Five Years Later: A Letter To New Orleans

Keith Woods as a Child

hide captionThe author, Keith Woods (seated), as a child in New Orleans.

Courtesy of Keith Woods

Keith Woods is NPR's vice president for diversity in News and Operations and is the former dean of the faculty at the Poynter Institute, a training center for professional journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla. Woods was born in New Orleans, where he worked for 16 years as a journalist at The Times-Picayune. New Orleans also is where Woods met Lawrence "Shorty" Washington, the Crescent City shoeshine man and editorial inspiration to whom this letter is addressed.

Dear Shorty,

I'm sorry I haven't checked in with you sooner. Has it really been five years since the storm? Time does march on.

It doesn't seem that long ago when I had to look up to see your gruff, leathery face while you shined my father's shoes in front of the Autocrat Club. To children like me, you were an enigma: shorter than 5 feet; thick, mahogany fingers stained with new colors; tired eyes that spoke in long sentences.

You called men "baby" when it was cool to be a dandy on Saturday nights, and you hung on to your perch on St. Bernard Avenue long after business was brisk and black men like my father went to the Autocrat to find the status and dignity they were denied most other places.

You saw me grow up to be a man, Shorty, and when I became a columnist for The Times-Picayune, you were my muse. Do you remember? I turned to you when I needed to get out of my head and feel New Orleans in my bones, because that's the only way to truly write about home.

Your hands on my shoes were an allegory for just about anything I had to say. You'd understand what I'm feeling today, five years after Katrina devastated our hometown. You'd help me explain that this story isn't really new, that our city has always been about death and rebirth; failure and redemption; new polish on old, tattered things.

I've been home a lot since 2005 but never enough. I drive around every time, looking for what's recovered. What's still dead. I go to the Seventh Ward, Uptown, Lakeview, taking pictures. I have photos from the Lower 9th Ward when there were still cars and refrigerators on rooftops. I have pictures of when the neighborhood turned into blocks and blocks of empty lots. Then high weeds.

My last pictures show new, mismatched houses sprouting near the levee.

I always look for you when I come back, Shorty, but you're never where I left you. When I first returned to pry open the doors of my father's house, I drove slowly down St. Bernard because I knew that you liked to chain your shoeshine stand to the alleyway fence next to the Autocrat. I remember why.

You saw the world through a prism sunk deep in the heart and history of my hometown, and that bent light came out of you in acerbic commentary.

"Them thugs, baby," you would tell me to explain the chains. "Gotta lock everything up 'cause of them."

I know they cost you your wife, the thugs, but the villain was water this time, my friend. Whenever I look down St. Bernard now, I imagine Lake Pontchartrain gushing through a hole in the London canal wall, rushing past my grandfather's old house on Havana Street and pushing at the roots of the tree that used to shade your customers. I figure your old hunk-of-wood bench didn't stand a chance.

Do I seem too preoccupied with the storm, Shorty? I wonder about that all the time. I wonder why it is, five years later, that I only have to read a story, hear a voice on the radio, watch a scene in Treme and the levees in my eyes burst all over again.

Funny, isn't it? I used to get on you all the time about the way you harped on the negatives — always talking about crack and crime and corruption and the young people you saw walking without purpose down the street.

Empty Lots i i

hide caption"I have pictures of when the neighborhood turned into blocks and blocks of empty lots. Then high weeds."

Keith Woods
Empty Lots

"I have pictures of when the neighborhood turned into blocks and blocks of empty lots. Then high weeds."

Keith Woods

I understood about your wife; about how the purse-snatchers knocked her to the ground that day and robbed her of the will to live.

"That was a long time ago," I used to say to you a long time ago.

I used to try to change the subject, to get you to see the perpetual hope that made me believe we'd stop the killings and clean up the politics; believe that you could get another shine out of my old shoes. But that scowl would sink into the creases falling from the corners of your mouth, and I would watch the clock turn back to an old conversation.

Now here I am stuck in 2005. Stuck on Katrina. We'd make quite the sunny pair today, wouldn't we?

Me: I feel an emptiness when I come home, Shorty.

You: They keep electin' the same crooks, baby. What you expect?

I'll give you that one, Shorty. We do recycle our politicians. Still, I see good things ahead now that Mitch Landrieu is mayor. He's a good man. I had a lot of respect for his father, Moon, when he was mayor, and the son has been close to my family. I saw Mitch at some of our funerals in the wake of Katrina.

Keith Woods

hide captionKeith Woods regularly writes on race and media.

NPR

First my father. Then Uncle Fabian. Then Uncle Ralph. Then Aunt Mildred. Then Auntie Adrienne. All by 2008. I know. I know. The storm didn't kill them. But the water cut them off from their roots, then drowned their memories. How could they keep breathing?

I can see you now, Shorty, hands tucked into your apron, shaking your head slowly, welcoming me to your darkness.

I guess this isn't a good time to try to change the subject, being the anniversary and all.

But maybe I'll look for you next time I'm in town. I'll wait on the Autocrat steps and remember better days.

Maybe I'll bring some shoes by. See what you can do.

Be well, Shorty. I'll see you then.

Keith

Lawrence "Shorty" Washington died on May 6, 2006, in Irving,Texas. An obituary in the Irving Rambler said he evacuated there after the hurricane.

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