_After returning home to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, nineteen-year-old Daniel Hoppes reacquaints himself with his city by touring it on two wheels._
Immediately when he returns to River Ridge, which Katrina mostly misses except for some broken trees in the street, the boy pedals his bike straight to the levee, only a mile from his parent’s house. The river drifts by on its way to the gulf. The boy sits on some rocks by the shore, watches the river float along, reads. You can’t swim there. One day, the river splashes up and soaks his book, wakes him up, the book lying abandoned in his lap. The next day, instead of going to sit down, the boy keeps his bike up there on the path that stretches across the top of the levee. North to south. He starts pedaling north where great cities supposedly rise up along the river with skyscrapers, thousands of windows glancing down to the street below. That’s Chicago, he guesses. But the furthest the boy pedals is to Destrehan, which smells thick with the grain elevators and where broken telephones hang off the hook in useless phone booths in empty parking lots.
Eventually, the boy yanks and tugs his bike up the steep slope of the levee, and at the top, caught in weary breaths, he looks over his shoulder. A bridge pries through the clouds toward the south. The Huey P. Long Bridge. The boy props his feet on his pedals and spins them around and around and again until his tire pops at the end of the levee, at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans. That evening, his mother drives him back to River Ridge. He pumps his tire up again and returns the next morning with Bob Dylan’s, _Desire_ playing in his earphones.
The boy has five or seven hours to venture around the city before his New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) class starts. He’ll wander through the maze of KaBOOM! but find no book to pull off the shelves. So he might veer off to the music store uptown, The Mushroom, where he’d pick through the t-shirts and posters, before he’ll return downtown with nothing but the book bag strapped to his back. At a corner deli, he’ll order a grilled cheese, then wander from the drink aisle to the chip aisle for ten minutes as steam rises and they cook. He’ll sit down on a ledge in the dog park across the street from KaBOOM! with his book bag in his lap like a tray and eat lunch. A man in a long, black trench coat passes on the sidewalk outside the fence. He asks for change because he’s had a rough night. The boy digs his fingers into his wallet, scoops out a couple quarters. They talk for a minute, the boy tapping his fingers against his hip as if waiting for something to happen. Then the man tells the boy to be careful and they wave goodbye. The boy stretches, repacks his schoolbag. Then he uses his schoolbag as a pillow, lies down in the grass. The sky darkens. A raindrop wakes the boy after only ten minutes. He stretches. His bike is not there anymore. He left it unlocked on the other side of the park and someone took it.
Three bikes are stolen. His aunt tells him it’s dangerous downtown. The boy refuses to believe it. A cousin of his says she’s scared to ride the bus in New Orleans, or the RTA (Regional Transit Authority). But she calls it “Riding Through Africa,” as though the city bus is a safari van, lions and spearmen jogging and hollering alongside it, throwing rocks at the windows, chewing at the tires. All this through clumps of vines where the paths dipped in sudden quicksand. The safari van, with a gush of smoke out its tailpipe, keeps lurching forward and stopping in jagged circles throughout the jungle.
The boy, however, keeps pedaling, his empty satchel zipped and strapped on his back, up past mansions in the Garden District, down beneath ghetto balconies that hang like loose teeth. The bicyclist pedals right across the city map that he’s stapled onto his bedroom wall. As he pedals past, sometimes front doors crack and garages ache up and open. He peeks inside, eyes an empty warehouse or blinks at a winking television.
He never tells his family or anyone what he does in the city in part because there is little to tell. A few times, though, it does seem like there are spearmen jealously guarding their homes. On his way to NOCCA, pedaling down Esplanade Avenue, the boy looks up and down as he passes a big public school where the bell has just rung. Hundreds of kids are chatting as they head home. A little boy, no more than seven years old, stands in the street near parked cars as the bicyclist passes. He sees the kid staring at him, his face stretching taut like marble, intense and angry. As the boy passes, the kid holds up his palm flat and slaps the boy in the chest as the boy is about to nod to the kid. Another day, on St. Phillip Street, a boy and a girl, at least nine or ten years old, laze near the big puddle of a pothole. When the boy approaches, the two bend down and pick up gravel, which they throw in the boy’s direction. Further down St. Philip, on another ride, outside another school, the boy is again listening to Dylan, behind his headphones, sing “Desolation Row.” Kids line up, seated against the fence of the abandoned Louis Armstrong Park as they wait for the school bus. As he passes, kids start screaming. He hears them faintly outside Dylan’s voice. One kid, about thirteen years old, starts chasing the boy who frowns, mutes the song, and pedals a little faster so that his schoolbag flies from out of the running kid’s clutch. When he unmutes his music, after a few more frowns cast behind him, he hears Dylan sneering something like: “And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning/ ‘You Belong to Me I Believe’/ And someone says, ‘You’re in the wrong place, my friend/ You better leave.’”
**Daniel Hoppes** was born in a New Orleans suburb in 1990; he’s currently moved to Portland.
Photo by “holga new orleans”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/xhero/337953711/in/set-72157600229608994/s via Flickr