What I Know About Home
The sound of an approaching subway reminds me of hurricanes. Not the sound as the cars crash to a halt, but the thumping of the wind while the train is still in the tunnel—the thud of the wheels against the track in the short moments before the sound turns metallic is the same as the wind against a house. Maybe that is why I would always pray on the train when I first moved to New York from Louisiana, counting stops with Hail Marys. Granted I had long since stopped believing in my parents’ God, but the rhythmic chanting numbed the anxiety I felt about getting lost.
I moved to New York in July in the middle of a heat wave with three suitcases that I attempted to compress my twenty-seven years of life into. They were lightly scuffed dark red Samsonites that I discovered at the Jockey Lot Flea Market in Lafayette, swatting mosquitos while my mother haggled over the prices of camouflage cell phone cases encrusted with rhinestones. I found the cases shoved in the corner of a stall, lingering behind a metal wire shelf that was plated in fake gold and bent in the middle. My mother paid ten dollars for her cell phone case and I paid fifty for my luggage.
I stepped out of the cab that carried me from LaGuardia into the northern summer. There was a breeze in the air that was surprisingly cool, making the heat nothing in comparison to that of Louisiana which is so hot it bakes animals in their shells and burns the soles of those daring enough to walk barefoot.
The cab driver unloaded my bags and slung them onto the Brooklyn sidewalk while I shifted through the stack of books in my backpack to find money for my fare. When he drove away, I dragged my belongings into the building and unlocked the door to my apartment—the first apartment I’d ever live in.
The afternoon light flooded through the window above the sink, which looked out onto an overgrown lot with graffiti of a jazz-age Tony the Tiger, sporting a fedora and burning cigar. I climbed onto the kitchen counter to open the window, banging my shins in an attempt to release some of the stifled heat from the apartment. The air moved in, causing the strands of hair that had escaped my braid to tickle against my neck. I scratched at it, a fine layer of sweat coming away beneath my fingernails.
I began my inspection of the newly renovated apartment, flipping all the lights on and off first, each one at different levels on the wall and each one upside down and backwards. The water pressure I checked next, noticing a leak around the newly installed sink in the kitchen and that the fixtures in the bathroom were old and mismatched—the sink handles gold, the bathtub faucet silver. One of the cabinet hinges had fallen off, and there was water damage on the ceiling and missing caulk around the backsplash. My father’s nightmares couldn’t even contain the mess of half-finished work, but I was determined to ignore the improper joining of the crown molding.
That night, I attempted to sleep beneath my open window with a pile of shirts for a pillow and a thin purple blanket between myself and the hardwood floor. The M train rattled overhead, and strains of conversations wafted in from the street. Mostly the voices were Spanish, but an occasional English argument lifted the feeling that I was somehow dropped into a foreign land. Being the first apartment in the building, the sound of the buzzer and the slam of the front door echoed into the bedroom.
I tried to make sense of the new sounds but they competed against those of my childhood. I grew up in an old house, the one everyone in town knew as “that house on the hill.” It was an idyllic 1802 Acadian with columned porches and dormer windows with over an acre of land for a front yard and the Bayou Teche gliding along in front. As a child I would lie awake at night memorizing the creaks of the house settling, the hiss of the wind leaking through the seals, the rattling of the glass paned windows, and the bump of the air conditioner unit as it switched on and off. I learned to tell who was coming up or down the stairs by their treads. My mom, light and moderate. My brother, heavy but quick. My dad, much heavier but methodic. Our parking lot rescue cat Izzy was fast and whispery, only making noise on the steps that creaked the loudest. Picket (the grotesquely overweight orange tabby that hitched a ride in a horse trailer to make his home with us) tended to flop up and down the steps like a sack of nectarines. I also learned the sound a turtle makes when it tries to commit suicide by climbing out of its aquarium and throwing itself off the second floor landing.
Being the enviable “house on the hill” meant that the house was the center of local myths. It was rumored to be haunted, and it was perhaps these rumors that gave my imagination license to make the bumps and rattles of the night into something else. Some nights, I even awoke to see a blurred figure standing near my fireplace. Maybe that was why I always had the sense that place was not mine to have.
Le Grand Dérangement, the Great Upheavel, the Great Expulsion, the Expulsion of the Acadians. The name given to the forced removal of the Acadian people from Canada by the British during the French and Indian War. It happened from 1755 and 1764. The division began, some believe (and rightfully so) over religion. The French settlers were Catholic, and the British questioned their loyalty to the crown when the war with France began.
The Expulsion was made famous by the poem Evangeline by Longfellow. Evangeline stood under a tree near the bayou in Louisiana, waiting for her lover.
The Evangeline Oak is a popular tourist spot in Evangeline Parish.
It is supposedly the tree that Evangeline waited beneath.
The first one was struck by lightning.
The second one was destroyed to make way for a new onramp for the interstate.
The third was blown down during a hurricane.
Even the trees couldn’t quite get their roots in.
I wandered among the dollar stores and bodegas of my neighborhood in search of basic housing supplies. I bought a small fan, a glass bowl, and a spatula from a dollar store. After that, I found crackers and paper towels on sale at CVS.
While wandering the streets, a man in the building two doors down from mine yelled threats at me when I passed, informing me that I was in a place that I did not belong. I kept my head up, my eyes away, using my headphones as an excuse for ignoring him and shoved my hands in my pockets, fingers brushing against the knife my father gave me the previous Christmas.
That morning I sat in the dogtrot in front of the fireplace, flinging wrapping paper into the fireplace. Despite the fact that we were all in short sleeves, the fire was crackling. The paper browned and curled at the edges, snowmen escaping through the flue. Next to me sat a brownie pan and a stack of novelty t-shirts—my mother’s favorite things to give. My parents gathered in the kitchen, the smell of cinnamon rolls and coffee wafting into the hall. My father plodded in, balancing two mugs. He handed me one then grabbed my stocking hanging from the stair bannister. Forgot something. I grinned from the floor when I pulled out the packaging. Would’ve rather got you a nine mil. He said to me, scanning me over his glasses.
There’s no concealed carry in New York¸ I told him. He looked down at me over the top of his glasses, his brow furrowing like canyons. The hell kind of backwoods place is that?
I learned later that one isn’t supposed to give a knife as a gift because it supposedly severs relationships. I don’t think my father thought of it at the time, and my connection to my father wasn’t changed. But, in a way, it was like a parting gift from Louisiana, a place I hadn’t belonged and was eager to cut away.
I gave my new neighbor a wide berth, the knife my father gave me just before I boarded the plane—the one he would always carry, more sentimental than anything—was clipped inside my boot, hot against my leg.
I bought a candle of the Virgin Mary and a Pepsi at the bodega on the corner. I sat with my back against the wall beneath my open window and lit the candle with my cigarette lighter, burning my thumb in the process. Pulling my knees to my chest, I rested my chin on them and stared at candle’s flame as it flickered, constantly threatening to burn out.
I began training out my southern accent in Junior High. I started with the word “horse,” but could never get it quite right, so I began avoiding it. The next word I stopped using was “particular.” Then, I made sure to pronounce the “th” sound, instead of saying it with the natural –d, and making sure I didn’t forget my contractions. Who is there, not Who dat? What is that? as opposed to What dat?
I did these things because I was a smart kid. I had a television. I had books. I saw the stereotypes of the ignorance that accompanied that way of speaking (not how I talked). I knew I was going to go to college, and I wanted my intelligence taken seriously.
So I made certain to pronounce my gs. To clip my vowels. And I spoke softly, and received not one but two degrees, then began to work on a third.
But, one of the things I learned was that Southern accents are, actually, much closer to their ancestral accents. A Dixie southern accent is a slow, exaggerated British accent. As a person moves geographically further from the coast, the accent becomes slower, more deliberate, despite the accusation that it’s nothing more than a “twang.” A Cajun accent sounds different from other southern accents because it is based on a French accent, not British. And, in addition, most linguists believe that prior to the Civil War, most people in the United States spoke with a similar accent—most likely what is now considered a Southern one.
Despite this, however, people with Southern accents are still seen by most as being ignorant. This is, in fact, one of the last acceptable prejudices in America. Networks advertise television shows about “rednecks” and, most recently, a “hick-hop dynasty”—both names that are thrown out at enemies, both names that often trigger conflicts. Calling a Cajun a redneck could start a feud, and calling anyone a hick is basically calling someone white trash, one of the worst insults that can be flung in rural Louisana. Yet, there they are, splayed across the screen during commercial breaks on A&E, exploiting cultures that are too self-contained to know to defend themselves.
I used to read stories to my daughter before she went to bed. She had my old collection of Dr. Seuss books—the ones I taught myself to read with before I entered kindergarten. Worn copies of Green Eggs and Ham and Are You My Mother? sat next to new, shiny versions of Disney stories. There was something about Dr. Seuss that was special to me, and I didn’t know what it was exactly until the night we read The Diggingest Dog.
I always started casually, but realized quickly that the specific mechanics of Duke’s story set a hypnotic trance upon me. The rhyme scheme seemed to cast a spell on my voice, and my carefully constructed pretenses fell away as Duke wiggled his paws and saw he cood, wiggled his claws and saw dey wood.
It was as though all of my practiced fricatives and clipped vowels and properly accented syllables had gotten lost on some back highway because someone didn’t have enough sense to not give 15 year old Jesus a driver’s license and a sports car. Duke and I were set loose on the world, gleefully upending gardens and barbers.
Eventually, though, Duke was cornered—he’d done wrong. And then he dug himself a hole so deep it created a well, and he howled while the others debated exactly how much his life was worth. Many of the observers even felt it made more sense to let him drown.
Just one less piece of trash to litter the world with.
In the end, though, Duke was saved, and he learned to dig in proper rows.
For Seuss, it was a happy ending—Duke didn’t get sent back to the pet store and he found his place. But for me, when I looked at the nice neat rows and the line of smug observers, I became enraged.
Duke’s digging, like my language, had become controlled. It was now acceptable to others, who could congratulate themselves on taming something that was once natural and wild, something they did not approve of.
I had spent much of my life trying to disguise my accent. I had been ashamed of it, which meant I was ashamed of myself. I had spent so much time trying to speak like someone else, become someone else, that I had essentially lost myself along the way.
I hadn’t enough sense to defend myself, either, when I had the chance.
So I flinch when I speak of the importance of things like place and home. Because I know the bayou only flows one way. You swim upstream to escape, but by the time you realize these things were protecting you and not caging you, there’s no going back. You can try to go home, but your tongue’s been ironed out for too long and your face is covered in foreign dust. The people you once knew don’t trust you, because they don’t trust what they don’t know. So you end up watching something you were a part of and trying to convince yourself you’re still a part of it because you still drop your gs most days.
A few months after my move to New York, I began to find a niche. An old acquaintance of mine tended bar in the East Village, and since I hadn’t yet made headway into finding a job I spent many lost nights there.
It was the first time in my life I had been a regular. The first time that I walked into a place and felt welcome. I carved a niche at the corner of the bar, next to a Sicilian grandmother who drank pickle martinis and told me about how her step-father was gunned down by the NYPD back in the day. She wore tank tops without bras, had teeth that were blackened by age and cigarettes, and she constantly pushed her bottle thick glasses back up her nose between gesticulating during her stories. She called me one of her daughters, told me if a guy ever bothered me to let her know. She knew people that could take care of that sort of thing.
I also met the equivalent of the odd uncles. One was an actor at the theater next door, who wrote a play that was produced. I attended the play, nudging my friend when the guy from the bar kitchen came out as some kind of lawyer, despite the fact that he was wearing a suit fit more for a wedding.
The other was a singer, or something. He would show up late at night with guitars or, once, a ukulele. He’d play mostly Beatles songs—I don’t like the Beatles. Once, I asked him what I should call him if I ever wrote a story. Ibraham, he told me. It was his other name. I told him I couldn’t do that. It would be like calling a tornado wind.
Drunk one night, I visited the roof of his apartment. He played Beatles songs another friend sang. I didn’t know the words so I lit cigarettes off of each other and watched the smoke crawl upwards, disappearing with the city lights. I leaned over the edge of the brick railing. I’ve never met a roof I haven’t wanted to leap from.
The bar that I frequented ended up getting shut down. The waifs dispersed, and I’ve never found them again. It didn’t quit matter to me, though, not how it used to. I’ve learned that people pass through like the weather. They do their work then move on, leaving nothing more than memories.
I know better than to build homes out of people.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina displaced roughly 400,000 residents of the Gulf Coast, and 378,000 of those were from New Orleans alone. While many fled to the Houston metropolitan area (about 130,000), cities in Louisiana also experienced an influx of new residents. One of those cities was Lafayette.
The water from the storm didn’t bury the city six foot deep as it did in other places, but when it receded it still left behind similar debris in the form of the displaced. People stood up, shivering and blinking and not just a little bit lost. Instead of going back, many went forward and settled around Lafayette.
That’s how the city became so heavy.
A New-Orleans style part of town called River Ranch began to build up along the banks of the Atchafalaya, and it built quickly. It was as if the new arrivals were trying to capture something they lost, trying to make a new place into something that they had lost. Within six months, the narrow thread of Camelia Boulevard, once unused, had begun to crawl with police and traffic lights and cars like a confused spine, re-routed from typical routines to something new and dangerous. Driving along Kaliste Saloom during rush hour would leave one in three mile long bumper-to-bumper traffic at a single red light, the entire length of the exodus dotted with multiple car pile ups at nearly every intersection.
But they built on the back of the city too quickly, too much brick and iron work and expectation on the fragile skin of the banks, and the foundations of the entire neighborhood began to sink beneath the weight of it all.
Not long after my one year anniversary in New York, I ran through a thunderstorm to catch the train home from work. I ducked into the L at First Avenue just as the doors slammed shut.
I settled my headphones in my ears and began to stare at my phone screen. Somewhere near Grand, a man came into the car and began his spiel.
Snatches of his speech came through my headphones. He joined the Army at seventeen. Fought for his country. Now he was just trying to get by. Just needed enough to get by.
The car was mostly empty, the wait between stops stretching out in silence. I had learned to adapt, like everyone else, by looking away from things that I didn’t want to see.
The man began to walk down the aisle, his ragged boots scuffing across the speckled black floor. He was snapping his fingers in passengers’ faces to get their attention.
Is anybody home? He kept asking, scuffling, snapping.
He snapped his fingers in front of my blank screen. The nerves in my body leapt to my skin and I met his eyes—blue, his tan making them shine. Anybody home?
Is anybody home?