The entrance to Six Flags New Orleans is guarded by one man who sits in his opened door driver’s seat with headphones on, phone in hand, and upsets would be trespassers.
“Do a lot of people try to get in?” Jimmy asks after giving up trying to persuade the guard into letting us enter.
“I’ve already stopped 3 groups today.” It’s 11:30 AM.
The guard doesn’t have much to do while out here; the parkway leading to the gates is desolate. Weeds and trees have grown in between the blue fence at his passenger door’s side, over the horizon on the far side of the parkway. There’s nothing here to look at but caved pavement and weeds. He has his silence here, but it came with a cost.
“So there’s absolutely no way in, huh? Will it take money?” Jimmy’s saying it jokingly, but he’s ready to shell out if necessary.
“No, man, I can’t let you in.” He’s not aggressive, just upset that his silence was distracted.
“Alright then, thanks. Guys, next time you see Fern drive by, flag him down.” Fern had taken the RV and is doing laps around the small parkway while Jimmy tries to get us in; without the RV Jimmy figures no way out means an absolute way in. We walk to the mouth of the road joking about Fern’s first experience driving the camper.
“This is ccrraazzzzyyyyy!” Nikko mimics with two hands on an imaginary steering wheel.
Half way into our defeated walk up the street, Fern slowly pulls onto the dead end and we shuffle into the RV.
“How was the drive, Fern?”
“This thing handles like shit!” Nikko’s impression probably wasn’t far off from reality.
“I’m guessing he said no?”
“Yeah, he’s not letting us through. What do you guys think we should do?” Jimmy turns his body back to us from the passenger’s seat.
Nikko, Josh, and I don’t say anything. None of us probably think it’s our place to say what should and shouldn’t happen.
Mark sparks life back into the idea, “It would make a dope story.”
“There’s got to be another way in.” It’s what Jimmy wanted to hear, and he’s looking out the window through the overgrowth and at the park dormant on the other side.
We come to a different entrance, unprotected by a guard, with a large faded SIX FLAGS NEW ORLEANS sign. Under it, fragmented letters from a changeable sign read
“C OSED TORM”.
“I think we can get in from here. OKAY. Who wants to go? The smaller the group the better.” Nobody speaks up.
I want to go but I agree that the group going in should be small. I figure Jimmy and Mark will go and I have nothing to gain by going inside except for a few instagram photo opportunities.
“I’m in.” Mark says, cutting the silence.
“Ok, let’s go! See ya later, boys!” Jimmy says, throwing a camera strap over his neck as Mark does the same. They quickly disappear into the growth and to the other side of the fence. Fern pulls away and we head down the parkway.
“I wish I had gone…” I don’t mean to say it out loud.
“Why didn’t you?” Fern asks.
“I’m not sure.”
“Maybe for the same reason none of us did.”
It wasn’t from fear. Maybe it was.
Road water barrels have fallen into deep crevices on the left lane. An abandoned stripped paint station wagon is nearly indistinguishable from the trees and weeds growing around it. In the distance, metal giants from inside the park poke up above the tree line and sit still as days pass and the only visitors they receive are trespassers documenting their slow decay. From this view they don’t really resemble roller coasters anymore, they look like sea serpents lost at land by Katrina and left in limbo. We come to a parking lot near some home goods store and sit in the RV. Josh takes his book and lies on the bed, Fern takes to his computer, Nikko plugs his ear buds into his phone, and I sit with my own book at the kitchen table.
I moved from home in August to find quiet. It’s not that I wasn’t appreciative of the food and shelter I didn’t have to worry about while living in my father’s house, I just couldn’t take the noise anymore. The TV was always on and loud; my father’s yelling at my sister was louder. I used to talk all of the time but over the years my mouth seemed smoothed over by the constant waves of other’s noise. I had realized that I didn’t really know what silence was; outside of my mind or within. To find quiet, I began to meditate. My addictive personality worked in my favor and I, accompanied by a soothing YouTube voice, would leave my thoughts for 20 minute increments and go somewhere between closed eyes and sleep. I always thought I was dozing off during my earplug sessions, the words from the video falling away and muting in my ears, but whenever the voice would softly say “you’re coming back, beginning to feel refreshed” I would begin to focus back on his voice and reenter my folding chair, the desk, computer, and my bedroom as if by the snap of a finger from a party hypnotist. The silence was relaxing, something different than what I was used to. I wanted more, so I stopped talking so much and tried focusing on the silence between noises; in NJ this is almost impossible. After I was hired by a luxury retailer as a manager (a very noisy job) I decided that 16.00 per hour was a feasible amount to move out with (it was) and took leave to an apartment in Teaneck with Mark’s Fiancée’s brother, Ric.
Ric is a young but quiet guy. When he isn’t working, he’s playing video games. From my room, I couldn’t hear a thing and would sit in there with the silence and my cat for hours. I felt as though I were regaining a part of myself as each day slowly passed. The job was shitty but my time in the room became precious; even my cat seemed more at ease.
I had only been in the apartment for two months when, in October, NJ was rocked by hurricane Sandy; a devastating storm I was barely ready for. The night of the storm, I tried stocking up at an A&P for last minute essentials. The last minute essentials were all sold out and I was left foraging for undented vegetable soup cans and bottled water. I was the only person in the store at around 8 PM, a light drizzle had already started and though I wrote the storm off as another weatherman fumble, I quickly began to realize how wrong I was. I barely got 30 dollars’ worth of provisions: slightly dented tomato soup, the last case of bottled water, some potato chips, cat food, and a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. The storm began 5 minutes after I got to the apartment and the power went out 15 minutes later. I didn’t have a flashlight, so I used a book light to find my way around my room and to the bathroom.
The next morning the rain had slowed to a mist and other than the power outage, it didn’t look so bad from my window. Forgetting to put gas in the car the night before, I packed a bag and ventured out. Arms from trees laid all over the road, leaves practically covered all of the asphalt; a street sign was bent over and now told the sky how fast it should drive. The silence outside was only broken by police and fire wailing.
I managed to find a gas station and was surprised to see a small car line forming near the pumps. I didn’t fill up my tank, just got enough to get by. It seemed like the storm took everybody with it, roads for the most part were emptied by the flooding water. Large oaks were uprooted and blocking roads, knocking down power lines, and adding unwanted skylights to homes. Some towns were flooded to emergency levels; civil service workers rowed their way around towns looking for people who hadn’t left in time now stuck in their broken houses. Some cars were smashed in by trees, debris, or both. Most people stayed inside, counting their blessings and losses. Others were removed from their homes and placed into temporary tent communities set up by government agencies. I had wanted quiet, but not this kind. Now that silence was in every inch of air, I only wanted some kind of noise other than sirens to breathe life back onto the streets. To achieve silence, everything needed to be quieted, and it didn’t seem fair.
It amazed me, in the first days after Sandy, how easily things can come apart. Most power went out; at traffic lights people sped across lanes or inched forward, car accidents were commonplace. Order had been temporarily seized by the storm and those who were lucky enough to take all of the good soups stayed inside while others risked injury by going outside. Gina lives in an elevated section of Jersey City appropriately called “The Heights” and except for a day without power was mostly unaffected by the storm. My mornings in the apartment after the storm consisted of 30 second showers in ice cold water (I took to heating water on the stove in pots after day 2), restocking water in my bag, and leaving the apartment and its silence. I drove to her place each day; the first time holding my breath while crossing a major highway where the traffic lights had gone out, and spending the days with glorious electricity, my girlfriend, and noise. With the universities closed and my job without power, we had taken to calling the ordeal a “Hurrication”.
Most people had taken to talking about gas lines and stories surfaced of fights breaking out over people cutting into 3 hour gas lines.
The police are getting gas first. I completely understand that, but why do their 17 year old daughters need to fill up their tank, too? Why do their spouses and cousins get gas before us? I have to get to work!
The desperation in people was beginning to come out, and by day 5, most gas stations had nothing left to offer except for a cardboard sign that read “NO GAS OR WATER.” Governor Christie enforced gas rationing on the state and drivers, including myself, took to waiting every other day to sit in 3 hours of lines to fill up. On one occasion, a man from a nearby deli offered free bagels to the drivers resigned to the long wait. In that same line, a car had tried to cut its way into the front of the line. Every car honked and a few men got out of their cars and were ready to fight over inflated price gasoline but the car sped away.
“The Seaside piers are gone. I heard The Jet Star is in the ocean. It’s all so sad.”
Pictures online surfaced of a Seaside Heights roller coaster now poking out of the Atlantic; a few days later more pictures of roofs on front lawns, half of houses ripped away, all pulled into the ocean and drifting ashore or farther out. The Jet Star, a lonely monster now lying dormant in the Atlantic, became a symbol of the devastation Sandy had caused.
The state’s government was touted by the President as a success but it was glaringly obvious to residents how crippled we had become by one night of heavy storm.
I quit my job in January because of mismanagement. I moved back home defeated, wounded from my failed attempt at going it alone. I was placed in the room next to my old one. My cat acted as though she had never left, but would walk to my old door waiting for me to open it instead of the new one directly across the hallway. I came back quieter than when I had left. Silence had found New Jersey and myself and we both had troubles shaking it. It’s with me on this trip even when I want to speak. I left my things in boxes at home, covered them in cardboard. Before the trip I was looking for a job, anything to escape my silence that now permeates throughout the house. The TV is low now, my father tries not to argue. It’s what I needed but it doesn’t sound right. It’s forced on my behalf. My own storm rocked the house of its natural state.
About a month later New Jersey regained its voice and things up north returned to a semi-normal state. The southern part of the state is still in ruins and waiting for funds to flood its streets and bring back the summer homes and tourists it once prided itself on. Help is slow going, but it does come, and some of the Seaside Heights boardwalk is already under construction to be opened for the summer season.
The Six Flags parkway speaks to the devastation Katrina brought with it. Months after the storm, when nothing seemed to be done about destroyed areas of New Orleans, the slogan “What help?” began to surface to contrast the state and federal voices promising a barely existent relief program. The noise in New Jersey, after about a month of silence, was brought back to the casual noisiness of daily routines. This parkway has remained silenced ever since. When the quiet came, it never left. It was never asked to leave. Instead it was given a home here and saddled up with nature to give it peace without people. The French Quarter is noisy, a beautiful kind of noisy, but the notes are having trouble carrying themselves to the 9th ward, or the Six Flags Parkway, or anywhere else in the areas where silence is no longer a temporary escape.
When we drove in, the destruction from Katrina was noticeable from the elevated highway. To our right upon entering the city, houses lay in rows of ruin, boarded up, empty. I didn’t immediately make the connection between the 8 year old storm and the houses; I initially figured the dilapidation had a lot to do with increasing poverty. After passing street after street, constantly looking into darkness from caved in roofs, the truth of the storm hit me, though not as hard as it had those houses or the people who once lived in them.
Last night, in the French Quarter, we had watched a big band swing through some songs at The Spotted Cat. Though the French Quarter seemed to find a way to pump blood back into its’ heart, some parts of New Orleans still held their breath. 8 years after the colossal and controversial storm, buildings still barely stand, boarded up and vandalized.
Our drunken walk back to the RV forced us to acknowledge the silence a few blocks outside of the French Quarter. The shouts from the clubs, from the mistresses, and even the howls from people in suits disappeared into the abandonment of greater New Orleans. The heart is pumping but so much of the body has remained paralyzed.
This morning, before our trip to Six Flags, we passed through the Garden District; an absolutely beautiful section of New Orleans lined with large gated Victorian era homes. Large oaks line the islands of grass between roadways allowing drivers shade from the sun, their trunks tightly wrapped with blue, purple, yellow, and red seeds; their branches refoliating with the same colorful glow, dangling beads from their outstretched fingertips and letting them fall onto grass and road underneath. On the properties, lavender peeks out from buds of magnolia trees ready to add more color in a month or so. Ivy grows up some of the large homes, up to second floor balconies, and over front doors. Streets here aren’t abandoned. The impact from the storm was minor and they’ve been cross pollinated by the teaming life from the French Quarter.
After hours of silence in the RV, Fern looks at his phone and then to us, “Jimmy just texted me, they’re one their way back.”
“Should we get going then?” Josh asks.
“Na, let’s wait 10 minutes or so and then head out.”
Another 10 minutes later Fern relays another text he just received from Jimmy, “They got caught! Jimmy just texted me!” He pauses for a moment then says, “Do you think he’s joking?”
“Na, probably not.” I say, looking up from my book. Of course he is, there’s no way authorities would let him squeeze out a quick text before handcuffing him, but it is fun to watch Fern panic.
“What do we do?” Fern’s voice matches the face he’s making, he’s nervous, “I knew this wasn’t a good idea. Oh god. What do we do?”
“What can we do?” I’m feeding the fire.
Josh sits up on the bed, “I don’t think they got caught. If they did they’ll get a phone call, right? They’ll call us.”
Fern is staring at his phone waiting for instructions to help raise bail. His phone lights up again and almost falls out of his hand from his attempt to get the message as quickly as possible.
“Oh god. He just texted ‘LOL’. Fucking Jimmy! What an asshole! I was nervous!”
Nikko slips into the driver’s seat while Fern calms his nerves and we take a few more laps around the parkway while waiting for them to emerge from the bushes.
I don’t know if this area will ever be restored but while the sun is setting in between steep drops of the rollercoaster’s spine I can’t help but think how beautiful it looks and feel bad. We swerve around the potholes and broken glass, pass piles of concrete blocks and rubble taken from the park and left on the side of the road as a memorial, the abandoned car potted plant, the everywhere overgrowth, and all the other reminders of what it takes to achieve silence, externally at least. It all seems to reflect perfectly with the setting sun, the blue and orange sky; light reflecting off of the motionless ferris wheel resembles a giant sunflower. The overgrowth shadows the rubble and pox marked road, the car, and only showcase the deep oranges and deep blues of the sky. Maybe the damage is deliberate; maybe it rearranged itself over the past 8 years to cast some beauty on an otherwise powerfully negative sight.
Mark and Jimmy appear where we left them, under the symbolic Six Flags sign, and excitedly enter the RV.
“We got some sick shots!” Jimmy’s looking down at the camera’s viewfinder, shuffling through the potential GIFs they got out of the great adventure.
“You scared the hell out of us!” Fern smiles. I guess if it makes him feel better about his own reaction.
Jimmy laughs, “Aww, did you think we really got caught Fern? We’re you ready to come bail us out of New Orleans jail? Sorry Fern, you’re still stuck with us for a couple more days!” He pats his shoulder.
“What was it like in there?” Fern quickly kicks into interviewer mode. Their time in Six Flags is going to be the last piece of Fern’s road trip series with Mark and Jimmy, but there’s a genuine interest in what they saw laced into his opening question.
Mark answers “It was really eerie. I don’t know; it was a strange feeling. Really quiet. You never go to an amusement park and don’t see people.”
Jimmy continues, “Yeah, there were stuffed animals everywhere. We saw another group taking pictures and filming for a documentary of the place.”
Once they’re done with the interview, we take a look at the pictures from inside. The abandonment and vandalism reflects that outside the park while the RV soars out of New Orleans and into Texas during the night. I don’t know if New Orleans will ever get its voice back, or if lesser damaged New Jersey will entirely. I don’t know that I will, but there’s some beauty in the silence I never managed to see after the storm until today. Maybe I can rearrange my own rubble into the sun, force myself to look at the sky instead. It won’t make sun shine every day, but when it does, even the disaster can be something worth looking at as beautiful.