discoveries, and there were. I knew that living with a Mexican host family would teach me so much about them, about Mexico, about myself, and about my home, and it did.

Yes, I can imagine that backpacking through Europe would be an intense, immersing, life-changing experience! The big difference is that I stayed basically in one place for two months and therefore got to know peole there, with whom I am still friends and whom I visited upon returning to Mexico in 2006-2007 and 2009-2010.


Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: