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Pieces of New Orleans in downtown Greensboro

by Brian Clarey

Two years ago today, Aug. 29, I placed a call to New Orleans from my car after I dropped my son off at kindergarten.

It was the morning after Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the southeastern tip of Louisiana, 8:30 a.m., and at this point the city seemed badly battered by the storm. Strong winds tore holes in the roof of the Superdome and wrenched away the face of the downtown Hyatt, making it look like a dollhouse.

I wanted to know if my friends were okay. So I called the bar.

I got Might Be Gay Glen on the line. He assured me that the bar was fine, that as far as he knew everybody who stayed in town was okay, that he was exhausted from the long night and would I please call back later.

I hung up. And then the levees broke.

At my desk I watched the disaster unfold, clicking on images from the Times-Picayune and CNN and wherever else I could get them. I did this all morning, tears running down my cheeks and my throat closing so tight I could barely breathe, let alone talk. Then, at two in the afternoon, I went home and went to bed.

I hadn’t yet met Rich Papier – though we’re the same age, our paths never crossed down in the Crescent City. It took a force of nature and a man-made disaster to bring us together.

The native New Orleanian weathered many a storm over the years, usually in his father’s house in Metairie, a nearby suburb, in one of the many Uptown apartments in which he’s lived, or sometimes a bar. This hurricane, he knew, would be different. At the eleventh hour he grabbed a résumé, his chef coat and his acoustic guitar and headed for high ground.

“I had a feeling,” he said. “I never left [before]. I’ve been there my whole life. It’s the first time I ever thought it would be bad enough to leave.”

High ground turned out to be Greensboro, where Papier’s still working to regain the stature he once possessed in the greatest culinary city in the world.

After working a stretch for Emeril Lagasse in his Warehouse District eatery, Papier was running his own kitchen at the Delachaise under the canopy of oaks on St. Charles Avenue, where diners could watch the streetcar rumble along or, at carnival time, see the Uptown parades as they rolled past.

On his Mac he’s got a picture of the restaurant as it stood after the storm and the ravages of the flood. Though the shot is black and white, the roof of the structure looks like it’s been sandblasted. A floor-to-ceiling pane of glass is missing from the façade.

“We think that was the looting,” he said. “Only the good stuff was missing.”

The shot is one of hundreds Papier has taken since the disaster on half a dozen trips back home. There’s 20 or so of them hanging on the walls here at the Green Bean, testament to the unique spirit of the city as well as its perseverance in the face of unbridled nature and human malfeasance.

There’s disaster porn aplenty here: FEMA trailers, a house in the Garden District reduced to a pile of sticks, a cluster of sportfishers gnashed together in the wreckage of the lakefront marina, flood-ravaged shotgun homes gutted by water and festering with mold.

But also the installation pays tribute to what’s left in the city, capturing the remnants of a culture that refused to drown in the stinking sludge: the stone lions guarding the City Park pavilion, French Quarter gas lamps and street buskers and wrought-iron balconies, a stretch on the river known as the Fly where I proposed to my wife and had my first experience with fire ants, an obligatory shot of the streetcar as it chugs down the avenue.

And because Papier is a food guy there’s plenty to get the salivary glands going, like a basket of crawfish, café au lait and a beignet from Café du Monde, a whole pig on its side being turned into cochon du lait.

The shots will hang here until Sept. 9, and a reception will be held on Aug. 30 where Papier will fry up a bunch of beignets and then try to teach everybody how to pronounce and spell the word.

He’ll also be selling prints, though he has never considered himself a professional photographer.

“I just picked up a camera and started shooting for the hell of it,” he said. “I didn’t plan on blowing ’em up or doing anything else with them.”

But his efforts will lead back to the city he still calls home – proceeds from the evening will go towards the rebuilding effort in New Orleans. He encourages everybody with personal, familial or emotional ties to the city to make an appearance. And he promises the beignets will have you thinking you’re sitting on the patio at the French Market with the steam whistle blowing in the distance.

For questions or comments, e-mail Brian Clarey at editor@yesweekly.com.

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