Letters Fom Nowhere

Premodernist Life in Postapocalyptic New Orleans

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.

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