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Looking for Charley

by Maggie Van Ostrand
Maggie Van Ostrand
My friend Charley is about 45 and he's lived in New Orleans a long time, though he wasn't born there. He knows how to do lots of things and one of the things he does that he likes best is to sit in on piano sometimes at a neighborhood jazz joint. His house is a few blocks from the 17th street levee, right there by beautiful Lake Pontchartrain. He wasn't born in New Orleans, but there's no place else on earth he'd rather live.

Charley is a pharmacist for the drugstore chain, Rite Aid. Aside from that, he’s one of those fellas who gets things done. You don’t know how he finds the time, or how he knows the people he knows, he just gets things done. He's full of ideas and is the most enthusiastic person you could ever meet, living life to the fullest and enjoying every second.

I first met Charley up in Willits, California, at Ridgewood Ranch, home of the great Thoroughbred racehorse, Seabiscuit, and we got to know one another pretty well. I guess that's how Charley knows so many people -- he just starts talking to you and the first thing you know, it's as though you've always known him.

Charley invited me to join him for dinner at the ranch of a couple who lived in Willits. Betty’s a retired jockey masseuse, and Jack’s a racehorse trainer, but those are not their real names. We ate barbecue and had a look at some fuzzy puppies just born in the bedroom closet. We talked about horses and race tracks and jockeys and puppies. We laughed a lot. You'd think we'd all gone to school together, instead of just meeting each other.

Not long after that, Charley and I started a grass-roots movement to get Seabiscuit on a stamp, and handed out petitions to friends and strangers, with samples of letters to write, and got people off their couches and to the post office. The movement grew to include a landscape architect in Boston, a soy bean farmer in Arkansas, a ham canner in Lexington, and a bunch of other fine folks all over the country. See, we thought it was time to have a real hero on a stamp, and Seabiscuit, who overcame all odds to become a champion, filled the bill in these times where heroes are desperately needed, dead or alive.

When I was in New Orleans for the 2004 National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference, Charley picked me up at Louis Armstrong Airport and gave me a tour around his unique and magical city. It’s unique because it’s 12 feet below sea level, its religion is a mixture of Catholic and Voodoo, and the people welcome you like a long-lost friend. When I say New Orleans is the greatest city, it really means something because I was born and raised in New York and we wouldn't say such a thing lightly.

On his day off, Charley works at the aids hospice where volunteers are hard to come by. “Sometimes people need more than medicine; they need a good listener,” he says.

Charley could make me laugh the kind of laughing that you haven’t done since high school where you can’t stop even when you try and your eyes water and your stomach hurts. That kind.

When previous warnings have been issued in the past for other hurricanes with other names, Charley didn't leave because he lived right by the levee and had never even had any water in his house. He was not an alarmist and he just didn't want to leave New Orleans.

When Katrina hit the gulf coast and I couldn’t get any answer at Charley’s house by the Lake to make sure he would evacuate the city with his dog named Bear and his two cats, I figured he probably was over at the aids hospice, or making sure the people whose prescriptions he filled at Rite Aid had their medications, or something else noble like that.

But the 17th Street levee failed to hold back the waters of Lake Pontchartrain and it got a 200 foot hole in it and collapsed right by Charley’s house. I got a real bad feeling.

Jack and Betty, the ranchers up in Willits California, said they hadn’t been able to get hold of Charley either. We couldn’t get through on his cell, his home phone or the Rite Aid in Kenner where he worked.

Another friend, a long-time New Orleanean whose computer-expert husband had been transferred to Washington DC just a few weeks before Katrina smashed in, was able to find Charley’s house on her computer via satellite.

It didn’t look good for Charley, she said. His house was completely under water, all the way up to the roof. Keep hoping, she said, maybe he got out in time, or was in the attic with his pets waiting to be rescued.

I reported Charley as missing to the U.S. Coast Guard, and listed him on craigslist in New Orleans, the NOLA website, Times-Picayune missing persons website, Rite Aid’s main office and anyplace else I could think of. We would've put his picture on a milk carton if we could've.

Rite Aid told me that many of their employees in the gulf states had been phoning in to report. Charley had not called.

By Thursday, in my mind, Charley was a goner. He had been trying to save others, and had been himself caught by the merciless flood.

Constantly in touch with Jack and Betty, our conversations were always the same. "Have you heard anything?" "No, have you?" "No."

Then, we got a God shot. I received an email from Rite Aid that Charley had just reported in. They gave me his new phone number. I had to calm myself before calling. You can imagine how it was to hear his voice after all that anxiety.

Charley had made it out of New Orleans at 4:00 a.m. Sunday August 28th. He took only his pets, cell phone, and insurance papers and drove north. He forgot his address book. His cell phone wasn't working. He was unable to contact anyone until he reached South Carolina. I think he said those things, but the reality is that all I could absorb was that he was alive. I don't think I really heard a word he said after "Hello."

The moral of the story is not to give up hope, no matter what. People are being located and reunited with their loved ones every day.

New Orleans will be as great as ever, especially if the politicians get out of the way and let the people of New Orleans return and rebuild it themselves.

I know this to be true because Charley said so, and he's already planning to go back.

Copyright Maggie Van Ostrand

"A Balloon In Cactus"
September 12, 2005 column

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