Bouncing Back in the Big Easy: New Orleans’ literary community rises from the ashes

In 2006, the great Sam Weller, one of my writing professors at Columbia College Chicago, asked me to write a story for Fictionary, an annual publication of the school’s Fiction Writing department. Sam was interested in the effects Hurricane Katrina had had on the ever-vibrant New Orleans literary community. Writing the article turned out to be one of the toughest, most rewarding tasks of my career, and it left me feeling like there might be some real hope for my adopted homeland’s recovery.

The section of Maple Street between Carrollton Avenue and Tulane University is one of New Orleans’ hidden gems, a slightly upscale strip of boutiques, restaurants and salons beloved by locals and largely undiscovered by tourists. Although floodwaters ravaged frat houses and campus buildings only a few blocks away, Maple Street remained relatively undamaged and was one of the first retail districts to rebound after Hurricane Katrina. Still, even five months after the storm, not everything is back to normal. The street’s two coffee shops remain shuttered, a major loss in a city that loves its java dark and bitter. Fortunately for area residents, Maple Street Book Shop is picking up the slack.

“We started brewing free coffee every morning on the porch,” says Rhoda Faust, Maple Street’s owner. “CDM coffee, the kind with chicory. We also had a bunch of books that we couldn’t return or that people had given us as donations, so we started a free book exchange on the front porch. And we got free wi-fi so people can go online and find out about their FEMA checks.”

The bookshop has long served as a sort of community center for locals, but with the city’s libraries still closed in the wake of post-Katrina layoffs, that function has become more essential than ever. Faust recalls the neighborhood’s response to Maple Street’s re-opening: “People were teary-eyed with joy. It was unbelievably moving. It made us feel like we were doing something important, for real. These people are in need… People come in and compare notes on how they couldn’t read after the hurricane. They say they just could not pick up a book for two weeks, or for some people even longer. It was part shell-shock, but also a sense of, ‘It’s hard enough being in this reality; I don’t want to escape into something pleasurable and then have to come back to my whole world being changed and here I am in this strange place.’”

Business has been good at Maple Street since New Orleanians started returning to their waterlogged homes, but Faust sees the sales figures as more than just a patriotic desire to bolster the local economy. “People have been buying books that are relevant and hopeful,” she says, noting the great demand for books by local authors, particularly titles dealing with Katrina and its aftermath. A recent in-store signing by Mike Dunne and Beverly Knapp, authors of America’s Wetland: Louisiana’s Vanishing Coast, drew the store’s biggest crowd ever. “Many autograph parties, we’re lucky if we get several bodies,” Faust says, “At this one, we ran out of books at the very end, so they said, ‘We’ll just come back next week.’ We’ve never had back-to-back autograph parties.”

Tom Piazza is another author whose work has been flying off Maple Street’s shelves. His most recent book, Why New Orleans Matters, is a heartfelt argument for preserving the city’s culture and history. “The impetus of the thing was that stupid remark by Dennis Hastert,” Piazza explains, “that maybe New Orleans wasn’t worth rebuilding. I thought, ‘If the Speaker of the House is saying something this stupid, there are going to be a whole lot of other people out there who don’t get why New Orleans has to live. Why it has to live.’”

Piazza wrote the book for Harper Collins in one month, working largely out of an abandoned cotton gin in his temporary home of Malden, Missouri, then hit the road for a national tour. “Most of the places where I read, there would be heavy concentrations of New Orleans people who had come. I don’t even take that as a testament to my book. It’s just that people really want to see New Orleans out there in the public consciousness. The New Orleans people you run into in other places are all just dying to get back. Worried, grateful to see the other New Orleanians in the audience. It became almost like a big reunion. Everywhere I went, people were passionately concerned about the fate of New Orleans.”

Back in the city, Piazza sees a familial atmosphere among returning writers, but he won’t necessarily say the bond is any tighter or looser than it was pre-Katrina. “It’s like red kryptonite in the old Superman comics,” he says, “You never knew what was going to happen to Superman when there was red kryptonite around. The storm was kind of like the universal red kryptonite. It affected everybody in different ways, but there are certain common things. Everybody’s forgetting stuff. Everybody’s borderline aphasic in one way or another.

“I say it better in my book, but I think at any given moment you’re a more exaggerated version of a part of yourself. You’re more observant, more oblivious, more sensitive, more energetic or completely exhausted. It’s like you’re put in a centrifuge and they separate out the strata. You’re usually more of an integrated personality, but I think everybody’s had their personalities disintegrated by this event.”

As an example of the city’s cooperative spirit, Piazza points to the thriving blogging community, where New Orleanians from anonymous high schoolers to best-selling horror writer Poppy Z. Brite keep each other and the rest of the nation abreast of the latest developments in the Crescent City. “There is a living literary community in New Orleans right now that’s sharing information, staying in touch,” he says. He also notes the many national media outlets that gave space to writers living and working in the Gulf Coast area in the storm’s aftermath.

Joshua Clark is one of those writers. Founder and editor of Light of New Orleans Press, a small publisher best known for producing the popular French Quarter Fiction anthology, Clark rode out both of the big storms in his apartment on Royal Street. Salon.com ran his daily accounts of life in the city immediately following Katrina, and Poets & Writers recently published his impassioned essay speculating on the sway New Orleans has long held over writerly types.

Clark has two words for displaced New Orleans writers now working elsewhere around the country: come back. Although he acknowledges that writers living in the city were initially hampered by a paralysis similar to that of the readers at Maple Street Book Shop, he feels locals owe it to themselves and to their hometown to get the word out.

“We need people to be back here, writing about what’s happening here at home,” Clark says. “There’s been plenty written about the situation, but so much of it has been written either by people who have never lived here or by people who have but are writing from elsewhere. You can’t really know what it’s like here unless you’re on the street every day, living it, breathing it, eating it.”

Clark is doing his part to help those writers who do make the trip back by donating a portion of the proceeds from sales of French Quarter Fiction to Katrina Arts Relief and Emergency Support (KARES), a charity developed to help artists who lost their homes or livelihoods rebuild. Their website hosts a message board where displaced artists can post their whereabouts, inquire after others and generally get back in touch with the creative community.

KARES is also a beneficiary of this year’s Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. According to executive director Paul Willis, the fest never entertained a thought of holding this year’s twentieth annual edition anywhere but the Big Easy. “There really never was a question whether to go forward. We made our decision as early as September, when we could see that the French Quarter was mostly okay. The festival is all about tradition and history, and the people that are here really want to have this kind of cultural event.”

Still, even a venerable festival like this one will be unavoidably impacted by the hurricanes. “We have three Katrina-related events scheduled right now,” Willis explains. “One is titled ‘In the Wake of Destruction,’ and it’s going to be featuring writers who have books about Katrina out already. We’re also having a panel on reporting Katrina, more of a journalistic view from people who were here during and right after the storm. And we have a panel on urban development and the future of what the city’s going to look like.”

Local writers have been understandably enthusiastic about the opportunity to commune and get their stories out, but Willis has also been impressed by the reaction from artists outside of Louisiana. “It has been nice to see how many non-local writers have said, ‘I’ll pay my own way to get there. I just want to be supportive of this year’s festival.’ It’s the best thing you can do, I think. You’re supporting the local economy, spending money in hotels and restaurants and taking in the cultural events. Beyond sending a big check to the Red Cross or Habitat for Humanity, I think a lot of people see this as a way to help.”

Even those who can’t attend have shown their solidarity. “A little theater group in Chicago donated their refreshment sales from a weekend run of Tennessee Williams plays. A group in Vermont donated their concession sales to us. We had a woman in Texas who organized a reading with some local authors and collected donations, more than $500. Things like that mean a lot,” Willis says.

John Biguenet would agree with that. The O. Henry Award-winning short story writer and novelist was one of the most visible faces of New Orleans in the hurricanes’ immediate aftermath. In October of 2005, the New York Times contracted Biguenet to write a wrenching series of first-person essays detailing his return to the city. “So many people have come up to me to tell me how much those columns meant to them,” Biguenet says. “Whether they were back in the city or wherever they were around the country, it seemed like it was important to people to hear these stories from someone who knows New Orleans.”

While the bulk of New Orleans’ writing community resides in hip, less flood-prone neighborhoods like Uptown and the French Quarter, Biguenet’s Lakeview community suffered considerable destruction. Of course, in the face of devastation this far-reaching, suffering is a relative concept. Biguenet lost his home, his personal library and, worst of all, extensive notes for three upcoming books. Yet when asked if he’s received any assistance, he sounds almost offended. “There are so many people so much worse off than me,” he says, “it never even occurred to me to ask for anything like that.”

Biguenet does have something that many New Orleans writers couldn’t claim even before the storms: a steady job. A professor of English at Loyola University, he was greatly encouraged by the campus scene when school resumed this January after a full semester without classes. “We have 91% of the student body returning. We’ve been running a series of panels on the culture and future of New Orleans. For the first event, so many people came, so many students, that we had to move it into the largest auditorium on campus. In the past, something like this might have been a sparsely attended event, but we had over 500 people show up.”

Loyola’s campus suffered very little damage, but neighboring Tulane and several other local universities required major renovations. Before the new semester began, the New Orleans collegiate community established a credit-sharing system in which students from Xavier and Delgado can take certain courses at Loyola and Tulane and vice versa, further fostering the city’s new, we’re-all-in-this-together outlook.

So where does New Orleans’ beleaguered literary community stand today, nearly half a year after the city was turned inside out? The outlook is not as brilliant as one might hope, but neither is it as bleak as one might fear. As with all aspects of life in the battered city, New Orleans writers face a long, uphill climb back to normalcy. One of Katrina’s silver linings is that their work is now more immediate and vital than ever, and writers like Biguenet, Clark and Piazza are making the most of their time on the national stage, casting light into corners that desperately need to be illuminated. And as the patrons of Maple Street Book Shop, the attendees of the Tennessee Williams Fest and the students at Loyola can attest, they’re feeding a hunger that will eventually drive this city back to its former greatness.

A Cup of Joe

Originally published in F Magazine, Issue 8, this story is also part of the memoir manuscript I’ve been crafting into (hopefully) publishable form for the past several years.

“Hey Lance, we got a dead rat. Where’d you put the dustpan?” It hurt me to realize how blasé I could be while saying those words.

Joe’s shiny bald head popped out of the box office. I hadn’t even realized he was coming in to work today. “Rat?” he boomed, a gap-toothed grin spreading over his mug. “In a trap or just dead?”

“Uh… just dead. In the aisle.” I didn’t really want to know where this was going.

“Fan-fuckin’-tastic!”

Lance handed me the broom and dustpan with a better-you-than-me expression as Joe steamed past me into the main theater. It always took my eyes a couple of seconds to adjust to the hazy dusk of the big auditorium, but Joe drew a bead on his quarry instantly. The deceased party lay sprawled in the middle of the aisle between the first few rows of seats, as if the rat had decided that if he was going to die, he may as well do it as publicly as possible. Joe hustled down the aisle, kneeling down when he reached the body. It was a small one, maybe six inches. It lay on its side, paws curled under in some kind of defense mechanism. The mouth gaped open slightly, exposing a pair of long yellow tusks. The hairless tail curled away at an odd angle, forming a macabre question mark against the stained burgundy carpeting. Unpleasant as the rats were in life, this unmistakably dead thing looked even worse.

For a moment I thought Joe was going to scoop the wretched body up with his hands, but instead he just giggled, “Have a nice dinner, ya dirty motherfucker?” then turned to face me. “See, the traps haven’t been working. We get a couple every week, but you have any idea how many of these little fuckers come in here every day? Especially this close to the river?”

He stood again, rolling his head around with an audible crackle. “Dirty fuckers come up through the toilets. Don’t ya, buddy?” He nudged the rat with his sneaker. I looked away, gripping the broom and dustpan impotently. “So last week I took all the leftover hot dogs we had, injected ‘em with rat poison. Then I cut ‘em up and left little chunks all over the theater. And it looks like this little fella,” he kicked the carcass a little harder this time, “bit into more than he bargained for!”

My etiquette books hadn’t covered what say to a grown man gloating over a dead rodent, so I just asked the primary question on my mind. “So… that means we’re going to be finding dead rats all over the theater?”

“I sure as hell hope so!” he beamed, then cocked his foot back and gave the rat a hard boot, sending the stiff body arching up into the air, tumbling end over end, the half-stiff tail flopping about lazily. The body landed with a clatter in a third row seat. Joe admired his kick, then turned to me, grim victory written in every crease of his tough-guy visage. He reached for the broom and dustpan. “Here, give me those. I’ll take care of this little fucker myself.”

For Joe, killing the rats was a kind of redemption. A way of telling himself, “I may have bottomed out in my career, my art and my personal life, but I will not, by God, be made a fool of by sewer-dwelling vermin.” It was hard for me to begrudge the man that, because really, what else did he have? Joe was a brute, and brute force was his preferred course of action.

In his way, Joe was a textbook New Orleanian, a beefed-up embodiment of the aimless bohemian exiles who simply couldn’t make a go of it anywhere but in this incomparable town. A full-blooded Italian formerly hailing from Brooklyn and Philadelphia, he’d made his way to the Crescent City a few years previous, his fireplug frame and propensity for violence landing him bouncing gigs at a couple of Bourbon Street’s less reputable nightspots. He never explained to me exactly how he came to be head manager of the Deep South’s most notorious ghetto theater, but it didn’t take me long to learn that no road ending at the Downtown Joy was a happy road.

My first night on the job, Joe greeted me in the lobby, his magenta dress shirt and baby blue tie making him look like a second-rate prizefighter on his way to an arraignment hearing. It was a Friday night, and the lobby was abuzz with teenage hormones. Boys in baggy jeans and Fat Albert gear huddled around girls in Bebe tops and ass-hugging denim. Middle schoolers jostled each other for position in front of the “Alien vs. Predator” video console. Behind me a pretty boy in corn rows burst into song, crooning an off-key rendition of some Brian McKnight slow jam, making a knot of girls erupt into a high-pitched squeal of laughter. If any of them were here to watch a movie, you certainly could have fooled me. It didn’t take me more than two seconds to realize that I was the lone caucasian in the building. Except, of course, for the energetic mauler pumping my hand.

“Hey, good to meet ya!” Brooklyn was still thick in Joe’s voice. “So you’ve managed people before, right?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I managed a few people at my last job,” I half-lied.

“Well, ya ever manage total fuck-ups before?”

Thus was I welcomed to the first stage of my post-collegiate career.

In hindsight, I should have had my suspicions about the Downtown Joy from the first phone call, when Joe referred to my heavily padded but still frightfully skimpy résumé as “very impressive.” But then again, empty flattery has always been the surest route to my heart.

I think what impressed Joe more than any of my dubious managerial potential was the prospect of having another artistic type on the premises. The other manager, Mike, was a sad, spineless guy in his late fifties, just ticking off the hours until his social security kicked in. The employees were almost all residents of the nearby Iberville housing projects, high schoolers, community college students and middle-aged mothers, all happy to have landed even this miserable, minimum wage job in the crushing New Orleans economic climate. Good, fine people, but not, in Joe’s mind, appreciators of the finer things in life. Not people like him, and, apparently, me.

Despite his pugilistic exterior and rat-stalking tendencies, Joe considered himself an artist first and foremost, a musician/cartoonist/actor/filmmaker constantly hovering just on the edge of his big break. It was hard to know just how much of the legend to believe. He proudly spoke of playing a soldier in an ambitious stage adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” although he dismissed the poem itself as unreadable bullshit, himself preferring the likes of Bukowski. He allegedly spent his weekends on what he termed “guerilla filmmaking,” shooting a digital splatter flick about a homicidal ice cream man (played by Joe, of course). Most noteworthy – and suspicious – was his claim to have been a founding member of Gwar, the seminal shock rock band better known for wearing six-foot phalluses and dousing their live audiences with synthetic body fluids than for any musical accomplishments. Joe spoke wistfully of how he quit the band for the sake of a girlfriend just before they hit it big. “A year later, I’m sittin’ in Philly in my shithole apartment, watchin’ my friends on the Joan Rivers show, and I’m just lookin’ at this girl, thinkin’ ‘you fuckin’ bitch.’”

If half of Joe’s supposed artistic exploits were genuine, I would have been impressed, save for one thing – no matter how you cut it, he and I were both making our living at the Downtown Joy theater. Facts don’t come much colder or harder than that. Some men would deal with a kidney punch of reality like that by hitting either the bottle, the girlfriend or the pavement. Joe dealt with it by poisoning sewer rats with hot dogs. All I can say is, I’ve seen worse coping mechanisms in my time.

Lakeside to Riverside: Concert previews

Where Y’at magazine is a monthly arts and entertainment publication in New Orleans, and the first outlet to give me a regular writing gig after I graduated college. I covered everything from NBA basketball to restaurant openings to fireworks extravaganzas, but music was my main gig. I eventually weaseled my way into the position of Music Editor, where one of my favorite duties was compiling monthly previews of  upcoming shows of note. This one from August 2004 is pretty representative.

A good portion of this month’s picks are from Texas. I don’t know if that’s just a coincidence, or if it maybe means something in the grand scheme of things. I do know that even for a state that big, Texas seems to produce more than its share of outstanding musicians. And it’s not just guys in cowboy boots and tremendous hats anymore (not that there’s anything wrong with that, Lyle Lovett). It’s also hardcore punk gods like DRI, indie weirdos like David Garza, and a host of other talents from every stripe of the musical rainbow. Are Texans just genetically superior? I won’t hazard a guess, but I will say this: from what I’ve heard, God blessed them, one shouldn’t mess with them and their stars at night are big and bright. I don’t know about you, but I respect that.

Lyle Lovett
Friday, July 30
Saenger Theatre
143 N Rampart St
Quality American radio has been virtually annihilated by the forces of Clear Channelization, and country stations in particular have been beaten almost beyond recognition. Nowadays one need only insert a hint of vocal twang or a few licks of pedal steel to pass a mediocre pop tune off as “country”, the result being a bastardized blandness that is, to use an apt Texas phrase, “all hat and no cattle.” Thank heavens for Lyle Lovett, who has been laboring tirelessly for the past twenty years to keep old school Texas swing and lyrical integrity in the country vocabulary. Lovett’s onstage sets are marked by the easygoing coolness he exudes in his TV appearances and occasional movie roles, a frank familiarity that allows him to shift from the raucous oddness of songs like “Church” or “Penguins” to the mournful seriousness of “The Road to Ensenada” or “Promises” without jarring. In an age of singers undergoing treatment for “exhaustion”, Lovett was hospitalized a few years back after being mauled while rescuing his uncle from a rampaging bull. It doesn’t get more country than that. – IB

DRI, Strong Intentions, Antarctica vs. the World, Face First
Dixie Taverne
Sunday, Aug. 1
The existence of a hardcore punk scene in New Orleans is probably news to anyone who isn’t already active in it, but if by chance you’re a hard-rocking newbie looking for immediate street cred, this is the show you’ll want to be seen at. The Dixie Taverne is one of the city’s more underrated venues and virtually the only place in town to regularly feature small label punk shows. This evening sees them playing host to the original godfathers of hardcore, Houston’sDRI (Dirty Rotten Imbeciles), with a couple of killer local openers, Face First and the band with the best name in town, Antarctica vs. the World. -IB

Appetite for Destruction, Ratt Poison
Friday, Aug. 13
Howlin’ Wolf
828 S Peters
I know, I know, you’re still holding out hope that Axl’s finally gonna get his shit together and that comeback album he’s been talking about for the last decade is gonna come out and it’ll kick major ass and Slash and Izzy and Steve and Duff and Matt and Dizzy and Gilby and maybe even Buckethead will hear it and be so enthused that they’ll all chuck Scott Weiland to the curb and hop back on board the GnR train and they’ll tour and it’ll rock and leather jackets and acid wash jeans will come back in vogue and your Iroc Z-28 will be cool again and your hairline will miraculously regenerate and your wife will drop twenty pounds and rediscover her fondness for wearing tube tops and swilling warm Pabst in parking lots and everything will be way bitchin’ the way it used to be. But none of that’s going to happen, so why not go check out this Guns n’ Roses tribute band instead? In other news, it is apparently possible to making a living playing Ratt covers… – IB

David Garza, David Thies
Thursday, Aug. 19
House of Blues Parish
225 Decatur St
David Garza was Austin when Austin wasn’t cool. One of the most prolific and hard to categorize artists in the game, the Texan’s catalog of 20-odd genre-hopping, mostly self-released albums makes him the definitive indie rocker. His warbly tremor can be joyful or spooky depending on the material, but it’s a pleasure to hear regardless. Garza is also one of the most reliably engaging live acts working today, prone to fraternizing with the audience between sets and even taking the occasional request. He’s currently touring in support of his exhaustive (5 discs) but moderately priced (under $30) box set A Strange Mess of Flowers, so expect rarities and weirdness alongside college radio hits like “Discoball World”, and don’t be surprised if he pulls out the odd piano lounge set or Prince cover. By the way, it’s pronounced “Dah-VEED”, not “DAY-vid”. And that’s one to grow on. – IB

Black Hole

Originally published in Make Magazine, Winter 2005

Drive south on Claiborne Avenue coming out of the Ninth Ward around seven o’clock and you’ll get a pretty good picture of where things stand in this town. Pull up to the stoplight at Canal Street and look to the left. Canal is awash in life and light. Now look to the right. Nothing but eerie darkness, power still out six weeks after the storm. No prizes for guessing which side is a tourist Mecca and which side is a poor black neighborhood.

It’s the most noticeable change of the post-Katrina era: New Orleans just isn’t as black as it ought to be. It’s more or less evident depending on where you are. In my old neighborhood of Riverbend, where the population is mostly white, things don’t look a whole lot different. There are fallen trees, shingle-less roofs, looted convenience stores, but that’s what passes for normal these days. I wandered around the city for a week and was amazed at how quickly the unimaginable becomes the mundane. People whose houses are missing sizable chunks of wall talked about how lucky they were to pull through with no real damage. Folks got so accustomed to being home by eight p.m. that they at first didn’t know what to do with the extra hours when the curfew was pushed back to midnight. And we all learned to wait twice as long and tip twice as much in restaurants.

But the black thing, that’s not so easy to get used to. New Orleans is ordinarily about 67% black and 28% white, with a good chunk of the remainder made up by the East Side’s Vietnamese neighborhoods. But the bulk of the evacuees left homeless in Katrina’s wake were black, and with nothing but rubble and mold to return to, most of those folks aren’t coming back anytime soon. I’ve been to the Ninth Ward. A lot of those homes were scarcely inhabitable even before August 29. Now they make up an eerie chain of unsalvageable reminders: vehicles coated in the thick white film of flood residue, water stains reaching eight feet up exterior walls, government spray paint marking porches with the number of dead found inside. Even in the unlikely event that the Ninth Ward will be rebuilt with affordable housing, who would go back to the scene of such horror?

Even governmental PR isn’t attempting to paint a rosy picture of the future of black New Orleans. “New Orleans is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again,” Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson told the Houston Chronicle, adding his voice to those opposing any kind of rebuilding in the Ninth Ward. His comments sparked some anger from Jesse Jackson and his cohorts, but sad to say, the HUD Secretary is probably exactly right.

It really is a different dynamic on the streets today. Halliburton’s rigged rebuilding contract has apparently made them even more arrogant in their hiring practices. The Washington Post reported recently on a federal investigation that has so far uncovered at least ten undocumented immigrants working for Halliburton’s Gulf Coast rebuilding operations, and one can only assume that this finding is only the tip of the iceberg. There has been a lot of buzzing lately that New Orleans’ electricians and skilled laborers are staying away from the city because they prefer their new homes, or worse, because they just don’t want to work that hard. Perhaps it’s more a case of not wanting to work that hard without being paid a fair day’s wage. As Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, a New Orleans native, told the Post, “Skilled Louisiana workers rebuilding a U.S. military base were pushed aside by sub-contractors looking to make a quick buck off American taxpayers by hiring low-skilled, low-wage undocumented workers.”

Whatever the case, the streets of New Orleans are now populated largely by recent Mexican and Honduran immigrants willing to endure some corporate abuse for the sake of a paying gig. Despite its Spanish heritage (Prior to the United States, the city was both a French and a Spanish territory), New Orleans is probably one of the least Latin cities in the U.S., lacking even a decent authentic Mexican restaurant. Louisiana’s last census put the state’s Hispanic population at only 2.4%, well below the national average of 12.5% and dwarfed by far by neighboring Texas’s 32%. So it was a bit jarring for me to stroll the weather-beaten remains of the Central Business District and see dozens of Latino laborers sweeping debris and sorting through stacks of cinder blocks. My first job in New Orleans was at a movie theater on Canal Street, on a strip that housed dozens of black-owned and black-patronized business. That block now buzzes with shouted Spanish as workers sift through the wreckage of thoroughly looted shoe stores and electronics shops. Returning to an adjective that’s become the cornerstone of my vocabulary since visiting New Orleans, it’s just weird.

And it’s not working out all that well, either. There is so much animosity toward FEMA in the city that returning locals have been slow to put out welcome mats for the aid workers. Add to that the new allegations that the workers were brought in at the expense of the pre-existing New Orleans area workforce, and you have a recipe for a severe culture clash.

My friend Christy*, whose house I stayed at during my visit, works for a large – and, she suspects, somewhat unscrupulous – real estate company. Her responsibilities include finding housing for FEMA employees. It’s sort of a dream set up for a company like Halliburton, because the general lack of undamaged houses in the city gives them an excuse to put their employees in substandard but cheap quarters. Christy came home from work every day shaken by the places she had to put these people into. Most apartments were covered in toxic mold. Some had noticeably weakened floors or missing patches of ceiling. She complained to her bosses, but was told there was no reason a dozen grown men couldn’t live comfortably in a two-bedroom apartment that would be condemned anywhere else in this country. Dealing with unsafe conditions, low wages and general animosity, the workers began lashing out. Christy reported several apartment houses trashed far beyond what the storm dished out: furniture was busted up, freon was let out of air conditioners, the tires of neighboring cars were slashed.

There was a lot of talk in the air about an unofficial government plan that the FEMA workers would like New Orleans so well they’d decide to stay, and the Latinos would simply repopulate the areas abandoned by the blacks. Never mind that a demographic shift that sudden and severe would shake the city in ways Katrina never could, or that several centuries of African-American culture from the slave trade at Congo Square to the birth of jazz in Storyville to the Zulu parades at Mardi Gras cannot be shrugged off so easily. So long as the bottom line stays intact, the powers that be don’t much give a damn if the blacks come back. If the Latinos don’t like the place, you can rest assured Halliburton and friends will come up with something else equally profitable. It’s just the American way.

*Name changed to protect anonymity

Sources:

“New Orleans racial makeup up in air,” Houston Chronicle, September 29, 2005

“Hispanics becoming visible part of New Orleans work force,” New Orleans CityBusiness, October 15, 2005

“Suspected illegal workers found at Halliburton job site,” Washington Post, October 22, 2005

2000 United States Census, U.S. Census Bureau

Cooter Brown’s, October 16, 2005

Originally published in Make Magazine, Winter 2005

I’m sitting by myself in the corner at Cooter Brown’s on Carrollton, sipping an Abita Amber and watching my Vikings getting humiliated by the Bears. It’s a big, sprawling sports pub with two working bars and rows of long wooden tables, all of which are currently packed. I was lucky enough to grab a chair and a spot against the rear bar beneath the lone TV showing the action from back in the North Country.

Just about every other pair of eyes in the place is glued to the big screen on the back wall, where the hometown Saints are running neck and neck with their archrivals from Atlanta. It’s a wild, rowdy Sunday afternoon scene, and it all feels so normal I could almost forget why I’m here in New Orleans.

In an hour or so, I’ll be interviewing one of the cooks, a man who spent the days immediately following Katrina sitting in front of the bar with a shotgun to warn off potential looters. Every time I flash on my mission, I’m chilled to remember that it’s only been six weeks since all of New Orleans plunged into anarchy. Even here in Riverbend, this peaceful, blue-collar neighborhood where I lived for two years, the streets became a war zone. I’ve spoken to several people who stayed here throughout the worst of the post-storm confusion. Yesterday I had a long conversation with a woman who told me she was transformed literally overnight from an anti-gun “California liberal” to a rifle-packing vigilante who regarded every black person who came into sight as a potential threat. And this was in the least affected part of town.

But now things are creeping back to normal. All over the city, hand-lettered signs are going up in the neutral grounds (the grassy medians where the streetcars normally run) announcing re-openings of restaurants. In the week I’ve been in town, the number of semi-functioning businesses has at least doubled. Here at Cooter’s, the kitchen is serving only a limited menu, but people from all over the neighborhood are lining up and waiting half an hour for a mushroom and swiss burger with no complaints. Part of that has to do with most of the refrigerators in town being permanently ruined by rotted meat, but there’s also a communal feel to the chow line. Everyone is eager to dive back in and get these businesses up and running again, try to pull New Orleans back from the brink.

A cheer goes up from the table to my left as the Saints snatch a crucial interception. Even though I’m watching a different game, and even though it’s been more than two years since I’ve actually been a resident of New Orleans, I feel right at home. It’s been a rough week, full of conversations with traumatized survivors and visits to the Upper Ninth Ward, where the water marks rise eight feet high on the houses and every porch is spray-painted with the number of dead found inside. Most homes are marked zero, but there are more than enough ones and twos to leave me shaken for a long time. I haven’t yet been to the Lower Ninth, the area everyone describes as looking like a bomb went off, but the devastation I’ve witnessed already is as ugly as anything I’ve ever seen.

The Saints game slides into a commercial break as high fives circulate around the bar. I take a long pull off my Abita and jot a few observations about the resiliency of the human spirit in my notebook. And then, suddenly, the room quiets down. I glance up at the TV and realize why. On the big screen is an ad for the American Red Cross, black and white images of people wading through waist-deep water, desperate families waving from rooftops, tangled piles of wood and concrete. Johnny Cash sings a mournful “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as a somber woman’s voice asks America to make a donation to ease the suffering of those affected by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina.

And here in this crowded sports bar, several dozen of those affected parties cringe. Some turn away from the screen and pretend to have oblivious, unrelated conversations. Others look at the pictures straight-on, eyes burning with something between anger and sadness. I don’t hear anyone comment on the commercial directly, but it’s obvious the spot has stirred up some feelings no one wanted to think about.

The Red Cross ad fades out and is replaced by a bright, noisy Bud Light spot, some idiocy about a house with a beer tree in the backyard. The buzz in the room starts to build again. By the time the Saints return to the screen, the volume is almost back up to pre-break levels. Someone walking into Cooter Brown’s right now could easily be fooled, as I almost was, as all these football fans want so desperately to be, into thinking that New Orleans is more or less back to normal.

But it isn’t.

And it won’t be for a long time.

Two for the show

This creative non-fiction piece was originally written for my Prose Forms class at Columbia College Chicago as part of what eventually became my graduate thesis and the memoir-in-progress on which I’m currently working. It was originally published in 2009 in an online magazine called Kaleidoscopic Resonance which now seems to have folded.

They were easily the biggest breasts I’ve ever seen in person, and that includes my trip to Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club. They were attached, with fairly obvious surgical assistance, to two blatantly plastered women perched on stepladders directly over my right shoulder, and they were seeing the light of day with increasing regularity as the Endymion parade rolled around the slow bend of Lee Circle. I’ve never objected to the occasional flash of flesh, but these women’s jugs – and I would ordinarily refrain from the use of such a vulgar term, but it seems appropriate here, as they really were the size of milk jugs – had moved beyond curious distraction into the realm of public nuisance.

Both women were blonde, a little chubby, and somewhere on the downward slope of their thirties (the bosoms I would guess to be considerably younger). They wore form-fitting pink tops with blue jeans several sizes tighter than they needed to be. The noisier one sported one of those white straw cowboy hats most commonly seen on trashy sorority types half her age. Each one had a whistle around her neck, and these were employed liberally whenever the wearers felt the volume level of the country’s largest street party was insufficient. They were accompanied by a couple of overly muscled, longhaired guys in tank tops who stood proprietarily at the feet of the ladders. The men glanced around the crowd with smug little smirks, as if to say, “Yeah, I’m sleepin’ with my head between those tonight! Eat your hearts out, fellas!”

And the fellas were. Most of the guys around me were risking orbital fractures darting their eyes back and forth from their girlfriends to the juggy ladies. One older guy had dropped all pretenses and stood with his back to the parade, staring upward, open-mouthed. The women in the crowd were mostly shaking their heads huffily or lobbing crude insults about the dubious biology of those boobs. Myra and I cocked our heads and analyzed these grotesqueries together, speculating on what combination of high income and low self-esteem would spur a middle-aged woman to be wobbling on a ladder, proudly displaying her augmented accoutrements to a thousands-strong crowd of international observers. We decided they were former strippers out to put the girls on display one last time before age started doing things surgery couldn’t reverse.

If it was attention they were out for, they were getting it. Each time one of the ornate Mardi Gras floats came creeping around the corner, up went their shirts. Myra and I made a game of scanning the row of masked riders to see which one would notice first. When one did, he would jerk his head back, do a full-blown double take, then nudge the guy beside him. By the time the float was directly in front of us, every remotely male creature on board was aware of the bounty, and a hailstorm of beads rained down on our section of the crowd. Most of the goodies found their targets, and the women’s chests were soon buried under rippling, jiggling layers of cheap plastic, waiting impatiently for their next chance to spring forth.

Things got especially heated when a float carrying a celebrity rider came around the bend. The women adhered to the same logic employed by groupies the world over – that offering your body to someone who has achieved excellence somehow conveys excellence upon you as well. They giggled like middle schoolers as Saints tackle Kyle Turley came into view. They squealed and flung their tops up, elbows jutting out on either side, and the big man shook his head, stretched his arms out palms up and mouthed, “Thank you. Thank you.”

Next was Jason Alexander of Seinfeld fame, and the ladies bounced with anticipation until we thought they would tumble off their ladders (if they leaned forward they would probably be in for soft landings, but we feared splashback from bursting saline pouches). “I can’t believe George Costanza is gonna see my titties!” the louder one squealed. Mr. Alexander, looking especially tiny in a heavy purple robe and oversized silver crown, wasn’t looking their way when the float drew near. Both women laid into the whistles as they waggled their exposed chests, but the actor turned to the other side of the float and passed on without spotting his bustiest fans. The women were disappointed, but consoled themselves with the knowledge that Nicolas Cage was still to come.

Before they had the chance to show the Oscar winner their golden globes, a bulky New Orleans police officer came steaming across the street, dodging through a line of mesmerized high school boys who had fallen out of formation with their marching band. He was an older, barrel-shaped man with a thick brown moustache that was twitching with indignation.

“Hey!” he barked, pointing his nightstick up at the ladder ladies. “I got my grandkids across the street tryin’ to watch the goddamn parade! Them shirts better stay down the rest of this parade or you’re gonna be flashin’ each other across a jail cell tonight!” There were some quiet and mostly male sighs of disappointment from the crowd, but the cop clearly meant business and nobody wanted to step up to that plate.

Things quieted down after that. There was still the occasional whistle blast, and the noisier one flashed her bra a couple of times in defiance, but the party was over. Nicolas Cage came and went without his four-gun salute, and Myra and I departed not long after him. On the walk home I briefly considered suggesting stopping by the video store for a couple of Russ Meyer movies, but wisely opted to leave well enough alone.

Interview with author and poet Barry Gifford

Originally published in Where Y’at?, November 1, 2004


Barry Gifford is one of the finest rabble-rousers of modern American letters. Probably best known for his novel Wild At Heart, which was the basis for David Lynch’s Cannes-winning film of the same name, Gifford has written a slew of critically lauded novels, nonfiction, poetry and screenplays. His new book of poems, Back In America, has just been released by Light of New Orleans Press. It is one of the finest poetry collections of recent years, a bracing jaunt that takes the reader from Ginsberg to Vermeer to Billy Wilder and back again on a journey that fluxuates between laugh-out-loud and weep quietly.

You have a longstanding literary relationship with New Orleans, and the town comes up several times in Back In America. What is it about the city that keeps you coming back to it?
When I was a boy, my mother and I lived for a time at the old Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, now the Fairmont. After that, I visited the city several times over the years, and during much of the 1990s, I was frequently in residence in a house on Pirate’s Alley. I wrote parts of several of my novels there. As you know, New Orleans can be a lively as well as deadly place, so there is no shortage of inspiration if you are in the mood to be inspired. Having been raised both in the Deep South and in Chicago, this was the first time that I really wrote out of the Southern side of myself. Many of my stories also take place in Mississippi, where I also spent time as a child. I have been away from New Orleans for a few years now, but on my recent trip back I found it exciting and interesting again, so there may be a redux in my future.

What are a few “highlight” places you like to hit while in New Orleans?
These places change, but my first night back I usually go to Coop’s on Decatur for the rabbit and sausage jambalaya. I go to Galatoire’s for the remoulade sauce, Liuzza’s for the trash cooking, etc. etc. My main hangout is Tujague’s, where my father used to meet people when he had business in the city (it’s mentioned in the first chapter of my memoir, The Phantom Father). Other than that, I go where I need to.

You’ve published at just about every level of the game. What are some advantages to publishing with a small press like Light of New Orleans as opposed to a Harcourt Brace?
I began by publishing poetry with small presses and I am happy to continue the tradition. I enjoy the intimacy and the special care small press publishers tend to take with the few titles they publish. For larger books, I go to New York because they can pay me something. Josh and LONO may prove one day to be the exception to this rule. I hope so.

Does your physical writing process vary depending on whether you’re writing fiction, nonfiction or poetry?
Not really, other than the fact that poems seem to come to me all at once, practically in finished form and it is my responsibility to stop what I am doing wherever I am and write down the words.

Kerouac and your friend Ginsberg are recurring themes in a lot of your work. Why do you think these guys have had such a lasting, era-spanning appeal to audiences?
Kerouac and Ginsberg were great inspirations to me and to many others of my generation, as writers, travelers and iconoclasts. I don’t write like them, but they help to show the way insofar as method and vision are concerned. Despite their difficulties with the established critics of their day (and after), they manage to get through to each succeeding generation and have become an industry, much to the dismay of the stodgier critical establishment. Sometimes the people know, sometimes they don’t. In this case, they seem to.

“September 11, 2001” is about as succinct and accurate an assessment of that day as I’ve seen. How have these “interesting times” affected your creative output?
Life for me has never been less than interesting. As Samuel Beckett put it, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

The book is dedicated to several popular songwriters like Smokey Robinson and Hoagy Charmichael. Will these folks ever be given their just due as genuine poets?
I’ve just given it to them.

I read an interview you did about the Lost Highway screenplay where you said audiences “have to bring something to the party. It’s not like lying back and being fucked. The film forces you to be involved.” Do you think of your poetry and/or prose in the same terms?
The truth is, I’ve never liked parties very much.

And speaking of Lost Highway, are there any more Gifford/Lynch collaborations in the pipeline?
That will depend upon what we put into the pipe.

In light of the many eulogies in this book, how would you hope to be eulogized?
The cowboy poet of yesteryear, Rex Lampman, copied this epitaph from a gravestone: “Here he lies, the Idaho Kid, the only time he ever did.” That’s the best I can hope for.

Album review: Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys – “Grand Isle”

Originally published on MadeLoud, Apr 6, 2011

When people think of musical genres most likely to be vehicles for biting sociopolitical commentary, Contemporary Cajun probably ranks somewhere between surf rock and nü-polka. But when you’ve witnessed an endless stream of horrors and frustrations like the ones that have been thrown at coastal Louisiana in the past decade, even the most apolitical local artist can’t help but let the righteous indignation shine through. Taking their album title from one of the towns hardest hit by last summer’s BP oil spill (not to mention a smaller March 2011 spill that was barely reported on by the national media), Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys let it be known that they have the bayou’s back.

Grand Isle kicks off with a spacey, pulsating tone that serves as an announcement that this ain’t gonna be the Cajun music you hear in Popeye’s commercials. The opener “Danser san comprendre (Dancing Without Understanding)” is all about universality. The accordion, guitar and fiddle blaze away as Riley’s vocals shift from English to French and back. It’s an ingenious illustration of the song’s basic concept: you don’t have to speak the language to dig the vibe. Things veer even farther off the trad-Cajun path with “Chatterbox,” a garage-rock-flavored stomper driven by New Orleans weirdo Quintron and his trademark “Drum Buddy” percussion machine. The intoxicating “C’est l’heure pour changer (This is the Time for Change)” isn’t quite as outré, but it’s no less affecting with its gurgling organ riffs and buoyant chorus.

Whether they’re delving into classic swamp pop ballads like “Non, je ne regretted rien,” mixing in a touch of country-western on “Grand Isle” or going for a straight-up tear-jerker like “Au Revoir,” The Mamou Playboys conduct themselves like the two-plus-decade veterans they are. Calling in ringers like Quintron, piano-slinger Jon Cleary and producer C. C. Adcock doesn’t hurt either. Grand Isle surefootedly covers a lot of terrain in the course of its twelve tracks, but the album never loses focus on what’s at stake on the Gulf Coast.

Actually, the average Grand Isle listener might not even suspect there’s any social commentary going on here (although the oil-soaked sea bird on the album cover is a bit of a giveaway). Many of the lyrics are in French, and the music is upbeat enough to pass as a party disc. But listen closely and it becomes clear that the Playboys’ tributes to the places and faces of the Louisiana lowlands are more than celebratory – they’re downright defiant.

Recommended Tracks: “C’est l’heure pour changer,” “Danser san comprendre,” “Grand Isle”

Superdome

In 2010 the excellent, Chicago-based arts journal Make Magazine commemorated its fifth birthday by asking former contributors to submit very short pieces on the theme of “five.” Since my contributions to Make‘s second issue were two essays on New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina (which also marked a five-year milestone in 2010), it seemed appropriate to revisit the subject.

Superdome

People say I smell of bleach. Me, I can’t smell it. I’ve been working with cleaners for so long I can’t smell much of anything anymore. Chemicals burnt all the little hairs in my nose down to nothing long ago. But I still smell this place every day.

It’s hard to describe. Not quite a smell of sickness or filth or even death. Just a smell of … people. Humans. For five years I’ve been doing everything I know how to do to wipe it out. Poured gallons of bleach, sprayed whole cases of Lysol, wore a dozen mops down to the stick. Nothing kills it.

People say they can’t smell it. They say it’s in my head, that five years is long enough to kill off any lingering odor. They even say the place smells fresh and new ever since they hung that fancy new banner last winter. They can say what they want. I still smell it. Some days it’s barely detectable, and I imagine it’s finally going away for good. Other days it’s the only thing I can smell.

People say I smell of bleach. Me, I can’t smell it, but sometimes I wish like hell I could.

Originally published in Make Magazine, Issue 10, Fall/Winter 2010/11

St. Gabriel’s Morgue

Six weeks after Hurricane Katrina, I caught the first available Amtrak train from then-home of Chicago to my former home of New Orleans. I spent a week exploring the city, watching the recovery and talking to people who’d been there for the worst of it. I started writing this story on the ride back to Chicago, influenced heavily by my own interviews and those I’d read in the local news outlets. I was also reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian at the time, which probably played a part too. “St. Gabriel’s Morgue” was previously published in Hair Trigger in 2006 and on Normal Words in 2008.

St. Gabriel’s Morgue

If we did not all know him by name, we certainly knew his face. There was not a body in the barroom that did not fight back a tremor upon recognizing that too-broad visage, features spread wide like pulling the edges of a rubber mask, thick black eyebrows under loose red curls, fleshy lips that pulled down at the corners in a permanent, half-hearted frown. We did not know his exact age, but whatever it might have been he seemed somehow older than the actual tally. Broadly built, not tall frame, skin tan and tough, pigmented in a way that had inspired more than one late-night conversation as to whether or not there was any black blood in him. We would not have been surprised either way, as in these parts east of Ponchartrain nearly every man is either a sun-baked white or a time-bleached black, largely indistinguishable, and anyway most of us ceased worrying ourselves over such things long ago.

So we did not know his name but every man in the room knew for damn certain his occupation. One of those jobs that makes the bearer a well-respected pariah. For that reason, as well as the unsettling gravity with which he carried himself, he drank alone most evenings, hunched over near the end of the bar. He had been drinking particularly alone for the past six weeks. We had all of us been hit hard by the storm but we knew he would have it harder than most. His very presence was a grim reminder, but what was not a grim reminder at that time? Even the television, screen black for weeks except for Saints games, reminded us by its absence of what we were avoiding by leaving it off.

And so a shudder rippled through the room the evening he finally took to speaking. He started slow, his voice a forceful bass that split the nightly unracket of no TV, the only background noise the jukebox turned low, scrolling through a half-heard country-western album.

“Michelob,” he growled, holding a tapered brown bottle at arm’s length. “Michelob. For years now I drank Dixie or I drank nothing. But Dixie, they brew Dixie here, from Louisiana water. And you gentlemen will forgive me if I no longer trust Louisiana water. So now I drink Michelob, from St. Louis, Missouri. And my God, it is awful stuff.”

He swiveled the stool around, turned to face the room, looking to the ceiling as he rolled a crick out of his thick neck. “I feel for those people out there. Really, I do. If there was any way we could expedite the process, believe me, we would be doing it. But we just are not equipped for a thing like this. No mortuary in America is. Thank God for that, really, because I would hate to live in a place where death on this scale is something to be expected.”

He swept the room with hard eyes, smaller and blacker than any of us had ever noticed, dwarfed beneath those unkempt eyebrows. None of us met his stare. “Look away if you need to,” he sighed, “I have been waiting twenty-three years to speak my piece in this place and tonight I am by God going to speak it. I believe I’ve earned that right in the past month. Did you gentlemen know that we have had 842 individuals come through our doors in the past six weeks? ‘Individuals,’ that’s what the higher-ups tell us to call them. Words like ‘bodies’ and ‘corpses’ are too dehumanizing, they say. I can’t say I mind following the order, but I believe they are glossing things over a bit much. What we get in that morgue are not people. Most of them don’t even qualify as bodies. By the time we see them, they are just bloated, soggy slabs of meat. Would you like to know what’s dehumanizing, gentlemen? Spending seven days floating face down in toxic water in your own goddamned backyard without so much as a single rescue boat passing by. That is dehumanizing.”

He took a slow pull from the bottle, capping it with a grimace. Someone buzzed that the man was inebriated, but he had been in the tavern for less than half an hour and the bar in front of him held only two empties. His face contorted in what we could only guess was an attempt at a smile, an unnatural, ghastly looking manipulation. “Seven days. Do you gentlemen have any idea what that much time in the water does to the human body? Swells everything up, distorts, discolors. Half the time, we have no idea if we’re dealing with a black body or a white one. Black is a pretty safe assumption, I suppose, given the nature of the situation. But hell, sometimes we can’t tell for sure if it’s a man or a woman. And that is what we do, what we are paid to do. We handle bodies, we identify bodies. I myself have been doing these things for twenty-three years and some men in the lab have been there much longer. But a lot of these ‘individuals’ the animals found before the people did. The papers didn’t say a whole lot about the rats and the gators and the wild dogs, but I can tell you this much – the humans were about the only ones going hungry during this thing. That albino alligator missing from the Audubon Zoo – I wonder how many of the people he’s nibbled on in the past few weeks went and gawked at him when he was in captivity? Apologies, gentlemen, if I sound a little harsh. This job desensitizes a man, I suppose.”

That grotesque grin again, a few uneasy mumbles from the room. “But the rats and the gators and the dogs, they have nothing on the little creatures. Have any of you men ever flooded out an anthill?” Not pausing for a response, barrelling ahead. “It’s something to see. The ants, they seek out the nearest log or tree and swarm all over it. In just a matter of seconds you wouldn’t even recognize it as a log, just a squriming mess of ants. Well, of course you realize that, for a drowning ant, there is no difference between a log and a human body. I had a boy on my table only yesterday – yes, a boy, half of the floaters they’ve hauled in have been children under the age of fourteen, did you gentlemen not know that? – a boy of possibly six or seven who must have discovered one of these anthills. And I tell you this, I had my calipers out and I could not find an inch of skin on that boy that was not peppered with red welts. Not one single inch, top of the head to bottom of the feet. And I tried to tell myself that the boy was drowned already when the ants found him but I knew that they would not have bitten an unresisting corpse so thoroughly. And gentlemen, if the fire ants find you alive out in the water, you will certainly be dead soon, but not nearly soon enough.”

Another long sip. A table of three in the far corner near the pinball machine stood as one, eyes to the floor as they filed past the hard, broad face. He did not seem to care either way that they were leaving in the middle of his narration. “Good evening, gentlemen. As I was saying, the ants are hell for the living. But from my side, the crabs are even worse. The crabs, they teem over a body just as the ants do, but they don’t simply bite. They eat. They go for the softest areas first, like rats – eyeballs, noses, earlobes, fingertips, genitalia. The rescue workers – and is that really the appropriate term in this case, when everyone left is so far past rescuing? Scrap haulers, rag pickers. Garbage men. Perhaps that suits them better – the rescue workers tell me many times they have to scrape the ants off the backs of the crabs, then pluck off the crabs one by one, watching them wave pincers full of meat as they sink into the water. I cannot tell you gentlemen how many fleshless faces I’ve looked down on in the past six weeks. Think of it, men. There are people out there, even as we speak, being eaten by crabs. Eaten. By crabs. Is there any conceivable permutation of the universe in which that is an acceptable situation?” His voice rising at the end, the first time any of us had ever heard it above an agreeable rumble.

A man at the end of the bar rose, tried to calm the storyteller down, buy him a drink. Let us all get back to the half-pleasant nothing we were doing before he grabbed our ears. But the interloper was ignored, not even waved off as the litany continued, the jukebox sliding mostly unnoticed into R&B. “And so now we have protesters. We drive to work every day past little circles of people waving signs and demanding the release of their loved ones’ bodies. It’s a sad thing to see, no two ways about it. And as I said, I feel for these people. But when you get right down to it, there is simply not a whole lot we can do. We have 842 bodies – my apologies, ‘individuals’ – packed into that morgue and nobody knows who in the hell any of them are. As I think I’ve made clear, half of them you could not recognize if they were your own sweet mother. And they sure as hell did not show up at our doorstep carrying three forms of state-issued ID. People got washed all over town. Even if a body was found wrapped around a street lamp on St. Claude, he could have been washed over from Franklin, from Claiborne, from any goddamned place in the Ninth Ward. We just don’t know. We do not know.”

“Even some of what you might call the famous ones, we don’t know for sure. I’m sure all of you saw that picture, that makeshift casket on Magazine and Jackson where some good folks gave that old lady the most proper burial they could under the circumstances. Stacked up some fallen bricks around her, spread a tarp over top, painted a message on it: ‘Here Lies Vera. God Help Us.’ Well, somebody grabbed Vera up eventually. Casket’s gone now, just a pile of bricks. Her old husband doesn’t know where she went. I’ve met the man. Nicest old fellow you could hope to meet. And it breaks your heart to tell him you can’t really help him out. Yes, we probably do have Vera back there somewhere. She is one of the 842, I’d lay odds on that. But I wish you luck trying to pick her out from any of the others.. Let me tell you this too, gentlemen, while we’re on the subject. Those folks that buried Vera? They had the best intentions, but it was not purely out of respect that they put her in a box. They did what they did because Vera had been laying in that empty lot for five days and her body was putrefying into ooze. Vera was getting to be a health hazard and they had to take care of that. Because after five days it was fairly clear that no one else was going to. Again, harsh, I know. But gentlemen, this is as harsh a situation as any of us will live to see, knock on wood.” He rapped a thick fist against the bar.

He stared down at the floor for a few seconds, then hiked the Michelob to his lips and finished it with a quick swallow. He set the bottle softly on the bar and did not motion for another. Several more men took the pause as an opportunity to slip out, offering quiet good evenings to the other patrons. The rest of us did not have to exchange a word to know that we were all in for the duration. The man behind the bar even turned down the volume on the jukebox, paying silent tribute to our barstool griot. For a moment it appeared as though the harrangue might have been finished, the storyteller staring blankly, murmuring, possibly chuckling to himself. But soon enough he looked up again, black eyes ablaze with some passion we had not yet seen.

“I spoke with two women the other day, two of the protestors. These women, lovely people both, they watched their mother die at the Convention Center. She had respiratory problems that no one in that particular pit of hell was equipped to handle, and she died there in front of her daughters and her neighbors and several scores of absolute strangers. And when they finally came to get the people out, these women were told their mother would have to stay behind. And now I have her. Their mother is one of my 842, one of the few we have positively identified, one of the few who came to us intact and unmutilated. And still we cannot hand this woman over to her own children for the burial she deserves. Because we need to follow regulations and procedures and address the needs of each and every one of our cabinets full of human jelly before we dare let this woman slip out of our sights. And that is something I could not, can not, tell her daughters. I only told them I sympathized with them and I would do everything in my power to expedite the process. Lord knows that isn’t nearly enough, but it’s all I have to offer.”

He stood from the stool then, a slow motion, unfolding his tensed muscles with a deep inhalation. We thought again that he had finished and was headed home to a restless bed, but he turned his eyes to the rafters and resumed, his voice calm and even again. “Something to consider, gentlemen – we haven’t seen the end of this yet. Our 842 bodies? Two dozen of those showed up in the last week. Six weeks after the storm. From October 10 to October 14, they found 32 new bodies in Louisiana. Six goddamned weeks after the storm. How in the hell is a man expected to deal with that? And they’re still coming. They will keep bringing me more every week, more shriveled children, more bloated grandmothers, more broken black bodies and rotted out white ones. And the protests will get bigger and bigger. They’ll shout and they’ll chant and they’ll sign petitions and none of it will get them one lick closer to getting their relatives out of that morgue. Those people want closure and they deserve closure and we cannot give it to them any more than we can just say the hell with it and torch the whole goddamned building and all our 842 goddamned ‘individuals’ and just try to forget this whole godawful business and start our goddamned lives over again.”

The dark eyes scanned the room again but it was clear that they were not seeing anything they passed over. “I have heard a lot of talk in the last month and a half about how badly the government let us down. And it’s true, they certainly did. Our government has failed us. But so has God. And man. And science and society and technology and history and money and justice and love and hope and faith. The only one who has not failed in all of this is nature. Because from nature’s perspective, this can only be one of her greatest successes. In three short days she reclaimed for herself a great swath of land we stole from her more than three centuries ago. But aside from nature, every element that could have failed has failed, and for now all we can do is deal with it, each according to his own means and situation.

“I don’t know what that entails for any of you gentlemen. Frankly, I don’t much care. For me, it entails 842 bodies stacked in a morgue. Eight-hundred forty-two filthy, decaying, inhuman individuals, each of whom must be identified and processed according to a system that was never designed to accommodate half the burden with which it is currently faced. And it entails also ignoring to the best of my ability those sad-eyed women with the protest signs who I see on my way in and my way out every single goddamned day. And it entails closing my eyes at night and fighting my way through noseless women and ant-bitten children and reeking puddles of every goddamned fluid that ever seeped out of a human orifice before I can slip into that miserable purgatory that has passed for sleep for six weeks now. And it entails coming in to this godforsaken hole every evening, watching every face turn away as I pass, as if I was the killer of those 842 and not merely the caretaker, and sitting at this goddamned bar drinking St. Louis riverpiss instead of my beloved Dixie, and listening to mindless chatter about stock cars and football and home repair because every man in the place is too goddamned scared to turn on the television and look what is happening square in the eye, just as every man in the place is too scared to look me in the eye and see the reflection of 842 neighbors who will never go home again, even if they had any homes left to return to.”

And on cue, we all looked away. Not one of us had yet looked him full in the face through the whole narration, but now we looked further away, down between the floorboards, straining eyes seeking out microscopic particles beneath our shuffling feet. And we heard that sad attempt at a smile creep back into his voice as it softened again, smoothing itself out into a mellow baritone heavy with exhaustion.

“I don’t know. A man has limits, you must understand. I suppose I never had much indication of what those limits were until all of this came down. But I tell you this, gentlemen: I am close. I am mighty goddamned close. It won’t be very long and you’ll come motoring up that mortuary road and you’ll pass me out there at the entrance, waving my sign and reciting my poems and demanding that we let those poor people out of that godforsaken building and simply let their folks give them a decent Christian rest.

“I feel for those people out there. Really, truly, really, I do.” He drew a breath in slowly and let it out through his nose. The place was silent for a few beats, save for some shifting in chairs and clearing of throats.

When we finally raised the nerve to lift our heads, he was gone.

Before the end of the hour, so were we.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.