A day in New Orleans
Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Fausset guides you on a day in the life of his former hometown, from daybreak to closing time, with diary entries that capture the faces and voices of a battered city that lives nonetheless by the defiant credo of its Mardi Gras Indian troupes: “We won’t bow down.”
The night time. The right time.
Frenchman Street, Faubourg Marigny
The New Orleans Jazz Vipers are set up in the corner of this dark little bar. They’re over in the corner, crowded on a stage a third of the size of a small FEMA trailer - saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, violin, acoustic guitar, stand-up bass. They play in a strong, swinging style. Bodies move as if they had a drummer, and they don’t.
This is music perfected and played by countless musicians before them. They owe a heavy debt to Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhart. This is genre music. And yet, it is anything but stagnant. A man in a hat stands up and accompanies them on melodica. Girls dance with boys and girls dance with girls. The bartender wanders over, says cheers to a few strangers, and downs a shot. They’re here every Monday, she says. It’s her favorite night to work.
This is the kind of Monday night people have been living around here for longer than anyone can remember. The couples fly on the dance floor, and the musicians grin when a phrase or a rhythm zags where it might have zigged.
Bruce Brackman, the 30-year-old clarinetist, plays in at least three different bands, and he mostly plays this old stuff. It’s out of step with popular taste and it’s not making him rich. But it never bores him, and he thinks he knows why.
“It’s alive,” he says of the music, though he might be speaking of his hometown. “Yeah-that’s what’s up about it.”
Kerlerec Street Scandal
Corner Kerlerec and Chartres Streets, Faubourg Marigny
There is a wild drunken man’s holler: AHHHHhhhhhhhhhhh!
Suddenly, a man appears. He is short, with a conservative haircut and unassuming clothes. He looks like he is a young investment banker on holiday. A man with a goatee is running after him. There is a large crash.
“Hey, come back here!” the man with the goatee yells, angrily.
AHHHHhhhhhhhhhhh!, the running man says, grinning.
They guy with the goatee is carrying a large trash bag. He throws it in the street after the man as he turns up Chartres Street toward the adjacent French Quarter. He gives a final AHHHHhhhhhhhhhhh!, and then he is gone.
The man with the goatee stands in the street, his chest heaving. He watches the investment banker guy disappear. He holds up his forearm. It is soaked in blood.
“Shouldn’t you take care of that?,” asks an observer.
“No, that’s OK,” the goateed man says. “I was in the military.”
Michael Love, a limo driver and filmmaker, steps out of his house, trying to figure out what went on, but it’s too late. All he knows is that is his trash bag in the street.
“Look, New Orleans is an intense place,” he says. “So s--- happens good, and not so good.”
Red wine and the new normal
The Columns Hotel, 3800 block of St. Charles Ave., Uptown
James Bernazzani is the special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s New Orleans office. He is fit and broad-shouldered, a former hockey star, and tonight he is in the Columns Hotel bar, drinking red wine and shooting the breeze with Stephen Gopaul, 37, a contractor with a biology degree from Tulane.
The Columns is a favorite among Tulane students and professionals. It’s Uptown, on St. Charles Ave., on nearly unscathed high ground. The neighborhood is what Southerners call high cotton. This is the heart of the New Orleans where you can drive blocks without being reminded that something is horribly wrong. Lawyers and doctors and real estate people still take their Gigot D’Agneau with pommes frites at La Crepe Nanou here, living a Continental dream far from the boarded-up strip malls of New Orleans East.
The Columns is a converted Italianate mansion that dates to the 1880s. It was built for a cigar baron named Simon Hernsheim. Director Louis Malle shot “Pretty Baby,” the story of a young prostitute, at the Columns in the 1970s, hoping to recreate the feel of the city in 1917.
Bernazzani’s working-class Boston accent is becoming increasingly familiar to New Orleanians. His office successfully prosecuted former city council president Oliver Thomas, who pleaded guilty to a bribery charge earlier this month. That Bostonian voice also narrates a novel public service announcement on the radio, which has been running for a few months. In it, he reminds Louisiana’s public servants to act in the public’s interest, and he encourages them to turn in their crooked colleagues. He said he thought up the idea of the public service announcement at 4 a.m. one morning, and put it on the radio without clearing it with Washington. He said the number of anonymous tipsters has shot up dramatically.
Bernazzani came here about four months before Hurricane Katrina, and he admits falling for some of the city’s irresistible charms. He is a sucker for the sophisticated, clubby restaurant Clancy’s, over on Annunciation Street. He also has a weakness for the Maple Leaf, the storied bar where R&B pianist James Booker used to wander in and riff on Chopin on the house piano. But that joie de vivre is cut with a dose of Eliot Ness.
“I want every politician here to understand that if they’re contemplating engaging in activity that furthers their own profit, either one, the person they’re dealing with is working for the FBI, or two, they better look over their shoulder because the FBI is behind you,” he says.
He talks about weeding out “legacy” public corruption-that is, “those guys already engaged in criminal activity and who are worried.” He also talks about the need to foster a new mindset in a new breed of politicians.
Gopaul, the contractor on the barstool next to him, listens intently, then brings it all back home. He just got back from Tennessee, he said, where stuff just seems to work better. He’s getting sick, he says, of packing a pistol with him everywhere he goes.
“I don’t like doin’ it,” he says.
Bernazzani nods, and asks for the check.
Lights on the levee
9600 block of Haynes Boulevard, New Orleans East
About 150 people black, white, Vietnamese have climbed up on the big green levee that holds back Lake Pontchartrain for a candlelight vigil. They stand facing the vast blocks of struggling neighborhoods of New Orleans East. Someone dedicates a wreath to “those who are no longer with us,” and an instrumental gospel group backs the crowd for “Amazing Grace.”
A number of local politicians are here. Walter Boasso, a Democratic State Senator running for governor, said “We haven’t lost our hope.” It would make for a fitting motto for Boasso, who trails his Republican rival, US Rep. Bobby Jindal, by nearly 50 percentage points, according to a recent poll.
Speaking, too, about the “wonderful and inspiring program,” was US Rep. William Jefferson, who was indicted in June on charges of racketeering, money laundering and obstruction of justice. Jefferson, long the target of an FBI investigation, has proclaimed his innocence.
A comforting breeze was blowing off of the lake, making it difficult to keep the candles lit. After the ceremony, everyone walked across the street for fried chicken and hot dogs. Jefferson, in slacks and a blue dress shirt, shook and hugged on a few ladies, then spent a few moments wandering, awkwardly, on his own. He climbed into a Toyota Highlander as the band played Sade’s “Sweetest Taboo.”
A couple of blocks away, 21-year-old Specialist Bryan Fusilier of the Louisiana National Guard is keeping an eye on the street. It is dark, and his thin face is illuminated by the flashing blue lights atop his police-like Crown Victoria.
The specialist, who grew up in rural Tennessee, is asked if New Orleans should be considered safe. He answers, oddly, in the third person.
“The specialist advises others to exercise caution when coming to New Orleans,” he says, carefully.
He is asked if New Orleans has a chance.
“Specialist Fusilier believes New Orleans may have a chance in recovery,” he says.
U2 was playing “Sunday Bloody Sunday” on the Crown Vic’s stereo. Spec. Fusilier says he and his colleagues have seen a lot of disturbing stuff while assisting the New Orleans police down here: a lot of property crimes, some homicides, and something he calls “suspicious activity.”
“The thing that upsets me a lot is seeing these people out on the streets-they say they don’t have anything but they do,” he says. And if they are in dire straits, he adds, “They’re not motivated to do something about it.”
He adds that this is the most urban environment he’s ever worked in, he says — “besides my deployment to Iraq.”
More scenes from the Iberville housing project
Iberville housing projects, Fourth Ward
On the ground in the Iberville, around one stoop:
An Urban Outfitters price tag
A sheet of loose-leaf notebook paper, blank
A Rice Krispies Treat wrapper
A used Kleenex
An empty 30 cent pack of Doublemint gum
A dark chocolate bonbon with strawberry cream filling, crushed and swarmed by ants
A red plastic coffee stirrer
A McDonald’s cheeseburger wrapper
A wrapper for a Middleton’s Black & Mild cigar
A Styrofoam cup
An empty Twix wrapper
Later: little kids and older boys are throwing a football in a grass courtyard. Skittery New Orleans hip-hop records blast from a balcony. Little kids ask to have their pictures taken. Josh Aguillard, age 8, points his middle fingers inward, his thumb cocked like a pistol’s hammer. It stands for his neighborhood, he says, the Fourth Ward: count the fingers, one, two three four.
He shoots fake bullets from his middle fingers. “Getcha getcha getcha getcha getcha ...!” he says, smiling.
His friend Kardale Clark, 10, remembers moving to Oakland for a while after Katrina-indeed, the Iberville was temporarily emptied by Katrina. Today, Clark is happy to be back in the Iberville projects. All of his friends are here.
“It’s more fun,” he said.
Voices from the projects
Iberville housing projects, Fourth Ward
Kim McCoy, 43, is sitting on a stoop in the Iberville, the tough public housing projects just beyond the French Quarter. She says she is “just visiting,” but in truth she’s been here since just after the flood.
McCoy grew up in this project, but she worked her way out. She earned a high-school diploma and a two-year degree in physical therapy from the University of New Orleans. By the early 1990s, she had bought her own place, a two-story cream-colored place near the race track.
The house was messed up bad. Her job dried up. Now she was unemployed, living on food stamps, and back in the place she calls the ‘Ville, with its three-story brick townhouses defining labyrinthine courtyards, with its hard young men in white T-shirts, with its kids doubled up on the handlebars of dirt bikes, with murders and drug dealing, but also with its camaraderie and extended-family vibe.
“Where your mama?” a passing young woman asks McCoy.
“I don’t know. Where is my mama?” she answers back.
The walking woman, in a Subway sandwich staffer’s t-shirt, holds a Subway bag aloft. “Tell her I brought her a salad, you hear?”
McCoy has short hair, dyed yellow, and golden-colored flip-flops. She was wearing a T-shirt memorializing her cousin, Larry “Lil’ Larry” Alexander, who was killed by gunmen a year ago by gunmen while he was driving to the store. (she says it was a case of mistaken identity, and that the killer was never caught. “But we say God got the killer,” she says.)
The concrete stoop was in front of a friend’s apartment. Just after 5:30 p.m., the friend’s son, who looked to be about 10 years old, was setting a McDonald’s cup on fire with a plastic lighter. He ran inside the house and let it burn. McCoy smoked an off-brand cigarette and paid it no mind.
“I haven’t worked since Katrina,” she says. “I go to church Monday through Sunday to ask God to lift me through this, to lift me out of this hell hole right here... It be full up, full full full. Nothin’ but killers. I don’t know where all the parents at. Just children. ... I need my own house.”
McCoy says her house was insured. In fact, she says, it’s already fixed up. But she’s so broke she can’t pay the utility bills. She’s waiting for more people to come to New Orleans, which could bring more patients to her old therapy clinic. Then she thinks she might get her old job back. After the job, then the house.
“God lifted me into that house, and it’s like I never went outside,” she says. “Now I feel like I’m outdoors. I’m outdoors.”
New Orleans ain’t Kansas, part II: Now pinned to the bulletin boards of a number of local coffee shops
around New Orleans
It’s unclear if this flyer, spotted in the Faubourg St .John and the Faubourg Marigny recently, is a joke, a scam, or an honest appeal for some freelance work. Whatever it is, it seems like it could be a launching point for a risque and very New Orleans kind of story:
“I’m Italian girl and I’m looking for a work like nude model for painters. In Italy I’ve worked with many art school like ‘Accademia di belle Arti de Brera’, ' Scuola del fumetto,’ ' fondazione Sacro cuore,’ and with painters. I’m here to improve my English and do volunteering. If you want my curriculum vitae and my pictures this is my phone number...”
Maybe she’s just a nice Italian girl. But it’s difficult for imaginations not to run wild in New Orleans. A certain familiarity with sin has been a bankable tourist draw — and sometimes, an unpleasant fact of life — for a very long time here. Herbert Asbury, author of the New York gangland chronicle “Gangs of New York,” chronicled the sordid history of New Orleans’ demimonde in a 1936 book titled “The French Quarter.” It runs to more than 450 pages.
Asbury, who relished a scandal, alleged that the city’s tolerance of “lapses from the strict moral code” dated to the administration of the French Governor Marquis de Vaudreuil, in the mid 18th century. However, Asbury said, it was under American rule that New Orleans “embarked upon its golden age of glamour and spectacular wickedness and attained its full stature as a city of sin and gayety unique on the North American Continent.”
Noted: Almost all of the numbers were torn off of the flyer at the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse in Faubourg St. John.
New Orleans ain’t Kansas: an overheard joke...
somewhere in New Orleans
“A man and his friend are walking on Tchoupitoulas Street when a car pulls up and shoots the guy’s friend. He’s lying there bleeding, so his friend calls 911.
‘Help, my friend’s been shot,” he says to the operator.
‘OK, sir, we’ll send an ambulance. What street is he on?’
‘He’s on Tchoupitoulas”
‘Sir, can you spell that?’
‘You know what, the hell with it. I’ll drag him over to First Street, it’ll be faster.”
Why folks stay
Faubourg St. John, Ponce de Leon and North Lopez streets
It’s lunchtime at Liuzza’s. Chris Reel, 35, is an experienced cook who has prepared meals in a number of pricey restaurants. He can cook just about anything, and he figures he could work just about anywhere.
Where he chooses to be is right here in the hot, narrow little kitchen at this neighborhood pub. Why? Because a couple of times a week, a man named Billy Gruber comes in and makes gumbo. And Reel, a North Carolina native, would give anything to learn how to make the stuff.
Gruber’s gumbo isn’t as thick and brown as the other gumbo in town: it’s more brothy, with a deep red-pepper tint you find in some mole sauces. It’s light where other gumbos are heavy. It’s peppery hot, but it’s a heat that doesn’t oppress the tongue. Reel has watched Gruber come in and made the stuff a hundred times, he says, “And I still can’t get it the way he makes it. And I mean, I can make foie gras, I can make any kind of cuisine. “
Reel is looking for an apartment right now, but in this neighborhood, he said, rents have doubled. His friends are struggling -- “financially, mentally, physically, emotionally,” he says.
Hurricane season 2007 has yet to run its course. But Reel knows he’s going nowhere.
“It’s the only city that’s loved me back,” he says.
Ten minutes with Ben Gasper
Faubourg St. John, Ponce de Leon and North Lopez streets
Ben Gasper is a 65-year-old welder. On Monday afternoon, he’s unloading some stuff from his truck. He’s wearing athletic shorts and black cowboy boots. There are very few people in the world who could pull off said ensemble and make it look cool. Ben Gasper is one of those people.
Gasper stayed in this cool, pretty neighborhood through the storm. He had a canoe and a case of tequila. The cops kept threatening to take his canoe, so he steered clear. The National Guard pointed their guns at him. He’s not seething with bitterness, but the experiences didn’t exactly bolster his faith in government.
Ben Gasper says: “I’m getting’ on just fine. How the city’s gettin’ on is not so swift.”
Ben Gasper says: “My idea of hurricane preparedness is to go and get a drink. But two years later a lot of people have had emotional problems.”
On the violence during the flood: “If I locked you in a closet and said, ‘I’ll be back for you in two hours,’ but didn’t return for four days, when I came back you’d be liable to whip my ass!”
On the rising cost of living: “The Big Easy ain’t easy no more.”
On coping: “People have these prayer meetings now -- I don’t think that’s going to help rebuild the city. If you fell off of a cruise liner, you’ve gotta do something other than pray. You’ve gotta stroke! You’ve gotta stroke and pray!”
On the enduring lure of the city, as two smiling girls walk by: “See, that’s what keeps New Orleans alive, young ladies like that. As long as they’re here, I’m here.”
Hank’s Seafood, 8th Ward, St. Claude Avenue
Hank’s Seafood is in the 8th Ward on St. Claude Avenue, the main drag for a downtown residential area that takes in porkpie-hatted hipsters, musicians, artists, curious old ladies, tradesmen, professional loafers, families, slumming post-art school types, a young gentry and an old-school, multigenerational element. Though less renowned than St. Charles or Bourbon Street, St. Claude is one of New Orleans’ essential arteries.
There was a time when Hank’s Seafood served some of the spiciest boiled crawfish in town: they were so hot they would sting your fingers for days. It was knocked out of business by the storm, but today it is back. A Palestinian-American, Sam Odeh, 24, bought it with his brother. They spent five months fixing it up. Since opening this year, business has been pretty good -- the big, full-service grocery store on the street still hasn’t opened up, and tiny Hank’s sells household essentials, as well as a long list of po-boys and fried foods. It’s a long drive uptown for the closest grocery run.
Odeh says it was a leap into the unknown to open a store on this side of town. Some of the side streets around here are OK, but others are hurting bad.
“But somebody has to do it,” he says. “It’s not that we’re not scared -- people are are afraid of floods and hurricanes. But sometimes, when you see a chance, take it.”
The things you’ll find in front of Robert Green’s trailer
Tennessee Street, one block north of Claiborne Avenue
You will find a folding table, tilted on its side. In black Magic Marker, you will read the following:
Robert Lynn Green, Sr.Joyce Hilda Green - US Citizen11/08/31 to 08/29/05 1 pmUS Air Force (25 years - 8/12/1980)Shanai “Nai Nai” Green04/11/02 to 08/29/05 4:00 a.m.We want our countryTo love usAs much as weLove our countryThe strength of our countryBelongs to us.Mr. Bush:Rebuild - New Orleans.The Lower 9th WardCross the CanalTennessee StreetNOT IRAQTourist: tell yourSenatorsYour representatives.
You will find a piece of cardboard strapped to a concrete block. It reads, in black ink: “TOURIST PLEASE STOP COME SEE."On the white sides of the trailer, again in black, you will read:
“God Bless America. Mr. Bush stand beside her and guide her.... We are America.”
A metal box nailed to a wooden post says: “Donations: Make Checks traveler cks: pay to: Robert Green.”
There are four green plastic chairs lined up in the front of the trailer, with the names and photos of Green’s two relatives who died here in the flood. There is an engraving of Albrecht Durer’s praying hands.
Leaning against the trailer is a box for an American flag and flagpole kit, from a company called “US Flag King.”
The lower Ninth ward is being reclaimed by nature faster than it’s being reclaimed by residents: there are weeds to the left and right of Green’s trailer, and weeds in front of him. Block after block of weeds growing up over and around slabs of houses.
Robert Green isn’t home; he’s out running errands. It is the middle of the day, and a visitor can hear the electric wires above crackle and hum.
Green’s friend Michael Watts, a contractor, is here to help him fix in concrete a headstone for his loved ones.Green said he had a premonition that Katrina was coming. It was Jan. 29, 2004. He was driving a van. “Man, the spirit hit me on top of the Mississippi River Bridge,” he said. “The spirit told me a lot of people would be hurting.... I went to church and testified the next day. Everybody said I was crazy.”
2200 Block of Almonaster, New Marigny neighborhood
Leslie Couvillion, 24, is standing on Almonaster Street in what locals call the “neutral ground” -- to the rest of the world, “the median.” She has a camera around her neck. She’s snapping photos and consulting with two co-workers, who are taking notes on the state of the houses across the street.
FOR THE RECORD:
In a previous version of this story, Leslie Couvillion’s name was misspelled as Courillion. It is corrected here.
It’s not a pretty picture. There are nine craftsman bungalows in front of her, in various states of disrepair. Only two appear to be under repair. A peach-colored house on the corner still bears a grim message from the rescuers of 2005: “1 Dead.”
Couvillion works for Coastal Environments Inc., a Baton Rouge company that the city hired to survey nine historic residential neighborhoods in New Orleans. They are photographing thousands of houses, plotting their GPS coordinates, taking down architectural data and the amount of damage. All of the information will go into a huge, publicly accessible database, ostensibly so the city may know what it has and what it is about to lose, as demolitions proceed apace.
It might be a good idea, but Couvillion said she’s encountered a lot of anger from residents who want to know why the project -- which is administered by the city, but funded by the federal government -- is going on when so much federal rebuilding money is bottled up.
“I had this one guy following me around for, like, three days, bitching,” she said.
Couvillion said they are finding that a number of houses that the city has “red tagged” -- that is, slated for demolition -- are actually being lived in, or being restored. Part of the problem, she says, is that owners of rental property are spread all over the country, which creates a disconnect among government, renters and owners.
Still, she says that the ruined houses that remain standing -- the ones that really need to be torn down -- can be an impediment to recovery. In Mississippi, she noted, the storm surge from the gulf knocked houses to their slabs. Here, owners must gut their houses and face difficult choices about rebuilding, or find a demolition company, or something.
“I hope that when they do start bulldozing, then people will come back to rebuild,” she says, staring across Almonaster, a broad major traffic artery almost totally dead to cars on a Monday morning. “Right now,” she adds, “parts of town like this are like a rotting, dead stop.”
Mazant and Law streets, Upper Ninth Ward
This pocket of the Upper Ninth Ward was African-American once. Now this block is hard to classify: there’s almost nobody home. The Florida housing projects loom in the background, all boarded up: a sign from the Housing Authority gives a number to call if anyone wants to claim their abandoned belongings.
A knock on the door of a tiny trailer produces a living anachronism in bare feet and a T-shirt. He is a geographic anachronism, a racial anachronism: He is a white guy from Barre, Vermont, named Bob Shannon.
Shannon, 31, is a carpenter and plumber. He moved down here with his dog a few weeks ago.
“I’m looking to make some money and move back home,” he says. But he’s going to leave sooner than he thought. The people he’s been talking to haven’t received their federal Road Home money yet, and they don’t have the money to hire him.
“A lot of people used their insurance payments to pay off their houses,” he says. But that still leaves them with a messed up house, and no resources to help fix it up. “They can’t get the Road Home money to get back what they had.”
Shannon is doing some work fixing up the little vinyl-sided house next to him. The guy who owns it is letting Shannon stay in the trailer in exchange for the work.
On one side of the little lot is a pole knocked at a 45-degree angle, flying an American flag. On the other side is a rickety white shotgun, as battered and beaten as most of the homes for blocks along Mazant Street. Someone has given the little white shotgun a voice: in big electric blue letters, they have spray-painted: “TAKE ME DOWN!”
Scenes from a mall
Behind a McDonald’s, 6000 block Bullard Ave., New Orleans East
Imagine a big-box retail development in Anytown, USA. Now think back to a post-apocalyptic B-movie, like Mad Max. Now superimpose Image A over Image B.
A walk through a cracked, empty parking lot, its medians all waist-high weeds. Plywood nailed and screwed in the place of glass storefronts. A tally:
Orthodontics office: closedH&R Block: closedBig Lots!: closedSubway: closedPremiere Hair and Nails: closedAl’s Cleaners: closedFamily Dentistry: closedSav-A-Lot: closedToys R Us: closedCircuit City: closed
Jim Knight, a gaunt, bearded, weather-beaten man, is walking across the parking lot, a plastic bag in his hand. Not everything is closed down. McDonald’s seems to nearly always re-sprout here: the one in front of this mall reopened about two months ago. You can sit in the air-conditioning, enjoy Wi-Fi, a Sausage McGriddle, Corrine Bailey Rae crooning her soft soul out. Just a few yards away, Knight says, there are homeless people in some of the other empty buildings, though. He shows the places where other people have broken into the mall shops -- Knight says they come to steal wire, copper, anything they can.”
“No TV people come out here or nothing,” Knight says. “No cops come out at night. You call ‘em, it takes 45 minutes or an hour for them to come.... They talk about fixing up downtown, but they can’t fix nothing out here.”
New Orleans East, 4800 block of Alcee Fortier Boulevard
Jose Angel Ortez, 23, is one of about eight Latino day laborers who are hanging out on the curb of a beat-up, two-story pink building. Shops and offices are up front: “Cao Quang Anh, Attorney-at-Law,” reads one sign. “For Rent,” read others. In the back is a courtyard and dingy apartments. Ortez rents one for $100 a month.
Ortez moved here three months ago from Honduras: “I thought there was work,” he says in Spanish.
Sometimes Mexican subcontractors swing by and pick him up for construction or painting jobs. But not as much as he’d like. He’s here illegally. Maybe he’ll go back. But there isn’t much going on in Honduras, either.
His father, Jose Luis Ortez, 50, lived here before the storm. The work was great for a few months. Now there’s hardly any.
Across the street, outside a one-story brick house, Delfido Rojas, 24, is packing Easter-egg-colored Jarritos sodas into his family’s taco truck. The family came here from Houston three months after Katrina to feed New Orleans’ new crop of Latino workers. Business is good, Rojas says, but they will probably only stay another year to feed their people. Then it’s back to Houston.
New Orleans, he says in Spanish, “is getting put back together.”
Three doors down, fisherman Chinh Nguyen, 50, waters the kumquat and rose bushes in his front yard. In the middle of the yard is a statue of the Virgin Mary. She stands on a 4-foot pedestal decorated with a map of Vietnam. Her flaming heart is on the outside of her gown. Nguyen said a brick knocked the top of her head off during the storm.
He’s stuck it back on, but the crack is still there, running across Mary’s jawline. She looks like she’s wearing a retainer.Nguyen’s English is sketchy. He shows a letter from the U.S. Department of Commerce from May of this year. The letter says his application for a “Gulf of Mexico Shrimp Moratorium Permit” has been denied. That means he can no longer fish for shrimp in federal waters.
For some reason, Nguyen says, the shrimp are fetching poor prices on the dock anyway. This neighborhood, which was inundated thigh-high, was never beautiful: It sits in the shadow of a belching chemical plant. But it’s looked better. The crime in New Orleans post-Katrina is scaring him bad.
Mr. Nguyen, do you pray?
“Every day,” he says.
Does it help?
He chuckles. “Of course.”
Rising sun, rising moon
New Orleans East, 4200 block of Chef Menteur Highway
Riding down Chef Menteur Highway, whole complexes of cheap apartments are hollowed out, doorless entryways gaping, dark and obscene. Then there is Dong Phuong Restaurant and Bakery, damaged but reopened in January 2006.
Here is one way to measure the return of the Vietnamese of New Orleans, most of them refugees from communism, many of them fishers and small-business owners. This year, the bakery and its 25 flour-dusted employees ordered 10,000 bright tin boxes for the Harvest Moon festival, which starts in late September. Each tin holds four moon cakes, savory-sweet things filled with salted duck eggs to represent the moon. The boxes start at $16, more if you order shark fin filling.
Linh Tran, 29, a University of Texas graduate, moved here a year before the storm, taking over the place when her father died. Business is good, and not just out here among the Vietnamese. The French bread used for Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches is light and crusty. Thank the imperial French. That bread has always made great po’ boys too. Tran said many small bread makers around here -- most of her competition -- have gone out of business, and now she finds her bread business soaring.
“I hate to say it,” she says, “but Katrina really helped us out.”
The way station at dawn
New Orleans East, 12170 Old Gentilly Road
Here is what you find just before sunrise at the Palace Restaurant Casino Snacks N’ Stuff, a truck stop/breakfast joint/pool hall/quickie mart/video poker emporium out on the battered eastern edge of New Orleans.
You find dogs in the parking lot, loafing and sniffing through a trash bin. You find truckers hanging by their big rigs with truck driver mutton chops and truck driver hats, plotting their day.
Inside, there’s the standard-issue tourist junk for the big rig driver to prove he passed through the bayou or Girls Gone Wild country or whatever: Pat O’Brien’s Hurricane Mix, cheap and gaudy Mardi Gras masks, cigarette lighters that double as duck calls. But now, for $4.99, there is the purple, green and gold car magnet in the shape of a ribbon that reads, “Katrina Survivor.” A display across the counter from a jar of pickled pigs’ feet reads, “Katrina Books -- Great Price -- $9.99.” Between the covers: photo after photo of the drowned city two years ago, the city at its worst.
A woman is alone in the video poker den. Her name is Sylvia, and her ruby lipstick stains a disposable coffee cup and the edge of a filtered cigarette. Bloop, bloop, goes the machine.
Sylvia says a good chunk of her house in nearby Jefferson Parish is still screwed up from the water. So she and her family are living in what’s left, and doing what they can to rebuild. “We’re just taking our time and doing it ourselves,” she says. Bloop, bloop.
Melodie Garrett, 34, staffs the cash register. She’s got a big, sweet smile and a shiny gold tooth. She moved to New Orleans from Beaumont, Texas, six weeks ago to be with her boyfriend. He can’t find work, she said, but she’s loving New Orleans. The truck stop job pays her $9 an hour. Her old grocery store job in Beaumont didn’t pay anywhere near that much.
She said everybody here has been telling her to get a gun. “Either get you some protection or go back to Texas,” they say. But she hasn’t had any trouble yet.
Around the corner, under the bright cafe lights, trucker Emile Jackson, 42, has a tall iced tea and a sausage biscuit. He’s watching the news about a new tell-all book by Mayor Nagin’s former spokeswoman.
He lives around here, in New Orleans East, the sprawling, modest and extremely flood-prone slice of suburbia where blacks and whites and Vietnamese settled for cheap housing and a slice of dream. Jackson, who is black, moved into his house in 1983.
His is a standard-issue New Orleans story, one part epic destruction, one part daily discomfort and inconvenience. His house got eight feet of water. He and his wife have been living in a 300-square-foot government trailer for 18 months. Today he’s got his house back in shape; he’s just waiting for the inspectors to approve the repairs he made with $75,000 from the Road Home grant program.
It’s about time, he says; 18 months is too long for any married couple to be living in a trailer. “I’m 6-foot-4, so you can imagine,” he says, laughing. “We just say a lot of excuse me’s, that’s the rule. A lot of turning sideways. I’m gonna tell you, it’s a blessing, but as soon as I have my house together, I don’t want to see another one. I don’t want to see the inside of another trailer.”