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 are no cocktails on this tour, though as the company's public relations person promises me, "you'll need one by the time it's over." I take a seat in the front of the bus near our tour guide, Joe Gendusa, a retired schoolteacher, and our bus driver Sly, who lost his house in the storm. Other tourists board noiselessly in their "Porn Star" T-shirts, with digital camera straps wrapped snugly around pudgy knuckles. Gendusa himself rode out the storm with his family in a Central Business District high-rise. "Looking back on it," he said, "what an idiot!" The building pitched and rolled, which it's designed to do under such conditions. "Though I'm not sure it's supposed to do that while I'm in it."
Those of us who'd been spending the bulk of our time in the higher-elevations of the Quarter or the Garden District or the well-heeled and mostly undamaged Uptown neighborhood were in for a shock. Six months later, a good portion of New Orleans still looks like a set from The Road Warrior. Abandoned cars stack up for miles along the I-10 overpass. Church after school after hospital are waiting for the wrecking ball. We drive past cemeteries that became processions of floating funeral barges, as caskets broke free from their crypts. Along Lake Pontchartrain, there's the Southern Yacht Club, the nation's second oldest. Or rather, there was the Southern Yacht Club. It's completely gone, with nothing but a pink dumpster sitting in its place.
We traverse many of the socioeconomic boundaries of New Orleans. The flood apparently didn't check W-2s before sending 10-foot walls of water crashing through people's living rooms. From the river over to New Orleans East, to Lakeview and Gentilly, horror stories and destruction abound: cars landing on roofs, boats landing on cars, houses getting turned into boats, floating down the street onto their neighbor's lots. The city is a sea of blue-tarp roofs and FEMA trailers parked in front yards. And many of those people consider themselves lucky. A chosen few in the nearly totaled St. Bernard Parish are still living in a tent city.
Sly drives us past many of the failed levees, still under construction, to see what God and/or the Army Corps of Engineers hath wrought. "They're supposed to be done by June," Gendusa says skeptically. "Yeah, right," says one of the tourists. Some experts, such as a National Science Foundation-funded panel, agree with my bus mates, saying that the shortcuts that the Corps is taking to complete construction before next hurricane season will leave large sections of the levees weaker than they were pre-Katrina.
At the midway point of our tour, we're driven to a restaurant for a snack break. Included in the package is one complimentary soft drink. But the company flack was right: Something harder seems called for. When the bartender slides me a Diet Coke, I double down on Dewars. It is Mardi Gras, after all. Back on the bus, my tongue loosened, I ask Joe (who normally handles the Southern Comfort Tour) if there's anything nice left to see.
He laughs, at first politely, then almost uncontrollably--cathartically, even. "I can't wait to get back to the office and tell them that one," he bellows. "I wish I could show you something else. But it's the Katrina tour! This is the city, my friend! This is my home."
Joe's home could use a new paint job, since everything is marked with graffiti. There are orange X's on abandoned houses, where search parties have designated how many dead pets/people were found there. There are cellphone numbers painted on garage doors, so neighbors can find each other if anyone bothers returning. There are blustery threats directed at looters, who still make the rounds six months later, having sometimes robbed the same house two and three times.
There is so much graffiti in New Orleans that one of the local photography books of the moment is a slim volume called Spoiled. It contains nothing but pictures of spray-painted refrigerators left on the curb for pick-up, aerosol epitaphs scrawled by former owners, such as "Free Gumbo Inside" and "Smells Like FEMA."
In Old Gentilly, Joe has our bus stop in front of a house that's spray-painted "Goodbye N'awlins, We'll Miss You." The occupants were friends of his late parents. Joe says a lot of his old friends are disappearing these days. Almost none of them were taken by the storm. But if they haven't moved, he sees them turning up in the Times-Picayune's death notices, which have grown longer lately with all the extra strokes and heart attacks: the post-Katrina toll. Of these family friends, he says, "They won't be coming back. They just don't have the energy, even if they had the money."
THE LAST TIME I SAW THE KINGFISH, he was stubbled and wild-eyed and heavily armed. He was also my host, his Uptown abode serving as media HQ for me and my MSNBC traveling companions after Katrina closed all the New Orleans hotels. We drank his Old Fashioneds and took baths in his pool. One of the last Uptowners with a generator and the bad sense to stay in New Orleans, Kingfish was fighting to keep his house and his businesses and his life from washing away with the rest of the city.
His family secure in Florida, he'd turned his beautiful home, which only suffered some dislodged shingles and downed trees, into an armed compound. A couple of friends signed up for guard duty. They strolled the grounds with pump-action shotguns and holsters threaded with Brooks Brothers belts, sweating through their Perlis golf shirts with the little crawfish stitching (New Orleans's answer to the Lacoste alligator). Kingfish spent frantic weeks checking on neighbors' houses, pulling rescue missions at the lawless Convention Center to take family friends to the hospital, and generally saving pets and dotty old ladies who didn't know what had happened. Mostly though, he was waiting with his guns and the Perlis mercenaries, sure that "the crickets," as the looters were called, were coming over his fence.
I christened him "Kingfish" when I heard one of his buddies use it on the ride in from Baton Rouge, and after he said he didn't want his name in my story. He balked initially, saying of Huey Long, the original Kingfish, "what a piece of shit he was." A native son with civic pride, he is tired of Louisiana being a national punch line. He's tired of Orleans Parish public school officials literally stealing millions of dollars as the system fails; he's tired of idiot-brothers-in-law littering corrupt levee boards; he's tired of episodes such as the one currently playing out in the April mayoral race, in which a fringe candidate (and the state's chief election official) is campaigning from her jail cell. If Long said, "The time has come for all good men to rise above principle," then this Kingfish has no use for good men.
My Gray Line tour didn't take me to the 9th Ward--the city council ruled tour buses shouldn't go there, sensitive to the perception that residents of the most famous blighted neighborhood in America might not want to be the object of a safari. Though which residents would mind isn't entirely clear. There are almost none left. So Kingfish agrees to pick me up one morning, and spin me over there.
When I hop into his SUV, he looks well-scrubbed and shined up, less tense and less armed. He also looks slightly older, which he says is going around. A group of his friends recently got together--the supposedly unflappable aristocrats who never get interviewed on Oprah. Looking across the room at his pals in their late 30s and early 40s, he says, "People were just grayed-up. It was noticeable. You see guys you haven't seen for six months, and feel like you've been in a freakin' time warp."
Many are gutting it out, eking out a fraction of the living they were making, waiting for revenues to rebound in a city that's half ghost town. Some evacuated thinking they were leaving for a long weekend and never came back. At the Florida resort where Kingfish's wife and kids were staying until it was reasonably safe to return to the city, they met another New Orleans couple with one small child. They were about to return, too, but the wife was killed by a truck when returning her rental car.
One person who has returned, and who rides with us today, is Kingfish's friend since kindergarten, who'd moved away from New Orleans months before the storm, but who still wants to come back. He picks his own cumbersome pseudonym--"Big Fat Tough Guy"--but graciously settles on "BF" for short. It's the first look BF has had at his hometown, and Kingfish asks him what he thinks as we drive through the moonscape of the lower 9th Ward, where trees are snapped like Lincoln Logs, and the only inhabitants we see are a lone rooster and men in HAZMAT suits. "The landscaping could use some work," BF says.
Despite his pedigree, Kingfish knows the 9th Ward a bit. One of his several enterprises is a construction company. He's built homes down here, supposedly above the flood line, though as he points out, somebody missed the call on that one. They hadn't counted on the Industrial Canal levee being breached, which turned the whole neighborhood into an aquarium. He takes us by one of his houses, which has a pillow strapped to the railing, inscribed with Jeremiah 17:7. "Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord." The rest of the house has been gutted for reconstruction, with nothing left but a crab pot in the rafters around the place the water line settled.
This makes Kingfish scratch his head. He doesn't understand why anybody would rebuild here, since it's proven hurricane bait, and the neighborhood was a crime and murder magnet even before the storm. This is a complaint I hear from both black and white New Orleanians about the city's largely black poverty centers. They are hoping their city becomes a safer place, since many of those who made it unsafe have taken up residence in other cities. Black city council president Oliver Thomas recently caused a stir, saying of public housing evacuees that are now residents of places like Houston, that New Orleans only wants people back who will work, not "soap opera watchers."
Kingfish is sick of all the media romanticizing of places like the lower 9th. "Give me a break with the lone kid blowing a trumpet on his porch," he says mockingly. "Look around, there ain't no f--in' porches left. That sounds harsh to some people, but they don't know what New Orleans is." It's as integrated as a city gets, he says, "the only place where a $2 million house can be two blocks away from your maid's." Spare him all the talk, he says, about how the city's entire identity is compromised.
New Orleans had problems before the storm, lots of them, says Kingfish. America just got a whiff of New Orleans's dirty laundry when even cops were shown shoe-shopping at Wal-Mart without hitting the checkout line. "You lose the 9th Ward and people say we're losing our soul. Horseshit," he grouses. There were a lot of good family people there, but it was also miles of urban decay which added nothing to the city. "Wynton Marsalis wasn't going around shooting people, being unproductive," he says. "And that kind of person will come back, and the culture will stay."
Just who's coming back, and where, is an open question. New Orleans is a big jump-ball. Federal, state, and local entities, as well as insurance companies, are now so tied up in a Gordian knot of interlocking and competing interests that New Orleans these days resembles Purgatory. Everybody is waiting for something: waiting for their insurance check, waiting to see if they can rebuild, waiting to make sure that if they rebuild that their neighbor does the same so that they don't live in a blighted neighborhood, waiting to make sure that the city, state, or feds will allow their neighborhood to exist at all. Rarely have so many Americans collectively faced such existential uncertainty.
Kingfish has felt the burn firsthand. After the storm, nearly all his income dried up. Real estate deals that he needed to close were going south. He did what creative people do in such situations: He improvised. With all construction halted, Kingfish went the demolitions and clean-up route, keeping his head above water. But he's had a scary look at his own mortality, and that of his city's. On an elemental level, he's running full-speed on a Darwinian hamster wheel.
The trick, he says, is for everyone to "chill the f--out, and realize this is a 10-year rebuilding process." The worst setback in the city's history could be its final salvation. "We get to rebuild the whole city!" he says, now an excited kid. "Every failed institution. How could we not be better off? How can you f--it all up? If we enhance 50 percent of it, we're better off. If we don't, we're lost souls."
There's a big hitch, of course: next hurricane season, just three months away. Here, Kingfish loses some optimism. Like any pillar of the community--which New Orleans needs now more than ever--he once thought about how to expand, how to invest, how to create wealth. Now, he's thinking about how to stay liquid. If the levees break again, he says, "Kingfish ain't going to throw the dice twice thinking I'm going to hit seven. If we take another hurricane next year, it's f--in' over. The federal government says forget it, the people say forget it, and who knows? We become the sliver by the river."
BF wants to make a last stop--at the wrecked house of a buddy of theirs in swanky Lakeview. We get out and walk past a crew in HAZMAT uniforms. "Just here to see a friend," says Kingfish. "I don't think he's home," deadpans one of the crew. We walk in through the open door, around the mold cultures and rotted furniture, the old krewe cups and broken children's toys--the ruins of their friend's life.
BF has been hitting the Diet Dr. Pepper pretty hard, and has to take a leak. So he goes right in the middle of the bombed out living room. Kingfish grimaces. "You can go in the toilet, you just can't flush it," he says. BF shrugs: "It ain't like anyone's coming back."
I NEVER PASS THROUGH NEW ORLEANS without seeing two of my favorite people: Danny Abel and Shane Gates. They are large-hearted men, generous and true, and both possess a drinking companion's most desirable trait: They stay until closing time. I met them nearly a decade ago, when profiling Danny's then law-partner, the late Wendell "The Goat" Gauthier, a legend of the trial bar who sued anything that moved, and probably many things that didn't.
In all honesty, it was a hit piece. My subjects were trying to take down the gun manufacturers, much as they did the tobacco industry. Danny (now 59) and his legal assistant/distant cousin Shane (now 30) were my minders. They took me from Quarter bar to restaurant and back again, explaining the evils of smoking and firearms, even as they lit up and showed me their guns--consistency being the hobgoblin of small minds. When the article came out portraying everybody as the swashbuckling pirates they resembled, we remained friends ever after.
In addition to his own small law practice, Danny has owned an exotic cheese farm, is an accomplished chef who used to run a Creole restaurant in the Quarter, and has co-written the Trout Point Lodge Cookbook, based on Creole dishes he and his business partners serve at their lodge in Nova Scotia. The athletically built Shane loves food too, even though he's lost 20 pounds from stress since his Slidell house was nearly wiped out by Katrina.
His Cajun grandmother taught him how to cook at the age of 6, knowledge he expanded on when he began working for under-the-table cash at Brennan's at the age of 13. In the kitchen, he ate so much turtle soup that they limited him to two bowls. So he started ladling it on French bread to make turtle-soup sandwiches instead. Shane never bothered to get his law degree, though he's Danny's all-purpose investigator, manager, client-closer, and cornerman. Always a weather-watcher, even more so after Katrina, he would like to become a meteorologist, "because you get paid whether you're right or wrong."
Whenever I see Danny, a bibliophile who knows the city's used-bookstore proprietors by name, he usually brings me some lagniappe, like Socks on a Rooster, one of the great Earl Long histories. But on this night, as we all take a table at Antoine's (uncharacteristically half-empty), he brings me a CD instead: Shostakovich's "Leningrad" symphony, about the Nazi siege. "It makes me feel better about New Orleans," he explains.
Shane and I order Maker's Mark, while Danny claims he's practicing pre-trial abstinence. He finally succumbs to peer pressure, though insisting, "I have no peers--how can I be pressured?" He orders a Chartreuse, which makes Shane blanch: "It's like drinking a Christmas tree." But Danny revels in Old-Worldliness, pointing out that one of the parade krewes the other day had a sign, saying, "Jacques Chirac, buy us back."
New Orleans isn't just another American city, he's fond of pointing out. The storm, he laments, has physically erased so many points of reference. An attorney friend of his even told him, "I've spent 30 years arguing against post-traumatic stress syndrome, now I have it." So it is important, during these trying times, to remember that New Orleanians are a diaspora people, a people who dress up like Mardi Gras royalty in fruity Shriner-style outfits, a people who "preserve and exaggerate their most essential cultural components: our food, our music, our we-could-care-less-attitude," a people who aren't afraid to drink Christmas trees with their crabes mous amandine.
Danny and Shane have brought along an attorney friend of theirs tonight, Carl Finley. In addition to lawyering, Finley is a fireman, a chief deputy constable, and a rappelling instructor. In the current local economy, it helps to be diversified. As befits a man so busy, he talks in machine-gun bursts: "I don't talk fast, I talk condensed. My court reporters tell me I can do over 300 words a minute."
Finley is the local affiliate of an outfit from California called the Storm Lawyers, who regularly sue insurance companies on behalf of policyholders who feel they've gotten shafted. Danny, too, on a separate track, is working on a suit that he says could make a regular class action look like a round of patty-cake to the insurance companies. The details are still in development. But the important thing to remember, the legal term-of-art that the 300-words-a-minute Finley would like me to focus on, is just one word: BOHICA (Bend over, here it comes again).
This, they all agree, is what is happening to the citizens of New Orleans. Insurance companies, they say, are getting too cute with the wiggle language of policies they should be paying off. During the costliest natural disaster in American history, they are playing stall-ball, trying not to pay if they aren't absolutely forced to, trying to delay payment if they are, so that they can run up more investment income before writing a check. Finley makes it plain in the Old-World way: "They're f--ing people, excuse my French."
If outsiders think this will shake out as just another partisan dog pile, with Democrats predictably siding with the plaintiffs' attorneys, and Republicans with the insurance industry, guess again. In Katrina states, everyone hates the insurance industry now. Danny says that for the first time in recent memory, plaintiffs' attorneys, who often rank right down there with meter maids, tax auditors, and journalists on the lowest-forms-of-life scale, "could be heroes--people are calling us up crying."
Even Trent Lott, who's been called an insurance industry-stooge in the past, has sued State Farm for not paying up on his destroyed Gulf Coast home. The federal suit is being brought by none other than Lott's brother-in-law, the super-lawyer/big tobacco-slayer Dickie Scruggs. This development is causing some Louisianans to experience something they've never experienced before: Mississippi-envy.
EVERYONE KNOWS, of course, of the misfortune met by the poorest New Orleanians, herded off to football stadiums in other cities. Less well known are the tribulations of the insured middle and upper classes, many of whose daily lives now involve fighting federal and state bureaucracies, as well as the insurance companies. To get just a small taste of it, I went out to Slidell two days later, to witness my friend Shane's slow torture.
His place was once a beautiful plantation-style house on several acres that are now half-swamp. Slidell, where Lake Pontchartrain drains into the Gulf of Mexico, is where the eye of Katrina passed over, testified to by the forests of downed trees and wreckage and street signs wrapped around telephone polls like bread bag twisties. There was so much debris here, it took Shane an hour and a half to walk up his quarter-mile street when he finally returned home. With hurricane gales coming off Lake Pontchartrain for hours, his house shook like a belly dancer--so hard that it snapped his underground cable. But he was lucky compared with his neighbor. Their house did a complete 180.
The roof in Shane's attic now has sunlight streaming in, and the downstairs was so covered in mold after receiving about five feet of water that it actually looked like the walls had sprouted rainbow-colored fur. At first blush, many would consider Shane fortunate. He has two insurance policies (with State Farm and Allstate), about $460,000 worth of supposed wind/flood coverage. But his daily existence, his new full-time job, in essence, is fighting the insurance companies for the money to put his life back together.
Doing so is an obstacle course of bureaucratic high-hurdles and Catch-22s. It is way too complicated to describe here in its entirety. But it boils down to this: His house was worth about a half million dollars, but the most he's shaken out of his insurance companies is around $190,000, administered by his mortgage company in increments, as he reaches certain repair plateaus. He estimates it will cost him nearly $100,000 just to raise his house to whatever the new base-flood elevation requirement is, in order to stay insured, or for a new buyer to get insurance to make his house sellable. What that elevation will be, he says, has yet to be determined, which could make anything he does now futile. Tree removal alone has already cost $8,000 and isn't nearly done. To dig up a giant pine stump in what used to be his manicured front yard, but which now resembles a mud-wrestling pit, post-Katrina prices will set him back anywhere from $2,000-4,000 dollars per. He has 12 stumps just like it.
With those repairs, his money is nearly gone before he's touched his house. Plus, he's supposed to pay himself $10,000 to be his own general contractor in order to find all the contractors who there aren't nearly enough of (since everybody needs one) to actually fix his home. When he comes back with their prices, the insurance company nixes them as too expensive. Meanwhile, his engineer tells him that the house is totaled--he's a fool to gut the bottom floor and live on the second story with his wife and newborn (as he's now doing). It would be cheaper to tear the whole thing down and start over, rather than to repair it. Yet his mortgage company, which is holding the pursestrings, says otherwise, wanting him to patch it up and pay it off.
All the while, Shane is supposed to get rental reimbursement for living outside the house while he fixes it. He rented an apartment in the Garden District, which became too dangerous a place to stay with his baby, once FEMA turned off the hotel-room subsidization spigot in Orleans Parish for lower-income types. Many of them, Shane says, are now crashing with relatives or living hand-to-mouth. They roam the street during the day, until they have to find a place to sleep at night. From his apartment balcony, he's been screamed at on a half-dozen occasions by envious less-fortunates who demand that he share his electricity and running water.
Recently, when driving to the apartment, he nearly got in a gunfight. A car slammed its brakes on in front of him repeatedly, trying, he suspects, to set him up for an accident. "He pulled out his gun, I pulled out my gun, we got into a chase," says Shane. "I caught myself and thought 'What the hell am I doing? I'm going to get in a gunfight because somebody's trying to make an insurance claim.' People are losing their minds around here."
Shane, once a happy-go-lucky type, quick to laugh and slow to anger, often feels as though he's losing his mind. His wife, Christine, tells me that he now barks at her and everyone else over the slightest provocation, or over none at all. He also drinks too much. Formerly a good-time social drinker, he now drinks during the day, and can only sleep after several glasses of bourbon and a Xanax. "If I don't drink, I don't sleep--period," he admits. When he's not thinking about the insurance money that he can't spend, he thinks about the savings that he already has spent (about $60,000 of it, between rentals, unreimbursed repairs, and transportation to and fro, which has seen him put over 30,000 miles on his truck in four months).
Since Katrina, he's spent over $10,000 to board his beloved five dogs. He's considered putting slugs in their brains, just to end their anxiety of being checked in and out of kennels when they're used to living in a spacious barn, and having pastures to run. Because of it, they have skin problems, and have dropped all kinds of weight. The other night, Shane ended up in the emergency room, his throat swelling so severely that he had to spit in a wastebasket instead of swallowing--perhaps because of the stress, perhaps because of the mold and the toxic mud which comes up through holes in his first floor. The air quality is causing a discharge from the baby's eyes.
Shane misses a lot of simple things: lying on a couch, which he no longer has, getting a glass of water in the middle of the night without putting on a coat, thawing his seafood in the kitchen instead of the bathroom sink, walking barefoot in his place without getting an infection. He wants out of what was once his dream house, since he can't afford to fix it. It's strangling him. But a part of him wants to stay.
His favorite Katrina picture is one he saw on the Internet. It's of an old woman in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, sitting in a rocking chair with water up to her calves. "They tried to rescue her, and she went bananas," he says. "She said, 'I'm not leaving' That's people's mentality about home. Think about it--you're home. It's where you created your child or got drunk or urinated off the porch. Whatever. It's your home. You can't just jump up and replace it, especially since they won't give you the money to do it anyway. We used to have a good time here, crank the fire-pit up, eat crawfish. Now it's just gone."
THE DAY BEFORE Fat Tuesday is known as Lundi Gras. And there is no better way to spend it than down at the traditional Zulu cookout--Zulu being New Orleans's oldest and most prominent African-American krewe. After a week of watching inebriated college kids stumbling out of frozen daiquiri bars to bad dance music up on Bourbon, heading down to the Mississippi River to drink cold drafts and eat crawfish pie in the sun is like scouring the grime off your soul.
The crowd is thick on the ground. Some have come to see the "Zulu king" that Professor Longhair sang about in "Go to the Mardi Gras." Others want to see Mayor Nagin toast the city. But I've come to see the best live party band in the United States of America--the Rebirth Brass Band--second line music at it's funkiest and finest.
Rebirth got their start two decades ago, hauling their high school band instruments home through the Quarter, playing for Popeye's and beer money. A motley crew in Rocawear jerseys, Saints shirts, and headbands, their music is fierce without being angry, exuberant without being giddy. They do a short set at the Zulu event, then move across the street in front of Harrah's casino to really air things out. I watch them take the stage, their music pulling in throngs of unsuspecting stragglers as though they had magnets attached to their foreheads. Rebirth doesn't just kill, they smite, and not just men, but women, children, and livestock.
Their bass drum and tuba lay a tandem, chest-thumping bottom, while their stable of horn players hold the loose groove, careening around each other through the intersection, then smacking together like bumper cars. They sing, "Feel like funkin' it up." And they're not the only ones. White girls in tight jeans feel like funkin' it up. Black men in Kangols feel like funkin' it up. Old white women dancing with young black men (not a sight you see everyday, even in New Orleans) feel like funkin' it up. I might've felt like funkin' it up, too, if I hadn't been taking notes on all the others funkin' it up, which, mercifully, I was.
A 12-year-old black kid jumps on the stage and feels like funkin' it up for the rest of the show, dancing every dance he knows: the dandruff-brush, the jump-the-turnstile, the Azusa Street Fire-Baptized Holiness shake. He dances so hard, and with such conviction, that he distracts the trumpet players, making them forget themselves, as they so skillfully make the rest us do the same. Philip Frazier, the band's cofounder and tuba player, explains how it works to me after the show: "You get white and black together. Everybody in one accord. The music just takes their souls--that's when we're doing our job."
At my hotel afterwards, I order room service. My waiter, an older black gent named Louis Williams, asks how my Lundi Gras is going. I tell him pretty good, since I'd just had my doors blown off by Rebirth. His face falls and his smile fades. "I think I'm gonna cry," he says. He hired Rebirth for his 25th wedding anniversary--they're all locals, many from the 9th Ward. It was one of the great nights of his life. He tries to think of one particular song they sang, but it won't come to him.
"These guys put on a show," he says. "When they played this song, you couldn't help it. People jumped up and down and grabbed onto posts. A nice crowd, you understand. No mess." The song comes to him, and he starts tapping it out on his leg, while going into near falsetto: Do whatcha wanna / Hang on the corner. "Second line," he says, softly dragging out the i in line, as if he's said it all. "We had a tape of it. We lost it in the storm. I get full just talking about it."
Early Fat Tuesday morning--the middle of the night, actually--I wake up to ride in the Zulu parade. Before I came to New Orleans, I sniffed out some friends in old-line white krewes, asking if they had a slot. But their verdict came back unanimous: If you want the definitive Mardi Gras experience, you have to roll with Zulu. "Why?" I asked one. "Because," he explained, "When else in your life will you have a chance to stand on a float in blackface and throw coconuts at people?"
This, in fact, is what it entails. At the last second, Zulu Vice President Naaman Stewart was kind enough to put me on the float of J.C. Lawrence, who he described as "the best defense attorney in New Orleans--if you're in trouble, call J.C." In order to ride, I had to meet the strict dress code: black turtleneck, afro wig, grass skirt.
Grass skirts turn out to be a higher-demand item in New Orleans than one would imagine. After striking out at costume shop after costume shop, I settle on a flowered hula skirt. The next morning, I arrive at the hotel to get my face painted along with fellow krewe members. There are plenty of black and white guest riders, as Zulu is among the most democratic of krewes. With our frizzy Afro wigs and blackface, we look like the lost love children of Al Jolson and Linc from Mod Squad. My face painted, I skitter out to the buses to ride to the floats, sheepishly pulling on my hula skirt. A heavyset Zulu gives me the once over, wearily exhaling cigarette smoke. "What the shit's that?" he asks.
We load our float next to the Superdome, and spend an hour or two placing our throws (or beads) on hooks, as if they are ammo belts in gun trucks headed into battle. Theoretically, there's supposed to be no inebriation during these affairs, but on my ride is Cong Tran, Zulu's only Vietnamese member, who seems to have other ideas. "Pass the Courvoisier," he says, pulling a bottle of cognac out of his bag. "You in New Orleans, baby. Laissez les bon temps rouler!" he says, uttering words I thought were only spoken by out-of-town TV reporters and my Copeland's of New Orleans hostess back in Annapolis.
My host, J.C. Lawrence, is not only the float captain, but the importer of coconuts, Zulu's exclusive throw, which is the most treasured in the Mardi Gras hierarchy. He gets them from Vietnam, where they have, "how do you say--cheap labor." Lawrence is a large man with a dry sense of humor. When he sees my flowered hula skirt, he says, "I might have a normal one for you, but don't let me save you from yourself."
Before mounting the float, I'd gotten lots of pointers on how to entice women into showing their breasts, a cherished Mardi Gras tradition. Kingfish had advised, "If you see a girl in a Florida State sweatshirt, that's a good sign, show 'em your beads." But as we roll through a black section of town, before getting to the common parade route, Lawrence cautions, "Don't ask the sisters to show you their breasts, they'll hurt you." He says I'd be much better off waiting for white women on St. Charles Ave., which he calls "Tittieville."
In this most offspeed of Mardi Gras years, I see only one breast. It has a patch of hair on it, and in the blur of parade revelry, bead-throwing, and coconut-launching, I can't be certain it even belonged to a woman. As Lawrence and I bake on the top deck of a double-decker float, our Jolson paint melting in the sun, we fall into conversation over his city, about which he is mordantly philosophical.
Things are sort of getting back to normal. "Crime is up, thank God," the defense attorney facetiously says. "So we don't have the usual suspects--we get new suspects." Like the Kingfish and his ilk, he thinks New Orleans has a chance to remake what is broken. "Katrina shook the whole thing up--it was going to take 20 years to get it straight."
But he resents those in Uptown--or "the island" as he calls it--arrogantly asserting that places like the entire 9th Ward can be lopped off without being missed. They'll see soon enough, he suggests. Their cheap-labor pool just left town.
And while they were packed off on field trips with a little FEMA spending money, Lawrence is disturbed that there doesn't appear to be any effort to bring his fellow New Orleanians back. While many others were able to come back to something, even if only tarp roofs and trailers, "folks in those neighborhoods were held out of there so long that the rats and cats decided to leave." I ask Lawrence what happens to the city's personality. "What happens?" he asks back. "I'll tell you. Ten years from now, Tiger Woods will be hitting a drive over the water hazards of the lower 9th Ward."
That night, I am a world removed from the Zulu parade. Kingfish's wife has left town, so I can skate into the Rex Ball on her invitation. "You can be Mrs. Kingfish," he says. "Go to Perlis, and get your white tie and tails." Founded in 1872, Rex is one of the old-line krewes, and "Rex" himself is the King of Carnival, a civic-minded über-stud who this year happens to be Paul McIlhenny, of the Tabasco McIlhennys.
Before the ball at the Canal Street Sheraton, we meet in the hotel bar. With Mardi Gras winding down, Kingfish is feeling expansive. He starts telling me of the Florida resort where his wife and children spent their Katrina exile. "It was this neoclassical place. Brand new. Beautiful. Palms. Old-looking houses. My wife was like, 'it's clean, it's neat, good restaurants.' But there's no soul. Plus, I cannot f--ing stand to get on an interstate in order to get to something. I live a pretty good life. My commute is like 12 minutes. I go to my club to eat lunch. I insulate myself from all the bad things in New Orleans, and I'm able to enjoy the good things."
ONE OF THOSE GOOD THINGS is the Rex Ball--satiny old dolls and dewy debs and rock-solid gray-haired eminences that you could trust with your wife, your checkbook, or even your wife's checkbook. But we don't stay long. Instead, we take some go cups and head outside, where hotel worker bees take a patchy looking red carpet that looks like it might've come out of the old Convention Center, and lay it across Canal Street to the Marriott.
It's a highly ceremonial gesture that will mean the formal end of Mardi Gras during the much anticipated "meeting of the courts," in which Rex and the oldest of old-line krewes, Comus, come together. While Rex is a parading and public-spirited organization, Comus withdrew from parading years ago when a city councilman tried to make it open its membership, which is supposed to be secret. Comus is night to Rex's day, the unknown to Rex's known, or to put it in cocktail terms that any New Orleanian could understand, absinthe to Rex's Herbsaint.
Historically, the meeting of the courts is held in Municipal Auditorium, with the two krewes separated by a curtain. Each year, a Comus captain marches over to the Rex Ball, and presents a scroll to Rex and his queen, inviting them to join the Comus ball. "You'd think they'd just Fed-ex it in advance," says Kingfish, "But they always forget." This year, however, the auditorium was closed due to Katrina damage, hence the red carpet across Canal Street.
Canal Street at night during Mardi Gras is a pretty dicey affair. And so the Kingfish and I have our entertainment cut out for us. As the red carpet is laid, the hoi polloi press in with what's-the-meaning-of-this exasperation. There are men who look like they were just furloughed from prison, and women with pants so tight that it would be easier to amputate than unzip. A hillbilly walks up with a "Drink beer" shirt. A black man with braids and gold teeth approaches, spies the red carpet, and utters "muthaf--a!" before vamping down it as if he is at the Source Hip-Hop Awards.
Kingfish puts on a happy face: "Six months ago, they were looting out here. This is great!" As the scene attracts more and more attention, the hotel staff gets panicky, and starts pulling empty limos along each side of the red carpet, forming an insular gauntlet. Kingfish shakes his head in disapproval. "They're gonna cause a goddamn riot," he says of the move. "Rex is gonna get the shit beat out of him with some beads."
In the upper floors of the Marriott, where Rex is supposed to be headed, men in their evening finery flock to the windows to monitor the situation. Kingfish looks up at the Comus hotel, taking a hit off his go cup. "I can tell you what they're thinking: We sure are glad Rex comes over here." As Kingfish and I stand on the commoners' side of the gauntlet, he gets to thinking about the fashion stylings of the gentlemen around us. "Has there ever been a study done on the low pants thing?" he asks. "It doesn't really seem worth the aggravation just to look cool."
At this moment, a drunk tourist from Destin, Florida, approaches us. He is a middle-aged white man with a straw hat and oversized Mardi Gras beads the size of Christmas ornaments. He is well aware of the unfolding pageant and its significance. And he informs us that he's on a weekend pass from his wife. He throws his arm around Kingfish, and demands to be taken to the Marriott. "C'mon!" he says. "Let's go nail Comus's old lady."
Kingfish gives him the slip, as Rex members and their families begin to tepidly migrate across the red carpet. The men mostly look taken aback, the women smile the forced smiles of someone getting their wisdom teeth X-rayed. To ease the tension, Kingfish begins yelling over the limo roofs, "Hey--you were great in Brokeback Mountain." Two black teenagers walk up beside us, irritated that their progress is being impeded. "What is this?" asks one. "I don't know," says the other, "but it better be muthaf--n' Bishop Tutu or somethin'."
Over near the Marriott, there are raised voices that we can't quite make out. Two scruffy looking white youths are circling each other, and all of a sudden one lunges. You can hear the dull thud of bone landing on flesh. "Hmmm," says Kingfish. "I'll have to check the books, but I believe this is the first time there's been a fistfight at the meeting of the courts."
After what feels like an hour, the Tabasco king finally makes his way across the carpet. "Hail Rex," Kingfish says dutifully. "He points at him, and says to me, 'I hunt with him every year, great guy--he's a hoot." Kingfish then lets out a fraternal "quack, quack," as if he and Rex are in the blind. Mounted police have moved in to break up the fistfight. But they don't bother getting off their horses, since there are no hitching posts on Canal Street. Instead, they try to move the ruffians along by their collars. It's difficult, since one of them isn't wearing a shirt.
Kingfish and I stand in white tie and tails and go cups, watching the human carnival. He takes a sip of bourbon, cocks his head quizzically, and poses a question that seems to have occurred to him for the first time. "Am I crazy to live here?" he asks. Not a chance, I say, with some envy. He lives in New Orleans--where every day is anything-can-happen day. "Good. Glad to hear it," he nods appreciatively. "Because I still love the place. I can't help it."
Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.