I was on the road in Anchorage when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. That catastrophe hit me hard because I had lived in New Orleans for two brief stints before moving to Alaska. Even though I was so immersed in my DIY booktour road trip, all I could think about was my time in New Orleans, so I couldn’t help but write to my friends about it, even though that wasn’t a part of my road trip. Many of my friends found this piece to be one of their favorites from the trip. For previous journal entries from On the Road blogs, go here and here.
Ah, the decline of the city of debauchery! That spit in the face of nature, a major port city built with a swamp as the foundation, a place that has suffered through being changed to the rule of differing countries like a spoiled brat being tossed back and forth between reluctant parents who never should have had kids to begin with. That inconvenient city that has been neglected, corrupted, bought and sold, taken over, all the while home to murder, slavery, the birth of the "free people of color." The latter were the offspring between slaves and white plantation owners who became so widespread, they became their own segment of New Orleans society. The free people of color even had slaves to serve them. They threw octoroon balls, so the beautiful daughters of the free people of color could meet privileged Creole gentlemen, and be set up as their long-term mistresses. Not to mention the recurring presence of the plague brought on by the innocuous mosquito wiping out populations making the Nile Virus look like the common cold. Not to mention voodoo, everybody in New Orleans takes voodoo seriously, thanks to the 19th century mulatto free woman of color, Marie Laveau. She made two fortunes before and after the Civil War, when everybody there lost everything. Then the arrival of Yankee Irish carpetbaggers who came to scavenge Louisiana and other parts of the south, showed up on her doorstep due to her reputation as a powerful sorceress.
It's hard to believe that so much richness and wretched beauty existed in such a thoroughly whacked-out place, and you have no idea how much it hurts my heart to see the pictures and read the reports of the destruction of that city.
Although it had been pimped out to common tourism (we in Juneau know nothing about that, now don't we?), New Orleans never lost its mysticism or its magic. I could write a book about the short time that I spent there, and it's impossible for photos, news reports, or writing to do that city justice. New Orleans to me was one of those places that really made an impact on my psyche, even if I didn't spend years of my life there. My parents went to college at Tulane where they met. They even married there. Without New Orleans, I wouldn't exist, so there's always been that connection. Then, of course, there was the writing of Anne Rice and Truman Capote...
Mysterious, fascinating, decadent, violent, New Orleans never should have existed except for the megalomaniacal vision and ambition of man; from the day le Sieur de la Salle saw that space in the swamp, and the access of the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico, and was consumed with trading glory for France. De la Salle never found that spot again; he got lost in Texas and was murdered by his crew before they ever found it, so Bienville and Iberville were the brothers given credit for founding this city built on a swamp.
"So what's your story?"
This is the usual go-to when meeting new people. And the superbly fucked up story of La Nouvelle Orleans was unstable from the word go. It’s part of its charm and mystique, and nobody can do dysfunctional with the same expertise and panache of those who were born and raised there. New Orleanians revel in their dramas, and always welcome newcomers, so they can perform their story for a fresh audience. The one thing I remember about that city is that lots of people helped me stay, but it was like extricating myself out of molasses when it was time to go. Let's face it, anyplace built in a swamp is going to encourage stagnation, not growth.
But there's no place like it on earth. The vibe of that town is mysterious with its decadent homes where 11 foot ceilings are considered stunted, with wrought iron gates, magnolia and jasmine trees scenting the night, and the hanging oaks insuring the privacy of the doings inside the houses. It's a city of sin and secrets, masquerade and carnival, even if Mardi Gras has been degraded from nudity and body paint, fucking strangers while in mask to a frat boy street party where "Show your tits!" and fresh-faced twenty-something teeny boppers pull up their shirts is the pinnacle of thrill.
There's nothing quite like being drunk in New Orleans. It is literally a different kind of high, all the ju-ju, mojo, and mysticism must get in the air and permeate the alcohol. A town where seeing people smoking joints in the street is not an uncommon sight and of course, taking your drink with you when you leave the bar to go to the next, whether in the French Quarter or any other part of town, is legal.
"No human being should be in New Orleans during the months of August and September." So said Laura, my lunatic roommate in the neighborhood known as "Uptown," when we were discussing the humidity of New Orleans.
The heat and humidity still live in my memory. I was raised in Florida, no slouch in tropical weather humidity, but in New Orleans, it's worse. But from the first weekend visit before I moved there a month later, the beauty and the vibe of that town knocked me out, and I absolutely loved it. I found a job and my first place to live within a week.
"Five fifty?! For a beer?!" (This was in 1996. Nowadays, $5.50 is normal.)
I worked as a bartender on Bourbon Street during my first run there; and well, it was a vivid experience. I've never worked so hard or so long in that profession as I did at that particular job, the only bartending job where I worked fifty to seventy hours a week during busy times - Superbowl, Mardi Gras, and Jazz Festival - for a very colorful family. I didn't make the “bank” that one would expect, due to appallingly over priced drinks, but I had to stay. I worked for the "Jewish Mafia" as one of my co-workers put it, the last of the old families that ruled the French Quarter from the old days before corporate companies brought Californication to the Big Easy and put the smiley-face, homogeneous smear on the place. The kind of people who "bought" the employees they wanted, instead of "stealing" them. The Karno family was a hold-out from a different time; they were gleefully corrupt, unapologetically greedy, and cheerily abusive. I was definitely out of place there. Being the cog in the machine, I got yelled at every day for three months until I adapted to my surroundings and became a part of the "There's us, and then there's them" mentality they had towards outsiders.
"Larry, is your name motherfucker?" Gail, the manager, shouted to one of the cocktail waiters at a meeting geared towards building teamwork in time for the Superbowl/Mardi Gras season.
It was not a warm and fuzzy environment, being that I was working amongst a bunch of self-admitted hustlers, and stress ran high. Squabbling, fighting, cursing each other out were daily occurrences. And as I said, I would have made a lot more money in half the time spent if I had worked at any of the other bars on the street. Most of my friends and family thought I was crazy working there, but I had to stay.
The Karno’s owned these bars, worked their employees like plantation slaves, and played the nastiest head games with us because they could. They were the last of their kind and I knew I would never meet anybody like them again. Face it: they would have been sued out of business anyplace else but New Orleans. Their psychology was shaped by the absolute power of the good old days, when the bosses of the French Quarter could have people black-balled, and one really didn't want to piss them off if one wanted to continue to make money there. Their core employees were still a part of that mentality, and it kept them frozen in time.
Even then, I knew it couldn't last. Modern times were catching up with that swamp city of decay and decadence. I had a feeling my employers would eventually lose everything, but I never imagined anything like this.
"Yeah, one good hurricane coming up the Mississippi would wipe us out, we'd be living underwater," joked Sammy Karno. "It hasn't happened in over two hundred and fifty years."
This isn't the first time a hurricane has wiped out New Orleans, the only difference was that the first buildings were last minute shanties. It wasn't the architectural marvel and fantasy it's been ever since.
"What keeps it up? Technology, or dumb-ass luck?"
"So far," said Sammy, "it's been dumb-ass luck."
It just hit me in the last day or two that many people that I knew and cared about are going through this misery of Hurricane Katrina. The folks I worked with were under-educated, ignorant (some had no idea the corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge was known as "Cancer Alley" due to the pollution of the Mississippi and looked shocked when I told them. I was equally shocked at their shock, I mean what do you say?), and living from paycheck to paycheck or tip day to tip day. If you wait tables in Louisiana, your base pay is about $2 an hour. Apparently you can pay bartenders as low, but since Miss Billie, my boss, was paranoid about stealing and the bartenders had access to cash, she paid us minimum wage - I think I made $5/hr when I worked for here nine years ago (1996-97).
"Hang in there, baby," said Gail and Dawn, my managers. "The Karnos will take care of you."
I didn’t stick around to find out, and left after less than a year to continue my happy trails of the vagabond bartender phase of my life. But many musicians, entertainers, cocktail servers, and other bartenders did not evacuate before Katrina hit. There's no way. They can't afford to go and leave everything behind.
Both times I left New Orleans, I was so thoroughly exhausted - physically, emotionally, mentally and psychically. It was a place that I loved, but it was impossible for me to be healthy there. Also, I can't stand limbo and being stagnant was unbearable. My friends and community there were shaped by decadence, drama, and various forms of abuse. I loved them, but they were draining. They loved me and they didn't want to let go...
In New Orleans, lots of people will help you stay, but nobody will help you go. You gotta pull yourself out of the swamp.
The second time I left, I cut all ties and never looked back.