The Magazine

Notes from Under Water

From the September 19, 2005 issue: The struggle to survive the disaster in New Orleans.

Sep 19, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 01 • By MATT LABASH
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New Orleans

I'M NOT A BIG SUPPORTER OF MEN CRYING. But I nearly did so while watching the flood waters roll over New Orleans, drowning it in Katrina's backwash. Not only because of the obvious human toll, but also because this Jobian plague befell the greatest city in America. Sure, New Orleans regularly leads the league in all the wrong categories. It's been the fattest city, the most corrupt city, the most murderous city, and so forth. But it's a city you can't help but pine for, and not just because of the grace and grandeur featured in the picture books.

Go there just once, and if you see the right things with someone who knows the place, it's a city that sticks to you like a roux stain on white linen. You understand what it means to miss it if you ever stood in line outside now-defunct Uglesich's, a 10-table dive on the wrong side of town where even the gentry nursed Abita beers on the sidewalk, gladly cooling their heels for hours just to get a crack at the shrimp and grits. Or if you've ever downed Pimm's cups and oyster Po' Boys at Napoleon House on Chartres, one of the most hospitable places on the planet to kill an evening. Or if you've ever pulled an all-nighter in Pirate's Alley off Jackson Square, with fantasists in buccaneer shirts clanking their broadswords after dipping too deeply into the bourbon.

As I write this, I'm listening to Doctors, Professors, Kings and Queens: The Big Ol' Box of New Orleans. It features the Meters and Professor Longhair and Sidney Bechet & His New Orleans Feet Warmers, along with all those mad-genius brass bands bringing up the Second Line: Dirty Dozen and Rebirth and Tuba Fats' Chosen Few. My gnawing sadness returns. Because all this music came from a place. And as a fellow New Orleans enthusiast I know says, "It's one of the last places that feels like a place." New Orleans had Voodoo doctors, and stride-piano professors, and Mardi Gras Kings and Queens. The rest of us have Home Depot and Applebees.

The day after the flooding starts, I'm snapped from my melancholy by a phone call from a friend, former colleague, and host of MSNBC's The Situation With Tucker Carlson, the very same Tucker Carlson. "C'mon, we're going to New Orleans. You can travel with our crew. We've got all the logistics worked out," he lies. Three hours later, I'm on a plane to Houston, where we rendezvous and load up a giant Excursion ("the Fordasaurus," Tucker calls it). Carlson's manic executive producer, Bill Wolff, assumes the wheel. Medicating himself with unhealthy quantities of Nicorette and Diet Dr. Pepper, he drives us all night to Baton Rouge.

When we arrive at dawn, we attempt, with no luck, to check into a hotel across from the airport. Between evacuees, aid-workers, journalists, and other grief merchants, there isn't an available hotel room within a 500-mile radius of New Orleans (though a night later, Carlson's crack producer, Jamieson Lesko, sweet-talks us in, so we can sleep six to a room). The lobby of the Holiday Inn, decorated in oppressive pastels that aspire to the pleasantly bland, is a staging-area Purgatory. The television over the breakfast bar keeps piping in the bad news about lootings and shootings and rapes, while unlucky evacuees who couldn't get a room sack out in the lobby and parking lot.

One of them, 45-year-old Michael Lucock, does get a room with his parents. But he mans the lobby anyway. He seems lonely, like he needs the company. A movie extra who sports a medic-alert necklace in case he goes into epileptic fits, Lucock totes around a purple velvet Crown Royal pouch in which he keeps a deck of playing cards. He has no house and no employment. He has nothing, except time on his hands. So he tries to engage me in a game by showing me to his favorite overstuffed chairs, but somebody has taken them. "I'm gone two seconds, and now they're looting our spots," he exclaims in frustration.

Many of the uniformed National Guardsmen we meet at the hotel are just back from Iraq. And with all the murder and mayhem going down in New Orleans (reports have armed looters trying to peg Blackhawks out of the sky), one says, "I'd rather take my chances in the Sunni Triangle." A private helicopter pilot from Kentucky, who most recently picked up a young pregnant mother with her 4-year-old twins who'd been waiting on a bridge for two days, says, "You shouldn't go there without guns. It's bad, and it's gonna get worse." It's a bit late for that. The only weaponry we managed to find on our way into Baton Rouge was some rubber mallets and ball peen hammers. We also bought a gas siphon, since things have degenerated into Road Warrior-like conditions, and gas stations freely sell them.