Originally published in Arthur No. 20 (January 2006)
Illustration by Arik Roper
News From the Upper Nine
Henry Griffin goes back to New Orleans
“You are entering the city at your own risk. Police and fire services are limited. There is no 911 service. Traffic lights are out throughout the city. Observe a citywide speed limit of 35 mph, and proceed with extreme caution, especially around downed power lines. You are not permitted to go beyond your designated ZIP code area. Do not drink, bathe in or wash your hands in tap water. Standing water and soil may be seriously contaminated. Limit your exposure to airborne mold and use gloves, masks and other protective materials. Apply mosquito repellent and sunscreen. Bring sufficient food, water, gas and any medical supplies required to sustain you and your family, keeping in mind the curfew and store inventories may limit access to supplies. Gas stations are not fully operational. Fuel is limited.” —from a list of “tips” from the New Orleans Mayor’s office for dealing with the “urban hazards” of life in the 9th Ward in September, 2005
I’ve long used the introduction “I live in New Orleans” to break the ice at parties. This usually cheers people up, often sparking memories of a particularly debauched vacation. “How can you people live down there?” someone would inevitably ask, meaning “How do you keep from becoming an alcoholic?” Now the same question connotes differently, more of a “How could you live in that city knowing that you were doomed by its very design?” Of all the tragedies of Katrina, this hurts the most: our carefree lifestyle, our legendary tolerance, for alcohol, for iniquity and corruption, is now less a punchline than a cautionary tale.
You’d think from the apocalyptic prognostications of the national media that there wouldn’t be much of a city left to return to. Not so. Some areas are straight-up ravaged, that’s for sure. But your “average block” can be quite a mix, and even in the so-called “spared” neighborhoods, a hundred year oak may be splintered across some power lines.
My house is still there, a raised Creole cottage at the eastern-most tip of the upper Ninth ward, three blocks north of the river. I describe it this way, as that’s how I first re-located it, via a satellite photo posted on the web, after the cataclysm. I found my neighborhood from space, then my block and then my house. It was easy to pick out: there is an 80-foot pecan tree leaning against the roof. The good news is that it hasn’t fallen through and bisected the building. The bad news is that the tree has been there since July 5, a symptom of long forgotten Tropical Storm Cindy. In classic New Orleans fashion, it hadn’t been seen to by the proper authorities by the time Katrina hit eight weeks later.
Three weeks after Katrina, I returned to find my basement apartment had taken three feet or so of water. It had dried out by then but waterlines and a veneer of detritus told the story: my life had been coated with waste, human and otherwise. To keep the effect from being entirely humorless, the Almighty had thrown in a few frogs, who were now living in my office.
My urban salvage operation actually lightened my mood. Like most folks, I’d imagined losing everything I’d left behind. To get back even half of my stuff seemed almost unfair. I couldn’t breathe the spore-clogged air or touch anything with my bare skin, but rescuing keepsakes from the rising mold was as thrilling as the prize choosing finale of Wheel of Fortune. Things I’d owned and lost were now won back from oblivion. I was in such a good mood that first night that I almost brushed my teeth in tap water, mistaking this for any other major American city. Spill bottled water on the brush, I reminded myself. Like you’re in Haiti.
Some people suffered their share without losing a shingle. My friends Dave and Jennifer had to watch the whole storm from a vacation in Thailand (being late August, lots of folks were out of town). They returned to find their recent home purchase in fine condition. Then they noticed the stench out back. An unpleasant excavation followed, and a more unpleasant discovery: a visiting country’s National Guard, after having barracked in a nearby Catholic school, had used these civilians’ yard as a dump for their rotting garbage.
Things could have been far worse. They could have had a pile of trash dumped on their lawn by the enterprising earth mover, who was leaving his business card for the follow-up call to remove said pile (in order to dump it on his next intended customer). They could have been arrested for a curfew violation by the Wyoming National Guard or the NYPD, who’ve been patrolling New Orleans due to our cop shortage, and been put behind bars at the bus station, which is Orleans Parish’s prison since the real one was flooded. They could have been blindsided by a hit and run driver who speeds off, uninterested in trading insurance information without the rule of law (I witnessed such an incident). They could have had their house gutted by looters. They could have absentmindedly opened their refrigerator.
Those early weeks after Katrina, people were very well-behaved. Streets were empty and quite peaceful, passersby waved hopefully. The de-electrified environment and low population lulled us into a sense of temporary historical atavism. By which I mean, the neighborliness was positively Amish.
Imagine that all the things you loved about your home were taken away. Instead of food you get 24 varieties of MRE (avoid the Thai Chicken); drinking water comes in cans supplied by Anheuser Busch. Where your favorite vegetable truck used to park, now there’s an upside down Volkswagen that had caught fire. Long tree-lined avenues like St. Charles and Esplanade have been given arboreal crewcuts by the storms, leaving the shade compromised. Friends and neighbors aren’t around too much, but you do get daily visits from assorted rescue workers, most double-checking that each house’s spray-painted sigil is still accurate.
And, after a while, civilization returns, one service at a time. Electrical power! Gas! Cable! DSL! Sanitation! Could the mail, once the invincible standard of civil service, be far behind?
* * *
The anarchic spirit of a functional ghost town couldn’t last forever. As the population rose in September and October, the town got crankier. Four-way stops, once an opportunity to wave at a kindly stranger, now began to prompt the waving of just a single special finger. The long-awaited return of recognizable first world civilization tested the patience of many thousands.
And yet…Each restaurant or bar that reopened became an opportunity to rejoice. By Halloween, the city’s Dionysian personality was returning in force, and celebration was beginning to become a goal in and of itself, which seemed familiar. What festivities there were spilled into the streets, as they used to do. For Halloween, the most popular costume was a refrigerator wrapped in duct tape, spray-painted with the address of George W. Bush or Tom Benson, the reviled Saints owner who intends to move our hopeless but beloved football team to San Antonio.
There were a lot of smiles, a lot of back slapping and story trading, even among people who had just traded introductions. We all knew this one new thing about each other. That we would, and did, come back. Even redefined, this tainted city, one that wasn’t exactly in mint condition when we got it, would be ours again if we want it.
* * *
If everybody doesn’t return (and how could they all?), will New Orleans lose its most essential asset, its culture? It’s hard to say. But maybe it isn’t so tragic. Maybe it’s the case that every person who doesn’t get back is somehow happier somewhere else, where they have air conditioned schools, and a lower murder rate, and better jobs—jobs that aren’t in the tourist, service and gambling industries. Who can blame them? Who in their right mind would come back, to a city of corrupt politics, looting cops and dwindling protection from the elements?
The answer, of course, is those who can’t imagine living anywhere else.
Henry Griffin, a fifth generation New Orleanian, is a writer and director whose films include Mutiny and Tortured by Joy. He organizes his books by color, trading organization for the pleasing effect of his shelves viewed from a distance. Since the storm, he is fresh out of blue books.