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.