After Katrina” is a haunting, evocative chronicle by Chris Rose, through his Times-Picayune columns, of his own life and that of a New Orleans not only struggling to recover but to survive. Not in chronological order but arranged by theme, the columns start with Sept. 1, 2005 and end with Dec. 31, 2006.
As he often speaks for a Louisiana in pain, Rose eloquently describes not only the surrealness of her post-Katrina landscape but also some intriguing, often eccentric characters he meets in his beloved city and his own descent into the private hell of depression–and that of those around him. “1 Dead In Attic” should be required reading for anyone who wants to know what life in New Orleans after what Rose often calls “the Thing” was, and still is, like from the inside.
Chris Rose had been the Times-Picayune’s entertainment columnist prior to “the Thing.” As Katrina approached, he and his family evacuated–his family winding up in the Somerset, Maryland home where he grew up, Rose returning to New Orleans a week later. His columns are eloquent, the writing beautiful–bear with me for doing plenty of quoting, but his words must be read verbatim to be appreciated.
In terms of property, Rose had been fortunate. His Uptown home had only a broken screen door and a loose gutter. And his career thrived in the aftermath. But those were the only ways in which he’d been lucky–otherwise there was a heavy toll. Rose says in his introduction,
Katrina beat the shit out of me. It beat the shit out of everyone I know. This is our story.
Immediately after his return, Rose is struck by the contrasts between the city’s desolation and some signs of returning normality–like a stoplight that turns red. And then there’s a place called Deja Vu that re-opens with pole dancers. He also brings up the
demogogic ministers who have used Katrina’s destruction to preach the message that God was tired of this city’s libertine ways and decided to clean house.
adding that per the Rev. Bill Shanks, pastor of New Covenant Fellowship in Metairie,
New Orleans now is Mardi Gras free. New Orleans now is free of Southern Decadence.
So Rose wonders why
Plaquemines, St. Bernard, the East, and Lakeview are gone, but the French Quarter is still standing?
The weeks go by and Rose’s friends and neighbors start coming back. They gather on Rose’s front stoop every night. And as they return, their first glimpse of New Orleans is a shock.
We often deal with the First-Timer Syndrome. As my immediate neighbors trickle back into town, one-by-one–either just to clean up and move on or to move back in for good–they generally end up on my stoop. And they often cry.
It’s the first time they’ve been back to town and they are shaken to their very core at what they’ve seen and smelled and we grizzled veterans of this war try to provide shelter from the storm.
They apologize for losing it, but we tell them that many tears have been shed here on this stoop and they are ours and it’s okay….
And Rose sensitively gives voice to a traumatized Louisiana which is crying in anguish and falling apart, how many folks he notices
talk about prescription medications now as if they were the soft-shell crabs at Clancy’s. Suddenly, we’ve all developed a low-grade expertise in pharmacology.
Everybody’s got it, this thing, this affliction, this affinity for forgetfulness, absentmindedness, confusion, laughing in inappropriate circumstances, crying when the wrong song comes on the radio, behaving in odd and contrary ways…
Then Rose gets into the habit of driving into what he calls the “Valley Down Below”–Gentilly, Lakeview, the East, and the Lower 9th. He sees the houses with their spray-painted markings and symbols including the message “1 Dead in Attic.” Pensively he wonders if this person had been someone he’d seen in life, who he/she was, who grieved over him/her, what he/she had been planning?
Poignantly, in early December, the husband of a young couple he knows–who’d originally been planning to do so together in a “Romeo and Juliet” moment–commits suicide.
My stoop is empty these nights. None of us really knows what to say anymore.
This is the next cycle. Suicide. All the doctors, psychologists, and mental health experts tell us the same thing: this is what happens next in a phenomenon like this. But has there ever been a phenomenon like this?
Where are we now in our descent through Dante’s nine circles of hell?
God help us.
The most open, joyous, freewheeling, celebratory city in the country is broken, hurting, down on its knees. Failing. Begging for help.
During these sad months right after “the Thing,” Rose encounters some intriguingly eccentric characters, including the elderly “Cat Lady” who had 33 cats, had stayed in town during the storm, and is a painter. Not being able to find canvasses after Katrina, she paints on slate roof tiles that had been blown off by the storm. Sadly, she later on is mugged, breaks her hip, and dies soon after.
And then there are the rows of refrigerators which, full of stinking meat and other perishables spoiled when New Orleans’ power had been off, sit along the curbs, and Rose encounters a man whose ’84 Chevy Blazer is covered with refrigerator magnets. The “Magnet Man” braves the stench to take the magnets from discarded refrigerators and they aren’t just pretty magnets–but advertising and other mundane ones.
But Rose is obviously deeply wounded inside. One day at the Circle K he sees a man littering in the parking lot and then loses it. He also blacks out when accompanying a photographer on assignment. And after a Winn-Dixie from which he’d taken a bottle of mouthwash re-opens, he wants to pay the store back for what he’d taken. So he tries to go through the checkout with a new bottle he can pay for without taking it. The checker doesn’t understand what he’s trying to do and he himself can’t explain it–so he bursts into tears and can’t stop crying. The checker finally gets it and takes the bottle from him.
Christmas 2005 rolls around and Rose’s wife and children come back home. He wonders how his children will fare in New Orleans and how they’re going to handle what happened emotionally:
Some folks say it’s insane to bring children into this environment, this beaten-down town, and certainly there is merit to that argument.
Is it depressing here? Yes. Is it dangerous? Maybe. The water, the air, the soil…I don’t know.
And there’s little doubt that the kids have picked up the vibe. My six-year-old started writing a book this week–a writer in the family!–and she has a page about the hurricane in it and it says, “A lot of people died. Some of them were kids.”
Mercy, God in Heaven, what lives are we handing to these children of the storm?
He adds, though, that
there is much about the aftermath that amuses them greatly
On New Year’s Day he takes stock–for then New Orleans makes him think of the Dickens line from “A Tale of Two Cities”:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
But for him,
Except for that “best of times” part it describes New Orleans perfectly.
How did we get here? What happened to my tough-lovin,’ hard luck, good-timin’ town?
He adds that he has
wept for hours on end, days on end.
The crying jags. I guess they’re therapeutic, but give me a break.
Soon comes a milestone–the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras. Rose is aware of how people in the “Great Elsewhere” as he calls the rest of the country don’t get Mardi Gras. He adds that the Bourbon Street revelry and the raunchy stuff such as flashing for beads is all for tourists from “Middle America” and he says 98% of those revelers are tourists. Most New Orleanians don’t participate in it. And he’s disappointed in national news coverage which depicts a black/white divide. Rose says:
I suspect it is too much to expect them to understand that this is probably the most complex ethnic and cultural port of call in America, that many islenos of Plaquemines Parish have darker skin than many African Americans and that St. Patrick’s Day is comandeered by rowdy Italians in green pants and that the cowboys of the prairies of Southwest Louisiana don’t look like John Wayne or Heath Ledger but are French-speaking black men with blue and green eyes
Rose adds that the Times-Picayune’s city editor addresses a National Press Club banquet in Washington, and when
he mentioned that Mardi Gras was viewed here in New Orleans largely as a nightly festival for children, he was greeted with snorts and guffaws.
By the men and women who are covering this thing, making the words and images that the Great Elsewhere consumes for dinner.
Rose explores the city, often on his bike because the streets are too rough for driving, to see how her recovery is progressing and talk to people. It is spotty–in some places people are cleaning up and rebuilding, others still look desolate. His life with his family is coming along–they add a dog rescued after Rita to their household. Rose also, after having lost interest in his other hobbies, buys a piano but never gets around to playing on it–one of many signs of impending psychological doom. During these months, violent crime makes a comeback and Mayor Ray Nagin is re-elected.
One June day Rose takes his children down to the Lower 9th. His 4-year-old son Jack says…
“Purple upside-down car.”
Rose goes on to say,
I realized that maybe Jack will be the next writer in the family, for so perfectly did he capture the metaphor that has eluded me for all these months.
New Orleans is the Purple Upside-Down Car. A bright color with no sense of direction. A stalled engine, a thing of once-beauty waiting to be righted and repaired. Something piled up on the side of the road.
Rose’s timeline, disjointed by his columns’ being out of order, seems the perfect metaphor for how scattered life in New Orleans must have been in those days, and perhaps still is at least for some. For there was plenty of sadness, grief and fear intermingled with anger, humor, and many other emotions including happiness, hope and even cautious optimism. In New Orleans you had to live day-to-day.
At the end of April JazzFest takes place. Rose has visitors come to stay with him.
They’re coming this year because they love this place and want to support this place and because of the general realization in the Great Elsewhere that any dollars spent in New Orleans are a contribution to a good cause.
And it is quite possible that many visitors will want to witness what the city looks like right now–witness what it really feels like; they’ll want to see the breaches, the brown lines, the Lower 9th and the cloud of emotional dread that hangs over it all.
They’ll want to understand what happened here, the scope of human suffering that occured before and occurs still.”
No one who visits this year is going to get to the festival without seeing Lakeview and eastern New Orleans first.
Happily, the first post-Katrina JazzFest is a success–as Rose puts it
,…the muses and the weather teamed up for a sublime celebration of Louisiana music, food and culture.
And you don’t say–even some jazz.
It was more evidence that the triumph of the human spirit is the engine running the city…”
Except Rose misses the traditional encore–where Aaron Neville would sing “Amazing Grace” and the other Neville brothers would sing some sing-along such as Bob Marley’s “One Love>” Aaron Neville, for one, has asthma. Rose adds that while each brother has been in benefit concerts elsewhere
it’s clear that the Neville Brothers…are not going to lead any part of the rebuilding of their home town.
So we move on, the landscape has changed, and we adjust to a new paradigm and that paradigm doesn’t include the family band that has provided the soundtrack of our lives for the past thirty years and so be it.
Then, at the end of September, is the big game: the Saints’ first post-Katrina home opener played in the Superdome. He is struck by how people around the country view this game.
I have come to the discomfiting conclusion that all the hoopla and feel-good that we displayed to the country up to and during the Monday Night Football game did not translate in the American Heartland the way we might have hoped.
I was under the impression that we would win back America’s love and admiration for our steely resolve and equanimity in the face of adversity and out ability to come together in communal celebration despite personal lives shrouded in sorrow.
Despite ESPN’s sensitive handling of the tricky “New Orleans is back/New Orleans is not back” message that we needed to send out, it seems that lots of folks did not buy into the Superdome extravaganza as a good thing at all.
Sadly he quotes six letters to the editor of the USA Today–which agree that New Orleanians and those who cheered for the Dome’s re-opening are wrong. He’s disheartened to read how people in distant states all think New Orleans should have used the $185 million spent on the Superdome for homes, hospitals, schools, etc. He replies in effect that the Dome would have been good for more than just Saints games. It would have housed concerts, the Essence Music Festival, and plenty of other events that would have generated spending and injected money into New Orleans’ economy.
Rose and other New Orleanians were right to want the Dome back with the Saints playing in it. In one of those blogs from which I’m a ‘fugee, I got into it with a woman from Tennessee who said things pretty similar to what Rose quotes. She’d been ticked at the $185 million that had been spent. I replied that we’d have to agree to disagree–because the Dome’s being open would be a tourist draw that would provide jobs and the functions within would get people to spend money in the city. Oh, and I was euphoric that the Saints WON this big game! Rose and New Orleans indeed needed a chance to be happy.
Because Rose, by August, has descended into a private psychic hell. It starts in the “Thing’s” aftermath–he loses interest in hobbies, loses 15 pounds, and stops talking to his wife and others. And he develops what he calls the “thousand-yard stare.” He also stops going places–even to work, and starts missing deadlines. And then, as Rose writes,
Early this summer, with the darkness clinging to me like my own personal humidity, my stories in the newspaper moved from gray to brown to black. Readers wanted stories of hope, inspiration and triumph, something to cling to, I gave them anger and sadness and gloom.
He adds that readers start e-mailing him about how depressing his columns have become.
To Rose, it doesn’t make sense that he’s depressed.
My personality has always been marked by insouciance and laughter, the seeking of adventure and new experiences. I am the class clown, the life of the party…”
Not only does everyone he knows, but also strangers, tells Rose he needs help. So in mid-August he sees a psychiatrist, and about a week later he starts on Cymbalta. Because he’s lost so much weight, the drug quickly kicks in.
By Monday I was settled in. The dark curtain had lifted almost entirely. The despondency and incapacitation vanished, just like that, and I was who I used to be: energetic, sarcastic, playful, affectionate, and alive.
His sharing the story of his yearlong bout with depression strikes a chord among his readers who thank him and share their own stories. The prevalence of this inner pain in Louisiana has gotten to the point where one of his friends notices around Katrina’s first-year anniversary that
…folks around here start conversations differently now. Instead of saying, “Where did you go to school,” people ask, “What medications are you taking?”
Rose’s story soon ends. I wish I could report that all has been well in his life since then, but sadly, as he says in “1 Dead in Attic’s” intro,
A lot has happened since then, [New Year’s Day, 2007] to the city, to me…I split with my wife of eleven years and went to rehab for addictions to prescription painkillers, which I turned to in my ongoing struggles with anxiety and depression.
It would be easy to lay this blood on the hands of Katrina, though there is much more to the story.
There always is….
But as for Rose’s columns, the final one in this book ends with a note of optimistic determination to overcome immense odds:
What survives here in the crucible of the old city is the historic architecture: the mighty fortresses of the Garden District, the impenetrably walled blocks of the French Quarter. They are as good a symbol as any of the unbreakable (and unfloodable) determination of the city’s remaining residents–and those who still break their backs trying to get back here–to raise up a great city, a great region, from ruin, defy the odds and the naysayers (and the forgetters) and live life to its richest possibilities of the night for those who chased dreams and dreamers. We choose to be in that number, to go marching on.