I read Rob Walker’s Letters from New Orleans a while back. I wanted to wait to post on this particular book until after I actually went to New Orleans, my hometown, for the first time since Katrina. The thinking was that it would make for a more interesting post. How successful I am in that department is for you to decide.
Rob Walker is a regular contributor the New York Times Magazine. He chose to move to New Orleans in 2000. I believe that he left before Katrina. The book is a collection of e-mails that he sent to friends and others explaining interesting things about the City that he encountered in his years there. Rob Walker’s web site says: “Subjects covered in Letters From New Orleans include: Celebratory gunfire, rich people, religion, the riddle of race relations in our time, robots, fine dining, drunkenness, urban decay, debutantes, the nature of identity, Gennifer Flowers, the song “St. James Infirmary,” and mortality.” All true.
Let me start by noting that the book was very good, and I even bought a copy as a gift for a family member who is an ex-pat like me. Rob Walker gets New Orleans. It is a wonderfully complicated place that is as exasperating as it is beautiful. I thought it was interesting to read about the city through the eyes of someone truly discovering it – warts and all. As these things usually go, the outsider perspective even taught me some things about my city that I was totally unaware of. If you have never been there and you want to understand the city, this is a great book to accomplish that goal. The book is not a comprehensive academic history of the city nor is at an exhaustive travelogue. It still manages to encompass all of the weird magic of the city. The author is donating all of his proceeds from the book to Katrina-related charities (order now – operators are standing by).
These are not all love letters to the city either, just an honest evaluation of the city and why its character is so unique. One “charming” aspect of the city that Walker covers is the tradition New Orleanians have of shooting guns in the air on New Year’s eve and other festive occasions. Walker first became aware of this cultural tidbit when he saw an ad in the Times-Picayune where the NOPD urged citizens to “avoid firing weapons in the air”. Walker found “avoid” a little too casual for his liking. Maybe “don’t fire weapons at all” might have been the tone to take. Shooting in the air is really a problem. I’m not really sure who it is that thinks it is a good idea. One New Year’s Eve I was at a bar near Tulane and we wandered outside around midnight. Who knows why. A guy standing next to me was grazed by bullet, luckily in the most minor way that is possible. There was some widespread hauling of ass back inside.
The book also talks about the weird vibe that is the Zulu Mardi Gras parade. What does one make of black man parading in black face and straw skirts? And what about the Mardi Gras Indians? What’s with the debutantes? What about a jazz funeral being held for the tourists’ expectation that jazz funerals are held regularly? There is some great stuff in this book about the heart and soul of the city.
Here’s a letter from New Orleans of my own. Having read the book, I felt like I was suitably equipped with a heaping dose of nostalgia for my return to the devastated city. Well, as prepared as you can be to see something like that. I didn’t go to New Orleans East, St. Bernard Parish, or the Ninth Ward, the two worst hit areas by far. What we did see were homes with flood water lines about 6-8 feet above the ground. The strangest thing, other than no one being around and the trash stacked all the curb, was how dead everything looked. New Orleans is generally a very green city, even in winter. Lawns and plants were dead from being underwater. Houses were abandoned and still have spray painted markings on the fronts from where emergency crews came through looking for dead people – very biblical looking. There was one house we saw that indicated that no cats were found in the house but the fish had been rescued. That’s irony. All of City Park looked trashed.
We rode from City Park down the length of Carollton Avenue, past my high school that just re-opened, all the way down to the river. It looked like people were getting back into their homes, but most businesses were still shut down. Electricity looked spotty for about half of the drive. I had my camera with me, but I couldn’t bring myself to take any pictures of this. Partly because I don’t want to remember the city this way and partly because I didn’t trust myself to take pictures that would adequately convey a representative scene of just how f*-ed up everything was. I’ll try something on a smaller scale next time.
Luckily Cooter Brown’s was open, and a good friend was manning the bar. She’s worked there forever and may be on her way to becoming an institution. At least as far as I’m concerned. She filled us in on her evacuation ordeal and life in the city since the storm. Crazy ass stuff. But everyone’s ordeal has been crazy. Her Christmas card this year featured her son and Santa in front of abandoned refrigerators spray painted “Happy Holidays” and “Happy New Year 2006″ on a devastated street. All of their presents were wrapped in what are locally distinctive FEMA roofing tarps. There is no doubt that she is in for the long haul.
New Orleans’ best bartender
Pressed for time, we could either take St. Charles or Magazine all the way to the Quarter. We went with Magazine. If St. Charles was completely trashed, I don’t think that I could have handled it. Magazine Street was surprisingly vibrant. We stopped into several stores along the way, and felt compelled to buy something at each place we stopped. But we do that anyway when visiting. One of my favorite book stores, Beaucoup Books was open (the other favorite is the Maple Street Book Store) but in their new location. They had moved from their former location before the storm to smaller digs. Things change. One of the only shops not open that we always check out was the French folk artist Simon (pronounced the French way). His shop was locked up. I hope he is still in New Orleans. We were looking forward to picking up a Katrina themed piece of his stuff. Maybe next time.
Smaller but still open for business – Beaucoup Books
When we got to the French Quarter, we were amazed how much it looked like it always had. As nearby as Canal Street, damage was evident. The Quarter had survived since 1718, so they must know something. It wasn’t very crowded, but businesses were open and the mood was festive. If New Orleans is abandoned and allowed to fall into the Gulf, this is where the last outpost of Mad Max types will be living on the rooftops and forming their own government.
optimism was in the air in the Quarter
We did a lap around the Quarter making sure that all of our favorite stuff was still there. One of the galleries that we regularly check out had closed its doors, but it appeared to be the exception. Most appeared to be open if not thriving. We visited our favorite artist, James Michalopoulos, who has reportedly done a booming business since re-opening his doors in November. The Rodrigue gallery was closed on the day that we visited, but all signs are that the gallery has re-opened for business.
Rodrigue’s Blue Dog stumping for levees that don’t suck
Gallery hopping out of the way, it was time for refreshment. We swung past Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop (great bar in an ancient building), which always looks dangerously close to collapse, even in good times. I am happy to report that is not only standing but also open for business. We had a mildly hilarious run in with an exuberant lady who was belting out “Hooked On A Feeling” from her car and welcomed me to New Orleans (I guess I got the “Hooked On A Feeling Welcome” because I was carrying a camera and looking like a yahoo).
Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop – still standing somehow
We finally settled on Pat O’s, which may be the best drinking courtyard in all the land. It wasn’t packed, but everyone looked damn happy to be there. If we had played our cards right, I’d now be telling you about the many drinks consumed at the bar, the great meal we had at one of the city’s great restaurants, and the amazing accommodations we had. Instead we had to load up and get back to Baton Rouge.
Our mission accomplished for the day, we set ourselves on fire in the Courtyard Bar at Pat O’s
Things are grim in much of New Orleans, but it is still very possible “to pass a good time”, as we say, in New Orleans. I was having so much fun, that I only managed to take the five pictures above. We had a truly great day, and we wished we could have been there for several more days. We’ll be back soon enough though.
As much as life currently sucks for many of the people who call NOLA home, the first signs of life appeared to be coming back, if slowly. To really recover, New Orleans needs a lot of help. Here’s where you come in. Go there soon. The city’s base is tourism and it needs people to visit, stay in hotels, and eat and drink in its bars and restaurants. I’ll be going back in February to do some volunteer work. I’m also planning a longer trip for the Jazz Festival (end of April/beginning of May). If you’ve never been, its AWESOME.
My sister gave me this sweet shirt for Christmas.
If music is your bag, NPR has a cool New Orleans music sampler CD that benefits Habitat for Humanity, and there is another benefit album that benefits MusiCares Hurricane Relief efforts. You can’t go wrong either way. And if you’ve got a backlog of money, artist George Rodrigue has two limited edition prints that benefit victims and the New Orleans Museum of Art.
There really is no limit to what can be done on scales big and small. Help out where you can.