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New Orleans diary


Maddy has a toilet (though it takes twelve minutes to refill, so pace yourself) and a small sink in the kitchen (but be careful not to jiggle it while scrubbing up since it was hastily installed with duct tape last Thursday).  She doesn’t yet have a shower because Earl, who plumbed the bathroom, got his pipes crisscrossed.

To shower, Maddy, Clint, and I have to call Michael (who has temporary custody of the communal jalopy) and he chauffeurs us over to Peter’s.  But this kind offer is good only Saturday and Sunday, for Peter has two guests coming in for Mardi Gras on Monday.  “These folks are kinda hoity-toity,” explains Miss Maddy, “and it doesn’t look good for us to be trampin’ through while they’re around.”

Hearing of our predicament, Maddy’s next door neighbor Philip invites us to use his shower even though the house is in shambles.  Due to roof repairs underway on half of his place, the rest is floor-to-ceiling with Phil’s fine eclectic heap of stuff — he could costume an entire Mardi Gras krewe -– and it’s an Olympic event getting to the shower.  But we are ever so grateful….

When I arrive by taxi at Mad’s on Friday afternoon, I find her and Michael and Clint filling a (new) refrigerator with your basic Mardi Gras supplies:  wine, beer, vodka, orange juice, cheese, lunchmeat, and gallons of bottled water.  (Do not drink or brush your teeth with New Orleans tap water and keep your mouth shut in the shower.)
Katrina blew the roof off Maddy’s three-room house in the Faubourg Marigny, one neighborhood downriver from the French Quarter.  The house suffered no flooding from the bottom, but three months worth of rain from the top.  From August 28th till Thanksgiving Maddy and Michael bivouacked at his sister’s in Pensacola, Florida, and, by the time they were allowed back into New Orleans to throw a blue tarp over the mess, much of the house contents and all of the floors, walls, and ceilings were a total loss.  The inside of the house was gutted, Clint came out from San Francisco to rewire the place, and Earl did the plumbing, mostly.

During those three months of reconstruction from December through late February, Maddy, her toy poodle Doodle, and various displaced friends and family camped out at Michael’s apartment also in the Faubourg.  Picture a 1960s Haight-Ashbury crash pad.  Stake out a corner for your sleeping bag, sign up for kitchen duty, and, ferheavenssake, don’t leave your toothbrush lying around unless your typhoid and Hep B vaccines are up to date.  For three months Mad slept on a Barcalounger in Michael’s living room.

During the week before Mardi Gras, Maddy’s crew hustled to get her house ready for incoming houseguests Jennie Lou and husband Bob (whose New Orleans lake front condo was submerged and Mississippi beach front house was blown into the Gulf)… and me.

So here is our posse:  Maddy, Clint, and me, Jennie Lou, Bob the Elder, and sometimes Michael.  Age range is 50-something to 80.  Together we suffer four bad backs, three chronic sciatica conditions, two sets of bum knees, and a case of emphysema cum diabetes.  Our communal household has a refrigerator but no stove, repaired windows but no shades, and a fresh coat of paint but no internal doors.  Two of its three rooms are full of packing boxes and scattered between these are one queen-sized bed, two air mattresses, a couch, and Maddy’s Barcalounger (she’s so accustomed to it by now that she insists it be brought from Michael’s as her bed).  This gang of geezer party animals nests for six days like a family of Guatemalan illegals in quarters part frat house, part boot camp.  Among folks living in New Orleans as or with the natives, we are among the lucky ones….

On Saturday, poking around my favorite spots in the Quarter, I bang into Mardi Gras tourists who think that flashing naked tatas is a local custom and conclude that it’s best to avoid the visitors’ zone for the rest of the holiday season.

On Sunday, Maddy drives me around the rest of the city.  I’d seen the pictures of homes reduced to kindling, but nothing prepared me for the staggering extent of loss.  We drive through neighborhood after neighborhood.  We drive in districts middle-class and poor.  We drive for two hours.  We see almost no people.

We do see parking lots full of hundreds of unused FEMA trailers.  There are no water and electric hookups for the trailers and the bureaucracy that is supposed to distribute them is stalled.  We do see makeshift tent clinics which are still filling in for the five of seven hospitals crippled by hurricane and flood.  We do see telephone poles plastered with signs:  “M-CON Stump Grinding” – “Nelson Bros. Roofing” – “New Orleans Demolition” — “mold removal” — “quick cash for your house”.  And we see thousands of moldering cars collected in car cemeteries under the highways.

Although 80 percent of its businesses are still boarded up six months after Katrina, New Orleans has a stupendous amount of work to do.  But there’s no housing for workers.  “For hire” signs are everywhere while landlords have doubled rents on the housing that’s left. Of the city’s half million population, 200,000 souls are back and crammed into the “sliver along the river”, which includes the French Quarter, the Faubourg Marigny, and Uptown, many in communal flop houses like Michael’s and Maddy’s.

Those who have returned suffer endless daily trials.  Like the nails.  Long lethal nails that roofers are using to patch things up spill down from work sites onto sidewalks and into the streets.  Car tires are helpless.  Maddy’s had three blow-outs in three months…. Like the Third World health conditions.  Nobody talks about chronic intestinal distress because it’s so common.  But they do talk about lost doctors and medical records.  Maddy was in the middle of replacing her own teeth with implants when Katrina blew away $10,000 worth of porcelain crowns and sent her dentist packing off to Arkansas…. Like the insurance villains.  Jennie Lou, who lost two homes in the storm and is temporarily hanging out near Jackson, Mississippi, fought with her insurance company (and lost) over getting replacement value on her refrigerator.  “I couldn’t prove that I ever had a refrigerator,” she shakes her head and wonders out loud how things as heavy as a frig and a four-drawer filing cabinet can vanish without a trace in the wind and water.<–page–>

Folks soldier on in this bedlam and the great Fat Tuesday party is a success.  The bars are fully stocked.  The musicians are back.  Tourists who stay put in the Quarter need never see the sad leavings of abandoned lives.

But there’s a deep wound in the heart of New Orleanians like Maddy who, on seeing empty pilings along the lake front where favorite shops and cafes once perched, murmurs in stunned disbelief, “it’s all just gone.”

I experience that same dumb shock whenever I see the maimed skyline of Lower Manhattan.  We New Yorkers understand “just gone.”
Like Manhattan, New Orleans provides this country with qualities unique and irreplaceable.  Many cities tolerate difference, but New Orleans celebrates eccentricity.  A stubborn preference for spontaneity in all things is both its curse and its wonder.  And there is no place in America outside of an Indian reservation where old age is so enjoyed and appreciated.

On Ash Wednesday morning after I pack up my bags for an afternoon flight home, I wander down to the French Market to pick up some trinkets for the kids.  A skilled haggler, I pay full asking price without remark.  It’s the least I can do.

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