The streets flooded in my 9th Ward New Orleans neighborhood with every summer rain. Afternoon clouds would gather, seemingly from nowhere. The rains would come, creating instant splashing pools and little rivers.
We black children loved it.
The swimming pools at Pontchartrain Beach, which opened to whites in 1928, were closed to us for most of the 1950s. Lincoln Beach opened to blacks in 1956; but it was too far away for many of our parents, most of whom did not own cars. The summer rains were a blessing.
We played games, a dangerous favorite being something we called "Depth Charge." Two rows of boys would line up on opposite sides of a ditch with bricks and large rocks in hand. The aim was to splash the water and soak opponents as quickly as possible. Occasionally things went awry, such as the time a brick landed on David Shelton's hand and broke all of his fingers.
David's father did not like that. Neither did any other neighborhood parent. We never played that game again.
There was the Elam Family, which lived next door to us on North Roman Street. Mr. Elam was prosperous by the standards of black New Orleans. He was the principal of a black public elementary school; and to make more money, he worked on construction jobs with David's father during the summer.
My late father, Daniel T. Brown Sr., a science teacher in the city's segregated public school system who worked on independent research projects whenever he had the opportunity, did not make as much money as Mr. Elam and Mr. Shelton. But he always praised them for their "industriousness," and they always made him feel good by calling him "Professor Dan," or "Doctor."
My parents trusted the Elams and the Sheltons, which is why they allowed me and my siblings to ride in the cargo bed of Mr. Shelton's Chevrolet pickup truck and in Mr. Elam's super-pretty, mint-green-and-cream, 1957 Chevrolet BelAir sedan.
Man, how I loved that '57 Chevy! I couldn't wait for the rains to end on those days when Mr. Elam promised to take us for a ride to help his wife deliver laundry to the homes of rich white people in the city's better neighborhoods, where the rain waters usually drained quickly.
I wondered what it would be like to live in those big houses on wide boulevards; and sometimes I was chagrined by the discernibly superior layout and maintenance of the neighborhood grounds they occupied. But I always felt like I could rule the world in that Chevy. Mr. Elam knew it.
In my adult years, I've often suspected that my parents talked Mr. Elam into giving me a ride in that beautiful Chevy whenever possible. There was a ritual to it. Mr. Elam would make a show of asking my parents if he could take me, the youngest of the three Brown boys, to ride with him. My late mother, Lillian Gadison-Provost Brown, would give conditional consent pending my completion of household chores and reading assignments for the day. (Summer vacation was no vacation from reading in my home. Reading was mandatory. You either read, or were assigned extra chores. The choice was easy.)
The second condition was that my father would have to agree to the car ride. He always did, as long as I could answer the questions about what I had read. It was a parental scam that ultimately worked in my favor.
Mr. Elam died awhile ago, years before my parents' demise in the mid-1990s. I lost track of Mrs. Elam; but I occasionally hear something about Russell Shelton, David's brother, and a classmate of mine at what was once Holy Redeemer Elementary School of St. Louis Parish in New Orleans. (The Holy Ghost nuns had a thing for including all of a school's history in one name.)
I'm sure that their 9th Ward homes were washed away in the cruel baptismal waters of Hurricane Katrina. I know that the last home owned by my parents near Lake Pontchartrain was lost, as were all of the homes of my cousins and nephews who lived in the same neighborhood.
But no one in my family died in Katrina's fury. They escaped early -- finding shelter in family homes in upstate Alexandria, La.; Houston, Atlanta and Philadelphia. They are all educated, highly skilled people with lives rooted deeply in faith. They will endure.
Whether or not New Orleans will survive is uncertain. I have mixed feelings about its eventual fate. I loved and hated the city -- loved its music and food, literature and dance, loved my schools and all of my family and friends, loved the beauty of a big orange sun setting over the Mississippi River on a late summer afternoon.
But I've always hated the city's intractable racism and class discrimination, its grinding poverty and the desperation and crime it has long generated for more than one-third of its citizens, its chronic under-delivery of public services in black neighborhoods, its historically laissez-faire attitude toward corruption of one sort or another, and its naive belief that everything will be all right with one more Mardi Gras, one more Jazz Festival, one more party, one more gambling boat, one more parade.
It might sound insensitive in the context of the city's current tragedy; but here's hoping that the ugly New Orleans, the one I knew too well as a child and young adult, has been washed away forever. I hope for the emergence of something better -- a city where the water drains quickly, regardless of the color or economic status of the neighborhood in which the rain falls.