Notes from Atlantis

Random Thoughts from the Crescent City

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Notes from Atlantis 7

Dear Folks,

Sorry I haven’t posted anything lately, our moving vans arrived on Wednesday and our house is now crammed with more boxes than a WalMart. This one’s from a few days ago...

New Orleanians do lots of things these days.

They place endless calls to their insurance agents, roofers, contractors, tree services, the Red Cross and (if they’re feeling ironic and have lots of free time) FEMA.

They sweep and haul and scrub and bag and sort through every conceivable item from business records to family snapshots.

They wait in line at the Louisiana Motor Vehicle Bureau (one office is closed, and the other two are jammed...we’re still driving around with NJ licenses), at the bank, at City Hall, at the grocery store, and in front of any open restaurant for lunch (a lot of places are just serving dinner).

They worry and cry and laugh and miss the city they had last August, and try and figure out what kind of a city will take its place.

But most of what they do is tell stories.

New Orleans has always been a city of story-tellers. Like all Southerners, New Orleanians seem born with the gift for spinning a good yarn. They know that cadence and pacing are as important as plot, that language can have an almost tactile pleasure on the tongue, that exaggeration is never a sin, and that a good story, like good food and good drink and good music, is one of the hallmarks of a civilized life.

But now there’s another impulse besides an attachment to ribald humor and a penchant for recounting the adventures of shaggy dogs. New Orleanians right now are telling stories to tell where they went, when they came back, what it was like, and always, always, how their house is. They tell about sneaking into town to check on a familiar landmark, about random acts of kindness they received from motel owners and check-out clerks, about how the ability to text-message loved ones, or the inability to reach them via cell-phone, saved their sanity or threatened it, and how pets, books, souvenirs, and even house-plants survived the storm.

They tell stories to remember, to heal, to vent, and to drawn together. And they tell stories to laugh. Here are some good ones:

At lunch, an Uptown businessman recounted how his house had been vandalized in his the National Guard. It seems two rogue guardsmen broke in and stole his large collection of guns. When he got home and noticed the theft, he also noticed an important clue: the perps’ I.D. cards. He reported the theft, and the Guard assured him they’d already found the thieves, with their loot, but hadn’t known who it belonged to. They promised to court-martial the offenders and be even tougher on them than the N.O.P.D., either because of shame, or simply out of embarrassment.

A woman we ran into at the Napoleon House bar told this story: her aged father, a respected artist, had been having a show at an Esplanade gallery when the storm hit. He had actually been hospitalized a few days before for a minor stroke, and of course when Katrina shut down the generators his condition quickly went from bad to worse. He ended up all the way across the country in Washington State where his son lives, in a nursing home, and when he learned that in addition his paintings had been damaged, the news was almost too much for him. He went on a hunger strike...until his daughter fixed him a plate of chicken soup, undoubtedly spicing it up with a little Tabasco. He tasted it, pronounced that it “hit the spot” and proceeded to eat the whole bowl. Later he admitted that the hospital food had just been so bland he couldn’t bring himself to swallow another mouthful.

When I was at the bank I got a lesson in how connections in this city work. I was waiting on line and the next teller over, a black woman in her thirties, was describing to her customer how she’d spent the whole morning at City Hall trying to get a permit to work on her house. This customer, a poorly dressed laborer with a beer gut and a thick Italian accent, asked her how things stood. She said she’d been getting the which point he told her not to worry, that he knew the head guy who was in charge of giving out building permits, and by the end of the day she could count on having all the necessary documents in hand. I’m sure she did.

And this last one, I’d better change the names to protect someone many of you may know. It seems this man, Boudreau, has a brother, who’s a Tulane professor and very smart and all, but well, how shall I put it? A little absent-minded. Boudreau asked his brother to go over to his house and unlock the door last Saturday morning so the roofer could get in and plug in his extension cord. Boudreau was off playing polo in lower Alabama at the time, you see, and couldn’t do it. Well, Boudreau’s bro’ goes in but then he thinks he’ll unlock the gate instead, so the roofer can just pull it closed behind him when he goes home. Bro’s forgotten of course that the gate was broken into by the National Guard two months ago (hopefully they weren’t looting) and now it doesn’t work.

The key gets stuck in the lock and won’t come out. So Bro goes in the house and gets Boudreau’s portable phone to call him and ask what he should do. He goes outside, and locks himself out of Boudreau’s house. Now he’s got an open gate, a locked house, the roofer up on the roof (without an extension plug) and nothing but his car keys and Boudreau’s phone.

So he goes to Boudreau’s office over on Jackson Avenue and tries to find another set of house keys. But while he’s there he needs to go to the can, so he goes outside and locks himself out of Boudreau’s office. Now all he’s got is the bathroom key. He calls Boudreau again (remember he’s still got the phone) who says no, he can’t just leave the house key in the gate, someone could get in and rob the place. Just break the key off in the lock and they’ll replace the whole gate later.

Bro, being a law-abiding fellow, says how should he break the key off? Boudreau suggests a rock. Bro says he can’t find a rock. Boudreau says well, use a brick, they’re lying around all over the place. Bro finally breaks the key off with a brick (the roofer’s climbed down and gone home by now) and then goes over to Boudreau’s mom’s place and leaves the bathroom key there just to be safe before flying off to Arizona.

I’m not making this up.

Oh, and one more thing. It appeared today in the Times-Picayune. A lot of the famous Mardi Gras Indians apparently lived over in the Lower Ninth Ward, and like many of their neighbors they were trapped when the waters rose. The writer described driving around now, more than two months after the fact, touring the shattered neighborhoods where spray-painted signs still say things like “1 Dead in Attic”.

And yet, people have taken their gorgeous, sequined costumes and nailed them up on the doors as decorations. Against the prevailing grayness, these wonderful “suits” fly like white and gold pennants, tattered feathers blowing in the breeze. Purple and green and red and blue, they’re like beautiful specters standing still on the porches, watching and waiting. And on the one in the photograph accompanying the article, someone had scrawled a sign reading“I’ll Be Back Wild”.

I love this place.




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