On a Clear Day, Part 2: Missing
25 Jun 2015 · by Brennan Storr · Be the first to comment!
The first time I came to New Orleans was in 2008 via Amtrak's "City of New Orleans" service from Chicago, and during the cab ride to my hotel in the French Quarter I remember thinking, "This seems like the kind of place where you can find just about anything, so long as you don't mind running the risk of not seeing morning." That was later confirmed by a bartender who told me about the four dismayed tourists, all in their early 20s, who had come into the bar that morning asking after for their missing friend. Looking to buy a little weed the night before, their friend had gotten into a stranger's car and never come back; judging by the look on the bartender's face as she told me the story, they never would.
This time around I flew into the Crescent City but as American Airlines flight 2376 descended into storm clouds the color of rotten snow, shaking like Hell's own rollercoaster, never getting back home still seemed like a real possibility. Once we were on the ground, the elderly French woman next to me unclenched her fists, shook out her hair and brushed herself with perfume; the idea being, I think, that if we weren't going to die then we may as well live.
Eight years since my first (and last) visit but the humidity was the same as I remembered - the air clung to you like grease vapor in a busy kitchen. The first taxi driver in the queue stared at me blankly when I gave her the address of my rented room and no matter how I tried to pronounce "Dorgenois", we got no further. Thankfully, the next driver knew the city and we were soon on the way.
North Dorgenois is in Treme, one of New Orlean's oldest neighborhoods. Back in 2000 the census put its population around 8800 but post-Katrina that's been more than halved and it's not hard to notice; even at 9pm the main streets were quiet and side streets were ghost towns. Street lamps seemed to highlight rather than dispel the dark empty spaces between houses.
“Do you know the neighborhood?” Asked my cab driver, a Pakistani immigrant who’d been living in the city for several years.
“I don’t,” I replied. “Anything I should know?”
“Not really,” he said. “Don’t walk any distance by yourself at night, but I’m sure you know that.”
That sentiment was echoed by Michael, the retired schoolteacher and current Uber driver who took me to the French Quarter. Michael had taught at the nearby John McDonough School before transferring to the now-shuttered J.F. Kennedy High School on Bayou St. John. According to Michael, he could quite easily live on his teacher’s pension but he gets restless and Uber lets him meet a variety of people
“I grew up here, taught school here for thirty years,” he said. “It’s a good city, but like anywhere, we got knuckleheads. You go too far by yourself and those knuckleheads are going to make trouble for you. That’s just the way it is.”
At first, knuckleheads seemed too light a term for the kind of people who will disappear you in the night but maybe that was intentional. Start thinking too hard about a name for the kind of people who will do that and you start thinking too hard about how easy it is for them to do it; think too hard about that and every time the sun goes down, the city you live in starts looking less like a city and more like a jungle.
Sitting at a diner counter waiting on my late dinner, I killed time by scanning the news. The knuckleheads had been busy - Mohammad Alghannam, a Saudi student who had been living in San Antonio while attending UTSA, had gone missing while visiting New Orleans on March 28. The night of the 27th his uncle had dropped him at the Extended Stay Suites on I-10 South, and all communications from the young man ceased less than 24 hours later. There had been a number of theories as to where he’d gone – abduction, an attempt to flee his family and pursue his own interests - but two months on and Alghannam was still missing. I thought back to 2008 and the look on that bartender’s face.
Just then one of the other diners placed their order and the waiter, a chubby white guy in his late 20s shouted out to the kitchen, “We need a chocolate shake” and another waiter, a sinewy black kid with long, thin dreadlocks came out of the back shimmying his hips.
“How’s this?” Everyone cracked up.
After the laughter died down I asked the chubby kid what kind of pie they had.
“Nothing I’d recommend,” he said.
I must have given him an odd look because he leaned in and said, “Trust me. I’m looking out for you.”
In a place like this, that can only be a good thing.
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