And New Orleans Floods Again …

Author Patty Friedmann lives in and writes about New Orleans. Last week the Katrina-ravaged city got a heavy rain, the worst since last year’s hurricane. The city’s pumping system failed and the streets and some homes flooded. I asked her about this and she was kind enough to write a small piece on her out-of-New-Orleans-family and the current flood. Read The Gigi and Fritzl Show after the jump:

The Gigi and Fritzl Show

It was before the turn of the millennium, and I was having lunch with my editor. I was fussing about the cousins who feed and house me when I’m in New York because they are so thoroughly baffling. Each is a second cousin to me and to the other—and yet they have been partners for over two decades. When I mentioned their names, natural to me because I’ve heard them all my life, she pitched back in her chair laughing. “Gigi and Fritzl? You’re making that up.”

For a year or so after that I thought about mooshing them around into characters for a novel, but never quite got it right. Both were forces majeures who read my work and would have done a Jewish-mother routine on me that would have made life unbearable. Instead I have settled for going up to New York from my home in New Orleans and watching them feud mercilessly all weekend. You see, theirs is not a relationship made in heaven. I marvel at how the Diaspora of the 20th century flung the three of us so far and wide and created three such different souls. Gigi grew up a cultural sophisticate in Vichy Paris, Fritzl grew up in Queens as the son of new immigrants, and I grew up in the Deep South, the daughter of a woman whose family had been in New Orleans for four generations and a man who had escaped Nazi Germany the day Hitler invaded Poland. I need to know Gigi and Fritzl because they are all I have left of my father.

Gigi now lives on the Upper West Side and will not go to Queens; a personal injury attorney, Fritzl schleps into the city every Saturday to be her consort. He is a reluctant suitor, dragged fussing and fuming to theater and museums, often enjoying only the fine-dining part of the equation. She in turn rolls her eyes and does a lot of cajoling when he flies her to far-off beaches and wants to loll on them. I follow their story by daily e-mail. Almost always with Gigi. Even though she is observant, and Fritzl is more of a cultural Jew and closer to me as a Southern Jew with no identity, she is closer to me emotionally.

And so I was in touch on a late December day when Fritzl and I seemed on the surface to have something in common. Evidently he had ignored plumbing troubles until they had become so ubiquitous that he had rust and leaks everywhere in his lower level of his house near Far Rockaway, and floors and walls were so rotten they would have to be replaced. He had a disaster on his hands.

I, too, had a mess. I was in New Orleans experiencing what I can only term a flashback. I woke up Thursday morning to the sound of a huge rainstorm. Heavy rainfall with no thunder, much like the arrival of Katrina, except that there was no high wind to blow the rain horizontal. I knew all this because I had not evacuated for the hurricane. I looked out the front door to see how difficult it would be to retrieve my newspaper and instead saw the street was beginning to flood.

It was already up to the undercarriage of the cars. I’d like to say that I had some kind of big emotional reaction, but I had zero affect. I think I’d been expecting just such an event for so long that I was mentally shrugging with a “So what else is new?” I matter-of-factly put on sneakers and headed for the basement. After the hurricane, I’d initially made an effort to put absolutely nothing downstairs, but after 16 months I’d become complacent. There was stuff down there. Mostly my son’s foolishness, but I had a couple of items. Most notably, I’d spent considerable money on a dorm-sized refrigerator and a generator that I decided were a good idea in case a Category 2 hurricane hit, and I decided to ride it out.

Of course, I hadn’t thought about what I’d do with the fridge and the generator in a flood. With adrenalin I lifted the refrigerator onto a cinder block; I moved the generator to the highest point in the basement and hoped the water wouldn’t rise to its motor. And then I went upstairs and sat in front of the TV and waited for the electricity to shut off. It didn’t, and I thought maybe something was going right in New Orleans. Clearly the pumping stations had not been restored.

After a while I went online, and I got into an exchange of e-mails with Gigi. She regaled me with the latest on Fritzl’s considerable damage from broken pipes. In turn, I told her how I had water in my basement.  I jokingly commended her for her good sense to have chosen to live on the tenth floor. She wrote back that sometimes she thought about vacationing on a tropical isle but couldn’t give up her creature comforts. In response, I said that after the hurricane I’d lived without any amenities—electricity, water, gas, phone, car, and so on—and it had been fine. We were having a spirited dialogue, or so I thought. I told her what the mess in my basement looked like.

And then…

She wrote and asked how soon I’d be able to get someone out to repair my problem.

I sat at my computer and had my first emotional reaction since I’d woken up to the horrible rainstorm. Repair my problem? Repair my problem?! The streets of New Orleans were flooding, in some places waist-deep, and I was going to call a repairman the way Fritzl had to repair my problem?

After all these years of straining to understand my cousins’ lives and shrugging because I figured they were New York-centric and didn’t think the South was worth exploring beyond a three-day tourist visit, I exploded. “The federal government has to repair my problem!” I wrote back.

Gigi, Fritzl, and I are far flung because of the great diaspora of the twentieth century. On a very much smaller scale, there has been a diaspora in the twenty-first. I’m a New Orleanian. I write novels as a New Orleanian. It’s my identity. In coming generations, people a lot like me are going to be popping up all over the country, and they’re going to be finding their second cousins with the same great-grandmother from New Orleans. I suppose they’ll have the same struggle. It’s going to be hard.

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