Letters From New Orleans

New Order

Rebuilding New Orleans isn’t just a job for locals—the Gulf is full of post-Katrina immigrants who see a chance amidst the crisis to restart their lives, and possibly remake the face of the Big Easy.

One of my last nights in New Orleans this past February, I accepted an invitation from a construction worker staying at my hostel to have a beer on the back patio. I thanked Mike for the tall boy of Budweiser and lit a cigarette. I had quit smoking months before, but it was impossible not to smoke in New Orleans; everything felt toxic, nothing seemed permanent, and besides, everyone else smoked, too.

The place was a dump. But relative to the various stages of ruin of the surrounding houses in the Tremé neighborhood, and in the right afternoon light, Joe & Flo’s Candlelight Hostel could have been the shining city itself. The buzzing I-10 freeway flanked the back patio on one side. A large plantation-style house, a quarter of which lay in pieces beside it, was on another. And an empty field, home to a very loud colony of crickets, bordered on the third.

Mike and I traded our reasons for being in the Crescent City, and as soon as he found out I was a reporter, he set about telling me his story. This happened with everyone I met. I got the impression that what most people in New Orleans needed most urgently (in addition to a house) was a therapist.

A fit white man in his mid-40s wearing paint-stained shorts and a T-shirt, Mike had been living in Virginia when Katrina hit. It didn’t take him long to realize that the odd jobs he was scrambling to find at home would probably be easier to get further south. He signed over his truck to his grown kids, bought a bus ticket, and found our shared hostel by chance. It needed a new a roof, and he knew how to install roofs. I noted that the roof was probably the most solid thing on the place, and he seemed pleased. I wasn’t feeling particularly charitable toward Joe & Flo’s that day, after having a severe fit of allergies in the bathroom in the morning. I’d been touring homes in numerous stages of mold removal all week and I suspected that Joe and Flo had not been very thorough.

What is really strange about New Orleans at the moment is an inescapable post-apocalyptic collective state of mind. The depression of the devastation hasn’t worn off. It’s settled into an uneasy permanence. But in some people there’s an excitement, in others anxiety, that everything is new. Things are possible now that were not possible before. I found this feeling of excitement most in those not from New Orleans. I found it in those who came to the destruction wanting to repair their own lives.

As he drank his beer, Mike poured himself a shot of whiskey and pointed at the brand-new Weber grill in the corner opposite the microwave. “I just found that in a pile of junk. Can you believe it?” He’d been finding gems like that all week, Mike said, including a bicycle that he outfitted with a basket so he could buy groceries from one of the few functioning stores. When I asked, he said he didn’t bring his truck because his license had been suspended. He wasn’t about to have another car impounded, he said. I was too shy to ask what happened to his license.


* * *

I had never been to New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina, but this stay at Joe & Flo’s was my second trip to the city since the storm. The first was last November. I was moving from New York City to Los Angeles and along the way I couldn’t help but be drawn to the country’s largest natural disaster in my lifetime.

Now, many months since the hurricane, New Orleans is in the midst of a bizarre and wholly incomplete recovery. Some areas—like the French Quarter, which sustained light damage—are almost back to normal, at least physically. And then there is everywhere else, which is a mess. The now infamous Lower Ninth Ward looks as though the hurricane rolled through only yesterday. A few parts, like on the east side of the canal, still smell like death.

As dusk set in at the hostel, three more transient construction guys joined us. One was staying at the hostel; the other two were a father and son staying on the other side of the highway—”the shit side of town,” the elder informed me. The son repeated the line and laughed, exposing gaps in his front teeth. Both the father and son, John and John, also had suspended licenses. By the time I found that out, it was three tallboys later and my shyness was wearing off. Older John had missed some child support payments, “and Brenda decided to be a bitch about it.” Younger John had at least one DUI.

What all these men had in common was a life that was failing them back home. Mike, who seemed to be the oldest, or at least most thoughtful of the group despite having drunk the most, hung his laundry on the line in the midst of the makeshift party. In between cigarettes, whiskey shots, and curses about the women in his life, he talked about how he’d like to make normal dinners for his new cohorts if only once in awhile the deadbeats would put a few bucks in for groceries.

New Orleans for them was like the frontier. If a man had some strength in his arms and knew how to put on a roof or plant a fence into the ground, maybe things could be different. Maybe with enough money saved and a bit of work, one of those old white clapboard houses tilting a bit to the right would make a nice place to live, a nice place to have a life.

The immediate need to survive has passed. That need to live fully in the present is gone. Thoughts of the future, on the other hand, are always around.I had seen others with this same strain of optimism that emanated wholly from the lack of structure in the city. Several were relief workers who had never done relief work before, but after a week, sometimes a month, in the new Big Easy, they’d dropped out of their previous lives and settled into tents and trailers here.

A few days before I had beers with the guys at Flo and Jo’s, I accepted a similar invitation from a man who called himself Papa Hoot. When we met, Papa Hoot was living in shed-like structure he had built himself behind an OTB parking-lot-turned-food-kitchen in St. Bernard Parish. Incidentally his shed may have been the sturdiest dwelling for a mile in any direction. When the hurricane hit, he’d been working as a day laborer in Oklahoma; here he was something like a director of procurement for a grassroots relief organization made up of a motley crew of recent college grads, hippies, and idealists of all persuasions. Someone like Papa Hoot, 39, in a ribbed white tank top and gold chain, would have seemed an unlikely leader of such a group, except in New Orleans.

He got a beer from a cooler in the back as we watched a trashcan fire he kept perpetually lighted in front of the shed. “I wasn’t really living before,” Papa Hoot said to me many times in the course of an hour. Clichés about the power of helping people and rebuilding a destroyed city came with every breath, but I think he believed all of them, and I believed them as well. Papa Hoot was constantly shaking hands and exchanging pats on the back, in between arranging the logistics of transferring large-scale shipments of food or expensive appliances on his cell phone. He was like the COO of a large company, except it was in a tent city in the parking lot of an OTB.

I can’t say for sure, but in a more normal time in a more normal place, I just couldn’t see Papa Hoot in the center of such an operation. There would be too much paperwork, too many hoops to jump through. Besides, he probably wouldn’t be able to drink on the job.

The way his work happened was someone would call him with an object he might or might not need—a washing machine, a crate of soup cans—and if he didn’t need it, he’d find someone who did. Generally people were happy to oblige, especially if they’d been the recipients of Papa Hoot’s largess in the past, and it seemed like an ingenious system. Sure, it was simple, but it required a personality like his to get people to trust and think of him when they had something to give away, or even if they didn’t.

Does it take something like Katrina to change your life? I kept asking. Nobody could say for sure. All the people I met in New Orleans who were not originally of the place were saddened by the city’s destruction. But they were also energized by it. Would it be too uncharitable to say that, for a lot of us, a disaster can provide relief from an otherwise monotonous existence?

I only spent a night in New Orleans on my first trip last November, but it was hard to leave. There was so much to find out and so many people willing, wanting, to talk: a reporter’s dream, really. And there was also the possibility of making real connections with people. The urgency, the destruction, the simple lack of stuff stripped away the usual bullshit. It never seemed easier to talk meaningfully with a stranger.

I read in Harper’s, shortly after Katrina, an essay by Rebecca Solnit that resonated with me. “Disaster,” she wrote before the storm, “can be understood as a crash course in consciousness.” Solnit argued that instead of inspiring violence and chaos, disaster actually inspires community and widespread acts of kindness. It presses upon us the immediacy of the present instead of concerns with the past or the future. And as rumors from Katrina’s immediate aftermath were sorted out from truth, her thesis was proved to be largely right. Among civilians at least, there was more kindness than violence.

Post-disaster though, there is something else. The immediate need to survive has passed. That need to live fully in the present is gone. Thoughts of the future, on the other hand, are always around. ”When my house is finished…” ”When my job gets back to normal…” “When the insurance money gets here…” So much is contingent on events to come.

But it all seems less related to the past because so little of what once was remains, at least physically. Maybe that’s partly why it’s so hard for people who had a life in New Orleans to rebuild. Those people look up and down the streets, many still littered with debris, and see the life they used to have. Mike, Papa Hoot, John, and John see a life they could have.I saw a life I could have too. New Orleans seemed then to be the opposite of New York City. When I left the Gulf Coast, every page of the brand-new spiral notebook I arrived with was filled with notes, front and back. I had resorted to scribbling on the covers, and even the backsides of flyers handed out in front of music venues anxious to get customers back. It was so unlike the city I’d left, where club owners kept customers out and few people wanted to trade life stories. There, everyone had heard it all before.

The beautiful old houses on Esplanade Avenue were inviting, even—especially—in their emptiness and disrepair. “Help Wanted” signs graced every other storefront, though “For Rent” signs were harder to find. For anyone starting from scratch, it seemed a good place to begin. Had someone offered me a job writing stories in New Orleans, I wouldn’t have even needed a moment to think it over.

Does it take something like Katrina to change your life? I kept asking. Nobody could say for sure.

Neille Ilel is a writer, reporter and web producer in Los Angeles. She’s written about the unlikely after effects of Hurricane Katrina for the New York Press (strippers!) and in an upcoming investigative feature for Reason magazine (anarchists!). After spending the last 10 years trying to get out of New York City, she finally left last November. Currently she’s probably stuck in traffic figuring out what makes good radio. More of her life is at neille.com. More by Neille Ilel