Somebody screamed and my eyes shot open. Only it was still pitch black, and I couldn't see a thing. The air was so thick it almost smothered me, and my lungs had to fight extra hard for a breath that smelled worse than shit and feet mixed together. Then there were flashlights, and footsteps pounding the concrete stairs one section over, and voices running to hide from another gang of thugs. I reached next to me to feel for Pop, and on the other side for my uncle. I stopped trying to figure out how scared I was, or if the empty feeling in the pit of my stomach would ever quit. The sweat came down my face, stinging the corners of my mouth. Maybe it was 110-degrees. And when those flashlights disappeared, and everything went dark again, it felt like somebody shut the oven door on us. My back was stiff and straight in that fold-down seat, and my legs had gone numb hanging over the row in front of me. A plastic garbage bag with everything I had inside was stuffed under my neck for a pillow. I thought about what Pop said when we first got to the Superdome, "Don't matter what you see or who needs what -- they're not family. It's three of us and nobody else. And that's all it can be." The wind and rain had beat down on that dome like it was a giant drum. Only now, people were pounding at each other. There was a buzzing, and I guess the generators tried to kick back in. The rings of lights circling the stadium started to glow a little, and reminded me of halos over the heads of angels. Then I heard a baby cry with a shriek that nearly stopped my heart cold. And for the life of me, I didn't know if that baby was being born or dying.
Late Saturday night, after Pop finished his gig, he told me to collect up all the things I couldn’t live without. That we were driving to a motel in Baton Rouge the next morning with Uncle Roy in his old Chevy, because of Katrina -- a monster hurricane that was coming.
“And Miles, call your mother. I want her to know you're okay, case the phone lines get knocked out," Pop said. "I'm not gettin' cussed at 'cause she's worried sick over where you are.”
I’d been with Pop in New Orleans maybe two months, since just after school let out. Mom had got remarried to a mailman with three kids of his own back in Chicago, and living in that two-bedroom apartment with them all was like being stuck on the Lake Street el train without a seat at rush hour.
"It's hard for all of us. You think you're the only one that's got to change?" Mom would bust on me. "You still my baby, Miles, but I got four children to look after now."
My parents split before I could remember them ever being together. So I really only knew Pop from the times he'd come around our way to play jazz festivals. But once I turned twelve, Mom said I was grown enough to ride the train to New Orleans myself and spend summer vacations with him. He’d play trumpet at the different clubs in the French Quarter, with my uncle on slide trombone. I didn't give a shit about jazz. Neither did any kid I ever knew. But once I learned to stomach all that crap about what music meant to his soul, and feeling like I didn't exist to him when that damn horn was in his hands, every night around Pop was like New Year's Eve.
"You think it's gonna be a party livin' with your father full-time. It's not," Mom warned me. "Maybe it's all good in the summer 'cause there's no school. But you're 'bout to be a sophomore in high school and don't put near enough into your grades now -- everything's football and horseplay. Somebody's gotta see that you study, and make somethin' of yourself. He's not gonna put you 'head of his music. You'll be second-linin' it with him, just like I did. That's where you march behind the band in the parade. Only your father's so into his playin', he won't even know when you're not there anymore."
I love Mom, and knew she'd been through plenty of problems with Pop, like his drinking and staying out all night. But he'd always kept a tight lid on that when I was there. It was only his music I had to deal with. She didn't think he'd even want me, and I stressed over hearing that, too. So I was surprised when Pop didn't argue to death against it. Only before I came to live with him for real, he explained to me how it was going to be.
"This house ain't some quiet library to study in. I practice my chops when I need to, and play on the weekends. When Mardi Gras comes it's gigs every night, so you gotta look after yourself then," said Pop. "I don't care nothin' 'bout Nintendo, basketball or gangsta rap—even if you do. I live and breathe jazz. That's it. When I’m playin’ free, it's like I'm talkin' to God, and he’s answerin’-- 'Doc, you black, and strong and beautiful.' And Son, you don't interrupt a man when he's talkin' to God."
Halfway through that speech, I could feel an earthquake starting in my toes, and rumbling up my body inch by inch. I wanted to scream that if he ever put that trumpet down he'd know I played football, and maybe he'd still have a family instead of a bunch of tourists who clapped when he was finished and went home. But I needed him to come through for me bad, so I kept my mouth shut and bit it all back.
"Yeah, Pop," I answered. "I understand."
Before I left, Mom said, "Maybe the two of you can grow up and learn some responsibility together."
Pop had a tiny apartment over Pharaohs, one of the clubs where he played regular, and got me a part-time job. His walls were painted pink and purple, and I'd rank on him, calling it "Skittle House." He'd nailed up black and white pictures of famous jazz players with old-school nicknames like Satchmo, Dizzy and Bird.
"That's the Holy Trinity right there, Son," Pop said. "All your thugs in bandanas cussin' on records today put together couldn't spit shine their shoes."
There was a picture on a tabletop of Pop, too. He was blowing his trumpet with his eyes shut tight. But if he ever took a good look at me, maybe he'd see who I was. That I had my own mind about things, and could think and feel for myself. And that what was important to him didn't mean shit to me.
Sometimes when Pop wasn't around, I'd open the case and stare at his horn. It was all shiny and gold, but I could see the little dents in it. I'd even pick it up to try and feel why Pop loved it so much. But it was always just cold in my hands. I never once saw Pop try to hold a football like that. Then I'd think about chucking his horn down the garbage chute, and seeing Pop's face when he opened the case and it was empty. Only I never did.
Pop's legal name was Terrance Shaw, but everybody called him "Doc" because they said his horn could blow life into anyone, no matter how stiff they were.
“The city morgue called again, Doc,” Pop’s friends would joke. “They want to know if you could lighten their load by goin’ down and playin’ a set.”
I'd just pretend to laugh along.
I had a couch in the corner of the front room for my bed. There was a curtain I could pull closed for privacy, and learned to sleep with that damn jazz pumping up through the floor from Pharaohs. I'd made the freshman football squad at school back in Chicago, and was praying I'd make the varsity here.
I love football because it gives you back everything you put in. It's that simple. If you tackle somebody hard enough, they'll never forget it, and always watch over their shoulder for you. And when you got the ball in your hands, nobody takes their eyes off you, not even the dudes playing in the marching band.
My birthday came back in the middle of July, and Mom sent me a wristwatch in the mail. When she called I made a fuss over it for her. Pop even asked me what I wanted for a present and I told him cleats and a new football. But I came home and there was an African drum sitting on the couch with a birthday card on top of it.
I was mad as anything at Pop and hardly talked to him for a week. Then one night in between doing sets of situps and pushups, I was resting on the couch with my arm hanging over the drum. I wasn't even thinking about it, when I started tapping on it to the music from downstairs.
That's when Pop said, "You was born in New Orleans and named after Miles Davis—the most kick-ass trumpet player ever. You ought to be able to beat something respectable on that skin, 'less you really the postman's son."
I didn't want to act like an ungrateful brat, especially after Pop let me come live with him. So I eased up about the drum, and even said I didn't mind it.
Football tryouts had started in early August. Coach had us on the practice field in the mornings by 8AM, before the sun got too strong. But I was still drenched in sweat after every scrimmage, and needed to drink a gallon of Gatorade to put back what I'd lost. Most of the upper-class kids carried more weight than me, and I knew I had to work my ass off just to make second-string and stand on the sidelines. That's what I was worried about most when we climbed into Uncle Roy's Chevy -- missing practices, and losing a spot on the team.
We got to the highway and it was bumper to bumper, with cars stretching as far as I could see. Only none of them were moving an inch.
"This must be the highway to heaven 'cause everybody's tryin' to get on it at the last minute," said Uncle Roy, shaking his head.
The three lanes on the opposite side, coming into New Orleans, were totally empty.
People had their car doors swung wide open, and were standing around on the divide. Plenty of them took their dogs, too. They were barking and growling at each other, and the ones outside kept pissing to mark their territory.
I'd never seen a hurricane before, but Pop and his brother had been through lots of them without a scratch. Uncle Roy even told a story where he stood outside on a balcony and blew his trombone right into the face of one because it was named after some woman who did him dirty.
"Christine, Christine, blowin' all over town," Uncle Roy sang, with Pop joining him in the middle. "You're so damn mean, you want my soul to drown."
At first, I thought Pop was being paranoid about leaving. We lived on the second floor, maybe fifteen feet over the street. I didn't know how the water could reach that high. The landlord had already boarded up the windows, so unless the wind blew the roof off, I figured we'd be safe. But the news reports said Katrina was the hurricane everybody always feared. That because she was so powerful, and New Orleans was built below sea level, the whole city could get swallowed up in a flood if the levees on the river ever busted. Even the mayor said people had to evacuate.
Pop packed his horn -- that was automatic. But when he grabbed his gig book that listed every place he'd played, and was signed by everybody he'd ever jammed with, I knew he was worried about coming back.
I stuffed the sixty-four dollars I'd saved from bussing tables at Pharaohs into my pocket. I took an old football with the laces ripped, a sheet of practice plays to study on the ride, and my double-sided practice jersey because I'd already seen Coach flip on some dunce who'd lost his.
"Tell me you're not thinkin' 'bout leavin' that present I bought you behind," Pop said.
So I grabbed the drum just to humor him, and put everything into a black plastic garbage bag with a couple changes of clothes.
Uncle Roy didn't have a wife and kids, or a place of his own. He was a playa to the max, and mostly lived with whatever woman he was fooling with. He had his horn with him, a zippered clothes bag with his best suits, and enough candy in a big sack to answer the door with on Halloween. There were M&M's, Snickers, Baby Ruth and Three Musketeer bars all mixed together, and in between cigarettes he'd gobble them down.
I tried to snap on my uncle, calling him "Sweet Tooth Shaw."
But he rolled it right back on me.
"My lady friends can call me 'Sweet Tooth.' That's it." Uncle Roy said. "Now if you ever get a girl to look at you twice, I'll let you borrow that name. You don't have to pay me rent for it or nothin'. Till then, I'll call you Doc's Son, and you call me Uncle-- or just plain Roy."
Pop nearly split his sides laughing, and I wished I'd never opened my mouth.
We sat in that traffic jam for three hours, and didn't get ahead more than four or five light poles. I had to beg for them to change the radio from the jazz station, and even settled for the news. The weatherman said the real storm was still almost a day off. But the wind was already kicking up fierce, and I could smell the rain coming.
I put away the sheet with the football plays, and studied the medal pasted up on the dashboard.
"It's a St. Christopher medal, Miles," Pop told me. "He looks after travelers. That's the baby Jesus on his shoulders. He carried him across a river, and thought it would be nothin'. But it felt like he was haulin' the weight of the whole world."
The needle on the temperature gauge started rising up into the red. Then there was smoke from under the hood, and Uncle Roy cursed that piece of shit Chevy up and down. He pounded the car horn for enough room to pull off to the side. After the engine died out, Pop and me pushed it the rest of the way to the exit ramp, and watched my uncle coast down into a row of empty parking spots on the street.
Workers on a big truck were busy hustling the metal garbage cans off corners-- before they turned into flying missiles I guessed.
All morning, the radio said the Superdome was the only safe place for anybody staying behind, and we could see the top of it from where we were.
Uncle Roy opened the trunk and looked at all his shoes lined up there in pairs. Since he didn't have a house that trunk was like a closet to him.
"I just pray no water seeps into here," he said, slamming it back down.
Pop and my uncle put their horns at the bottom of a green duffle bag, like they were hiding them. Then I slung the bag over my shoulder, and we started walking with all our stuff. And if they weren't with me, I probably would have felt like I was running away from home.
The Superdome's huge, and takes up five or six blocks. I'd pass it every day on my way to practice. The New Orleans Saints pro football team plays there. I heard that's where the city's championship high school game gets put on, too. I was hoping the first time I set foot inside the Superdome, I'd be playing for the city title.
We were still a few blocks off when the rain started. It came down steady from the beginning, and Uncle Roy pulled out an umbrella. Only the first good gust of wind tore it inside out. Then my uncle called that umbrella a "dead bird" and slammed it to the sidewalk.
Pop stopped us on the steps of the Superdome with the rain rolling down his face and said, "I don't care how big it is or what kind of slick name they give it -- it's still a shelter. Son, your uncle and me spent plenty of days when we were young in places like this, and I won't forget 'em. People are tight over everything. Drama can jump up out of nothin'. Goin' in here ain't a game. I want you to be respectful of people – of what they have and what they don't have. But don't close your eyes on anybody either."
"You right on the money 'bout that, Doc," Uncle Roy said, climbing the next step. "Lord knows, you on the money 'bout that."
National Guard soldiers stood at the door with their machineguns pointed straight up in the air. They looked us over like we'd crossed the border from another country without any papers. I locked eyes with one of them, and his grip on the gun got tighter
There was a big sign just inside the Superdome – Every Adult And Child Should Have Enough Food And Water To Last Three (3) Days. All City And State Laws Will Be Strictly Enforced.
Taped underneath was a letter signed by the mayor, ordering that the city be evacuated.
My uncle asked, "How we gonna make groceries, Doc?"
"We'll have to play it by ear," Pop answered.
"There's no going back and forth!" a soldier hollered after us. “Once you're inside, that's it! Nobody leaves till we get the all-clear signal!"
"I'd rather have cops than those damn weekend soldiers," my uncle said low, turning into the hall.
"Maybe their real job's working in a gas station, or a bakery. Then the state gives 'em a gun, and says, 'You're in charge now.' But I guarantee, if shit goes down, they'll either run or start shooting," Pop said, looking at me. "So you just keep clear of 'em."
We stepped out into the stadium, under the dome, and the noise hit me like a wave. There were people praying out loud, talking and shouting. Little kids were running through the stands, screaming after each other, and babies were crying their heads off. Almost every one of those voices belonged to black people. I saw some doctors, nurses and soldiers who were white, but everybody coming to get saved was black.
Then I saw the football field and everything inside me stopped. I just froze there for a second, looking from one end of it to the other. The grass was the brightest green I ever saw. It didn't matter to me that it wasn't real, and just painted that color. It was like finding the present you'd always wanted under the tree on Christmas morning.
"The boy's seen his Holy Ghost," Pop told Uncle Roy.
There were three tiers of seats sandwiched one on top of another, with a ring of lights between the top two levels. A huge scoreboard hung down from the center of the dome, but it was dark. Families were camped out all over of the stands, and everywhere we looked to settle, people watched us close, like we might steal what they had.
Pop picked out a section next to an “Exit” sign, and we piled up our things in a closed off corner.
“Those folks down there got it right,” my uncle said, pointing to a small part of the football field that wasn’t blocked off by metal barriers. “They got blankets spread out to sleep lyin’ flat and everything. That’s livin’ large compared to these stiff seats. There’s more spaces open, let’s move there.”
“Go ‘head if you want to,” said a woman with her arms around two little girls, a few rows in front of us. “But the soldiers already made them move once. They said that’s the first place that’ll flood if the dome leaks. But some people is hard-headed, and had to go back.”
“We’re stayin’ put,” Pop said, and wouldn’t budge on it.
“That’s good! We need more men in their right minds ‘round here,” the woman said. “I don’t trust those soldiers, and the wolves might come howlin’ at night.”
Uncle Roy went over with his sack of candy, and those two girls waited for their mother to say it was all right before they took some.
Then Pop shot him a hard look, like we’d be hungry soon.
I looked out at the field, and couldn’t hold myself back. So I put on my practice jersey, with the blue side facing out, and promised Pop I’d quit when the first soldier told me to.
"Go 'head," said Pop with a sour look. "There's probably worse ways to kill time in this place."
Then I grabbed the football and climbed down. I took a deep breath and turned myself sideways, slipping between the barriers. I’d never been on artificial turf before, and it felt like walking on thick carpet laid over concrete.
The first level of stands was already half filled, and I made believe all that noise was people cheering. Something inside me started churning hot, like I really was in that championship game. So I took off full speed with the football tucked inside of one arm, cutting left, then right. The white painted lines flew under my feet, and I high-stepped it the last five yards. When I hit the goal line, I spiked the ball, and it must have bounced ten feet up in the air. I turned around and a bunch of little kids were chasing after me. They dove for the ball, laughing and yelling like it was a sunny day outside in the park.
I split them into two even teams for a game of touch, and played quarterback for both sides. We knelt down in the huddle, and I drew up plays in the fake grass with my finger.
Everything was going smooth till one play when some kid shoved his brother with both hands in the chest for no reason. The kid who got pushed fell backwards, slamming his head on the ground. I heard it hit solid, and was just glad he got back up. Then he ran off crying to find his mom, and the game was finished. I turned my beams on his asshole brother, staring him down. But he wouldn’t even look back at me.
“Yo, Miles!” somebody shouted. “You tryin’ out for midget league?”
It was two guys from my high school squad, Dunham and Cain. Both of them had on their practice jerseys, too, only with the red side showing.
They each gave me a pound, and Dunham said, “That’s three of us now. We just got stronger, case we need to take care of our own.”
“Team’s family,” I said, turning my jersey the same way as theirs.
I really only knew those guys from football. They were both going to be seniors and hung out with dudes from their own class. I'd seen them treat most of the lower class kids like shit on the practice field. But they'd never crossed me. So I liked the idea of rolling with them, and maybe getting bumped up two years on the social chain at school.
“We scoped out this whole Superdome already, and we’re just goin’ to fill our stomachs,” said Cain. “How you fixed for food?”
I told him how Pop and my uncle would probably faint before three days was up, and could use more than we had. So I started off with them. Then I remembered my football, and turned back around for it. There were only a couple of kids left on the field. But they were all playing tag, and my ball with the busted laces was gone.
I wanted to find that kid who pushed his brother down and body-slam him to the floor. I knew it had to be him who snatched the ball, and I stood there steaming.
"Let's go, Miles," Dunham said. "Whatcha waitin' on?"
I didn't want to look like an asshole in front of them, getting ripped-off by a kid. So I kept my mouth shut and sucked it up.
In the corridor, soldiers were handing out a cold spaghetti lunch in a cardboard box. Only the line was long as anything. It swung halfway around the Superdome, and I couldn’t see the front of that line from the end. That’s when Dunham and Cain started moving forward, and I followed.
Cain picked out a spot close up on the line, and asked some old guy standing by himself, “You all right on your feet, Gramps?”
Then he put his hand on the guy’s shoulder, like we were his family, and he was holding our spot in line.
“That’s bullshit!” said some man, maybe ten feet behind us. “You don’t belong up there!”
Cain put the meanest look on his face I’d ever seen, like he’d stomp on that man’s throat if he said another word. The man had a couple of little kids with him. Then I saw him look at the three of us together. I guess he decided it wasn’t worth it, because after that he only said stuff under his breath.
That whole rest of the time I waited in line, I felt two inches tall. I wanted to rip my jersey off and throw it as far as I could. Only I didn’t. I just stood there, down with their crew.
I brought the lunch back to Pop and my uncle, and wouldn’t even open it to look inside.
“Where you been since you left that field, Miles?” Pop asked. “I saw you go off with those two boys.”
“I got this food the two of you can share,” I answered, handing him the box.
“What about you? You ain’t hungry?” Uncle Roy asked.
“I had enough already,” I said, pulling off the jersey and stuffing it down into my bag.
Two soldiers dragged some old dude with gray Brillo hair back to our section, screaming at the top of his lungs, “This ain’t Noah’s Ark ! It’s Nigger’s Ark ! Ain’t two of everything, just us niggers in here. Let me out ‘fore God sends his flood!”
“Daddy!” yelled the woman with those two little girls. “Stop it! What’s wrong with you? You actin’ crazy!”
Pop was the first to recognize him.
"That's Cyrus—that fool dishwasher from Pharaohs," said Pop. "Just pretend you don't know him."
After Pop said it, I recognized him, too.
"He's never been wrapped too tight," said Uncle Roy. "It's our luck to have to hear him."
Another man came back with them, too. He was a preacher with a white collar around his neck, and told Cyrus, “God gave us this place to be safe, brother. You’re family needs for you to be strong.”
“Listen to your people, old man,” said a white soldier named Hancock. “We can’t chase you off that damn door all day long.”
The name patch over the black soldier’s heart read, “Scobie,” and he told the woman, “Please, you gotta keep a better eye on your father. We can’t let him outside, and he’s gonna get hurt runnin’ ‘round out of control.”
“I’ll watch him good from now on. I promise. He won’t cause no more trouble,” said the woman, starting to cry.
“Only God got the right to watch me!” said Cyrus, sitting down. “Nobody else!”
Then he closed his eyes and started singing to himself—
Oh, When the saints come marchin' in,
Oh, When the saints come marchin' in,
Lord, I'm gonna be, be, be in that number…
His voice went lower and lower, till it got swallowed up by all the noise. The two little girls were shaking, looking at their grandpa like they didn’t know who he was.
“Thank you for goin’ after him,” the woman told the preacher through her tears.
“Sometimes you look after your neighbor’s house like it was your own,” he answered.
The preacher’s family was settled in our section, too. But he moved them a couple rows closer to help keep an eye on the old man.
“See what it is, but don’t get caught up in people’s problems, Miles,” Pop said. “It’ll come back on you. I know."
"How would you know, Pop?" I asked, like he never cared about anybody but himself.
"For almost a year, my mama, brother and me bounced between shelters after our father walked out. Everybody in those places was wound up tight, and on edge almost all the time. These people in here, they ain’t had long to get used to the idea of losing what they have. When this storm really hits, some of them are gonna be more than tight. They’ll be ready to snap.”
“Our first gig was in the shelter,” my uncle said. “We was in junior high band class together and the teacher give us each a horn to take home.”
“Home?” Pop said, with his cheeks raising up. “We’d hang around the schoolyard for an hour after class, till everybody was gone. That way nobody could see where home was.”
“We was just learnin’ to play and practiced in the shelter’s rec. room,” said Uncle Roy. “Half the people livin’ there wanted to beat us over the head with those horns for the headaches we gave ‘em.”
I'd heard that all before, and wasn't in any mood for a history lesson.
"Yeah. Yeah," I said. "And nobody lived happily ever after."
Pop’s face turned hard. He looked like he wanted to boot me halfway across the Superdome for disrespecting his family that way.
Then he looked straight in my face, and told me part of the story I'd never heard.
“Some woman was hangin' wash to dry on the air vents inside the shelter when this lunatic lady livin' there started screamin' how she couldn't breathe because of it. They got to arguin' so bad it was almost funny. I don't know why our mama got in between them. Maybe she was just sick of all the goddamn noise. But the lunatic pulled a kitchen knife on the other one. Only it was our mama who got stabbed by mistake," he said, slow and even. "She didn't die from it, but she lost a lot of blood. Even after the doctors stitched her up, that wound got infected. Our mama passed away too young, and I know that stabbin' cost her some good years."
Even before he was through, I was thinking how I'd feel to see my own mother get knifed, and how I'd want to tear anybody to pieces who had a part in it.
When he finished, Pop had a look of steel in his eyes, like he'd never let anything take his home away from him again, not even a monster hurricane.