Riding our bikes to the Muses parade last week, some friends and I passed one of the parking lot attendants waiving a flag to attract customers. He looked at us, smiled, and yelled Who Dat! Of course we laughed and yelled Who Dat! back at him and continued on our way. It didn’t matter that football season was already over.
That spontaneous but somewhat ritualized exchange with someone we didn’t know suddenly threw me back to the fall of 2005. At that point, we were all rushing, stumbling, or drifting back into our badly damaged city. We didn’t know who was back and who was lost. When you did see a friend or neighbor or familiar face, you didn’t know what they had been through. Had they lost their house? Had they lost relatives? Were they living somewhere else and just back visiting or taking care of business?
In that environment, everyone developed another spontaneous but also ritualized exchange. Upon seeing a friend or neighbor for the first time — or just standing with strangers in a long line at the one open bank branch — we would ask each other: How’d you do? That was it. Everyone knew the reference.
It gave us a safe way to break through to the potentially unspeakable or to the happy news that lay on the other side of the question. You never knew if the response would be “we lost my mom”, “we lost our house and my sisters house”, or “we made out ok”.
But asking the question let the other person know that you were a part of the community. You weren’t an outsider who might not be ready for the answer. They knew you weren’t asking in the same way people all over the country ask ‘How are you today?’ — not really wanting to know. They knew that you cared. Even if you hadn’t known them before the flood, you genuinely cared about what they had been through and how they were putting things back together.
Now, four and a half years later, there is another, much happier way we are letting people know we are part of the community. A simple Who Dat! and a smile. To my mind there couldn’t be a more beautiful echo. The closing bookend to a shared tragedy and a testament to the rebirth of a vibrant community.