I cannot eulogize New Orleans. I can’t adequately describe the unique culture or the wonderful quirkiness that the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina washed away when they inundated the city last month. Nor can I begin to convey the horror that those waters ushered in — the swamped buildings and shattered windows, the bodies floating, swollen and fly-ridden, in streets that now resemble fetid sewage canals, the looter-driven anarchy, the gang warfare that erupted in government-sponsored shelters — because I wasn’t there. I only watched the tragedy unfold in pictures that flashed across my computer screen, and heard about it second-hand in rushed phone conversations with my friends who remained behind. All that I can do is reflect upon my brief time in the city. And, as I try to comprehend that the places I loved now exist only in my memory, perhaps I can put into words a small piece of what has been lost.
I spent last summer writing features for The Times-Picayune, New Orleans’ daily newspaper. My staging area was a cramped, non-descript cubicle tucked away behind the newsroom, but my neighbors were anything but bland. Two cubicles back, David, the theatre critic, spent large portions of his day prank-calling his friends, confusing them with affected voices until he became bored with the charade, broke character, and asked who was starring in their upcoming production of “Cabaret.” Doug, the art critic, a former hippie-turned-family man with a long gray ponytail, sat catty-corner to me. He disappeared for three weeks in July to make his annual pilgrimage to Vermont; his plans included blasting a baby grand piano with a shotgun alongside a friend who was into conceptual art. Most days, as I typed away on my keyboard, a mass of press releases and unopened CDs would come avalanching over my cubicle wall. Moments later, Keith, the music critic, would peek, more amused than shame-faced, over the partition between us, apologize, and then ask for his stuff back. Now, art openings and concerts have been pushed aside, and the last I heard of Doug and Keith, they were reporting on looting as they paddled a canoe through the streets of New Orleans.
While at the paper, I was charged with a simple set of instructions: Find interesting people and write about them. I could have received no better introduction to the city. One day I perched on an ottoman in the sitting room of an Uptown socialite, drinking iced coffee and discussing a long-dead relative who happened to have been immortalized in John Singer Sargent’s portrait “Madame X.” On the next, I sat in a dark French Quarter bar, listening to a retiring pianist reminisce about her 47-year tenure at Pat O’Brien’s while fending off her repeated offers to buy me a Hurricane — a now unfortunately named cocktail that boasts four shots of rum. I ate barbecue with high school students from the city’s most dilapidated housing projects who had written books about their neighborhoods, and I shared their parents’ pride when they unveiled their work at a release party. And one morning, I drove to an animal sanctuary in rural Mississippi with a tiny, blonde, Lily Pulitzer-clad woman who called herself “Sanctuary Barbie,” and examined the houses they’d built for abandoned cats from New Orleans.
As vastly different as they were, the people I wrote about had one thing in common: They all loved New Orleans and had devoted themselves to improving or celebrating the city. In this regard, I think they were representative of the city’s population as a whole. In June, two prominent local restaurateurs were arrested after they lay down in the streets of the French Quarter to block the path of an RV — oversized vehicles aren’t allowed in the Quarter, but they tend to find their way into it regardless, often sideswiping and damaging the neighborhood’s delicate buildings. The incident received a fair amount of publicity, and the overarching local reaction was one of pride, combined with a bit of awe that anyone would voluntarily roll around in the mixture of beer, vomit and urine that tends to coat the Quarter’s streets. It’s a funny story, but that’s the kind of devotion that people have to New Orleans. They realize that they’ve found a gem, one of the last few places where they can revel in the simple pleasures most of us take for granted. And, in spite of the Herculean effort it will require, I take comfort in believing that the city’s inhabitants will try their damnedest to rebuild — they love it too much not to.
New Orleanians like to tell stories. Most of them border on the mythical: tales of haunted houses and voodoo queens; the legend of the Baroness Pontalba, whose father-in-law shot her in an unsuccessful attempt to secure her fortune for himself, and the claims that dishes ranging from bananas Foster to the barbecue shrimp sandwich originated in New Orleans kitchens. But as the summer passed, I heard whispers of another kind of story. For years, the people of New Orleans have anticipated “The Big One,” the powerful hurricane that would hit the city dead-on, push the water of Lake Pontchartrain over the levies and fill the bowl-shaped city with a soup of toxic chemicals and human waste. Arlene, the first tropical storm of the season, looked like it might be a threat, but on the day it made landfall, the sun was out in New Orleans. Tropical Storm Cindy was a different story — it hit the city almost dead-on. My power was out for six days, and it took almost two weeks for the water that accumulated in the basement to drain to a point that allowed me to send a plumber down to relight the pilot light without worrying he might be electrocuted. In hindsight, it was a terrible omen of things to come, but at the time it was merely a hassle. Hurricane Dennis also gave the city the jitters — some people even evacuated. But like Arlene, it spun off to the east. July and August wore on, and the tropics seemed to forget about us. Storms E, F, G, H, I and J barely warranted a mention on the local weather stations, and when I tearfully drove out of town, across Lake Pontchartrain, and onwards into Mississippi on Aug. 23, heading home to Alabama before continuing on to New Haven, only die-hard hurricane trackers had noticed a tropical depression meandering across the Atlantic.
Six days later, the depression had swelled to a Category 5 hurricane and was threatening to do the unthinkable: destroy an entire major metropolitan city. Hours before Katrina made landfall, I spoke to Ben, my best friend from New Orleans. He, if anyone, understood the gravity of the situation — he’d evacuated from New Orleans and now sat, waiting, in Baton Rouge. But instead of dwelling on what-ifs, we talked about the sports teams he wrote about, the book I’d given him before I left, and how our favorite bar had just installed wireless Internet access. He told me he was nervous, and I told him to stay away from the windows. Over the past couple of years, I’ve learned what to say in the face of break-ups, break-downs, flunked tests, drunken mistakes. But what do you say to someone who is preparing to lose his home?
Monday, Aug. 29, Hurricane Katrina made landfall near Buras, La., 63 miles southeast of New Orleans. The damage was so catastrophic that most lines of communication out of the city were severed, and in the days that followed I obsessively checked the Internet for any bit of information that might at least relieve the agony of uncertainty. Slowly, details began to trickle out of the city, and as they did, mangled remnants of the summer took root in my mind. The 9th Ward, home to the high school students-cum-authors, was under 15 feet of water. Uptown, where I’d lived and played, had been largely spared by the flood, but had been preyed upon by looters. Fires had broken out around the city. Saks Fifth Avenue, where I’d picked up samples for my fashion stories, had been set ablaze by looters. And although I know fires raged nearby, I’ve yet to determine the fate of Pascal’s Manale, the birthplace of the barbecue shrimp sandwich. I felt guilty for being so affected by the grave situation in the city. New Orleans was not my home, it was not my city. But I’d fallen in love with it nonetheless, and I couldn’t look away.
As I read story after story, I also searched The Times Picayune’s Web site for signs that my former colleagues were safe. One by one their bylines appeared — physically, at least, they were fine. But amidst accounts of deaths, gutted homes and displaced evacuees, the Web site also told another story: It revealed the extraordinary effort of the paper’s staff to provide its city with news. They remained in New Orleans until the floodwaters around their main office threatened to trap them. Even after evacuating, they continued to send reporters back into the city to patrol streets teeming with looters. And they openly criticized the government’s rescue efforts, providing a voice to the thousands of people who might have remained alive or uninjured if the situation had been approached differently. I’m in awe of them and am proud to have ever been associated with the paper. But it’s no longer the jovial place where I once worked. The revered entertainment columnist with whom I once tried to track down Sarah Jessica Parker is now holed up in a relatively undamaged house Uptown, biking around the area during the day and sitting on the front porch with a glass of warm liquor and a .38 at night. The staff itself has dispersed. During the summer I could walk into a certain Uptown bar and encounter at least 10 of my coworkers. But now they’ve become part of the diaspora of New Orleanians, filing their stories from San Antonio and Baton Rouge and Jackson. And on a larger scale, I can’t help but wonder if the benign, carefree excess and intertwined happiness that defined New Orleans can ever exist again in a city that will bear such deep scars from the hurricane and its aftermath.
As college students, and especially as Yale students, we often find that a sense of wanderlust has been thrust upon us. We spent our free time traveling to far-away locales and working in strange, new cities and home becomes a place that we merely visit a few times a year. It’s part of maturing, and, as far as the traveling goes, if not now, when? But amidst that roaming, I at least have always asked myself “Could I wind up here?” Unlike many people — at Yale or in Louisiana — I didn’t lose family, or friends or my childhood home to Hurricane Katrina. But for a brief moment, I thought the New Orleans that I encountered last summer might one day be the place that I would call home. I imagined joining the thousands of people who had so blissfully spent decades, if not their whole lives, establishing roots in the city. And now those roots have been pulled up, washed away and are gone.