Daniella's Misadventures
Monday, November 21, 2005
Journey Home

The first thing you notice on your approach to New Orleans from the West (we had a connecting flight from DFW) is the dead vegetation over the spillway. The spillway is a marshy area between the city's northern suburbs and the lake. The area is usually green and verdant, but since the toxic floodwaters were pumped out of the city and into the spillway, most of the greenery is brown. And dead.

The airport, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, was eerily empty and quiet. When I looked up at the arrival list on the monitors, there were only five flights listed for the whole day. I had to bite back tears.


Driving into the city from the airport, things almost seem normal. Then, upon closer inspection, they are so far from normal, it's like an alternate universe. There are "blue roofs" on every other house. The blue roofs are FEMA tarps nailed down over roofs that are badly damaged, or in many cases, just gone. In Metairie, New Orleans' largest suburb just north of the city, life is moving on. The traffic snarls are horrendous, but coming from New Jersey, they don't seem so out there to me. If you look at the scenery out the car windows, though, you start to notice the damage. There are still so many traffic lights down or facing the wrong way, street signs mangled and light posts down.

And the trees, oh the trees.

New Orleans has always been known for her beautiful trees--majestic oaks that canopy her streets. So many are dead or dying. Top branches are so sparse, it looks like a whole different city. Giant, thousand year old oaks lie uprooted, in many cases across people's houses.


There are signs everywhere for everything. Drywall removal. House gutting. Roof repair. Mold removal. Lawyers. Lawyers and more lawyers. They probably have the most signs up of anyone. It looks like some sort of horrid political campaign on steroids.


We drive on to Lakeview. To the area of the levee breach.

There are pictures and we've all seen them, but nothing does it justice. It's indescribable and so, so very sad. As you turn onto West End Boulevard, a turn I used to make every single day to get to my office, you are greeted with a mound of debris as high as a six story building. It's like nothing I have ever seen. Someone told me last night that they read in the paper that the storm created more garbage in a single incident than the entire city of New Orleans had created in the previous thirty years. And the neutral ground (median for you folks not familiar with New Orleans' distinct linguistics)on West End boulevard is where the city is dumping it. You see hot water heaters, desks, tree limbs, beds, clothes, moldy drywall. It's all here. Piled six stories high.

Someone told me that there's a plan to shred it and create housing insulation. I wouldn't want that shit in my house.

The smell of seawater and decay gets stronger as we near my aunt's apartment. You can see the rising water line on the houses here. It's at the eaves in most cases. Ten or twelve feet high. All the trees, grass and shrubs are dead. It's so quiet I can hear my breath. Here and there you see a person wandering around, dazed, looking at the detrius of their life. It's been nearly three months since the storm.

My aunt's pool is black and smells horrible. There are mosquitoes and flies feasting on the scum on top. The downstairs apartment has a trail of mold moving up the walls. My aunt's door was bashed in by the rescuers and has a spray painted code that says that no one was found inside. Some other houses that we pass have different codes on them. I try not to think about what those may mean. My aunt's apartment still has its fridge. The landlord hasn't removed it yet. We beat a hasty retreat from the smell.


My parents' neighborhood looks alright. Most New Orleanians are calling the area, one of the few not flooded, the "bubble." As in, "have you been outside the bubble yet?"

So many houses have for sale signs out and most have a banner that says "reduced price." The real estate boom that many forecasted would occur in the non-flooded neighborhoods has failed to materialize. Many people are commuting to Houston or to Baton Rouge. Everyone is so friendly but lost. They have sad eyes. My friend Jane says everyone's on something now. Prozac. Zoloft. Xanax. People who wouldn't even take an aspirin are heavily medicated to deal with daily life.


My friend Buddy, who's a lawyer in the DA's office, lost everything. His house and all his rental properties. His flood insurance is paying, but because it's a federal program, it's capped at $350,000. Think about that for a moment. How much is your entire life worth?

Buddy calls and tells us to meet him at the Banks St Bar in Mid-city. Their grand re-opening party is tonight. We pick up another friend and head down there. Mid-city was badly flooded and had a lot of raging fires. The power is completely out. As we drive further and further into darkness, I wonder if he gave us the right directions. There is nothing around in Mid-city and the night darkness is so complete. There are no people, no cars, no signs of civilization.

Suddenly there it is. A bar lit entirely by votive candles and a generator powering the beer cooler and the amp for the band. There are hundreds of people there, dancing to a latin swing band and hugging and talking. It's an amazing scene. A sign of the city's resilience even in the face of this horror.

"Welcome to the flood plain!" Buddy says, as he gives me a hug. His hair is wild. He's staying with his parents uptown, but plans to move to one of the cruise ships that is providing temporary housing.

We head into the Bywater to Marky's Bar. We play shuffle board and tell jokes. At midnight the power goes out to a collective groan. We kiss a little in the dark and decide to call it a night. We had run a tab on our credit card because we were out of cash, but since there's no power the bartender just tells us it's free. "What can you do?" she asks.


It's Monday and the weather's so beautiful, it doesn't jibe with what we see around us.

New Orleanians are an ironic bunch--I guess we have to be to live in a hurricane's path, below sea level. The irony is on display in the many signs all around. Everyone's a comic as they wait for their refrigerators to be picked up.

We drive all over the city. It's a tour of life landmarks--here's the apartment I lived in, here's my old hair salon, the sushi bar where I used to wait tables, my drug store, and on and on. Some are ok, many are not. Near Frankie and Johnny's restaurant, which is still boarded up, we see an oak tree so massive, it dwarfs the car parked next to it. This tree was hauled here from somewhere else because I don't remember anything this big in my old neighborhood.

When we get to my childhood home, I lose it completely. The trees and grass are dead, the windows blown out and the water line is about four feet. I grew up in an area called Broadmoor, sardonically nicknamed Floodmore. My parents are so thankful that they sold that house 15 years ago.

(my old high school)


The New Normal

My best friend's husband is brilliant. Being brilliant, of course, means he's a kook. We have dinner at their house and he regales us with tales of the 'new' normal. In the new normal, Burger King is offering signing bonuses and all the white collar workers have been laid off. In the new normal, my friend's husband, who has two master's degrees and used to be the director of the Delta Blues Museum, is managing a looted hardware store at the edge of the flood zone.

He tells us about the red eyed zombies who walk up to the window of the hardware store and wordlessly hand him a nail. He asks them if they want more nails like it, but they just look back at him. They are in Flood Zone Denial. They just want what that nail used to be attached to. Only it's gone. Flooded out.

He says yesterday, a man came and bought two high wattage space heaters for his flooded house. He told the man to be sure not to plug them both into the same outlet.

"But I only got one that works!" the man said.

My friend pleaded with him for a little while, then, seeing that it was a hopeless cause, gave up. When telling us the story, my friend referred to the man as a "crispy critter."


After the storm, some of the boutiques on Magazine Street started making t-shirts that said "I {heart} NO." Apparently, the "I {heart} NY" brigade is threatening trademark infringement, so now all the t-shirts say "I {fleur de lis} NO." What the hell does that mean, anyhow?

The tacky t-shirt shops in the French Quarter are doing a brisk business selling rude t-shirts to the out of state contractors and various other blue collar carpetbaggers in town to make a quick buck on the rebuilding. My mother calls them the "roughnecks." They drive the wrong way down one way streets in their pick up trucks and toss litter on people's lawns. We see the most offensive t-shirt of all on Decatur Street. We can't believe anyone would wear such a thing, but it's their number one selling item. It says, "Katrina gave me a blow job I won't soon forget."

Yup. I felt sick too.


The French Quarter is the wild west. Brimming with the roughnecks, it's like a whole different place. There's no women or well-dressed people. All the galleries and boutiques are shuttered. In their place, t-shirt and tacky souvenir shops are peddling crap. The bars and strip clubs are overflowing.

We have a nice lunch at Bacco's and talk to the waitress. She's in grad school in Athens, GA, but came down to New Orleans to help out at the restaurant. Every restaurant has a limited menu. At the Napoleon House, they call it the MRE menu. Every restaurant and bar and retail establishment has a "Now Hiring" sign up and reduced hours.


When you ask people how they're doing, they all sigh. What can you do and we're going to make it work seem to the prevailing answers. My girlfriend who is a second year resident at a hospital that was flooded lost everything--her house, her job and a lot of her research. She didn't have flood insurance, so nothing's covered.

She tells me that she could cry and scream and feel sorry about all that she has lost, but what good would that do? She's just trying to look at what she still has --her family, her health, her friends.

Today's Thansgiving. I try to be like my friend and be thankful for all that has not gone wrong. It's hard. Maybe I'm not as sunny as her. I sit at my mother's computer and look out the window at a city with half its trees and at the bombed out house behind my parent's house--they had a gas leak and when the power came back on a few weeks ago, their house exploded.

We decide to drive down into the belly of the beast and see the worst of the destruction. We venture into the Lower Ninth Ward and Chalmette. After passing the checkpoints with relative ease and my dad's work badge, we start to look around. We fall silent, mouths agape. The destruction is complete. I think this is what Hiroshima may have looked like. There are really no words to describe it. The hardest is looking at the roofs. Some are neatly cut through, by rescuers. Others are hacked through violently, by people desperate to get out as the waters rose around them.

When we return to Uptown, bustling with reconstruction and life, we really are thankful to be back in the bubble.


On our last day in town the city throws a big "Welcome Home" concert along the river. The day is warm and breezy. I wear flip flops and sing along with Kermit Ruffins, Wanda Rouzan and others. There are grandmothers and hippie relief workers and uptown queens of carnival and ninth ward matrons and hipster artist kids and tattooed bartenders, all dancing together. It's quintessentially New Orleans.

We go to Felix's for oysters and abita beer and then to yet another bar lit by candlelight. My girlfriend, the doctor, discusses "toxic refrigerator smell" and PTSD. My friend, the hardware store manager, discusses "katrina patina"--the water stains on people's stuff. We all discuss what will be of New Orleans now.


Is New Orleans dead? I don't think so. Is it inexorably changed? No doubt, no doubt. It's still home, though. I know I'll cry when that plane takes off in a few hours.

Click here to see all the photos.
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Going Home

I'm going home on Saturday, for the first time since my wedding, after three cancelled trips-including my girls' weekend scheduled for the weekend after that bitch Katrina came to town. I am scared and nervous and excited and conflicted. As my mother warned, I should be prepared to cry.

I didn't write the essay below, but I wish I did. It's a great explanation of the city as it was. As I hope it can still be, but I doubt it. Anyway, here it is:

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Arthur White, a former New Orleanian now teaching in Breaux Bridge, writes:

New Orleans Yats: The New Spotted Owl

Katrina and her aftermath are now written into the pages of our history as two immense catastrophes. It will be all too easy to make the rebuilding of New Orleans a third one. This will happen inevitably if we don't understand what New Orleans was.

The outside world knows romantic, historic, fun-loving, gumbo-cooking, tourist New Orleans, and there is every reason to expect that this part - a very important part - will survive. There is a second New Orleans that consists of the port, industries, businesses, downtown high-rises, suburbs, shopping malls - the components of every American city. That can be rebuilt because we understand how to build an American city: you just let developers have at it and grudgingly add as little infrastructure as you can get by with. Many people, both in and out of the city, can't wait to see it rise, all new, shiny, clean, wholesome, clad in glowingly improved socio-economic statistics.

But the third New Orleans is where the city's soul lies - the soul that makes New Orleans utterly unlike any other American city. That soul is the product of the city's continuity. We have a few cities older than New Orleans; a few small ones (Savannah and Charleston) and a few neighborhoods in others have a similar continuity. But New Orleans was the only city where almost every component of the population, from richest to poorest, whitest to blackest, whether they were French, Spanish, African, English, Irish, Italian, or Latin American, had been rooted there for generations, if not centuries.

This was a product of the fact that, since the Civil War, New Orleans has never been a great place to get rich and therefore did not attract large numbers from elsewhere. But at the same time, its port has kept it living and growing, preventing it from becoming stagnant. Thus, it has spent the last 140 years on simmer. That has been the ideal circumstance to keep it marinating in its own juices, producing the only place in America where an urban folk-culture has been strong enough to stand up to the mass-produced pop culture that has extinguished local folkways all over the country.

There is an upper end to this culture, the Boston Club, the Krewes of Rex and Comus, the families with their personal waiters at Antoine's. They manage to be aristocratic without being stuffy - no small feat - and I think they will survive.

But the average Orleanians, the Yats (so-called from the greeting "Where y'at?") are the core of the city's culture and its most endangered species. Unexpectedly, they come in both black and white versions, typically living together in mixed neighborhoods. I knew them when I lived Uptown, but especially when I lived in Bywater, a part of the Ninth Ward.

In my Uptown neighborhood we routinely had real jazz funerals to see off the members of the Young and True Friends of Carrollton Benevolent Association, one of many burial societies that pool resources so that even the humblest can go out with style. Neighborhood kids played their own jazz in their backyard sheds instead of imported rock music. In the Ninth Ward I knew people whose neighborhood identity was so strong that they had never traveled to the other side of Canal Street. The neighborhood bars were powerful institutions that endorsed political candidates. Everyone knew the neighbors, first because you were probably related to them, second because people still sat on their stoops and socialized on the sidewalks.

Every tourist eats at the tourist restaurants, some of which haven't seen a real Orleanian in decades. But they don't know humble dishes like red beans and rice served on Mondays in every Yat household. When a Yat eats out, he goes to a place like Mandina's in Mid-City; a family enterprise that got its start as a speakeasy during Prohibition and serves turtle soup with chunks of turtle egg topped off with a dollop of sherry. In the Ninth Ward he eats garlic bread whose garlic has soaked out through the crust on the bottom - not available in other neighborhoods.

Does anyone outside Louisiana know the difference between Cajun and Creole . . . and that New Orleans isn't Cajun? You hear the difference in the inimitable Yat accent in which a sentence like "Wrench dem Ersters in de zink" makes sense. Female Yats address every stranger as "Dawlin'", "Sweethawt", or just "Hawt" for short. But your favorite waitress won't kiss you like she might if she were Cajun.

People know that New Orleans is Catholic and easy-going, but do they know that a convent at the back of the French Quarter used to raise money by betting on the horses? Could they imagine the man who told me one Mardi Gras that "The first time I got venereal disease I was dressed as Pope John XXIII." At my neighborhood convenience store I could choose from a wide array of Voodoo candles, including ancient ones dedicated to the "Five African Powers" and later ones to "Blessed Martin Luther King."

I am often bored at parties since I left New Orleans. People don't wear costumes and sing, and they go home before breakfast. We warmed up by singing Limericks for an hour or two at the King Charles the Martyr Party or the Viking Party, both of which were given annually for twenty years. It was not necessary to be invited or know the hosts; I would never have gone to the Viking Party if someone who crashed the King Charles the Martyr Party hadn't invited me to crash it. I'm still friends with those people. Where else would a successful physician have a plastic larger-than-life statue of a naked woman riding on a banana in the backyard?

People have read the Confederacy of Dunces, but do they know that while the reviewers in New York were praising the authors inventiveness in creating the characters, everyone in New Orleans was sure they personally knew all of them. I'm convinced that the main character was partly based on a man I knew who had re-named himself "Farouk Von Turk." Von Turk lived with his mother amid piles of old sheet music and was one of the founders of The New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra which played such classics as "If You Gonna Sheik on yo' Mama, yo Mama's Gonna Sheba on you."

Much of what bred this culture has been destroyed. It will be impossible to save the thousands of shotgun houses that are its natural habitat. The people who thought that the Ninth Ward was the whole world are scattered across the lower forty-eight. Many won't come back. Some of what went into the New Orleanian jambalaya - poverty, illiteracy, crime, and racism, - needs to be removed regardless of other considerations.

But this amazingly rich culture that has produced far more than its share of America's artistic, culinary, literary, and musical riches is likely to be gone before we notice that we miss it. Outside experts will have no chance to see it alive before they decide to bulldoze it into oblivion.

Many locals can't describe it because they are blind to it the way a fish is blind to water until he finds himself flapping helplessly on land. You cannot replace forty square miles of antique neighborhoods with a California vision of what a proper up-to-date American community should be and expect the soul of New Orleans to survive any more than a salmon can thrive in a parking lot.

We need to treat the Yat the way we do the spotted owl. That is, we need to restore the cultural ecosystem that provided his habitat. I wonder if anyone in Washington has even started to think of it this way? Is anyone thinking about how to provide more amenities and open space without destroying the dense fabric of the neighborhoods? There were hardly any garages in old New Orleans neighborhoods. What would be the consequences of introducing them? Are planners going to put back Markey's Bar or The Bright Star, both lynchpins of their respective Ninth Ward and Uptown neighborhoods? Will anyone dare to interfere with the property rights of the slumlords? What about the Mom and Pop grocery stores that made deliveries and extended credit; will they be back? Will there be Sno-ball stands? What aesthetic will take the place of the Victorian confections that turned Ninth Ward shotguns into wooden wedding cakes? Will anyone salvage the tall louvered shutters that covered all the shotgun doors and windows? What will they put them on if they do? How will extended families re-establish their neighborhood roots? How do we avoid the extremes of neo-Levittown or what an NPR commentator called "neo-precious?"

I don't see anyone in authority I can trust to ask these questions much less come up with wise and perceptive answers. New Orleans could easily become Disneyland, or Cleveland, or Pompeii. Only with the greatest care can it continue to be itself.

If no one understands how sensitive and how significant the New Orleans human ecosystem is, we will realize, a few years hence, that its been a long time since anyone called us Dawlin' and that America is a lot duller than it used to be.

Note from Arthur: My wife and I are originally from Florida. We lived seventeen years in New Orleans from 1970 to 1987 during which time I got a Ph.D. in history from Tulane and taught at the Isidore Newman School. Since then we've been in Cajun country where I teach at the Episcopal School of Acadiana. We live on the banks of Bayou Teche.
Wednesday, November 09, 2005
When it rains, it pours... or Why American Airlines Sucks

First, the rental car we got from the insurance company while they fix our car stinks like mold.

Then, American Airlines apparently cancelled my direct flight to New Orleans for Thanksgiving (booked in June) and rebooked me on a 6 AM flight with TWO stopovers without telling me. Had I not checked my seat assignments online today, I would never have known that my flight had been cancelled. Their response to me when I called to complain? Some corporately polite version of "shit happens." They offered to refund my money, but with a week and half until I travel, there are no directs left and the one-stopover flights cost a lot more than my refund would cover. I asked for an upgrade or some kind of consideration for the hassle and the fact that I now am spending two days of my vacation in transit, and I got nowhere. Anyone want to declare war on American Airlines with me?

Anyway, I just can't wait to see what crap tomorrow will bring. Yee-haw.
Tuesday, November 08, 2005
Can I have a do over?

Reasons I haven't been writing... we got in a car wreck, the cat needs surgery to the tune of $3,000, I've been sick for about a month, and I could go on.

So far, November has really sucked ass.