The Magazine

Will the Good Times Ever Roll Again?

A report from post-Katrina New Orleans.

Mar 20, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 25 • By MATT LABASH
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Over at the Quarter's most famous tourist trap, Pat O'Brien's--home of the Hurricane cocktail and the hammered coed--lines used to wind around the corner on non-Mardi Gras weekends just to stand like sardines at the bar. But on this night, you can walk right in and get a table or three. Dueling piano players tinkle out authentic New Orleans tunes like "Sweet Home Alabama," while the jolly Alvin Babineaux accompanies them on a drink tray that he plays with thimbles on his fingers. (The original drink-tray player, Eddie Gabriel, drowned in his 9th Ward home during Katrina.)

In Jackson Square, the soothsayers aren't all that soothing. Alobar Greywalker, who's provided tarot and palm-reading services for some years, sits at a table in a fur hat, eating chopped liver out of a Styrofoam cup. When I ask him how it looks for New Orleans, he doesn't even break out the cards. "Well," he says, chewing thoughtfully, "the ice caps are melting and the barrier islands are underwater. Not good."

At a traditional "Debauch Lunch" at the Redfish Grille, I tuck into a side room with a mishmash of New Orleanian gents who pay dues at the right clubs, like the Boston or Stratford, and belong to aristocratic Mardi Gras krewes (the social organizations that put on balls or parades) like Chaos, Rex, and Proteus. Princes of the city, they're hail-fellow convivial in the open-bar style. Still, there's a shadow on them. One asks if "leg of lamb" is on the menu--code for hired female entertainment. But there isn't. Another tries to pass around a pornographic Blackberry email, but nobody's much interested. "It's been a long six months," says one of his comrades, "everyone's too tired to think about sex."

Back on Bourbon Street, even the gospeler's placards have taken on a Job-like cast. "God Is Unfair," reads one. Business is also off for cross-carrier Joe Hendrix. Normally, he can't get his cross through the throngs, but now he's practically doing zigzag patterns. In previous years, he's been spit on, doused with gasoline, and had his cross strung with so many beads that it felt like he was shouldering Jesus and the two thieves. This year, the most heckling he's gotten are half-hearted heathens looking at the rollers under the cross, saying, "Hey bro, Jesus didn't have wheels."

About the only ones who seem themselves are the cheeky T-shirt vendors who are in high clover due to all the new material. Favorites include "Show FEMA your tits--they'll mail you your beads in 8-10 weeks." Then there's every imaginable goof on Mayor Ray Nagin. In January, Nagin posited that the reconstituted New Orleans should be a "chocolate city." He suffered a fierce backlash from the white business community who originally helped him win, and who now seem to be aligning behind Ron Forman, a former Nagin backer whose wife was Nagin's communications director. Forman runs the Audubon Zoo, making him uniquely qualified, some would say, to run the city of New Orleans. Nagin later backtracked, saying that one must mix "dark chocolate" and "white milk" to make a "delicious drink." Perhaps the man who is most often portrayed on the silk-screened cotton shirts as Willy Wonka has a loftier aspiration: to become the Nestlé Quik Bunny.

BEING A TOURIST, I decided to take a formal tour. The last time I was in town, immediately after Katrina hit, I saw plenty of bad things. I interviewed a stuttering kid on the steps of the Convention Center, since the inside of the building had become a powerless, waterless urinal. The boy was traumatized, as we both looked on at a dead man lying in a pool of dried blood. He'd been shot by a cop and left in the street to rot. I watched poor children sitting in mud for days by the Causeway overpass, waiting for a chopper or bus to take them some place they didn't know. I interviewed a grown man as he sobbed, describing to me how he had to hit an ailing and abandoned cocker spaniel in the head with a radio, just to put it out of its misery. As I drove into the 9th Ward, where all manner of atrocity was rumored to be occurring, I saw several men trying to put out a raging house fire with milk cartons full of water. A young black woman in shower shoes walked past them, after having lost everything. I asked her where she recommended going. "Anywhere but here," she replied.

Gray Line usually runs all varieties of New Orleans tour. When things were normal, people cruised on the Steamboat Natchez, or visited the tomb of voodoo queen Marie Laveau, or took cocktail tours to learn the history of the Sazerac and Pimm's Cup. But while you can still do some of those things, the company's bread and butter--the only thing keeping it afloat, actually--is its "America's Worst Catastrophe" tour. Board a bus by the Mississippi River, and for 35 bucks, you get three hours of utter devastation, plus a break for refreshments.