Sometimes we’d have a teacher tell us the city wouldn’t be standing in a hundred years. Sometimes it was less. The water, they told us, was rising. The wetlands were shrinking. It was all just a matter of time. Eventually there would be nothing to keep the Gulf from our door. We were below sea level, and that means the water wants to come in. It's simple physics. One day there would come a great wet knocking, and New Orleans was going to sink, and there would be no going back.
The teachers would drop this bomb on us, maximize the doom-and-gloom, then always weirdly backpedal. They'd try to reassure each of us scared-shitless fourth graders that the sky wasn’t really falling, or at least not anytime soon. They'd put an emphasis on how long all of it would take. The danger wasn’t immediate, they insisted. Fifty years. A hundred. Maybe more.
It never felt like any consolation to me, though. I’d look out the classroom window and see the parking lot, some nearby houses. I could imagine a giant boot heel of dirty water grinding it all down to nothing. I saw it in my head, pieced it together from bits of whatever shipwreck footage I’d absorbed through too much time with the Discovery Channel. The shape of things would be largely the same, I figured. It would just be emptier. Every surface worn to shit and barnacles. There wouldn’t be any of that sad lunar beauty you see in photos of a wrecked Titanic. At the place where the Mississippi meets the Gulf of Mexico, the water is brackish and sad. It is a brown and ugly thing, not a drop of blue in sight.
No, it would be more as if my city were left steeping in a teacup, until the foundations turned to rust and rot. I let the image of it sink to the bottom of my mind. Somehow, it made me feel better, like I had control. It was a hard lesson to absorb as a ten-year old, so I processed to it the only way I knew how: with my imagination. I tried to see it in my skull. I daydreamed of a terrible world, a drowned world. The image in my head was bleak, no question, but at least it wasmine.
I think of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) hearing the same thing from her own teacher, in an early scene from Beasts of the Southern Wild. The classroom is different—swap the linoleum with slats of wood, throw in a caged owl and plenty of crawfish—but the lesson is the same.
"Any day now, the fabric of the universe is coming unraveled," says Miss Bathsheba (Gina Montana). "Waters going to rise. Everything south of the levee is going under." She props a leg up on the table, reveals a tattoo on her thigh. It’s like something you’d see scribbled on a stone wall a million years ago: crude figures with spears, fighting even cruder beasts.
"This here is an aurochs, a fierce, mean creature that walked the face of the earth back when we all lived in the caves. And they would gobble those cave babies down, right in front of their cave baby parents. And the cavemans, they couldn’t even do nothing about it. Cause they was too poor, and too small. Who up in here thinks that the cavemans was sitting around, crying like a bunch of pussies?"
It’s a pitiless lesson, but a necessary one, because when you live on the Gulf of Mexico, you’re living with the constant possibility of destruction. You have to be ready for it. There’s always another hurricane season on the way. It’s three solid months of nature hurling 400 mile wide bowling balls of unstoppable wind and rain at you. Sometimes they fizzle out. Sometimes they hit you. Sometimes they hit someone else. You find yourself hoping they do hit someone else, and then you feel like shit. There’s nothing quite as strange and guilt inducing as the days before a hurricane lands, when everyone you know is just watching and waiting, following the Weather Channel nonstop, noting every update in the storm’s projected path. You find yourself wishing it veers off at the last second, but you're fully aware that you being spared means that Mississippi or Alabama or Florida will get hit instead. And those people will be the ones forced to deal with the fallout. Because someone is going to get hit. Someone always gets hit. And there’s not much you can do about it, except build levees, build pumps. Stay tuned in, and when the meteorologist in the heavy-duty raincoat getting knocked on his ass by successive gusts of wind tells you it’s heading your way, you run. And afterwards, when it’s all over, you try to rebuild.
But for Hushpuppy, her father Wink (Dwight Henry) and the other residents of The Bathtub, there are no levees, no pumps. They’re on the other side, unprotected. It’s the front lines of a war against nature, and nature tends not to lose. Wink however, refuses to give up. The storm comes, and they’re going to weather it. The plan is simple. Hushpuppy sits in her ‘boat’—an open, beat up suitcase—with a floatie on each arm. “If the water gets real high, we going to float to the roof, we going to bust through the ceiling, and we going to ride away, okay?” Wink tells her, and he couldn’t be more confident. Hushpuppy hears the thunder, a roar through the window like a stampede of aurochs. The sound is terrifying. Wink charges into the rain. “I’ma show you. I’ma take care of that storm. Look at me Hushpuppy!” he yells up at the falling water. Gun in one hand, bottle of liquor in the other, he’s firing wildly into the air like some shotgun-toting Lear.
But for all his bravery, the rain doesn’t stop.
I was eighteen when the hurricane hit. I say “the hurricane,” because to any New Orleanian that experienced Katrina, there’s really just the one.
It was the summer before my freshman year of college. I remember carrying taped-up boxes into an elevator. It was the weekend of orientation at Tulane. My roommate Matt and I were dumping our last possessions into our dorm room. Soon we’d be all moved in, and college would officially begin. Presumably there would be some kind of big green light, maybe fireworks, and then voila: adulthood, independence, or I don’t know, some kind of something. Things would be different at least, shiny and new. That much was certain, and I was nervous about all of it.
We went down to our cars, where the last of the stuff was, and someone official-looking told us orientation was being postponed. There was a hurricane on the way, and they’d called a mandatory evacuation. Matt and I just kind of shrugged. It’s New Orleans, these things happen. We'd both been there all our lives, almost two decades of this same routine. There was nothing special about an evacuation. You just leave for a few days, stay with friends in Baton Rouge or East Texas, or Mississippi. The whole thing blows over, and then you go back to your life.
I tell Matt I’ll see him Monday. I don’t see him for maybe six months.
You could call what they’re sailing on an ark, but that would be generous. It’s a truck bed strapped to a propeller. Wink and Hushpuppy steer it through an expanse of flat, brown water. A few lucky animals have taken to high ground, stranded on tiny islands, surrounded by the tops of some of the taller trees, and floating pieces of tin roofing. This is what the storm has left behind.
Wink and Hushpuppy lean off the edge of the boat/truck, and he teaches her how to pluck fish from the water bare-handed. You can tell he’s basically prepping her for doomsday. That might seem excessive, but for these people, whose lives are so deeply rooted in a now-vanished community, that’s exactly what it is.
Throughout the film there's a tendency for characters to refer to The Bathtub in cosmic terms, talking about this small collection of shacks as if it spans the width and breadth of the known universe. In many ways it does. If you've never stepped outside it, even a single room qualifies as a universe. And Hushpuppy has never left The Bathtub. She's brushed its outskirts, but that's all. There's an early scene where she and Wink sit in their boat staring at a massive oil refinery on the other side of the levee, a knot of steel and pipework, hard lines and noxious smoke. It’s the opposite of The Bathtub in every way, and the two just can't understand it. Why would anyone want to be there, and not here? The Bathtub is a place where a celebration can spring up at any moment. The opening scenes are a testament to that wildness, a sprawl of quick cuts, brass horns and fireworks, lights popping into the sky like newborn constellations. A voice says, "Me and my daddy, we stay right here. We who the Earth is for," and the little girl from The Bathtub rushes toward the camera, a sparkler burning in each hand, so bright you could mistake them for a pair of stars.
But the thing about stars is, they all eventually burn out.
"That’s my beautiful place under that water," says Wink. The Bathtub is gone and the water isn’t receding. The levees that protected everyone on the other side, what Hushpuppy calls "the dry world," is keeping the water right where it is, right on top of The Bathtub, and the salt is slowly scorching away whatever is still left down there.
It was on my way to Baltimore, to stay with my grandparents, that I started getting the first messages from friends. The phones hadn’t been working for a few days after the storm hit, but now we could at least text. Seemed most everyone had evacuated to Baton Rouge. Matt was there, and he told me he'd be staying there for the foreseeable future. No one really knew when or if we’d get to go home again. All we knew was what we’d all seen on TV, that New Orleans was well and truly fucked.
Sometime after getting these texts, sitting in the backseat of my parents’ minivan, it finally sank in how drastically everything had changed, and in such a short amount of time. A blink, and the world had turned upside down. Every expectation I’d entertained about what my life was going to be like was suddenly put on hold, or thrown out altogether. Most of the people I cared about were now a thousand miles away, starting new lives in a new city, while I was headed toward an indefinite internment in my grandparents’ basement. It felt like I was marching off to prison. I could feel myself turning into a frog in a mason jar.
I’ve never in my life felt so helpless, before or since. I was confronted for the very first time with just how absolutely I lacked any control over my own life, and how, in this respect, I was no different than any other human being on the planet.
We are all still those tiny cavemen, and there’s always some giant aurochs coming to gobble us up. “When you're small, you gotta fix what you can” says Hushpuppy, and I know exactly what she means. I knew seven years before ever seeing this film, learned that lesson while staring into a clamshell phone in the back of a silver minivan. I learned that control is an illusion. It feels real, feels weighty, but only because it’s habitual. We get used to the world we move through. We get comfortable in our lives, our cities, day in and day out. But that world we cling to can disappear in the time it takes a drop of water to cover the distance from cloud to pavement. We are, each and every one of us, so damn small. All it takes is a little wind and rain, and everything you’ve ever known, everything that defines you, is gone. But at least, we share this frailty. There’s some consolation in that. We can deal with our cosmic tininess. We can help each other, and we can build ourselves back up. Try again, and try harder.
After losing her home, and with her father chronically ill, Hushpuppy heads out to find her mother. She meets a cook on a boat that stages some kind of floating burlesque. Is this woman really her mother? It’s impossible to say, but she dispenses the toughest kind of maternal advice.
"Let me tell you something, when you a child, people tell you that life is gonna be all happy and hunky dory and all that bullshit, but I'm here to tell you that it's not, so you need to get that out your head right now. Because yeah, life's a big ol' feast. But you? You ain't nothing but a stupid little waitress. One day everything that on your plate gonna fall on the floor. Ain't nobody gonna be there to pick it up for you. One day, it's going to be all on you. So smile girl. Ain't nobody want a pity party ass woman."
It's the advice that runs like an undercurrent through the entire film, which is that it's time to grow up.
I realized there was no point feeling sorry for myself. I had to work with what I was given. So my friends were gone, alright. So I’d be alone, fine. I decided to lean into it. Turns out you can get a lot done when you’re alone. I didn’t enroll in any of the local colleges. I took the semester off, stayed in that tiny little basement, and filled it with books. I was there for months. I barely went outside. The creative side I’d been halfheartedly nurturing all these years—little more than a social affectation until now, a tool to make me seem more interesting to anyone I wanted approval from—finally got the attention it deserved. I dove into it completely. Writing and drawing stopped being my hobbies, and became my religion. I couldn't control the world, couldn't dictate terms to the weather, but I was still the boss of myself. There were a few things I did still have control over, like my values, my priorities, what I did with my free time. I didn't want to waste a second. Life is short, and precious, and I wanted mine to have meaning. I just wanted to be good at something.
The final shot of the film always makes me cry. The remaining citizens of The Bathtub marching toward who knows where, over a road half-beaten with waves, Hushpuppy in front, everyone waving ragged flags, their faces wrapped simultaneously in sorrow and steel and triumph. Ultimately, those are all the same thing. One stage of grief flows into the next, all the way down to acceptance. Losing something is hard, it's always hard, but it's also the only way we really grow. "When it all goes quiet behind my eyes," says Hushpuppy, "I can see everything that made me. I'm just a little piece of a big, big universe."
I came back to New Orleans a different person. I spent the next five years there. Went back to school, and eventually graduated. I did my best to blend in, spending a lot of that time with my friends. We'd do what we always did, go drinking on the levee, or down in the French Quarter. I'd sweat through my t-shirt, sip from a brown paper bag. But most of the time I was alone. I learned to like it. A lot of my friendships began to wither, and I let them. It sounds sad, because losing people you like is sad, but I still see those years as the most fruitful of my life. Not many people can say they have a clear purpose in this world, a role they've chosen for themselves, but I could. My writing and drawing sustained me. Books kept me going. I felt saved. Lean and loose, like a wild animal, and always pointed in one direction. I never stopped moving, haven't since. And it was that damn storm that set me on my way.
In so many ways, I owe that storm, and my poor sunken city, for making me the person I am. On a good day I'll find myself actually glad it happened, which is an absolutely selfish thing to admit, considering how it took so much from so many people. I know I'm lucky. I know I was spared. But then I'll stop, and think about my own years of self-imposed loneliness, the flashes of bitterness and resentment I'll randomly feel towards other "happier" people. I think about how it has taken me a very long time to establish a healthy relationship with another person, because of all the trouble I have believing people are capable of sticking around, or that anything good can really last. I think about how I keep a little duffle bag packed at all times, just in case I have to take off at a moment's notice. I think about that, all of it, and I think back to that storm, and all my years in that sad wet city, and know that the good and the bad always travel hand in hand. When the aurochs is bearing down on you, it's up to you how you react. You can let it trample you, or hold your ground, stare it down like Hushpuppy, and let whatever happens make you stronger. Because the world will give just as much as it takes.
"You're my friend kind of," says the little girl to the beast. And she's right.