Life After Katrina
Our first Christmas as displaced persons.
"But … I feel fine."
My friend Les lit a cigarette and splayed his hand ("five years") then tactfully changed the subject. The Carousel Bar rotated, creaking, while we sat chatting.
Later we met our friends Alfred and Melissa at Arnaud's, one of the few posh restaurants to reopen in the Quarter. Melissa is friends with the owner and had to pull strings (we thought) to get us a reservation on short notice around the New Year, but in fact the place wasn't very crowded. At some point Melissa's friend, the owner, came to our table and recounted how he'd evacuated three days after the storm with Melissa's dog, Flambeau, in tow. (I gather the dog had been left at Arnaud's because Melissa's family had evacuated by plane, but frankly I was pretty drunk by then and the details are vague.) The owner said he'd planned to ride out the hurricane at the restaurant, dog and all, but there were rumors of violence outside, and then the water had started rushing in. The tiles, I noticed, were still a bit on the scummy side.
Later we walked a few blocks to the famous Pat O'Brien's Bar. The French Quarter seemed sadly depleted—more like, say, Frontier City in Oklahoma than the Quarter circa New Year's Eve (no less). Bourbon Street was haunted by the ghosts of Sugar Bowls Past. In that bar, there, Lester and I had bellowed "Hang On, Sloopy" with a boisterous crowd of Buckeye fans (Les is from Cleveland); on that corner—just the year before last—I'd been accosted by an old battle-ax in LSU purple who'd jabbed a finger at my OU sweatshirt and brayed, "It's 80 degrees outside, you stupid Okie asshole!" But this year the Sugar Bowl was in Atlanta. There was no line to get into Pat O's piano bar, as in years past, and we were rushed to a table right under the pianos in front.
The next day (per tradition) we arranged to meet for lunch at Felix's Oyster Bar, on Bourbon a block off Canal. I arrived first and found the place closed, condemned. Pressing my face to the dirty window, I saw a chaos of garbage and fallen plaster. Across the street, however (and throughout the renascent Quarter), was some gaudy new Bennigan's-like place that advertised AUTHENTIC NAWLINS SEAFOOD!! and was pretty much empty as far as I could see. We went to the Napoleon House and had muffulettas and Pimm's Cups, then I took my friends for a drive.
All they'd seen so far was the Quarter and the affluent, relatively unflooded Uptown neighborhoods near St. Charles Avenue. I drove them around the rest of the city, the other 80 percent or so, toward the lake. My friends stared out the window, chain-smoking and saying the word s---a lot, while we passed mile after mile of dead lawns and drowned, deserted houses. Finally we stopped at my own house in the suburb of Gentilly. The waist-high debris had been cleared off my lawn, I was happy to see—this in accordance with "Executive Order CRN 05-02" (there was a notice taped to my door) granting right-of-entry to FEMA and its contractors. That was fine. I remembered how my neighbor Daphne, pre-Katrina, had once spent nine hours grooming her lawn and power-hosing her driveway. Our lawn, however, was something of a disgrace even before the storm, and afterward the heavy, hopeless debris had shamed me vaguely. I pictured Daphne gazing across the street and shaking her head.
"Have a look inside?" I asked Les and Lee, holding the door open. I wanted to show them the cypress moldings and hardwood floors and so forth, but they kept their distance—no way were they coming near that mold. Lee wouldn't even get out of the car. What the hell, though, I was Dead Man Walking anyway, so I went inside and poked around a bit. Nothing had changed much, except the maggots on our fridge were all dead now. They looked (I'm sorry to say) like so many desiccated boogers.
We drove on toward the lake, where the waterline went all the way up to the eaves on some houses, and the power lines sagged to the asphalt, and muddy cars were strewn about like the unclaimed dead at Passchendaele.
"Every one of these houses," Les wondered, "was a family."
At last we came to the shoreline, where a fair portion of the city's newer rich had lived. Oddly enough, this neighborhood seemed virtually untouched by the flood: All at once the lawns were green again, and the windows gleamed with life inside. Go figure. Perhaps the grassy man-made embankment here (and only here) had stopped the water, or perhaps the gods are simply whimsical.
Next: Life one year after Katrina.
Blake Bailey is the author of Cheever: A Life.