Goin’ Back To New Orleans

by Brian Clarey

‘“Wait ’til you see the lakefront,’” Atom says.

We’re at the airport, the one renamed for Louis Armstrong back in the ’90s, loading our stuff into Atom’s trunk. From the tiny windows on the plane we saw the FEMA tarps on the roofs, casting them a joyous shade of blue that has become ‘— along with purple, gold and green ‘— one of the official hues of the city. We saw the ruined roof of the Superdome, now two-toned like a black and white cookie, under which unspeakable acts by desperate people took place in the days following the storm. And we saw the enormous expanse of Lake Pontchartrain bisected by the Causeway that crosses it to the North Shore, calm and blue from above with boats leaving frothy wakes on the surface and people clustered in groups on its shores.

But at 9:45 a.m. on August 29, 2005, this body of water turned hostile, crashing through the wall atop the 17th Street Canal and turning the tawny Lakeview neighborhood to a toxic soup bowl.

This was not the only engineering failure on that day, but it was one of the worst ‘— water flowed through this breach and inundated huge chunks of the city faster than water rising in a bathtub, sending people to their attics with chainsaws and hatchets (and, I heard, pocketknives) to cut through the roofs. The unlucky ones succumbed to the rising waters. The lucky ones’… well’… there weren’t too many lucky ones. Even the survivors had to deal, and are still dealing, with loss of property and way of life.

But we’re on more or less dry ground now with Atom and Nathalie, whom some Greensboro residents may remember as the handsome couple who sought refuge in our city for six months or so before they felt the irresistible pull of the Crescent City. They’re my friends. It turns out I have lots of friends left down here. It doesn’t surprise me. Once you love life in New Orleans with all your heart and soul, nothing else will do.

And a quick word about attribution: we don’t use last names in New Orleans, often because we don’t know them even with people we’ve been around our whole lives. But first names work just fine down here, and in a pinch ‘“Darlin’,’” ‘“Sweetheart’” or ‘“Baby’” will do.

On the ride from the airport we pass the 17th Street Canal and we can see the neighborhoods that exist well below the waterline. When I lived here cabbies would point this out to gawking tourists on their way into town, this aquatic Sword of Damocles, this constant reminder that we were all just one serious rainstorm away from obliteration. It made the tourists nervous but the locals used to laugh about it, one more absurdity of life in New Orleans.

Of course, no one’s laughing now.

The road to Lakeview is clogged with poorly driven cars. ‘“Mexicans,’” Nathalie tells me, who seem to have replaced blacks for the time being as the city’s scapegoats. The date palms have been stripped of fronds and the once-lush magnolia trees retain just a fraction of their waxy green leaves. When we reach the neighborhood, the ‘“Lakeview’” sign, once a proud proclamation of a privileged area in one of the most poverty-stricken cities in the country, is surrounded by clumps of brown weeds and the letters are faded from both the scorching Louisiana sun and also the floodwaters, which reached higher than 10 feet in some parts of this neighborhood.

But more visually striking is the damage to the homes, the price points of which would have once started in the mid-six-figure range. You can see the watermark, left like soup skin on the side of a pot, sometimes a few feet off the ground, sometimes a few feet over our heads. Some homes are crushed like accordions, some crumbled like cardboard. The sturdy brick ones have been hollowed out by gusts of water; some of the wooden ones, built in the New Orleans style on top of concrete blocks, have been lifted from their moorings and pushed to the interior of the block. Some are reduced to piles of rubble. There are FEMA trailers in many front yards ‘— this is a neighborhood on a long, slow road to recovery

Atom’s been working days out here gutting houses when he’s not tending bar, but the frequency with which he sees the damage does not blunt its affect on his psyche.

‘“It still makes me cry when I come out here,’” he says. ‘“When the waterline’s up to the ceiling’… it’s all these people and it’s all their belongings and they’re mush. You can’t salvage these people’s things. There was this old lady and she was looking for her deceased husband’s Purple Heart from World War II. I found it for her it, but just the medal part. The rest was mush.’”

We pass by a neutral ground near the canal, once a grassy divider between well-traveled roads now reduced to a dump site and parking lot for heavy machinery, and Atom pulls the car near the breach that allowed so much of the lake into this neighborhood. The home right near it, once a gay pink stucco and brick domicile, bore the brunt of the flow. Now an entire corner of it is gone ‘— gone ‘— and the roof is twisted and buckled like a sick joke.

Across the street the Army Corps of Engineers have placed a temporary steel band-aid over the failed section of levee wall. There are no workmen here, no machinery, and the area by the girders is not roped off. We can walk right up and touch it if we like.

The next hurricane season starts on June 1, 19 days from right now. And counting.

Friday afternoon at the Old Absinthe House on the corner of Bourbon Street and Bienville and it’s hard to tell that the city received a near-fatal blow less than a year ago. Under vintage NFL helmets that hang from the ceiling the bar is three, four, five deep and the bartenders sling sazeracs, Ramos gin fizzes and the house drink, the Absinthe House frappe, to the tourists while the local professional crowd, a mainstay in this barroom for generations, sticks to vodka drinks and beers. Some of them have been drinking since the hours-long liquid lunch at Galatoires, a downtown tradition that still thrives.

The walls are thick with business cards ‘— it’s another custom to slap one on there after you’ve caught your buzz ‘— and the urinal trough in the men’s room carries a load of ice that’s replenished throughout the afternoon. A guy in a seersucker suit rubs his eyes as he exits the restroom into the fray.

At the bar a Lucky Dog vendor in a candy-cane striped shirt who goes by the handle Shadowhawk keeps an eye out the window on his hot dog cart while he orders a beer. He’s not from around here in the geographical sense ‘— he came here about eight months ago, he says, just after the waters receded and they started to let people back in ‘— but there’s something about him that makes him fit in just fine with the street people of the French Quarter, something passionate and illogical and just a little bit insane.

‘“I don’t know if you believe in spirits,’” he says, ‘“but the spirit world called me here. I’m not here for the people, I’m here for the spirits.’”

Life is such at this place and moment in time that his declaration raises nary an eyebrow.

Goldie runs back and forth behind the bar. She’s my friend and former bartending partner and host for the weekend (providing I’m willing to share the bed with a dog named Turkey and another one named Big).

It’s good to see her. She, like everyone else who lived here before the flood, has her own tale of survival, evacuation and exile: a few weeks spent on the Jersey shore with her boyfriend and the dogs before answering the undeniable pull of the city she’s always called home.

She had a job within days; they’re always looking for good bartenders in New Orleans and Goldie has been practicing the craft since she was 14. Since then it’s been more or less life as usual for her down here.

We join with Atom and Nathalie at NOLA, one of Emeril Lagasse’s restaurants in the Quarter and we eat seven courses while mule-drawn carriages pass by the windows: an amuse bouche of cold smoked salmon salad on butter crostini; a barbecue pork tortilla flavored with stout beer; a hangar steak with a cheese soufflé; a pan-fried crispy crab cake; stuffed hoisin wings; Emeril’s barbecue shrimp with rosemary biscuits.

In between courses I run over to the bar to talk to Lori, a woman with whom I worked at a bar called Rosey’s Big Easy back in 1991. It’s been long years since I’ve seen her.

‘“Yeah, I came back,’” she says. ‘“I went to Sarasota and spent three days at the beach. I came back because my apartment didn’t flood, because I couldn’t find a job [in Florida]. I came back because I could, basically. But a lot of people are just gone. When you live in a disaster area you walk a fine line between denial and’….’”

She shrugs her shoulders. There is no flip side to denial.

The Isle of Denial. The Sliver by the River. The Bubble. That’s what locals are calling the New New Orleans, the area that begins at the riverbend Uptown and extends along the Mississippi to the French Quarter and into the Bywater, a stretch of high ground that sustained heavy damage from Katrina and Rita but was not visited directly by the horrors of the flooding.

It’s not completely unscathed ‘— along Magazine Street many storefronts remain boarded or closed. Piles of garbage sit at intervals along the streets and power poles cant at odd angles. ‘“Help Wanted’” and ‘“Now Hiring’” signs hang in nearly every business. But you can still get a beer at nine in the morning, a great cup of coffee or an amazing meal at any time of day.

This is the part of New Orleans that most outsiders know: the Garden District; the Irish Channel; the streetcar line on St. Charles Avenue (which has ceased operation for the first extended period since its first run in 1835); Loyola and Tulane universities; Audubon Park; the Warehouse District and the Central Business District or, as the locals call it, the CBD; the French Quarter. And while it’s easy to tell yourself that things are okay when you walk the streets or ride the bus lines, there have been some significant changes in the area.

The rents, for one, have increased exponentially. When I lived there you could find a nice one-bedroom apartment for about $500 a month. Now the same place might run $1,200 or $1,500 a month due to the vagaries of supply and demand.

And because for a period of time all the people in the city were forced to go elsewhere, the population has shifted and resettled. The deck of cards has been shuffled.

My friend Shawn, for instance, an infamous lower Decatur Street bartender who now works several miles away in the Uptown watering hole known as the Bulldog. Where she once wore tiny kilts to work and booked aggressive rock bands (a far, far cry from Bourbon Street Dixieland, I can assure you), these days she pours designer beers for starched-shirt yuppies and their girlfriends in this part of town that was once haunted by the St. Thomas Projects but is now a bit more like the Upper East Side.

Shawn lit out for Destin a few days before the storm hit, she says. But like so many others she felt the irresistible pull of the only place she’s ever really lived. Her family is here. Her history is here. Her life is here, along with a house in Mid-City that made it out pretty well, relatively speaking.

‘“I got homesick real bad,’” she says.

Shawn stayed gone six weeks.

My friend Pete, who has been working at the world famous Tipitina’s for more than 10 years, tells me his story in a few brief sentences as he cleans up the front bar after a hot show by three of the guys who make up the modern incarnation of the Meters, the city’s most notorious funk band.

‘“I did ten days in Baton Rouge,’” he says. ‘“We snuck back in before they were letting people through. There was no way I wasn’t coming back.’”

And at Igor’s, the kind-of-shady, 24-hour Garden District watering hole where I worked the graveyard shift from 1995 until 2000, the song remains the same. Kerryn, the gun-toting Aussie expat and her husband Jerry, a former carny who to this day is the best storyteller I’ve ever known, work behind the bar together, making drinks for regular customers whom I still know by name ‘— Tall Brian; Cox Cable Paulie, who no longer works for Cox but still answers to the name; Denise, who still gives tours of creepy locales in the Sliver; James, who will bus the front tables for a free draft beer. My picture is still on the wall, albeit a much younger and hairier version of myself, and they still keep the Jagermeister in the same place behind the bar.

The faux marble bartop has seen a coat of red paint since I’ve been gone, but other than that it’s more or less exactly the way I left it six years ago.

And when I make it to the Balcony Bar on Magazine I see everybody from my old crew: Scottish Bryan, Pizza Guy Marc, Jan’….

In the Isle of Denial, it seems to me anyway, there’s quite a bit left of everything I remember.

The debris po-boy at Mother’s on Poydras Street is a work of ingenuity. It’s made from what’s left over after the roast is cooked, the drippings and shreds of beef that collect in the bottom of the pan. It’s paired with shredded cabbage ‘— cheaper than head lettuce and with a longer shelf life ‘— and loaded onto an airy hunk of French bread with Creole mustard, Blue Plate mayonnaise and whatever else they’ve got.

I’ve got one in front of me right now, the gravy seeping into the bread as I write these notes.

The line at the counter stretches to the back of the room this afternoon as it always has, and the service, still friendly to a fault, is slow enough to inspire hunger-induced anger and frustration in some of the out-of-town customers.

I took the Magazine bus down here to the CBD. The bus is free these days, one of the more pleasant unintended consequences of Katrina and the events that followed her, and I saw out the window the antiques stores, the bars, the restaurants that serve cheap and exotic food. I saw homes in states of repair, many clad in Tyvek home wrap with windows so new they still had the stickers on them.

It’s the day of the mayorial runoff here in town and campaign signs share space with posted advertisements for mold removal, roof replacement, siding and insurance adjustment. Every lamppost, patch of grass and empty storefront has them, harbingers of the new economy.

At Lee Circle the general still stands atop his lofty pillar ‘— this is a phrase I pinched from myself, by the way, from one of the first features I wrote for my college paper, the Loyola Maroon ‘— and it was still tough to spot a parking space on Poydras.

The debris po-boy is the same as it ever was, a gooey, messy two-hander that will remind you that you ate it for the next few hours. I collect my things and begin a walk through the Quarter, my old neighborhood.

When I was something of a drunk I would cruise Decatur Street, the thoroughfare right along the river, until my pocketful of cash had depleted to nothing. Today I pick up Decatur on Canal Street, a block or so down from the casino, which is still doing a brisk business, thank you very much.

Decatur starts as a street of tourist traps off Canal and then gets progressively darker and more local as you head towards the Faubourg Marigny on the far side of the Quarter. At the beginning of my walk things seem very much the same as I left them ‘— the tourists still wear funny hats and obnoxious T-shirts and drinkers avoid daylight in bars that have air-conditioning stripping instead of doors.

I duck into the Kerry, a tiny Irish bar near Canal and run into Scottish Sharon, former girlfriend of Scottish Bryan. I haven’t seen her in a long time.

Sharon made for Chicago after the flood but felt the pull of New Orleans within a few weeks. She’s here now, she says, and she’s considering a job offer in West Virginia. But she knows she’ll be back with the same certainty she knows to mix a gin and tonic

At the House of Blues just around the corner I find one of my best friends from my years down here, Chris, who had left years before I did but returned about three months before the flood.

He’s been buying real estate since Katrina, he tells me, investment properties mostly. The bartending gig at the House of Blues is just a way to keep the cash flow moving. And he tells me he’s not one of those landlords charging double or triple the pre-hurricane rate.

‘“If we jack people for whatever we can get,’” he says, ‘“then we’re not the kind of people we want to inhabit this city.’”

My walk continues down Decatur, past the Jax Brewery where a freight train rumbles by on the riverside tracks, past Jackson Square where the ranks of Tarot card readers, sketch artists and painted human statues has thinned a bit, past the bank of pay phones where once, on assignment for Where Y’at magazine, I answered a ringing phone and was sexually solicited for my troubles by a guy watching me from another pay phone across the street.

I see the Central Grocery, where the muffaletta sandwich was born, has closed, but my friend Maggie is back working at Molly’s on the Market and the Abbey is still the grossest bar in town.

I make a left on Governor Nichols Street and head back to my old bachelor pad on the corner of Burgundy ‘— pronounced bur-GUN-dy ‘— a third-floor walk-up with a wrought-iron balcony and the best view of the cityscape I’ve ever seen.

I look at my old balcony from the street, snap a few pictures and then sit on the stoop where, on Memorial Day 1998, I found four menthol cigarette butts, an empty can of St. Ides malt liquor and three human turds. As I sit I can almost convince myself that nothing’s changed, that the last six years have been a dream and if I want I can turn around, go up the steps and out to my aerie, take in the view as the sun drops behind the Hibernia building and watch the night people begin to take over the streets.

I enjoy the illusion for a moment. Then I move on.

The last time I saw Terry he was on TV having an emotional breakdown.

‘“Yeah,’” he remembers, ‘“MSNBC was in the car when I found out I got looted.’”

Terry is a lieutenant with the NOPD and he’s recounting the scene on his mother’s back deck while we eat cold shrimp remoulade over shredded head lettuce, an extremely complex recipe that incorporates ingredients and technique ‘— ‘“You pour the olive oil into the processor real slow,’” his stepfather Ladd says, ‘“like a pencil-lead-thin stream’” ‘— and the time it takes for the marinade to set.

Terry brought his own family’s valuables to his mother’s evacuated Uptown house, figuring they would be safe. But nothing was safe in the days and weeks following the flood. Though the depth of the water in this neighborhood only got to four feet or so, it was easy for looters to come in by boat, climb up the stairs and make off with the goods.

The house is in great shape tonight, with deep colors, interesting furniture and captivating works of art, though they’ve more or less permanently given up the idea of maintaining the apartment on the first floor. Take a look around your own house and make an inventory of everything below a four-foot line. Picture all of that stuff after a week soaking in filthy water. Then ask yourself if any of it is worth replacing, especially since it could very well happen again.

Terry’s shaken off much of the trauma from after the storm: the desperate and disparate crowds with nothing left to call their own, the gangs of armed thugs roaming the streets, the rapes and robberies, the frenetic worries about his friends and family and the no-shows within the NOPD itself.

‘“Like two hundred people [on the force] were gone,’” he says. ‘“That’s a lot of people. A lot of them were just supposed to go and check on their wives and kids and stuff and they never came back.

‘“It was like being in a war zone,’” he continues. ‘“We were working ’round the clock, hungry and dirty. I remember the fun stuff. We went and found a pool one night in a backyard and we took off our clothes and just bathed in the pool. And we’re wet, naked, three guys, and here comes the helicopter with the big spotlight overhead. We just waved at it.’”

The indigenous sense of humor remains. Terry wears a T-shirt with the NOPD icon on the back. ‘“Chocolate City Police’” it reads. And then underneath: ‘“We’re bitter.’”

His mother, a former artists’ model and current private investigator named Webby, has made her version of stuffed crab for the main course, served en casserole with more lump crabmeat, it seems than stuffing.

‘“And some of that claw meat for flavor,’” she says.

There are also roasted potatoes with parmesan and peppercorns and a vegetable dish of squash, onion and mint.

‘“And of course,’” Webby says, ‘“buttah, buttah, buttah.’”

We clean our plates on the back deck with white noise coming in a rush from a fountain in the yard. At 8:15, when the sun goes down, the termites begin to swarm and we hustle inside the house.

Later on tonight I’ll head over to Le Bon Temps Roule on Magazine Street to reunite with all of my friends and see Joe Krown, one of the foremost organists left in the city, spin out a brand of funk that is unique to this part of the world. I’ll dance and carry on (and come within a hair’s breadth of getting smacked in the face, believe it or not). But our visit is not over yet.

It’s the eve of the runoff and Ladd lights one Marlboro off the butt of another as he watches the election returns come in. He’s pulling for Mitch Landrieu, former Lt. Governor, brother to current senator Mary and son to former mayor Moon, the last white mayor of New Orleans whose tenure lasted from 1970 until 1978.

‘“It’s a political job,’” Ladd says. ‘“Landrieu knows the politics.’”

As the numbers roll in Webby and I try unsuccessfully to raise her daughter, Lorin, on the telephone. Lorin, one of my oldest friends, left for Austin, Texas with her husband Jason when the water was still high in the streets. She’s not answering ‘— probably a wise move ‘— but there’s an election to follow and there’s pie from Langenstein’s and outside the nighttime humidity settles on the city like a hot, wet blanket.

The streetcar is still down, so when I get to Igor’s the next afternoon I hitch a ride Uptown from Arthur, who was my porter in the early mornings when I used to tend bar. The election’s already swung Nagin’s way ‘— inexplicable to some, an eminently logical outcome to others ‘— but guys like Arthur (and me, for that matter) paint all politicians with the same brush. Instead as we drive down the oak-lined thoroughfare of St. Charles Avenue we talk about the years we spent working together, our families and the things we’ve been doing since we saw each other last. And of course we talk about Katrina. Arthur came back into the city as soon as he was able.

‘“It was like a ghost town when I come back,’” he says to me. ‘“You wouldn’t believe it.’”

He got back in, assayed the minimal damage to his home, sent word to his family and got back to work helping Igor reopen his bars and restaurants and apartment buildings.

‘“We was lucky,’” Arthur says, and I reflect that it’s a certain kind of man who can make it through something like this and still consider himself lucky.

He drops me at Loyola, way up near the riverbend on St. Charles and we embrace awkwardly in the car. I don’t know when, or if, I’ll see him again.

Loyola, where I spent five years of my life, where I learned to write, to do my laundry and where I was first introduced to the city of New Orleans, looks much the same though I understand they’ve cut much of their communications programs as an answer to declining enrollment.

There are some new buildings, to be sure, but the benches in the student quad where we all hung out between classes (and sometimes instead of actually going to class) are still there and the Danna Center still smells exactly the same.

I cross the street to Audubon Park and begin the walk to the far side. There are hundreds of people enjoying the day, biking and rollerblading, playing golf, having family reunions and crawfish boils under the live oaks. I’m looking for the Tree of Life, a gigantic oak where we used to hang out when I was in college and, if we were sober enough, climb up to the crotch more than 20 feet above the ground. I can’t find it, but I do see a massive trunk that’s been excavated from the ground and stripped of its limbs. I pray that I’ve lost my way and this is not the tree I’ve been looking for.

The park ends at Magazine Street and the grounds of the Audubon Zoo begin. I stay right and walk across the train tracks to the Fly, a grassy stretch along the Mississippi. It’s the place where I used to play ultimate Frisbee in college and boil crawfish as a young adult. It’s the spot where I proposed to my wife with a scraggly handful of flowers and tears in my eyes.

And on this Sunday afternoon the Fly is alive and well. Summertime students sunbathe and frolic and the air smells like a mixture of beer, cayenne pepper and the musk of the river as it rolls gently by. Jazz and hip hop pour from the stereos of cars with their doors propped open, more than a few kites soar through the air and, if I wanted to, I could get in on a game of Frisbee with a group of guys out in the field.

In other words, it’s business as usual.

The scene strikes me in a way that moves me to sit and jot a few notes.

‘“The people of New Orleans are going to be all right,’” I write. ‘“The storm has passed; the cleanup has begun; and they do what it is they’ve always done in the face of adversity and seemingly insurmountable odds. They walk on gilded splinters. They look a py-py. They head on down to the Audubon Zoo and they all axe for you.’”

I breathe in the smells of this peaceful, happy place. Then I flip my notebook closed and go on my way.

‘“The Lower Ninth,’” Allen tells me, ‘“is the coup de grace.’”

Allen is my old professor, the man who wrangled me my first paid freelance gig. He’s still a trusted advisor and friend. He’s also still a working journalist who was one of the cadre of reporters who braved the aftermath to bring the story of a devastated New Orleans to the world.

‘“You could see the stars at night,’” he says of those first few weeks after the waters receded. ‘“There weren’t many birds but you could see the helicopters.’”

After a meal of oysters St. Charles (corn-fried and served on the shell over a bed of creamed spinach with a dollop of aioli and a splash of Crystal hot sauce) we get in his car and head to the Lower 9th Ward.

By early morning on August 29 the Industrial Canal in the east part of town was overcome with water. The funnel of the Intracoastal Waterway absorbed the storm surge and by 7 a.m. water had topped the levees and storm walls. By 7:30 the west wall of the Industrial Canal had been breached, sending a torrent of water into the Upper 9th, the Bywater and the Treme, the neighborhood where Louis Armstrong grew up. Twenty minutes later the eastern storm barricade gave way, sending a wall of water into the Lower 9th. By 8:30 the entire neighborhood was underwater, in some parts more than 10 feet deep.

Allen’s taking me there now. I’ve got to see it to believe it, he tells me.

We cross St. Roch Street headed to low ground and the houses are starting to look derelict. As we get closer to the canal things get worse and worse ‘— cars, hundreds of them, smashed from above, blasted from the side, flipped on their backs like helpless turtles and all covered with a patina of milky residue.

And the houses’… hundreds of them ‘— no, thousands ‘— block after block after miserable block. They’ve been tossed from their moorings; they’ve been crushed by the onrushing flood or wilted from standing water or pushed back from their stoops or outright collapsed from a combination of the insults heaped upon them. The ones still standing have the FEMA ‘“X’” spray-painted on the front, showing how many dead, the extent of the damage, the existence of toxic waters, whether or not any pets have been reported or spotted. It goes on like this for miles.

It’s hard to describe. It’s even harder to look at.

We wheel around Caffin Avenue by the corner of St. Claude and Allen stops the car. I gawk out the window. We’re at Fats Domino’s house in the neighborhood he’s lived in all his life ‘— a simple brick duplex with a black and gold roofpiece, a neon sign and his initials in big letters up there on the façade.

‘“They were dropping off flowers and stuff,’” Allen says. ‘“People thought he was dead. There was all kinds of wild rumors flying around.’”

Fats was rescued by boat on the Monday after the storm and made it out okay. The house, especially when contrasted to the devastated neighborhood around it, looks pretty good. And as far as anybody knows, Fats will be back. He’s never lived anywhere else.

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