Roy Blount Jr. gives the insider’s scoop on New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Nowhere else would I start the day with a breakfast of oysters and beer and feel just fine about it. This is my eighth trip to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. For a good while after that catastrophe, New Orleans smelled bad. Can you imagine? But as I walk over here at noon to Felix’s Oyster Bar, which has finally reopened, I inhale a bouquet compounded of olive salad, tropical blossoms, fresh mule manure, and just a hint of something else—rosemary? My head is pulsing slightly from last night, but it’s pulsing rhythmically, because of what I can’t get out of it and wouldn’t if I could: the refrain I heard a gospel group called the Dynamic Smooth Family sing yesterday, over and over, in the gospel tent at Jazz Fest. "Ain’t no party like a Holy Ghost party, ’cause a Holy Ghost party don’t stop."I ain’t no refugee no more!" shouted the group’s lead singer. "It’s good to be back home! And alive! Don’t you know somebody woke up this morning and didn’t have the action in their limbs. But you and I, we’re here!"
Yes we are. To tell the truth, it was a while after I woke up this morning before I regained the full action in my limbs. And I hadn’t felt so virtuous since the last time I helped an old lady with a duck in her purse cross the street—which I did once, many years ago, in New Orleans. The old lady wouldn’t admit I was helping her, and neither would the duck, but I didn’t mind because I was delighted to be interacting in any way with that famous, ferocious character called Ruthie the Duck Lady. Ruthie isn’t around anymore, but during the most recent Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans I saw a bushy-faced fat man in a nun’s habit. He was singing Louis Armstrong’s "A Kiss to Build a Dream On."
In the gospel tent yesterday, a member of another singing group asked, "Who all want to go to heaven when they die?" Maybe 200 hands went up. "Who all livin’ like they want to go to heaven when they die?" Only one hand went up.
"What’s wrong with you?" the singer asked the owner of the one hand. As it happened, the tent was being buffeted by a raging thunderstorm, but that was nothing compared to what the city has survived. Leaving Jazz Fest I had to wade through two feet of water and a big crowd wading in. Where else can you do good by misbehaving?
When I say "do good," I mean help keep a great American city alive. And when I say "misbehaving," I don’t mean, necessarily, pursuits that are, so to speak, nothing to write home about. Las Vegas’s current marketing campaign, "What happens here, stays here," wouldn’t fit New Orleans.
For one thing, New Orleans is not good at mounting campaigns. "Laissez les bon temps rouler," the city’s French-ish motto, relies upon the assumption that in New Orleans, good times will roll if you let them. And they will. Still. Just walk down a New Orleans street and watch out: If you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself dancing in it.
Even now. In the two years or so since Katrina, most of the hotels and restaurants and music venues have reopened. The parts of New Orleans that have always drawn out-of-towners are back in business. Take a look around the Sliver by the River, as it’s called—the French Quarter, the Garden District, the Warehouse District, the Magazine Street shops, Uptown, and the Faubourg Marigny—and you’d never know that in August of 2005, the city was almost wiped out.
Except that you do know. That’s another reason the Vegas campaign doesn’t apply here: What goes on in New Orleans—jazz, gumbo, whoopee, disaster—doesn’t stay, it gets out. The world knows that big stretches of New Orleans are still mostly deserted, that the population is only nearing two-thirds of what it was before Katrina, and that the people who live in the Big Easy still face hardship as the city’s voodoo-and-corruption infrastructure slowly reimprovises itself.
The musicians, kitchen workers, oyster shuckers, buskers, bartenders, and assorted characters without whom New Orleans would lose its savor are collectively an endangered species, because so many of them used to live in neighborhoods that were relatively inexpensive and now are gone. Where housing does survive, the shortage of it has driven up rents.
You can do something. You can come to New Orleans and make merry, and spend money.
Does that sound crass? Would you not feel right about kicking up your heels in a town where people are living in FEMA trailers, waiting for long-promised relief funds, and mourning homes and family members swept away in the storm?
Consider this: You’ll be indulging in what would no doubt be regarded as overeating, overdrinking, laughing too loud, and staying up too late anywhere else. In New Orleans these activities are normal, and essential. And they’re a sound investment. Who can say what has become or will become of tax and charity dollars designated for New Orleans relief? But when you buy another po’boy or another Sazerac cocktail and tip the band pretty heavy at daybreak, you know (whether or not you will remember very distinctly) where that money has gone.
You don’t want to be too much like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, saying, "I don’t want realism. I want magic!" So go look at the long stretches of New Orleans that were flooded out. Take one of the devastation bus tours, but be mindful that some of your fellow tourists may not be as respectful as you are. Local people who come back to check on what used to be their homes are not gratified by the spectacle of visitors posing for pictures on what is left. If you get to the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East and St. Bernard Parish and Lakeview, it won’t be as shocking as it was when houses were squashed together, cars were in trees, and the only signs of life were placards saying we gut houses and heartbroken people picking through rubble for family photographs.
And when you return to the high ground that absorbed the least damage, you won’t be in a bubble. New Orleanians are not shy about sharing what is on their minds. You’ll be seeing defiant T-shirts—MAKE LEVEES NOT WAR OR IT TAKES MORE THAN A BITCH NAMED KATRINA—and everywhere you go, you’ll hear about the storm.
If the preservation of irreplaceable traditions of music and cuisine doesn’t strike you as sufficient cause to frolic in that context, then do it for the penguins. You may think that coming to New Orleans for the penguins is like coming to Casablanca for the waters. If so, you have been misinformed. Check out the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, down by the Mississippi River cattycorner to Canal Street.
"Ernie and Fanny are 25," says Tom Dyer, one of the penguins’ keepers. "Snake is only 6. Now Ernie has a nest with each of them. He’s over four times as old as Snake—why she goes with him I don’t know."
Penguin triangles may be eternal, but New Orleans penguins are a special case: They survived the deluge. The aquarium’s staff wanted to stay with their charges, but the police made them evacuate, and while they were gone the generator that aerates the water and maintains temperatures went out. "Most of the fish died," Dyer says. "When I came back into the darkness with a flashlight and counted all 19 penguins . . ." Dyer’s relief and the penguins’ were mutual. For a while, the penguins holed up in Monterey, Calif. Now they’re back, all still alive except for one, Patience, who lives on in Hurricane on the Bayou, the Imax film about Katrina that plays at the aquarium.
The film features scary-vivid storm footage, and it also lays out what an enormous undertaking it would be to make New Orleans secure from storms like Katrina or worse. The whole area around New Orleans, the wetlands that used to serve as natural buffers, needs to be reconstructed. You may want to devote some time to wondering how likely that is to happen, given how dysfunctional the relationships between the city, state, and federal governments were during the storm and have continued to be since.
A good place for reflection as you leave the aquarium is the peaceful river promenade near Jackson Square known as the Moon Walk, after former mayor Maurice "Moon" Landrieu, who was popular. The incumbent mayor, Ray Nagin, cuts an elegant earthy figure. While watching him officiate in a Mardi Gras ceremony by the river here, I heard a young woman say, "I could just kiss him all day, and like it." That is by far the most wholehearted expression of enthusiasm for this mayor that I have heard. Last summer Nagin put the high crime rate in perspective as follows: "It’s not good for us, but it also keeps the New Orleans brand out there, and it keeps people thinking about our needs."
In fact it keeps a lot of people who might otherwise enjoy coming to New Orleans thinking about staying away. It is true, as the tourist bureau says, that the city’s violent crime is concentrated in the underpopulated, flood-blighted areas, where thugs prey on isolated resettlers and on each other. But crime has always been one aspect of New Orleans in regard to which out-of-towners should exercise prudence. It’s a great city to walk in, but at night, if you have to go more than a few well-lit blocks, phone a cab ("Don’t get excited, call United" is what locals say about the most prominent company).
On the Moon Walk, it’s just breezy enough to make the day sultry in a good way. A man is sitting on a bench by himself, playing "Ain’t She Sweet" on the trumpet. He gives his name as Alexander Clyde. He says he’s been living in Morgan City, bayou country 90 miles or so to the west, "since Katrina ran me out of town. It took my house, wife, family, everything. Picked up the foundation, I mean. I put three kids through college playing music here. Now I’m back trying to find a place to live.
What used to be $300 is $1,500. But that Morgan City . . . I woke up one night, there’s a banging on the front door. I got my 12-gauge ready—‘Who is it?’ Well, it was an armadillo fighting a possum. That is too country for me. You ever watch a 14-foot alligator eat a raccoon? Whoo!"
Speaking of eating. From the Moon Walk it’s a short stroll to Annette’s on Dauphine Street. It’s a no-decor, lunchroomy sort of place where Annette Truschinger, originally of Morocco, can give you directions in French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Hebrew, Arabic, or English and can whip you up grilled grape leaves and hummus or a creole omelet. Her place has appeared in novels by James Lee Burke and has hosted Alec Baldwin and Queen Latifah.
As Katrina approached, Truschinger boarded up Annette’s and evacuated. She drove around with her daughter, two grandkids,and a dog, taking a look at other towns. None of which they could stand. "The baby got New Orleans food in her soul," Truschinger says. "In Dallas, she say to me, ‘Mimi, this food’s nasty. When we going home?’ " When they did go home they found the restaurant a shambles. "Before Katrina I did 200 omelets a day," Truschinger says. "Now, I hardly do anything at all." She’s missing her old local customers. You can fill in for them.
But you will also want to eat more lavishly. Check out some of the finer restaurants that you may not have heard of: Cochon, Dick and Jenny’s, and on Tchoupitoulas Street just out of the Quarter, what may be the best restaurant in town, August. Try the salad of heirloom beets, crabmeat, Allan Benton’s cherrywood bacon, mizuna, and quail eggs with blackeyed pea croutons, or Jim McCloud’s rabbit cooked two ways over artichokes barigoule and squash blossoms . . .
Sound decadent? Know ye then that August’s owner and chef, John Besh, a New Orleans native and as unassuming a fellow as you could want to meet, is a hero of the storm. He rowed a boat through the floodwaters trying to rescue all his employees, and he fed hundreds of FEMA workers with free po’boys and gumbo.
Or you could go Uptown on Magazine Street near the western edge of the Garden District to Casamento’s. Do it for the fried oysters, the ultimate in fresh moistness enfolded in toothsome crunch. And do it for Joe Casamento Jr., who spent his whole life living above the gleaming, green-and-cream-tiled joint founded by his father, never really ate anywhere else himself, and died the night he evacuated New Orleans for Katrina.
The last time I was in town there was a banner over St. Philip Street: "THANK YOU VERY MUCH to all those who came and helped us in our time of need, to the volunteers who are helping us clean, recover and rebuild; to the police, fire and military personnel who rescued us and keep us safe, to EVERYONE who helped, we greatly appreciate everything everyone has been doing for us."
You can join those ranks. New Orleans is a crazy old lady who has had some severe health problems, but she’s up and around again and is still a great cook and dancer. Pay her a visit, and she’ll show you a good time. Go now, if you can. She may not live forever.
Photography by Eugenia Uhl
This article was first published in January 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.