Will the Good Times Ever Roll Again?
A report from post-Katrina New Orleans.
Mar 20, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 25 • By MATT LABASH
There was the evening years ago in a Garden District restaurant. I was having a spirited argument with an anti-gun industry lawyer named Alligator Mick. While lecturing on the evils of firearms, he drew a snubnose .38 from under his jacket and waved it around as tablemates ducked, just to demonstrate that he wasn't some kind of prude. Then there was the afternoon in the living room of professional Jew-hater David Duke. He showed me his softer side by allowing a peek at his record collection. It included (besides Hitler speeches) Dan Fogelberg's greatest hits and the Sound of Music soundtrack.
After Hurricane Katrina held the city's head underwater six months ago, and after several days of witnessing the resulting desolation, I wandered the ghostly French Quarter. There, I met Jody Bode, a scraggly middle-aged guy in a loud Hawaiian shirt. He was watching over the Le Mieux strip club on Chartres Street for the owner. The strippers had evacuated. But Bode had me in for a warm beer, complained about the weather and the looters, then took me around the corner and up a creaky staircase to show off an apartment he was babysitting. It belonged to his friend, the octogenarian Verita Thompson, who'd turned it into a Humphrey Bogart shrine, since she'd been Bogey's mistress for 17 years.
New Orleans is a town that resists being fitted with an adjectival straitjacket. But if it were a Chinese-food condiment, it would be sweet 'n' sour. The easily pacified citizens of this country's other cookie-cutter cities seem to require only that they have a Starbucks Mocha Macchiato in one hand, and an Olive Garden breadstick in the other. But New Orleans offers something more. Faulkner called it "that city foreign and paradoxical, with an atmosphere at once fatal and languorous." Walker Percy wrote, less grandiosely, that if you fell ill in its streets, it's a place where there's still a chance "that somebody will drag you into the neighborhood bar and pay the innkeeper for a shot of Early Times."
Despite my New Orleans fixation, I'd never been to Mardi Gras, figuring I wasn't missing much--perhaps spring break in Daytona with a shrimp remoulade twist. But this year seemed as interesting a time as any to go. For a good month after Katrina, everyone was unanimous that the hurricane had been a buzz kill. Then for the next five months, most of the attention shifted from the dire situation on the ground so that critics could hash out who was responsible for dropping the ball--the president, the governor, the mayor (correct answer: all of the above).
Now, breathless reporters were anxious to tell a comeback story. Never mind that the city that loves to eat, the city from which Louis Armstrong used to sign his letters "red beans and ricely yours," has seen only 1,000 of its 3,000 restaurants reopen. Never mind that its only growth industries at the moment are house-gutters, mental health workers, liquor store owners, and strippers (to handle all the extra business from the influx of fly-by-night contractors). Never mind that its infrastructure is in shambles, that its public school system is nearly defunct, that all but two of its hospitals are closed, that 80 percent of its residences sustained flood damage, that only 200,000 of its 480,000 citizens have been able to return, that 1,100 of its citizens are dead, and close to 1,500 are still missing. Apparently, the fact that inebriated people will come to the mostly undamaged Quarter to bare their breasts for beads is as good as a clean bill of health. New Orleans is on the mend! A phoenix rising from the ashes! Laissez les bons temps rouler!
You don't have to be a glass-half-empty kind of guy to realize that things aren't quite right. There's no way, in an average year, that you should be able to fit a car down Bourbon Street during prime time just five days before Fat Tuesday. Yet I barreled right down the half-empty boulevard in a rented Cadillac, expecting a Dresden-like payload of beads and bottles, but drawing nothing harder than a stare.