Letters Fom Nowhere

Premodernist Life in Postapocalyptic New Orleans

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Buckley Passes the Torch

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Libertarian's Dilemma

"Hypocrisy is the tribute which vice pays to virtue."
-Francois de La Rochefoucauld

I have received aout $4300 from the federal government in the form of FEMA grants. In addition, I receive $90/week from the state of Louisiana for "disaster unemployment." The question is: Should a libertarian opposed to most all of the government's post-New Deal spending and scope of power accept this money? If so, under what circumstances and by what justification?

The indictment is compelling: You spend countless conversations trying to convince your friends that the government's only responsibility beyond national defense ought only to be to protect an individual from force or fraud. When someone objects that some entitlement spending is necessary because there are times when people are in need through little fault of their own, you reply that this ought to be the purview of private charity. Implicit in your condemnation of forced income redistribution, is the suggestion that to accept the largess of the government is to be an accessory to robbery. How then is it anything but pure hypocrisy to accept $5000 of money that others worked to earn, especially in light of the fact that this sum is more than you would have normally earned had there been no weather interruption?

My defense goes something like this: I do think a libertarian political system would be more efficient and moral. However, I am born into a unjust system that I am relatively powerless to change (please, no bullshit earnest responses here- let's just accept this sentence as axiomatic). This system requires me to make choices that weigh my principles against my personal happiness. Sometimes the marginal increase in my own comfort fairly outweighs the marginal harm done to others in acting against my principles.

An example: Say I lived in New York City, making about $300/wk working in a used bookstore near Tompkins Sq. In looking for a place to live, I come across a rent controlled apartment right on St Mark's. It's only a studio and it still costs $650/mnth, but my best alternative is a share in Williamsburgh that will cost me close to grand every month (not to mention the attendant perils of living amongst swarms of STD-carrying hipsters). Now, I think it is evident that rent control tends to cause often severe housing shortages, as well as inflated prices outside of the controlled sector. Moreover, I find the practice a morally opprobrious infringement on property rights. Nonetheless, I would sign the lease on the rent controlled apartment without hesitation (indeed, with excitement). Wouldn't you?

Now, there is a line to be crossed somewhere here- I don't know exactly where that is. I am not going to stop using the Post Office, walking on sidewalks, driving on interstates, and flying from airports because these things are provided for by the government. But I'm not going to profit by turning in a drug dealer for a reward. It may be that in my particular case I am on the wrong side of this line because I am diverting precious resources from where they are more needed, but I'm not sure that this even factually accurate.

In any case, comments, constructive criticism, and outright insults are appreciated...

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Rebuilding

Last week I got a second hand invite (via Seaborg Award winning historian, Mike Ross) to Will's birthday party. The party was notable for a couple of reasons. The first is that Will's friend, Dave English, was cooking the meal. Dave was the chef at Cobalt- one of New Orleans better restaurants- located in the Hotel Monaco. One of my best and most bittersweet New Orleans memories is from the Hotel Monaco.

My dear friend, GK Darby, who loves this city and belongs here, had decided to leave the city he loves and belongs in for Philadelphia, a city only a delusional mongrel could abide. As it happens, GK was severely mistreated by a woman, and his battered soul needed a needed a city that reflected its callous abandonment. GK's survival instinct told him that Trenton was just too extreme, so he settled for the closest semblance of civilization and packed his bags for Philly. He had won a night at Monaco in a charity auction, and decided to have his going away party there in room 804.

Jordan and I arrived fashoinably late to those grim proceedings and found a scene of halcyon depravity straight out of a Michel Houellebecq novel. The swanky room was littered with bottles half filled with every kind of fermented and distilled swill. Our friends were scattered about- on the leather couches, on the mosquito-netted bed, on the floor- glass-eyed and with little to say, listening to a bad and disorienting mix of The Magnetic Fields, NWA, and halting second line dirges. GK seemed uncomfortable. Two of our friends were playing out their romantic seperation in front of everyone else. I brought the only cocaine to the party, but no one was interested.

Under some pretense of order, cigarettes were confined to the bathroom. So, when I went to take a piss I had to feel my way through the haze, past the whirlpool bathtub filled with smokers, stepping around the ashtrays to the toilet. I relieved myself, took off my shoes, lit up a Pall Mall, and joined the others soaking their feet in the tub and inhaling the opaque aimlessness in the air. We drank enough to enjoy the night, and GK was gone in the morning. Now's he's just one of about 400,000 refugees.

We fethisize the past and mourn the future.

Which brings us back to Will's birthday party. Like I said Dave English was working the dinner. The Hotel Monaco and Cobalt are now permanently closed, and Dave is currently taking his time deciding between offers from other fine restaurants in town (I won't name them, as I don't wish for this to become a society gossip page). In the meantime, we were treated to prime rib with horseradish sauce, creamed cauliflower with baked brie, and asparagus with bacon and grilled onions prepared by one of the best chefs in the New Orleans- such are the benefits of living in a provincial city.

Will had no home to return to after Katrina- his house on Broad St. was flooded. He found an apartment in the newly constructed River Garden Apartments off of Tchoupitoulas. Only a couple of years ago, this area was the St. Thomas housing project. The City tore down the crime-ridden projects, and put up a Walmart and a mixed-housing neighborhood dubbed The River Garden. As much of New Orleans faux-Orlianean neighborhood might soon be rebuilt in this fashion, Will's party was a chance to assess the prospects for New Orleans' asthetic future.

The River Garden is the archtype of the"New Urbanism" which has somehow become the default concept for rebuiling New Orleans. Whatever else it may be, The River Garden is a soulless collection of faux-Orleanian architecture, suburban spacing, and suspiciously well groomed lawns. Inside, the wall-to-wall carpeting and cookie cutter apartments speak more of condos in Cleveland than of an historic town that has developed over two centuries. Indeed, the very idea that any commission (even the Wexler Recovery Commission) can impose a monolithic, top-down template that is somehow faithful to such a long and haphazard history offends both one's intuition and intellect.

It's strange living along the river in New Orleans these days. Our neighborhoods- the Irish Channel, the CBD, the Marigny, the Quarter- make up a vital bubble in an otherwise sepulchral city. You can spend every day in these neighborhoods (as I do) and forget that if you walked 10 or 15 blocks north you'd be wandering into a graveyard of empty darkness with a moldy film still covering the abandoned cars and houses.

I realize that these neighborhoods cannot be ignored, for the sake of its residents and the rest of New Orleans. I'm just not ready to live in Charlotte, NC. How 'bout this? Instead of handing a check to some planning commission that is going to impose a uniform template on the city, what say we divvy up that money and cut a check to each individual who lived in that neighborhood. Then each indivdual decides when, where, how, and if to rebuild. Comments welcome...

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Evacuation Story, Pt. 1



By this point, the evacuation stories have run their course. For the first two weeks after my return to New Orleans, the bars were brimming with what amounted to post-Katrina pissing contests- My car broke down in Lafayette; I stayed for a couple of days after the storm and hotwired an Impala out of the city; My house got flooded and I had to spend two months in Houston; My wife was assaulted at the Superdome; I stayed the night in Baton Rouge- and so on and so on. Here's mine:

I evacuated to the rural backwoods of Lousiana with my mulatto girlfriend, her mixed-race parents, our Hindu friend Sunny, and a couple of Yankee intellectuals (Dr. Mike and his fiancee Ashley). The hurricane came right through and battered the area. It knocked down most of the trees, which blocked the roads and trapped us in for days with no power, running water, or telephone service. We had no contact with the outside world except a little battery powered radio with one station that was reporting Armageddon in New Orleans.

After a couple of days, we walked down to a nearby sheriff's house to find out what was going on. He told us in rather vague terms about the disaster surrounding us, and said we should go back to our house and that the parish would cut us out of there eventually. I was ridden with paranoid visions of redneck neo-nazis using the opportunity to take over. I am used to neurosis running my life, but it was all too much for Sunny. With a crazed look in his eye, he packed a backpack and went down the road looking to hitch a ride back to civilization.

It took a sympathetic neighbor with a chainsaw, a tractor, and a Mexican work crew to clear enough of the road to let us escape. Dr. Mike and Ashley were gone as sson as the last branch was cut. I wasn't far behind. I loaded my 1988 Dodge Ram pickup truck with a change of clothes and my dog and headed west to our friends Bebe and Jeff's house in Baton Rouge. Jordan stayed behind with her folks to face the white supremacist militias.

Normally, I would strongly advise against spending any amount of time in Louisiana's capital. However, under certain circumstances- namely that you're outrunning the greatest natural disaster in your country's history and you know some really nice people with air conditioning and olives from Whole Foods there- Baton Rouge can be reasonably pleasant. I spent the night there and was no worse for the wear. But, when I saw images of New Orleans on Jeff and Bebe's TV, it was apparent that I wouldn't be returning home anytime soon.

I should say at this point, that I'm not one for change. I'm perfectly content with the inertia that gets me through my days. So, the prospect of spending the near future in the white Christian wasteland that is Baton Rouge was, well- unsettling. Especially without the codependent comfort of my girlfriend, with whom I had spent nearly every day of the past seven years like Paul and Linda McCartney (I was going to go with John and Yoko here for my own sake, but I thought it would be insulting to Jordan- now I'm thinking I did us both a disservice).

The next day I ate at Baton Rouge's finest restaurant and bought some more clothes at a great local retailer. I made plans with Jordan to meet up that night in Douglasville, Georgia. Gricus and Kate had evactuated there to Kate's father's house. Once again Lenny and I were back in the pickup and out on the road.

I'd rather not relive the hot and lengthy journey blow by blow, so here are the highlights: 1)The car was overheating the whole trip, 2)There was no gas to be had in all of Louisiana and Mississippi, 3)Lenny and I both got stomach aches from eating beef jerky all day, 4)In a vain attempt to fill up my nearly empty tank, I got off the highway near Philadelphia, Mississippi (please don't go here under any circumstances) at around 9 PM and got stuck in a ditch, 4)I thought I was going to die there until some truckers (who assured me that "Jesus himself was a Jew") generously pulled me out, 5)I got some gas just on the other side of the Alabama border, 6)I called into the jazz program that I was listening to on Birmingham's NPR station and got "A Love Supreme" to accompany me nearly to Georgia, 7)Lenny and I reunited with Jordan in Douglasville.

We spent a very comfortable few days at the Orvald residence (highly recommended if you're planning a vacation in Douglasville) with Kate and Gricus, Ted and Jan (Kate's generous father and stepmother), and Dr. Mike and Ashley (who had arrived the day before). Sitting back and drinking beers with our New Orleans friends felt just like being home- except that we were watching around-the-clock news footage of our home on TV and it looked like a wet Auschwitz (I half expected to see a sign at the Convention Center reading "FEMA Macht Frei").

That weekend, Jordan's college roommate happened to be getting married in Jeckyll Island, GA. She decided she might as well go, after which she would return to Covington,LA to be with her parents. I decided to head back to New York, where I could stay with friends in the city and my mother on Long Island. Halfway to New York was Charlottlesville, VA where my strange and beautiful ex-neighbor, Annie lives... (to be continued)

Sunday, November 20, 2005

...For Tomorrow We Die


Among people "in the know" (mostly conspiratorial Jewish cabals), it is widely accepted that life is a meaningless and needlessly lengthy death march of chaos, misery, and unrequited love. However, local Acadian lore has it that there are certain simple pleasures that allow one to endure and even (for the spiritually advanced) find a modicum of contentment until destiny does its part. These are said to include dining (notably on fried chicken, duck, and bread pudding), divorcing oneself from sobriety (Chartreuse anyone?), and not having to watch your hometown being wiped off the face of the map by weather stupidly mimicking the book of Genesis.

Alas, into each life some rain must fall. It is therefore particularly joyful for the unbowed citizens of this retrenched metropolis to watch their old bars and restaurants spring back up like beautiful, blooming perrenials. Our neighborhood alone has seen the rebirth of Parasol's, Cafe Reconcile, The Circle Bar, The Saint, Le Petite Grocery, The Half Moon, The Ugly Dog Saloon and plenty others.

Over the past couple of days I've had the deep pleasure of eating with my friend, Bebe- a uniquely beautiful woman, endlessly engaging conversationalist, sympathetic ear, reasonable negotiator (important for splitting appetizers and desserts), and all around delightful dining partner.

Jordan, Bebe, and I went to dinner Friday night at Casamento's, the classic oyster house on Magazine St. and Napolean. The floor and walls are all tiled, the service is pleasantly taciturn (at least they were avant le deluge; we had this chatty little thing wait on us this night), and the food is consistently delectable. Of course, the big question was: "If we eat the raw oysters now, what is going to happen to our bodies?"

We ordered a couple dozen, made our cocktail sauce, and waited with some trepidation. The oysters were really not up par- most were reasonably tasty, but a handful were rather sickly looking. The good news is that we didn't vomit the whole night. Jordan got the crab claws which were great. Bebe and I each got half an oyster loaf which was very good, but I think a little smaller than they used to be. The coffee was very refreshing, especially after drinking the swill they serve in New York City for two months.

The next day Bebe took me for a wonderful lunch at Lilette, where I never had been. Our mutual friend, Kate, was our waitress. Before the storm, Kate worked as a nursing home administrator tending to old jewish women who accused her of stealing their dresses. Despite pulling down some nice money at Lilette, she hopes to return to her alta kockers soon- to each his own. In any case, if she's still there you should sit in Kate's section. Otherwise, you can request our other friend who works there, Will, who can and will turn anything you say into a double entendre (just don't order the pork belly from him).

We started with some good cocktails- a sidecar for Bebe, and a Makers, Ricard, Lemon-Lime thing for me. We shared the gnocchi in brown butter sauce for an appetizer. Bebe got a very tasty pulled pork sandwich with fries for her entree. I moved on to a roasted eggplant on focaccia sandwich and a glass of white wine. Then for dessert we split a chocolate bread pudding which met my high bread pudding standards. The coffee was great. Bebe paid for lunch. It don't get better than that. Everything just digests so nicely.

We spent the evening on Julia St., where all the galleries were having their openings for the first time since the hurricane, including The Lemieux Gallery where Jordan works. Art Openings on Julia are not usually my thing- too crowded, among other complaints. But seeing a bunch of people out walking the streets going from gallery to gallery was a nice piece of vivacity, and another sign of reemergence. Also, every place had free wine.

I ended the evening by joining the neighorhood congregation for midnight services at Parasol's. The parishioners were all filled with some holy spirit by the time I arrived, and some were speaking in tongues. The sanctuary was packed, so I took my Abita Restoration Ale (highly recommended) from Father Frankie and stood in back of the pews with local hero, Justin Gricus.

The Irish Channel is not the Garden District, so the less fortunate often gather around the bar at Parasol's. Actually, we are just a block away from the Garden District and there are a lot of coked-up lawyers in the bar (good people and epic drinkers, they are), but the point is this: whether you're down on your luck or just too strung out on blow, everybody runs out of cigarettes sometimes. And just when you need him most, like the footprints in the sand, Justin Gricus is there for you. Gricus- who will cook you up a mean po-boy back in Parasol's kitchen (so long as the Red Sox game is not on)- has been bumming out Marlboro Lights to those in need, like Jesus with the fish and loaves, for years now.

But why, you ask me, is this night different from all other nights?
On this night, unlike all other nights, I had packs of cigarettes for Gricus.
Earlier in the day I had received my yearly free carton from Amercan Spirit. I proudly handed a couple of packs to Gricus, who was utterly confused by the transaction, but I think grateful nonetheless.

Carrying my last beer out the door with me at the end of the night, I saw one of my fellow drinkers vainly trying to mount his bicycle. He would put one foot on a pedal, try to raise himself up, and immediately fall off. He looked frustrated and forlorn. I offered my help and, despite his sheepish protests, grabbed the back of his seat and steadied the bike.

"Go ahead and give it a try," I instructed.

He managed to gingerly lift himself on the bike and started to pedal a bit.

"You still got it?" he asked, unsure of his balance.

"I got it," I said reassuringly as I began trotting to keep pace.

Halfway down the block I let go.

"You still got it?" he asked again.

"No man. You're doin' it! You're doin' it by yourself!"

He rode off into the night, cruising across Magazine Street with reckless abandon. I like to think he made it home alright.

We look out for each other here in The Channel.

From One Legend to Another...


The other night I went to the reopening of Mid City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl. Mid City Lanes is a hoary, old score-it-yourself bowling alley that's been around since 1941, according to the sign. Sometime in the late 80's John Blancher, an insurance salesman and native New Orleanian, went to Yugoslavia because people were seeing visions of Mary, and he wanted in. He didn't see any virgins in Yugoslavia (at least he doesn't make mention of any on his website), but he prayed for direction and came back to New Orleans and bought a bowling alley. He started having live music at Mid City Lanes soon after taking over- often old school New Orleans R&B legends.

For the reopening, they had Eddie Bo, the local "junker" piano great who plays every New Orleans song you've heard 3,000 times before. Rockin' Dopsie, who is like a pentecostal preacher on some bad acid, joined Eddie to sing a couple. Also on hand was Ernie K-Doe's widow, Antoinette.

I don't even no where to begin in trying to explain the phenomon that is K-Doe. When Camus spoke of the necessity of leading an "Absurd Life," he surely had Ernie K-Doe on his mind. Indeed, some revisionist literary critics and outlaw philosophers contend that K-Doe was the model for Meursault, in spite of the obvious chronological discrepancy.

K-Doe, the original King of Kings, was born Ernie Kador in New Orleans, 1936. In all the many paeans to his genius, I have never see it remarked upon that the man had that foresight to change his last name to its own phonetic spelling (in accordance with local dialect). Ernie became a musician-philosopher, the likes of which we shall not see again. As he himself said: "There have only been five great artists in the history of rhythm and blues -- Ernie K-Doe, James Brown, and Ernie K-Doe."

He had a hit with the R&B classic, "Mother-in-Law," a sort of "Paradise Lost" meets "Throw Mamma Off the Train" Faustian allegory of rebellion and doomed love. As such, it reveals more about the tragedy of marriage in three verses than I could ever hope to say. In 1994, he opened the Ernie K-Doe Mother-In-Law Lounge, a bar, music venue, and shrine to Ernie K-Doe. The Lounge features a lifesize wax statue of Ernie, with a radio transmitter built into it that broadcasts over and over (on 1500 AM) something like: "Ernie K-Doe is the Emperor of the Universe. Ernie K-Doe is the Emperor of the Universe..."

K-doe's wife, Antoinette, has been running the lounge since his death in 2001. For the two year anniversary of his death she arranged a parade in which Ernie's statue was transported in a Popemobile from the Mother-in-Law to Rock'n'Bowl. Which brings us back to...

The highlight of the evening, when Eddie Bo invites Antoinette up on stage to sing one. Unfortunately, her microphone was off the whole time so you couldn't hear her, but her stage presence said it all. After bringing the crowd to its knees with her silent version of "Te Ta Te Ta Ta," she went over to Eddie to thank him. Holding his mic, which happened to be on, she said:

"Eddie, from one legend to another, I just wanna tell
you that we're gonna rebuild this city. And to all my
fans I wanna say that the Mother-in-Law will be back and
Ernie K-Doe- I broke his statue into three pieces and
put it in a closet and HE'LL BE BACK!"

The packed house roared its approval, and then it was on to the third rendition of "Cissy Strut" of the night...

Saturday, November 19, 2005

ARC to the Rescue




I'm upstairs at my computer writing a letter of
congratulations to my friend Sarah Debacher (the
etymology of her surname alone makes her worth
knowing). Sarah has moved back to her marigny/bywater
house and has announced her engagement to a British
expat named Simon (not jewish, but a real nice chap
nonetheless). As most of you know I don't approve of
the institution of marriage. I don't like ceremonies
to begin with, and the idea of seeking the approval of
god, state, family, or friends for what is rightfully
the business solely of the two people in question is
anathema to me. Also, I happen to just come across a
passage of Kundera's "Book of Laughter and Forgetting"
in which he asserts that "Rape is an integral part of
eroticism." While, I'll set aside judgement on that
particular pronouncement, it did prompt the thought
that marriage is rape without the eroticism.

Nonetheless, I really like wedding cake and I'm
genuinely happy that Sarah has found such success in
love. So, I'm in the middle of telling her what food
and liquor to have at the wedding (roast duck, bread
pudding, bushmills, etc) when I hear this guy shouting
through a megaphone out on the street. My first
thought was that it was someone yelling about Jesus,
which I have absolutely no tolerance for these days. I
walk towards the balconey ready to unleash a stream of
profanity, and then I see that its some kind of truck
with flashing lights and the guy is saying "I got...,
We got..."- I couldn't hear what he had, but I was
excited anyway. Secretly, I'm hoping it's an ice cream
truck. But I realize that's not likely, because there
are no children in the city at this point and what
kind of crazy fuck starts up an ice cram truck
business in a half-empty town of drunk hurricane
victims? I get outside and I see this big
ambulance-looking thing with a food-service window on
one side and the American Red Cross symbol painted all
over. Then I hear the mehaphone guy inside the food
ambulance more clearly: "Hot Dogs! We got hot dogs
here!" Like it's a goddamn baseball game! I went up
and got a couple of dogs and a bottle of water (alas,
no peanuts or crackerjacks). I sat down on the porch
with Lenny and we each ate a frank (not bad, but not
Zephyr Field) and I talked to Lenny about what I
thought the Yanks should do in the offseason.

So in case you wondering where all that Red Cross
money was going...

Friday, November 18, 2005

Back in the Saddle


"What need is there to weep over parts of life, when
the whole of it calls for tears."
-Seneca

Friends and Lovers,

I'm back in this strange disaster of a town one week
now. Jordan picked me up at the airport Tuesday night.
Lenny made it through the flight fine, though he did
chew through his brand new $70 Sherpa Bag so he could
peek his head out (scaring the shit out of the old
black grandma sitting next to me).


Much of the city was dark as we took I-10 back to St.
Charles. Our neighborhood isn't too much worse for the
wear. It has the comprehensible feel of a place that
took a pretty bad hit but is getting back on its feet.
A good amount of houses are empty, with piles of
trash in front of them. You see a roof here or there
collapsed, but most just have the ubiquitous blue
tarping over them until people get the insurance money
to reshingle. The Humvees full of National Guardsmen
rolling down the street are a new feature, but their
patrols seem to be winding down.


Most stores are still boarded up. Only a handful of
restaurants have reopened and those are keeping limted
hours. This presents a particular challenge to me,
seeing as I usually don't eat my first meal until
about 1 or 2 in the afternoon. Most places are closing
down just as I'm getting ready for my lunch at 6 or 7.
For dinner, I'm reduced to eating the MRE's Jordan has
stocked up- not bad, but not Brigtsen's. We didn't
have a refrigerator to store groceries until a couple
of days ago. Now we're back to normal- working
refrigerator, no groceries. If anybody has any excuses
I could use as to why I couldn't get to the store for
milk and eggs before it closes at 6, send 'em my way
(don't bother with "I was drunk"- I've already tried
it a few times without success).


Fortunately, the barowners have realized their
obligations to the community and are quickly getting
back towards normal hours of operation. I went with
our friend, Dr. Mike, to Les Bon Temps for The Soul
Rebels Brass Band's regular Wenesday show. The place
was as packed as ever and the band shook the house
until the morning hours. It was good to hear that
music again. It amazes me that people in other cities
can't just go out on any weeknight and listen to
second line.


The awnings outside of Parasol's were knocked down by
the storm, but the building is still standing and the
barroom is brimming at all hours. The atmosphere is
warm and full of welcome-home hugs and "do you believe
this shit?" comraderie. Debbie is back behind the bar
in the afternoon, Frankie at night. Justin is back in
the kitchen barking at customers ("You really think
ordering extra mayo on your po-boy is gonna make
either of our lives any better!?"). And perhaps the
storm surges washed some absolution over us all, as a
couple of guys who had been 86'd from the bar (which
takes some doing) last year have been welcomed back to
their old stools. Carrie was subbing the other night
for an injured Frankie (Gout; probable for next week),
and was passing out shots of moonshine she had gotten
from the people who housed her for a while after the
storm in North Carolina. Everyone's telling their
evacuation stories and the occassional non-evacuation
story, which is always compelling. Spencer, a
Bukowski-looking guy with the same kind of snazzy
goatee and crooked teeth, but better dressed had this:


"So, after a couple of days I started walking around,
grabbing food and water from the stores that hadn't
been fully looted yet. I put three bucks and change in
my left pocket in case someone tried to rob me. I had
thirty bucks in my sock in case anyone was selling
cigarettes. And I put a knife in my right pocket, in
case it came to that. I stopped at a pay phone to see
if I could call out. I'm digging for change when I
hear someone pushing a shopping cart up behind me, and
before I could turn around this guy grabs me by the
back of my hair, slams my head into the phone, and
yells, "Gimme your money." I started to reach into my
left pocket for the three dollars, but then I felt
blood go into my eye, and it stung and I got really
angry all of a sudden. I said, "Hold on a second,"
reached into my right pocket, said "Here!", and I
stabbed him in his thigh. He screamed and quickly
limped off down the street pushing his cart full of
looted shit with his right hand and covering the wound
with his left hand. Later, I remembered that there's a
big vein right where I stabbed him, so I went back to
that street to check to make sure I didn't kill the
guy. There was only a little spattering of blood on
the sidewalk so I don't think I did."


On Friday I went to help my buddy Abram gut his house
in Mid-City. To this point I hadn't left the relative
normalcy of the Irish Channel and Uptown. I kept
hearing stories of unfathomable destruction in
Lakeview (where Jordan's parents' house is/was), St.
Bernard, and the Lower Ninth Ward- cars peeking out
from under rubble, boats upside down on the neutral
ground, houses in the middle of the street a block
away from their foundations. Mid-City doesn't have
quite this level of devastation, but it's pretty
fucked-up.

The first thing you notice is that there are no
people. Driving down Broad St from Louisiana to
Orleans, past O.P.P., and up some of the side streets,
and I didn't see a soul. The water lines are visible
on every building, few of which were spared serious
flooding. Trash is everywhere. Windows had been blown
out or smashed in. Every business, from the bail
bondsmen to McDonald's, was closed with no sign of
plans to reopen. When the sun went down, the whole
neighborhood was dark for miles.

We spent a few hours hammering at the plaster and the
wood, clearing away a couple of walls. It resulted
more in soreness than the catharsis and release I had
imagined, but it also felt more like rebuilding than
razing. After tossing our construction masks in the
pile of what was once a living room wall, we head to
the only establishment open nearby, Pal's Bar.


I haven't figured out if Pal's is a place that
everyone seems to like, but secretly hates; or a place
that everyone seems to hate, but secretly likes. It's
too bright to be a dive, too crowded to be a
neighborhood bar, too middle class to be a hipster
bar, too L.A. to be a New Orleans bar. In any case,
everyone goes there because there was never too much
else around those parts, and now it's the only game in
town. After a couple of drinks you forget about your
doubts and always end up having a good time (though
you can't bring yourself to admit it in the morning).

Abram was buying, so I was content right off. I put
back some Abitas while we speculated on the future of
our city, and thought of Mike Bloomberg while I lit
Dunhill after Dunhill at my barstool. Linda was
bartending. Jordan and I know Linda because she used
to own The Matador, the bar and rock club on Esplanade
and Decatur outside of which we set up our bookstand.
She had made onion soup for the drinkers in her little
plug-in crockpot.

[sidenote: The Matador was bought a couple of years
ago by Harry Anderson, the magician/judge from "Night
Court" who lives here with his hot wife (viddy
Mrs.Anderson @
http://home.twcny.rr.com/kotzin/wild.htm ). He had
some ferkakteh designs on turning the rock club into a
magic/comedy club with a nightly show featuring none
other than... Harry Anderson! Many people here happen
to rather like rock'n'roll and had thought it would
never die. These people took a dim view of Harry's
slef-indulgence. Jordan and I were upset because many
of our bookstand customers are alcoholics, and they
would no longer be passing by on their way for their
afternoon Matador bloody mary. For two years, Harry
couldn't get the thing up and running and the place
remained empty. Finally, this summer he opened. A few
months later, the place is again shuttered.]

We were having a fine old time when a large group of
funeral mourners walked into the bar. This young guy
from the neighborhood, a cook at Cafe Degas, had died
that week. Everyone walked over to Pal's after the
funeral to remember and to forget. Here's the Cook's
Katrina Story:

The Cook had weathered the storm, and now he had $4300
of FEMA money in his pocket and nowhere to be for a
long while. One of the charms of Cafe Degas was that
the restaurant was built around a beautiful old tree
that was located on Esplanade Ave. So the trunk of the
tree comes up out of the restaurant's floor, reaches
up through the middle of the dining space and
disappears into the roof. All this, like The Cook, is
past tense now. The hurricane winds felled the tree,
which tore through the roof and any hopes of a quick
reopening. He celebrated the start of his vacation
with an acquaintance of mine, some people from the
neighborhood, and a shitload of heroin. They all
nodded off and when they woke up, The Cook was still
asleep.


Someone in the bar raised his glass in eulogy, and the
place got quiet. I sat and listened respectfully;
though after spending the day tearing down my friend's
walls in his depredated neighborhood, I really just
wanted to light up another cigarette, play some
pinball, and shoot the shit. Just as the mood was
becoming oppresive, the words of praise and burial
came to a close with a rousing, unanimous "To The
Cook!" and everyone drank, a little cheerfully and a
little somberly, through the rest of the night as they
would have if it were still midsummer...




It's interesting to guage how definitively people have
or have not been changed by the storm. I'm
particularly surprised by how many people of the
latter stripe I've found. I walked into Parasol's
Wednesday night and Frankie, my bartender, was
finishing a conversation with Justin, my drinking
buddy, that I'm certain he had started in late August.
Frankie is a BIG motherfuckin' Arkansan, and the only
times I've seen him standing are when he's working
behind a bar. Otherwise, he's sitting in front of one,
or taking up a couple of seats at the racetrack. He
loves the Fairgrounds, and the only time he bothers to
mention the storm is to curse it for canceling our
horseracing season. Then he stoically moves on to the
subtleties of handicapping the track in Shreveport,
his substitute diversion ("I'm lookin' into the track
bias up there, 'specially in the mud. 'Nother Bud,
Wex?"). It's almost as if there was just too much
physical mass of the man to be moved much by a
rainstorm.


The people who have changed generally have fallen into
one of a few modes: The Relaxed Passive Suicide, The
Sage and Carefree Productive, The Nervously
Ultra-Productive, or The Utterly Lost. I probably
needn't drop many hints on my default mode- whatever
existentialist pretentions I had kept under wraps have
come out of the closet like a gay Kansas teenager let
loose in The Castro. For my fellow travelers in
fatalism and ennui, the swift and sudden annihilation
of multiple wards taught us that there's little reason
to rush to the finish line- You don't need a gun to
blow you mind, as the man said. Sip that Amber
tonight, savor the Jameson, smoke filtered lights if
it's easier on the throat. That our time is near is
obscenely evident- and it's that much easier to slowly
get up in the morning.


Outwardly akin to this breezy cohort are the people
who were trying to do something with their lives
before the hurricane- mostly independent women types
made morose and old before their time by their their
taxing ambitions. Now these people look and sound like
they just got back from a Zen retreat with Leonard
Cohen. When the levees broke, these people were
flooded with peace and wisdom. Linda from Pal's, for
example, had started a business earlier this year on
Magazine St (Magazines on Magazine) and owned a house
near the Industrial Canal. She was always nice enough,
but not particularly gregarious and seemed constantly
preoccupied with the quotidian chores of pushing her
life forward. She stayed bunkered in the Quarter
throughout the storm and its aftermath. Linda has had
to let go of her store on Magazine St, and no longer
has any house to speak of near the Industrial Canal.
But here she is bartending amidst the desolation of
Midcity, looking ten years younger, wearing a composed
and beatific smile. She's says she will get around at
some point to figuring out "the whole rebuilding
thing", but right now she's thinking up new dishes she
can make for the patrons in her plug-in crockpot ("You
can do a lot more than you'd think- there's stews,
casseroles, meatballs, chili..."). "Everyone suffered
from the hurricane," she tells me, "but I think the
experience also served me. In a way it's nice to start
anew." Ram Dass is serving me my Chartreuse!


Some of the pre-storm go-getters have just picked up
steam since, endeavoring that the city around them
will kick into gear by the sheer force of their
individual efforts, or otherwise collecting enough
momentum to outrun the next flood if the city is left
for dead. One guy has formed the Katrina Piano Fund,
making it his mission to see that every musician in
the city has a brand new instrument donated to him or
her, in hope that a music scene, which has had two
centuries of leisurely incubation, will spring to life
fully reborn in mid-November. Since the storm, Abram-
who my grandmother would describe as "having shpilkes"
in the first place- has leveraged his local nonprofit
"Neighborhood Storybook Project" into a monolithic
force rivaling the United Way, and still makes time to
fill up his own personal diary space in the Houston
Chronicle (http://blogs.chron.com/exile/) and donate
interview time to left wing radio shows. In the old
days, I would beat his ass up and down the racquetball
court, which I think had a tempering effect on him.
But with no functioning courts left in Katrina's wake,
he might run himself into the softened soil.

Alas, some folks, and one of my dear friends in
particular, have lost all traction whatsoever. They
float senselessly through their days and despondence,
seemingly ready to fade into the devastated landscape.
These are the people who really loved New Orleans and
wouldn't function well anywhere else. There's nowhere
to move onto if the city doesn't come back. I think
about my friend often throughout the day, but my
expressions of concern and attempts at comfort are
pitifully feeble. I'd rather not go on about it, as
the mood is infectious.


I'll try to keep you updated here and there on me,
Jordan, and Lenny and the City That FEMA Forgot (some
clever folks here have got a ringtone on their
cellphones that's a clip of Bush saying, "You're doing
a heck of a job, Brownie!"). In the meantime, thanks
to everybody who joined me for dinner along the way or
let me take a shit in their house or called to make
sure we were okay (the rest of you can send cash). I'm
sick of saying, "I'm more fortunate than most people"
but it's true, and not least because I have friends
who are mostly as smart and good-looking as I am.