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  • You’ve never seen a pothole til you’ve seen a New Orleans pothole. Potholes here are so big that they can literally swallow compact cars, belching out pieces of undercarriage and destroyed tires.

    On my first trip back to the city after Katrina, I accompanied a dear friend to a community meeting in one of the more flood-ravaged neighborhoods. I was relieved to be home and devastated by what I saw, smelled, heard and felt while navigating neighborhoods and talking with people pockmarked by physical and emotional trauma.

    We left the meeting riding in my friend’s car, probably around 10pm. Less than a year after the storm there were no streetlights, no street signs, not much traffic in this neighborhood. Hell, the remnants of houses were still washed into the middle of the streets.

    Lacking street lights, it was hard to see the pothole until we were right up on it. It was the biggest pothole I’ve ever seen- I could have easily laid down in it. We hit it going full speed ahead, and immediately heard the thud…thud…thud of a flat tire. We pulled over, nervous.

    We were nervous because we were two women alone at night, in the dark, with the flattest tire I’ve ever seen. We were nervous because the structures of the buildings surrounding us were contorted grotesquely from the force of the floodwaters we knew had drowned some of its residents. And we were nervous because we knew that almost everyone else in the city was just as on edge as we were.

    An older man staggered towards us from down the street. Being good Southerners, we started making conversation as he approached, despite having the jitters. It soon became clear that he was harmless- drunk (hence, the staggering), tired, but happy to be able to talk to people in his neighborhood. We popped the trunk- the spare tire was flat. It seemed we were going to have to walk to the nearest store, which was a few miles away, in the dark.

    Then she pulled up. I don’t think I ever heard her name. A woman in her 30s in a small SUV pulled up and asked us what was going on. We explained- and she offered to drive the spare tire to the closest store to have it refilled with air. We told her we didn’t have any money and she waved her hand to dismiss our concern. She had a small frame but was clearly used to taking charge. So we thanked her and sat down to wait.

    It took about 45 minutes for the woman to return. During that time, we made conversation with the staggering man. His antics- even while discussing the ways in which the flood had torn his family and neighborhood apart- were lighthearted, even funny. Though I hate to essentialize New Orleans and its residents, I do find that New Orleanians have a penchant for exuding levity in the heaviest of times. It’s a talent I strive to adopt into my way of being and pass on to others who aren’t fortunate enough to live here.

    Finally, the woman returned. The staggering man walked up to help remove the spare from her backseat- and pulled out a brand new tire. She explained that there was a large hole in the spare and that it wouldn’t hold any air.

    My friend said again that she didn’t have any money to pay her and noted that the tire must have cost over $50.

    We joked about how the local stores could get away with charging so much money for everything because there was nowhere else for people to go.

    The woman directed the staggering man to put the new tire on our car, again exuding an air of authority he didn’t dare challenge.

    My friend pleaded- “At least give me your information and I can send you a check next payday.”

    The woman adamantly refused, then began to cry. She told us that the only reason she and her family made it out of the city during the storm was because strangers had been willing to help them. She gave us some examples and let us know that she was thankful, and also determined to repay the debt. She pleaded with us to accept the tire, and refused to provide her address.

    We did, of course. The three of us women stood around and swapped Katrina stories while the staggering man put the new tire on my friend’s car. When he was finished, we all hugged each other tearfully and went along our ways- the woman dashing off to take care of her kids, my friend and I driving slowly and cautiously, and the staggering man ambling off on foot down the street.

    I moved away from New Orleans right before Katrina to pursue a graduate degree. I was unhappy with my program and made this trip to New Orleans to try and decide whether to push through my West Coast grad program or move back to the city where dead dreams go to live. On the night that the pothole reached up to grab us, I jumped back into New Orleans’ arms. Seven years later, I've not regretted it.

    I can curse at the potholes here- and the ineffective, corrupt city government responsible for fixing them- all I want. I’ve long lost count of how many times I’ve had to replace pothole-induced popped tires since moving back in 2006. But in the end, I have to admit that a pothole- disguised as a suckerpunch but yielding roses- played a major role in getting me back here. And I’ve been trying to repay the debt to this city and its residents ever since.
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