No one really remembers who died first, or when the wave started. Doug Stephens of the Alcoholic Sluts overdosed. That one hit home hard. I knew Doug pretty well and remember raising our glasses to shared woes one night, the both of us having lost the women in our lives to an ambition neither of us seemed to possess. Kelly Keller owned the Circle Bar over on St. Charles Avenue, and when she overdosed a pall set in. Jason Swesnick, Swez, my old next-door neighbor, a fellow chef, overdosed somewhere in there, too. My friend and fellow New Orleans refugee Matjames called me for that one. We sat on the phone for a few minutes, sharing memories of Swez, until they overwhelmed us and we hung up. When news came that Bucky James hanged himself, having sensed nothing more than doom in his future, I realized I could no longer count the number of dead friends with two hands. Bucky embodied the town’s carefree spirit. Get drunk with him, you’d end up singing in the streets as you struggled to find a taxi willing to take you the few blocks you couldn’t walk to your house. If he was gone, what’s left?
Friends were dying with a regularity usually seen in wartime, and the inundation of all that death ruined the perspective of time. “If time would stand still while I’m thinking of you,” Irma Thomas sang, “it could be for a minute, for an hour, or from now on.”
If only time would hurry back to where it was before all this bad shit started happening.
Visitors usually talk about the music’s greasy rhythms, the food’s richness, the hand-over-fist booze fests. But for a group of transient excon, poet, burlesque-dancing-wannabe jazzbos looking for a reprieve from the hardcore conservative blear of the eighties, New Orleans was the magic spot. It had cheap rents, bars that never closed, and a fast-developing DIY music and art scene. New York had Danceteria, the Mudd Club, and CBGB. New Orleans had the French Quarter and the Ninth Ward. I knew a handful of people who went by assumed names—out of pretension or to keep from going to jail, or both—names like Soup Chain, Strawberry, Myrna Loy, Stacy Rickshaw. And we melted together in a place somewhat foreign to the rest of the country. It was a Bayouland theme park all our own.
The city seduced me the way a muse might, and it seems fitting to me that all nine of those muses have streets here named in their honor. Our houses leaned to one side, the floorboards had holes big enough to peek at the foundations, but they sang a song that shot right past music, landing smack dab in the membrane of an emotional jackpot. The town is not for everyone. But for a decade, man, that place was mine.
When I left New Orleans on the cusp of 2000, the chips weren’t down; they were missing. I was living in a squat with people I didn’t recognize. And when a former debutante drove me off into the sunset in the back of a used Japanese sedan, I remember seeing a sign announce we were leaving Greater New Orleans. I shivered in anxious sweats, battling not just my addiction, but the overwhelming grief you experience when separated from someone you love.
By the time Katrina came and went, I’d made it to Hollywood, scrubbed clean and trying to make a dent in the screenwriter trade. Over the years, I thought a lot about the city I loved, my first chosen home, really. I thought about going back many times.
Then, on January 4, 2007, Helen Hill, artist, activist and award-winning filmmaker, wife and mother, dedicated rebuilder of New Orleans, friend to me and my friends, died from a gunshot wound to the neck. Her death was a brutal casualty of Katrina a year and a half after the levees failed. For the low-down and the dark-hour denizens among us, Hill sent out a beacon of hope, and helped vindicate the reason many of
us had moved to New Orleans in the first place. There you could make your own art and survive off it. I felt a tinge of hopelessness splinter in me when the news of her murder eventually made it to Los Angeles and her New Orleans expat friends, Matjames and then me.
In the days before and after Helen’s slaying, New Orleans exploded in a murderous supernova, trapping not just Hill, but also Hot 8 Brass Band founding member Dinerral Shavers, who caught a bullet meant for someone else in the back of his head on December 28. His assailant was a fifteen-year-old boy fostering a beef with Shavers’s stepson.
The day Hill died there were six other murders, a total of twelve that week. The Times-Picayune called it “a wave of bloodshed severe even by New Orleans standards.” The violent turn of events overwhelmed the small victories New Orleans had achieved after Katrina—the end of the rolling blackouts and curfews, the influx of new professionals who relocated to the region to rebuild an honorable version of the city. Only the frontierlike killing spree and the “march against violence” on City Hall in its wake made national news.
After Hill’s murder I became convinced that going back was folly. By all reports, the town had turned into a swamp of violent dysfunction, something it teetered on when I lived there. At the end of this past April, though, I turned forty just as BP’s oil rig exploded, sending the region into disaster mode once again. I knew I had to get back there before they sold the last of the oyster po’ boys. It was only half a joke.
When I told Matjames that I was heading back, his voice creaked with the kind of excitement particular to conversations we have about our former home. “For good?” he asked.
Maybe, I thought.
The lady driving the rental car shuttle van jerks a flabby arm toward the windshield, her feeble passenger overwhelmed by the humidity. “You bet your ass it’s hot—all of this was marshland,” she bellows over the shuttle’s rumbling air conditioner. We’re in Kenner, pulling out of Louis Armstrong Airport. “They built this whole place on top of a swamp.” I fan my face with the plane ticket. The driver might as well be speaking French. My body is shut down. But having lived in this swelter before, I know what she’s talking about.
My own New Orleans experience blossomed out of a decidedly middle-class background back East. And while I took to tennis and lacrosse, I’d always felt like a misfit among the preppy set—with whatever set I got involved with, really, because somewhere I had that misfit circuitry wired into my head. For the most part, New Orleans shorted out those circuits. But as my chemical intake ramped up, I found myself reigniting those crossed wires.
As my liver failed, my lies got worse, and it got to be time to leave. I did not go back after I got clean, but slowly started making contact with the people who had mattered to me while I was there. To go back, though, that was a two-headed dog I could not face until now.
When I make it to town and dump my bags upstairs at a friend’s apartment and step out into the mucouslike humidity, I realize it was all in my head. Looking across the street at Gentle Dental, where my first wisdom tooth bit the dust, I’m suddenly transported back fourteen years, standing on the corner waiting for a cab to bring me back to Port Street. Any fear I’ve entertained about returning evaporates. I’m home.
That night I go out to Frenchmen Street, and it is bustling with music. I see for myself that New Orleans is alive. You always hear rumors about how slow things move in New Orleans, but on this trip things happen one lightning round after another. A walk through the Quarter turns up a long-lost friend. A dog walk in the Ninth Ward turns up another. Each time I cross the railroad tracks I spot another old friend, usually traveling by bicycle, former members of the black-and-white brigade—the food-service workers. These momentary encounters rekindle the city’s flame inside me. I know how things play out here. It’s coded into my system.
At night, I get on the computer to do some research. I make friends on Facebook with New Orleans impresario and artist Bunny Matthews. Bunny is a New Orleans institution. His cartoon characters Vic and Nat’ly have graced the pages of Offbeat, Gambit Weekly, and The Times-Picayune. The duo is based on Ninth Ward stalwarts, slight caricatures of the kind of people who lived in the neighborhood long before international media began reporting on it like it were another dark continent. Every truck in the Leidenheimer bakery fleet has Vic and Nat’ly painted on its side. Everyone in New Orleans knows someone who talks like them, or looks like them, or both.
Bunny and I arrange to meet the next day at what was once the original Rue De La Course coffee shop. It’s called something else now, but it’s got the old tin ceilings and feels the same. I’ve got Ed Ainsworth in tow. Ainsworth is a writer who lives in Mississippi. He followed a trajectory similar to my own throughout the nineties. We tool round New Orleans, spotting scenes from our demise. Ed checks out the Lower Garden District while Matthews and I talk.
Bunny knows something about the Ninth Ward. He spent the days after British Petroleum’s destruction painting Nint’Wardica, an ode to Picasso’s Guernica and to the region he’s called home since birth. Pelicans and crabs are doused in oil. An oil platform spews flames and plumes of smoke. A woman cradles a dead snapper in her arms. On one side lies an automatic weapon, on the other a martini glass. That nails it.
“You remember May 1995, the cars floated down the street?” Bunny asks me as we sit down for a coffee. It’s not a memory you soon forget. You could push on the hood of a car and off it floated into a telephone pole, or a house. I remember the pumping stations kicking into overdrive, seeing the water disappear.
Bunny usually weaves optimism into even the bleakest of his post-Katrina stories. He doesn’t deny the impact of BP’s disaster, or the failure of the levees, nor does he blindly refuse to see the place for what it is. But he’s offering an honest appraisal of such a bountiful cradle. He raised his family here, as his parents raised him. Of all the people I talk to, Bunny best encapsulates the ability to use the grief of recent times and develop from it something full of sustenance for himself and for others.
As the rest of the country felt the abrasive assault of the housing and banking crises, New Orleans was able to fend off the crash with a buffer of federal grants. It enabled the new professionals of New Orleans to continue the reconstruction. That is not to say that the rent increases that occurred right after the storm had abated, but new industry did appear. When the A&P didn’t return to its long-held spot at the corner of Royal and St. Peter in the Quarter, Rouses Market, a Louisiana-owned-and-operated grocer, proudly took its place. Good things were happening.
Though the rebuilding of New Orleans made for less visceral storylines than the than city-gone-wild, post-Katrina murder-spree narrative, the victories of reconstruction made an important difference to those who hadn’t left, and to those who had returned to aid in the rebirth. St. Claude Avenue in the Ninth Ward, in the past mostly mentioned only in conjunction with crime statistics, became an impromptu arts corridor when a number of artists from New Orleans and around the country banded together and opened a series of new galleries. In an instant, a burgeoning alternative to the established arts scene on Julia Street in the central business
district came to life. The Ninth Ward needed it. The national press ignored it.
After a while, Ainsworth returns with a book of his poetry, which prompts Bunny to read from Lafcadio Hearn, a sometime New Orleanian in the late 1800s. “The wealth of a world is here, unworked gold in the ore, one might say. The paradise of the South is here, deserted and half in ruins. I never beheld anything so beautiful and so sad. It was like young death. A dead bride crowned with orange flowers, a dead face that asked for a kiss.”
A block west of where I’m staying, a car has plowed into a stop light, crumpling it like a paper flower. For the duration of my trip, the dismembered stop light lies broken and possibly forgotten in the neutral ground. Is this the kiss Hearn spoke of? Or is it something else, something like that heart-stopping pull of the city that lures you back time and again?
The media images of post-Katrina recovery—sounds of glasses clinking, Bourbon Street beads-for-boobs revelry that then fade into caustic images of the flooded city—are not what New Orleans was to me and the Ninth Warders I knew. New Orleans was more than our home; it was paradise.
Like most paradises, though, New Orleans operated in semidelusion. More often than not, the brightly painted houses we lived in sat beside blighted ramshackle heaps. I knew people who bought houses for less money than it cost to buy a busted-up car. But that was in the nineties. With the good came bad. So when the murder rate spiked and New Orleans was branded Murder Capital USA, my parents called to try and convince me to move out of town. They feared I’d become just another murder statistic.
But a lot of us felt a sense of false poetry in the crime rate, as if it were somehow romantic to live in its shadow. We all floated past it. Real violence, blood-for-blood violence, mostly happened in other places, such as the Desire projects. Or, in the days after Katrina, on the Danziger Bridge, east of where the Desire projects once stood. A bizarre shooting by a group of NOPD officers on a group of locals took place on the Danziger on September 4, 2005, leaving dead Ronald Madison, a forty-year-old, mentally disabled man, and James Brissette, a nineteen-year-old on his way to the Winn-Dixie. Four others were wounded. The federal indictments of six police officers trumps news of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf the first day I’m back in town. It’s five years later. Things do move slowly here.
The surrounding neighborhood is barren now. Decimation moves weed by weed into empty cement lots. Lack of commerce practically shouts at you to keep moving. The Danziger offers little hope. Painted the dull gray of naval ships and splotchy with oxidation, it gives off a debilitated, sickly feel, the bridge that care forgot.
It was March something, 1991, when I first arrived in New Orleans, almost St. Patrick’s Day. I parked, quickly found a pay phone, and called my host for directions to her crib. Out of nowhere, a head of cabbage smacked me in the face. The St. Patrick’s Day Parade drunkenly pushed past me, off kilter, teeming with fire trucks for floats and men in tuxedos and green bow ties. A stranger dressed in a shiny green kimono with shamrocks painted on her cheeks planted a cup of green beer in my hand, a kiss on my cheek. Why would you ever leave a town like that?
For those of us who chose to live there, life was absolute reinvention. The Ninth offered that in spades. It also offered plenty of affordable housing with lots of space, and close proximity to the French Quarter, where service-industry jobs awaited the throng of postgraduate twenty-somethings. I rode in that army of black-and-white-clothed bicyclists who passed through the Bywater to the Marigny to the Quarter and back every day. Back then, all you had to do was bluff your way through an interview and fudge a résumé, and gainful employment was yours. Everyone was hiring, all the time.
For most of my time in New Orleans, I lived on Port Street. One of the great pleasures of that life came from sitting out on the stoop, listening as the train whistle swept into the sound of the calliope drifting over from the Natchez steamboat a few hundred yards out on the Mississippi. Some days, you could collect whole songs in the wind.
The Ninth Ward was good to me and my friends. And we were good to it. One night, after the floods of ’95 had abated, I drove a borrowed rental car with three shapely bartenders onboard down to Poland Street, lost in a haze of mushroom tea and bourbon. Somehow the car got stuck on the train tracks leading into the naval base. The MPs laughed at us and saved our asses, rustling up some mammoth Marine recruits who picked the car off the tracks and moved it back to the street. “Drive safely,” a tree-size Marine called after us.
Port Street broke open to impromptu parties, not a hail of bullets. Carpy lived across the street; Swez a door down from him. We fixed batches of homemade absinthe and drank until the ghosts appeared. We fed each other homemade gumbos, swapped gifts for holidays. New Orleans even functioned on a different legal basis than English Common Law—the Napoleonic Code. Time always ran slower there. It’s why we stayed. Everyone we knew lived a bike ride away. If they didn’t, maybe they weren’t worth knowing.
Ain’t no joy like a Ninth Ward boy, the saying went, ain’t nothing in the world like a Ninth Ward girl. And, man, it was true.
I met Robert Starnes a week after deciding to make New Orleans my home. Robert was the one who took my addictions seriously, not personally, and did his best to help me, warning the local bartenders not to serve me when my liver began failing. He remains a trusted friend and confidant. Now, Robert greets me outside his place on Poland Street, the last street before the St. Claude Avenue Bridge takes you into the Lower Ninth, where much of the worst flooding took place.
He smiles at the sight of me surrounded by a bevy of police cruisers with sirens quelled but lights flashing. “Henry,” he says, nodding to the cars mischievously.
I explain that they appeared out of nowhere, and he just laughs. Robert’s hair is graying, but the light in his eyes is as bright as ever. Living through a catastrophe can have that effect. Inside his apartment, the talk quickly turns to Hill’s murder.
In the aftermath of Katrina, death rippled into the streets, swayed in the branches of the live oaks like beads from a moribund parade. The city’s murder rate rose to the highest in the country, just ahead of Compton. You couldn’t help but think if the levees had not failed, none of this would have happened. And yet Hill’s murder seemed out of place, even in all of this.
“This wasn’t your typical beef murder, okay?” says Robert. “The first murder after Katrina involved two guys who grew up not liking each other, in the same hood. They joined gangs. They had minor scraps along the way, two guys running a long feud. So after Katrina they see each other somewhere, and one of them shoots the other, and there you have New Orleans murder 101. One guy zipped up in a body bag, the other on the way to the state prison in Angola. Beef.”
He continues, “Helen’s murder was a home invasion. That’s not a New Orleans kind of crime.”
But New Orleans has never been your everyday American city. It just feels different. It sits below sea level, as much as ten feet in some places. The pump stations of New Orleans are its beating heart. I remember the one on Broad Street the best. Huge metal pipes run out of the staid brick building. The pipes’ turquoise color serving as a kind of ameliorative to the reality of what they represent.
When multiple pump stations failed during Katrina, the city went into a kind of cardiac arrest. The deluge that followed continues to affect the city and the Gulf Coast. The aortic valves are pumping the city clear of water again, postflood repairs having addressed their failures, but the ventricles have clogged up with angry dysfunction and proved unable to pull the town clear of its murderous climate. As the city repopulated after the storm waters receded, suicides and overdoses occurred at an alarming rate. Ancillary deaths upsetting the grief-filled waters in the wake of Helen Hill’s murder.
The tallest buildings in the Ninth Ward are the churches. Most of them have been decommissioned, de-Jesus-i-fied. Still, the neighborhood teems with spirituality, a musical faith. But that faith has been waning since Katrina. Most Ninth Ward schools, where the music spread, closed. Five years later, only three Ninth Ward schools have come back to life, and the rest remain circled by barbed-wire fences, the Charles J. Colton School among them.
Colton took a battering from wind and rain and post-Katrina neglect. Mold sprouted. So much else was wrong with the city that no one tended to the building’s needs until it was much too late. Colton was shut down. In 2009, some Ninth Warders calling themselves the Creative Alliance of New Orleans stepped in, hatching a plan to refurbish the building if they could use it for studio space, which they in turn would use to provide after-school programs for the neighborhood kids. The project was approved, the poisonous black mold removed from the interiors, and the Studios at Colton were born. The after-school program blossomed. The city took notice and reclaimed the space, planning to open the school again … someday. The fences went back up.
A few blocks away from Colton comes another crushing blow. The baseball field at Stallings Center is overgrown and unused. In the dark, Stallings is the place you want to avoid. A waterlogged sign with chipping paint pronouncing the Stallings recovery project a success buckles toward the earth. It might have been a success for a week or a month or even a year. But now Stallings Field is a blemish in a neighborhood of storied blemishes.
Taken without perspective, Stallings might stand as a banner over the entrance to New Orleans, announcing, Abandon hope all ye who enter here. If you did, you’d miss the new cop shop and the new galleries sprouting up and down St. Claude, urging you to look closer at the Ninth, to divorce yourself from the Uptown comfort zone of Magazine and Prytania streets. These corridors fared well during the storm, and even better afterward. The aisle of denial, locals call it. Helen Hill would have chuckled.
Hill and I met a few times in passing, in 1992. Her New Orleans offered tranquility and hope; mine summoned the dark hours, the bleary-eyed and worn-down clichés. But New Orleans being essentially several small villages linked together, we sometimes passed each other on our bikes and made small talk. I lived around the corner from where Jim Jarmusch shot part of Down by Law, his absurdist wet kiss to the Bayou. Hill pointed that out to me, like a kind wind.
New Orleans lured Hill to town once, twice, and that third fatal time almost a year to the day after the storm. Hill and Paul Gailiunas, friends when they graduated Harvard in ’92, moved to New Orleans that summer, drawn by the city’s culture, arts, and laissez faire social clime. They were artistic, outgoing, and nice. Nice went a long way in New Orleans, where elbowy tourists overran you in search of zydeco CDs, plastic Mardi Gras beads, and hurricanes—a blistering concoction of sugar and grainy high-octane booze.
Soon they fell in love with the city and each other and got married in Hill’s home state of South Carolina. She graduated from CalArts in ’95 and then followed Gailiunas to Halifax, Novia Scotia, while he completed medical school.
They returned to New Orleans in 2001. Gailiunas opened the Little Doctors Clinic in the Treme, serving the poor and uninsured. He also founded a local chapter of Food Not Bombs and performed in a band called the Troublemakers that played songs advocating universal health care. Hill made animated films and taught at the New Orleans Film Collective, which she helped found, and at the New Orleans Video Access Center.
Three years later they had a baby boy, Francis. When Katrina lurked off shore, they evacuated to Alabama for about a week. When they realized they weren’t going to get back to New Orleans right away, Gailiunas, Hill, and Francis headed back to Hill’s childhood hometown in South Carolina.
“We stayed in Columbia for a year,” Gailiunas tells me. “She worked on her film, The Florestine Collection. I went back sixteen days after the storm and had to wade through two blocks of water up to my waist to get to my house. Helen and I went back a month later, around Halloween, and cleaned out our house, got all her film stuff.”
But Hill couldn’t let New Orleans go. Gailiunis was wary—Katrina destroyed the clinic he started, and the threat of violence, natural or man made, worried him. Hill enlisted their tight-knit group of friends to send postcards to Gailiunis, recruit him to return. Many said, simply, “We need you.”
The couple returned on Katrina’s one-year anniversary. The mood during the anniversary parade was relatively optimistic. A sense that something good might come out of all this, that grass-roots activism and public funding might make a better New Orleans, prevailed.
Four months later, Hill was killed in a home-invasion robbery. Gailiunis was shot three times while shielding Francis. He and Francis survived.
In a heartbreaking letter to The Times-Picayune shortly after Hill’s murder, Gailiunas wrote, “I lived in fear of the violence and unpredictability that has become a daily fact of life, but Helen loved New Orleans with a great passion. She was content only when she was in New Orleans, walking among the old shotgun houses, admiring the morning glories and magnolia trees and Spanish moss, listening to WWOZ, straining to catch a Zulu coconut … bringing visitors to the Mother-in-Law Lounge, and cooking vegetarian versions of famous Creole dishes. … No one is going to fix New Orleans for you. You need to do it yourselves … and for my poor, sweet wife. I know this is what she would want.”
Three years later, I reach Gailiunas in Los Angeles, where he too now lives. He’s not going back to New Orleans, but he still cares about it. He also doesn’t blame Helen for New Orleans’s fatal kiss.
“She was a much less fearful person than I was. The reason I bring that up: the last couple months before she died—I’d never seen this in her—she definitely started to be aware of our safety. When the hurricane happened a little part of me was thinking, this just gives me another reason never to come back.”
Gailiunas pauses before continuing. “I really respected Helen, and she had this spirit of let’s be part of rebuilding New Orleans. … But you know, I was ready. I got a job with Daughters of Charity. They run medical clinics that take care of uninsured people and that’s what I like to do. We made the decision together. She was pretty excited about it, she was really, really excited.”
I was in Las Vegas in January 2010 when the Saints stole the NFC championship out from under the Minnesota Vikings. A stranger in a black Saints jersey hugged me after noticing the Saints hat on my head. Laissez les bon temps rouler, she said with a wink. A couple of weeks later the New Orleans Saints won the fucking Super Bowl. They called it Lombardi Gras. The biggest news before the Super Bowl victory was about HBO shooting a series produced by David Simon (The Wire) set in post-Katrina New Orleans, called Treme.
Mardi Gras came almost right after the game. The town was coming back to life. Population numbers were up. Though rain was predicted, the jazz festival prepared for crowds close to what they’d been before the levee failure. Then, on April 20, eleven men burned to death in the Deepwater Horizon oil-rig explosion that eventually spewed an estimated 185 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
Ralph Brennan of the famed New Orleans restaurant family was summoned to testify before a House subcommittee about the oil spill’s impact on local industry. Brennan painted an honest portrait of the fear, anger, and injury that has plagued his industry and that of Gulf Coast tourism since Katrina.
“The oil looming offshore is an economic disaster of epic proportions,” he testified. “After Katrina roared ashore … water came in, water went out. We rebuilt and moved on. That is not the case today. The ripple of damage … will have undeniable long-term consequences, dwarfing the impact of Katrina.”
Mark Schexnayder is a coastal adviser with the Louisiana Sea Grant, a federally funded coastal advocate, and an expert on the Gulf Coast’s wetlands. He talks to me by phone for more than an hour while he drives from the Biloxi marshes back to Louisiana. The wetlands Schexnayder is charged with repairing took a brutal beating from Katrina’s storm surge. With the influx of crude sheen from the spill, all the recovery work has been retarded.
Directly in the sights of the spill are the Chandeleur Islands, barrier islands that form a critical habitat for fish and birds in the region. The islands have been steadily eroding, besieged by natural and man-made disasters.
“Ninety percent of all waterfowl in the region, from Texas to Florida, nest on Chandeleur,” Shexnayder tells me. Not to mention the brown shrimp, oysters, and snapper that spawn in their tidal basin. The oil has reached the islands’ precious wetlands and fisheries. And they are ailing.
The closest port to the Chandeleurs is Venice, a little more than hour south of New Orleans, in Plaquemines Parish, a slightly altered South compared to New Orleans. Yet the same stoicism many of my friends exhibited in the wake of Katrina is on display here, despite the fact that the oil spill is not just a catastrophe: it’s the catastrophe.
I speak to Captain Darryl Eymard by phone. Eymard fishes out of Cypress Cove marina, in Venice. After BP discovered Eymard was taking photographers out to the controlled burns near the Chandeleur Islands, the company complained to the feds, which banned all photography near the spills. Tensions ran high. When word got out that BP drastically undersold the size of the leak, Cypress Cove went bananas.
“Worse thing BP did was use the dispersant,” Captain Darryl tells me. “They didn’t factor in the wind or the tides. Those big balls are gonna be here for years and years.” This is borne out when, in early October, Venice fishermen bring photographers out to a huge swath of unskimmed and weathered oil heading for landfall. It is a mile wide in places.
I pass a marina on the way out of town. Parked in the lot is an ominous black trailer emblazoned with gold letters on the side: Plaquimines Parish Jail on Demand. I wonder what the fuck that is, and swing the rental in for a closer look. When I settle my camera on the squat black Jail on Demand trailer, a Crown Vic with tinted windows slowly spins in my direction.
I hit the accelerator and push for New Orleans.
A few nights before leaving New Orleans, I meet up with Angele at Cosimo’s. Angele is a graphic designer I’ve known since my dive-bar days. We haven’t seen each other in years, but we get past any awkwardness right off. She motions for me to follow her to the backroom. Though I’d been to Cosimo’s many times before, I had no clue it had either a pool table or a back room. Of course, all my time in barrooms was spent drinking and getting down, not playing pool. Everyone beats me at pool. One of Angele’s friends suggests the R Bar. I agree, eager to move on.
At the R Bar, the crowd is similar to what you’d find in any New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles club. Except the jams are different. The deejay segues from Desmond Dekker to Augustus Pablo to Charlie Daniels into Cissy Strut. The room shifts into low gear as the Meters play, bodies moving as one, swaying side to side, back to front. But, to be honest, I’m doused in nostalgia and can’t be sure if that’s what’s really happening. As my mother used to say when we were kids, don’t quote me on that, I might be making it up.
We spend the evening sitting on the curb across the street from the bar, watching as people parade from the R Bar back to their cars or onto their bikes, continuing the endless sway of New Orleans nightlife. One girl tells outlandish, drunken stories to strangers walking by, while a couple and I exchange names of the lost friends we share. Those names have carved such a valley through us they no longer hurt to be spoken aloud.
When the skies open up for a brief but powerful blast of rain, I am relieved. Rain is a way of life here, unlike in Southern California. The R-Bar has a roof over the sidewalk, and we all collide underneath it. For the first time in my life, I find myself a tourist here, happily watching the night unfold in the hands of the locals.
Angele invites me out again the next night to a family friend’s Lower Garden District condo. The place has the most incredible view of the city skyline, like the developers erected a platform here and sketched out their plans for the city, then went to work. The buildings shoot up over the tree line and dazzle me in a way the Central Business District has never done before.
When a load of Popeye’s chicken arrives, I dig in. There’s a Popeye’s down the street from our place in Los Angeles. I sometimes frequent it when I need to pretend I’m back in Louisiana. Wanting to be back. Aching to be.
Angele’s sister Andrea and their friend Diane, the hostess, are vibrant, preternaturally Southern women. They talk and gesture and bring you into everything they comment on. Angele is quieter; her charm is more subtle but every bit as devastating. Conversation that night skips from topic to topic. We talk about music, we talk about drugs, we talk about the Army Corps of Engineers. And while I know but one person in the room, my opinion is solicited much as anyone else’s. The evening swallows me up. These are the people who are rebuilding New Orleans, these are the people who marched on City Hall after Hill and Shavers were murdered. These are the people who refused to accept that brutal winter’s lesser version of the city.
When Angele texts me later that night, the four-word message—“They all loved you”—means everything, because I am of a like mind. When I was younger, when Matjames and I plowed from bar stool to stage to bed, we saw the city like a Bayouland theme park of our own creation. But sometimes the theme park has to shut down for repairs.
Helen Hill may be at rest. But her voice is swelling. In 2009, her film Scratch and Crow, made while she was at CalArts, was accepted into the National Film Registry. Beyond the psychic tides of New Orleans’s storm waters lies Hill’s myth. Do not abandon hope, it says. Do not forget care.
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