Novelist JOSEPH BOYDEN wanders amid the muck and the madness of New Orleans

September 26 2005


Novelist JOSEPH BOYDEN wanders amid the muck and the madness of New Orleans

September 26 2005




Novelist JOSEPH BOYDEN wanders amid the muck and the madness of New Orleans


My stomach has felt sick all day, and as we approach the checkpoint that allows us to enter into New Orleans proper, I realize the queasiness is due to my finally coming back into my city to see the destruction for myself, and to see what is left of my life here.

An MP with an M-16 strapped to his chest checks my wife Amanda’s and my press passes on River Road at the end of Monticello, the same street by the Mississippi River where we once lived years ago. He waves us through nonchalantly. Only a few hours left

before curfew goes into effect and only military will be allowed on the streets.

Our first mission is to check how our house fared. A close friend, Jarret, has joined us. He, too, is a writer, and part-owner of a bar who has lived in New Orleans for years. My youngest brother Raymond, a Toronto firefighter, flew down with Amanda and me from Toronto this morning and sits in the

back seat beside Jarret. Raymond’s a big, strong guy, and we all feel better with him along in a city that has gone through anarchy. We heard a rumour that another sniper took potshots at the military yesterday, but no one can confirm it. Another friend told me that in the chaos, NOPD drug squads paid calls to crack dens and executed as many dealers as they could find. Rumours

run as rampant as the water in these streets.

But Uptown along the levee is dry as a bone. The wind’s damage is evident everywhere, though. So many trees—live oak and cypress and magnolia and crepe myrtlehave crushed roofs or been ripped from the ground. As we pass Audubon park, we decide to hold our collective breath and see if the Tree of Life still stands. Its branches had been the canopy for Amanda’s and my wedding. When we try to enter the park, we’re turned back by another MP. Audubon, too, has been turned into a sprawling tent city of green. Humvees and troop and transport trucks sit idle along this once lovely stretch. We turn down Magazine Street and head to our house.

I’ve never seen this street so quiet, even

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on Ash Wednesday when the city is one great hangover. We pass just two cars along the three-mile run from Audubon to our corner, one of them a police car, one of them a big American SUV with blacked-out windows. Lots of wind damage. Many houses wrecked.

Once more, we hold our breath and drive by our house slowly. My heart sinks. The front of our place is a twisted wreck of oak limbs and branches. Amanda mutters that someone has kicked in the side gate, and images of the inside of our house, trashed and rummaged, fly through my head.

The large oak has been stripped of most


We head straight to the Superdome, the hellish place that’s become the symbol of this disaster. Along Louisiana Avenue, we see our first civilian. He’s walking down the middle of the usually busy street, stops and kneels in front of some detritus blocking one lane. We decide to stop and talk to him. His name is John Lacy and he’s lived here all his life. He rode out the storm because he had no way to get out. He’s been living on beer and cigarettes and crackers, had to abandon his house when it flooded and made his way to higher ground. He’s talka-

that hasn’t been smashed into. Not a soul on one of this city’s biggest streets.

For the first time as well, we are accosted by the smell. The stink. The stink of rot and of human waste. Of caked, toxic mud. The Superdome rises in the distance, from this angle a blackened shell. The huge billboard that states clearly “Thou Shall Not Kill” has been ravaged as well, but it still stands and proclaims its message.

We bought lots of dog and cat food in Baton Rouge before we left. We knew that we weren’t going to be able to offer aid to humans. Everyone but those few who refused

of its leaves and has dropped some of its big limbs. The fence is flattened, and we have to sweat in the 90° heat to get over the mess and to our door, but the house itself somehow missed the brunt of things. I enter cautiously with Raymond and Jarret, shout out as menacingly as I can that I’m coming in, only to find our place exactly as Amanda had left it when she fled Katrina 16 days ago. We sit on our stoop together and share a beer, listen to the silence around us. Eerie. We’ve been spared, somehow. We walk up and down our block. A friend’s upscale clothing store has been completely looted. The gas station nearby broken into and emptied. The antiques store a few doors down torn apart. The only sound now as we make our way back is the caw of a crow as it flies overhead.

tive, hasn’t had anyone to listen to him for two weeks. He’s mad at the cops, and scared of them. They told him he had to leave, but he walked away. “The National Guard, they’re nice enough,” he says. “They don’t hassle me like the local cops do.” We offer him a bottle of water, a cigarette, but he says he’s okay, tells us that he knows this city will come back, knows life will return to normal when he can visit the local beauty salon that takes care of his hair. A classic Jerry curl. It looks good,, considering. We shake hands and drive away.

For the first time, we can imagine the insanity that gripped New Orleans when we turn onto Claiborne. Cars and garbage litter the neutral ground. Lots of hearses abandoned along here for some reason. Not a store

to evacuate is now scattered across America. Raymond says that this must be what it would feel like after a nuclear attack. Mangy dogs roam and sniff. A few cats watch us drive slowly by, then dart away when we stop and open cans of food for them.

The I-10 overpass gives us a view of the Superdome up close. It, too, has been turned into a military camp. No chance of getting any closer. A sad anticlimax. But somehow fitting. We snap a few pictures, and then I find the exact spot that a cameraman took the photo that appeared on the cover of Maclean’s a couple of weeks ago. I take a follow-up picture, and we drive on, wind our way down to my friend Jarret’s bar in the Central Business District. We all know it couldn’t have fared well, so close to Charity Hospital

and some bad flooding and violence.

We surmise that it must have been junkies who broke in. A few used needles litter the place. Someone kicked in a door upstairs and made their way down to the bar. The cigarette machine was torn open and emptied of its contents, all except for Jarret’s brand. He and I laugh at this, but almost gag at the stink.

The water indeed flooded his joint, left: its mark along his counter and its stench on his floor. We can’t stay inside for long. He grabs a few important documents, but leaves the cigarettes, afraid they’ve been tainted. From the back patio, I stare up at the monolith

He’s wary of us at first, but when we explain that we are friends of Mr. Sylvester who runs the Backstreet Cultural Museum that keeps the history of the Mardi Gras Indians, he loosens up, takes a shine to my pretty wife. His name is Al Morris, and he’s chief of the Bonesmen, a group of men who paint themselves like skeletons during Mardi Gras. He is the chief of one of the oldest krewes in this city. He sits there alone, as if waiting for a ride, and tells us how he made it through the hurricane and then helped people get out on helicopters, one of them a man with a gunshot wound to his leg, “walking through the

goodbye, and the four of us drive off. Curfew’s coming, and we don’t want to be caught out on the streets after dark.


We make our way back Uptown for the night, but not before driving through Mid-City, to check on a few friends’ houses and the bar that is the social focus for my graduate students. Night has come quickly, but we’ve seen few National Guard patrols along here, so we decide to take the chance. Esplanade Avenue, with its grand homes and cemetery, is straight out of a horror movie. No street-

of Charity Hospital, figure out the place where the sniper must have perched, an empty multi-level garage. Madness. Nothing to do but drive on.


This part of town is a cultural light in our city. The place where jazz was born on the edge of the French Quarter. The birthplace of Buddy Bolden and the home of WWOZ, the last great independent radio station. My brother Raymond has been quiet today. We’ve all been quiet. Hard to find words to describe what we’re seeing, a city, small parts of it unscathed, large parts of it wrecked. But it’s the silence, the lack of human life, that spooks us. And so when we see an old black man sitting on a chair in front of his home, we stop.

nasty water.” He trades Amanda a picture of him and his gang painted up like skeletons for a kiss on the cheek.

Another man comes out after a while. He is covered in jailhouse tattoos and introduces himself as Lucky. He takes us back to his house around the corner and introduces us to his girlfriend, Jean. She drags herself out of the mess of their home on her butt. She has socks over her hands so as not to scrape them up. Lucky explains that Jean suffered a stroke last year from too much drinking. We chat for a while, and another man, white-haired, who doesn’t want to introduce himself, joins them on their steps. They’re all survivors. He asks if I have a couple of batteries to spare. I dig through my bag and hand them to him. We all say

lights. Trees toppled over along the boulevard. That strange silence when we stop the car and look around. And then we hear dogs barking from inside a house. They sound desperate and hungry. We try to find them, but can’t. We make a note to return tomorrow and try to get to them, to give them some food and water. Thousands of pets left here to fend for themselves. So many locked up in homes. Their desperation hangs in the air. This has become the newest tragedy.

Carrollton Avenue has clearly suffered. We come across our first water while trying to make it home. The water stinks of rot. It catches in the backs of our throats so that they feel infected. Can’t be good for us. We turn around and try to find another route home. Amanda keeps a close eye out for

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felled power lines in the darkness, for National Guard patrols. Side streets are flooded still. The smell of dead fish and putrid water and waste. It smells like death.

I see light by our house when we finally arrive. My neighbour Lance and his girlfriend Liz have made their way back to their home, gas generator in tow. He asks us in, and their front room is beautifully cool with the AC humming. We sit on their porch and share a drink, talk about how strange it is to stare up at the sky and see stars shining bright. A three-quarter moon. Absolute stillness and quiet, the hum of the generator in

the backyard like the drone of crickets.

From out of the black, men in dark clothes with automatic rifles surround us. Their stealth is astounding. A National Guard patrol, they’ve heard our voices from blocks away. “Women’s voices travel farthest,” one of them says. They demand to see our ID’s, ask us what we are doing here. Lance explains. He and Liz are registered nurses come back to help. The rest of us are neighbours, locals, reporting for a Canadian magazine on the state of our city. The soldiers stare at us, tell us to keep it down, to be careful. Keep it down? There isn’t a neighbour for miles to disturb. But then I realize that they don’t want us to draw the attention of criminal elements that still haunt this place, but only in the dark of night now. We go inside once they leave.


Yomi Martin, for me, represents the soul of the Ninth Ward. We come across him weaving his bicycle around the destruction of St. Claude Avenue. He, like the others, stayed through the hurricane because he had no choice, has stayed on despite police harassment because now he does have a choice. His hair stands up defiantly from his head. He’s thin and a little shell-shocked, but fantastically bright. These streets around here are his home. He won’t leave. Word has it, though, that the city plans to raze the Ninth Ward. The houses are mostly empty of water,

but are uninhabitable, greasy rings left at the rooflines by the retreating flood. What will he do? One day at a time, he tells me. One day at a time. This place is his home. This place is his history.

A couple of dogs have befriended a National Guard unit down the street. One is a Catahoula, Louisiana’s state dog. They’ve named her Juliet. She chases away other dogs that come scrounging, warn the soldiers when other humans approach. I hope one of the Guardsmen will take her home.

We stop and feed two other dogs. They are overjoyed to see us. One keeps jumping on me with her nasty paws. The other has the mange. We pet them and leave them food and water, then wash our hands with anti-bacterial soap. The one with nasty

paws chases us as we drive away.

Earlier in the day we’d returned to Jarret’s bar, only to find that the night before someone had tried to pry into the metal door out back. He’d almost succeeded. We fix the door best we can, and move on. “We should tell the cops,” I say, not thinking. Jarret laughs. The freaks come out at night.

We make our way to Lakeview. Beautiful homes stagnating in the slime. Lakeview has reverted to its natural bayou state, but the water smells like decay, and worse. My university is trashed. The water here has receded, left the piles of garbage, the desperation of hundreds evacuated to here and now taken away, in its wake. I walk into the building that houses my office. I surprise a skittish black dog that scrounges through the hallways. He trots away. The vending machines are broken open. People were hungry in their four-day wait for deliverance.

We weave through the water and felled trees down toward the French Quarter. We stop in the Marigny. Amanda recognizes a former student sitting by himself against the wall of a popular club. His name is Alvin. He studied creative writing with her, and she tells me he has serious talent. He hasn’t spoken to strangers for 12 days, is hungry to talk, but self-conscious when he goes on too long. He rode it out as well, and won’t leave because he has nowhere to go. He asks us what day it is. I feel like we’ve come across a castaway, except he wants nothing we have to offer, no food, no water, no cold beer or ice. Just talk for a while. We tell him we’ll see him when school starts up again.


I’ve always had mixed feelings for the Quarter. Too much silliness. Too many drunken tourists. Too much neon on Bourbon. But there are places I like. One bar in particular, Molly’s on Decatur, is the home bar of many writers and journalists. We drive by it, laugh out loud when we see it’s open for business and a few people spill from its doors. It’s been open for the last 12 days, using a generator to keep the beer cold. We are surrounded by people like us, people reporting on the city. CNN and the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, they are all represented here. NYFD,

From left: pit bulls rescued by the National Guard; Jarret in his waterlogged bar

policemen from Boston, Border Patrol from Texas, some of them are here, too. And of course, a sprinkling of locals.

My friend Chris walks out of the shadows. We give each other a hug. He evacuated but came right back when the flooding started. He and his buddy brought a small boat in to rescue people. They pulled at least 75 survivors from the waters on last count, and have seen eight dead bodies. Chris is a hero, but he’d never call himself that.

The cute bartender in a bikini top works hard behind the bar. A big military plane flies too close over our heads. Choppers pound the air all around us. Convoys of soldiers in open trucks roar by. People are talking to one another, exchanging stories, sharing laughs. If I put my blinders on, this could almost be any afternoon at Molly’s. But we all have the same look in our eye, the same little swagger when we walk. We are here at the heart of

it all. A black New Orleans firefighter named Harvey gets a lively round of applause. Today is his birthday. He lived through the last weeks and has been snuck out of his station by some guys from the NYFD to have a beer. He looks a little guilty for doing it, but he looks happy, too.

This city was born right here in the French Quarter, the high ground along the river. It has seen cholera and yellow fever and war and hurricanes. Yes, Katrina was different, really was The Big One, but life hums all around me here as the owner shouts for us to drink up and go, the curfew has arrived.

The four of us, my brother Raymond and my friend Jarret, my wife Amanda and I, walk to the car. We smile at one another, debate spending another night in the city

before we have to head out to Baton Rouge. We leave the bustle of the Quarter, cross Canal Street with its rows of media vans, and drive back into the deserted part of town. Already, army patrols are walking silently down the street. Night’s coming earlier now that autumn is approaching, but still it’s 90° and humid in the evening. In a few weeks, though, maybe in a month, the first cool winds will come. The people will return, much sooner than first anticipated. The bodies will have been counted. Some of the city will be cleaned up, some of it bulldozed down.

No question New Orleans will change. And I don’t know if it will be for the better or for the worse. What I do know, though, is there’s only one way to find out. flfl

ON THE WEB For more photos by Joseph Boyden of hurricaneravaged New Orleans, visit www.macleans.ca/gallery