Saturday morning, the morning after my first night in New Orleans, was a morning of recuperation. We sat in cafe in uptown and watched the rain assault the tarmac as thunder rumbled overhead . Behind me a bearded man with a liberal hand salted oysters on a barbecue as the tarpaulin above him strained under the weight of water.
My head was pounding but I was far from the only one feeling the effects of the night before. New Orleans is a city with a lot of sorrows to drown. It’s a city that exists seemingly in defiance of nature and one that has paid the price.
In parts of uptown, the earth seems to be trying to swallow the city, building by building. Creepers cling to the flaking paint-work of the houses and encroach upon the manicured lawns, wrapping their sinewy fingers around benches and climbing frames. The gnarled roots of the live oaks that line the streets and the avenues force their way through the paving stones.There’s rain and more rain. The pavements are slick with water that runs into the gutters and climbs its way up the wheel-arches of parked cars. And then, of course, there are the hurricanes.
It’s 7 years since Katrina but her grubby finger prints are still everywhere. The streetcars, all brass rails and polished wood, trundle along tracks still thick with sediment and the pavements, even the grassy avenues that wind their way between the great marble tombs of the cemeteries on the outskirts of the city, are dusted with broken sea shells as white as the bones that slumber beneath the soil.
Everyone has their story. At a Lundi Gras house party I met Mr Elton who served me a bowl full of his famous red bean gumbo and a plate of sticky brown jambalaya and introduced me to his brother, a quiet man who sat hunched on the sofa bundled in an old coat. The quiet man lost his home to Katrina, suffered a stroke soon afterwards and is now one of the thousands who wait, whose lives are blighted by the broken promises of insurance companies and housing developers.
People struggle on, they’re determined and stoical. The city is full of inspiring stories like that of Mike Serio, dubbed ‘an american hero’ by the newspaper cutting pinned to the wall of his restaurant that has served Po’ Boys, the New Orleans staple, for over 50 years. He lost three houses to Katrina but keeps on going, commuting over 200km a day from temporary accommodation outside the city. But there are many who have never come back.
On the bus to see a friend in Texas, I met Shelby who, like thousands of others from the city, now lives in Houston. It was the first time he’d been back to Mardi Gras since the storm. We played chess in the dog-eared Greyhound station at Baton Rouge and he talked about his time in New Orleans, about his school days and playing in a marching band: about the life he lost. He smiled all the time that we talked.
Early one afternoon, I climbed a levy on the edge of town and looked down on the sluggish brown water of the Mississippi. Two hunchbacked old cargo ships sat brooding on the wharf. The wind dipped its toes into the water ruffling its surface, but little else moved. It’s odd to think that this lazy, bloated river could be complicit in a frenzy of destruction.
Maybe its best not to think about what could happen next. Luckily there’s a particularly vicious rum punch called a hurricane available in almost every bar in the city so you can fight fire with fire, forget and just take things as they come.
– Thomas Rees