Dispatch From New Orleans
As I saw what was happening at the Superdome after Katrina, I thought of Ernie K-Doe. Back in 2000, I saw him perform at the Mother-In-Law Lounge, a bar that his wife named in honor of his 1960s-era hit. The high point of the evening was a new tune called "White Boy / Black Boy." Halfway through, he asked all the black people and white people to join hands. In that small room, full of autographed Ernie K-Doe pictures, Ernie K-Doe articles, and a life-size Ernie K-Doe mannequin, we achieved something close to racial harmony. K-Doe, then 64, pledged that he would soon perform the song at the Superdome, resurrecting his career and ending New Orleans' racial problems with one grand gesture.
When Ernie K-Doe died in 2001, the lounge stayed open as a venue/shrine. When I came to New Orleans after the levees broke, it was still surrounded by water. For seven and a half days, Ernie's widow, Antoinette, stayed upstairs, waiting for the floodwaters to recede. When I visit her this afternoon, she's wearing a flower-print top and her hair's done up like she's a member of one of Phil Spector's old girl groups. As she tells me about her Katrina experience, we stay cool by sitting next to an open door in the lounge's gutted first floor. The only sign that this used to be a museum is what Antoinette calls "the big head"—a gigantic, starry-eyed likeness of Ernie K-Doe that was formerly the hood ornament on a Mardi Gras float.
Antoinette says she didn't think Katrina would be a big deal. When Hurricane Betsy came through in 1965, her house in the Lower Ninth Ward flooded, and she rode on a boat to safety. But she has still never left New Orleans for a hurricane, and this part of town, North Claiborne Avenue adjacent to the I-10 overpass, never used to flood. Now, hundreds of flooded cars sit abandoned under the overpass, lined up for what looks like a mile.
When something like Katrina happens, the 63-year-old Antoinette takes care of everyone. Relatives dropped off her handicapped granddaughter and her diabetic aunt. She also took in a college student who had nowhere else to go. When the water started coming in downstairs, Antoinette put on a swimsuit and brought all her pictures upstairs. The power was out everywhere else, but the Mother-In-Law had lights, gas, and water for the first three days. Antoinette made a pot of spaghetti and meat sauce and fed people who walked and rowed by. When her aunt's insulin ran out, Antoinette flagged down a police boat. After four days, the college student started freaking; she hailed a boat for her, too.
Antoinette and her granddaughter stayed upstairs, where, above the television, there's a photo of Ernie K-Doe next to a picture of Jesus. They played bingo, counted all the change in the house, and used the sun to heat up their food. On the seventh day, a helicopter picked them up and took them to the airport, where they were put on a flight to Athens, Ga. Antoinette and her granddaughter wore K-Doe caps and T-shirts in the hopes of drawing media attention. She told a reporter that she needed to talk to James Brown.
Antoinette's daughter tracked them down and came from Tennessee to pick up her child. Discharged of her responsibilities, Antoinette started back home. Friends in North Carolina found her some wheels: a purple ambulance with a jukebox on the side and "It's Finger Poppin' Time!" painted across the front. Later, she bought a hearse on the Internet to use for hauling—she calls it her "truck."
Since the lounge had never flooded before, Antoinette didn't have flood insurance. The local musician Mr. Quintron assembled a volunteer work crew to get rid of the mold and gut the place. Antoinette lived upstairs and cooked. A bronze plaque on the side of the building notes, with classic K-Doe immodesty, that no man can resist "Antoinette's delicious home-cooked food." To buoy the city's spirits, Antoinette started giving away her red beans and rice. But when she went to the supermarket, everyone was still listless and depressed. Ray Nagin's "chocolate city" remarks in January pissed her off and gave her another idea. Antoinette (code name: dark chocolate) called her friend Bethany Bultman of the New Orleans Musicians' Clinic (code name: white chocolate) and told her that Ernie K-Doe was running for mayor. He never got the chance to perform "White Boy / Black Boy" at the Superdome, but maybe he could help end the city's racial strife.
Ernie K-Doe isn't really running for mayor—he's dead, after all. What's running for mayor is the life-size K-Doe mannequin that used to inhabit the Mother-In-Law Lounge. Ernie's caretaker and campaign manager is my friend Jordan, who runs the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund. I go over to campaign headquarters—Jordan's French Quarter apartment—to photograph the candidate. Jordan has him in a wheelchair for mobility's sake, but we move him to the patio furniture for his official portrait. When we lift him up, his headdress falls off and his arms detach. His purple suit still looks immaculate.
At the lounge, I ask Antoinette if she's happy that her husband didn't have to see New Orleans during Katrina. She tells me that Ernie and her mother (who's not the infamous mother-in-law, by the way) died within a few months of each other in 2001. Antoinette says that she used to have conversations with Death, telling him that "if you're going to stop by my house, take my husband and take my mom." Her husband was fighting alcoholism and her mother had Alzheimer's. Antoinette knew that she could live without them, but she didn't think they would be able to make it without her. She says that Ernie would've never survived Katrina without going back to alcohol. Most of all, she says, "I was so glad my mother was in heaven."
The house behind the Mother-In-Law caught on fire two months ago, and Antoinette hasn't had gas ever since. She's been eating at the restaurant across the street, and drinking coffee at her neighbors' house. Still, she's putting out a ballot box on Saturday to collect Ernie's votes and selling "Vote K-Doe Vote" T-shirts out of the back of the hearse, with the proceeds going to the musicians' clinic. Antoinette wants to have the lounge open the following weekend for Jazz Fest. She asks only that visitors come bearing paintbrushes.