Fire on the Bayou

sasinfrank Issue: Section:

Photographs by Kirsten Watson

i first ran into Katrina in the mountains of pennsylvania. she was still plenty drunk and unreasonable after her visit to new orleans.

i was driving a rental truck crammed with the stuff that was left after a ten-year marriage had collapsed. in the spirit of forgiveness, i’m not naming names, but the rental company had promised me a considerably bigger truck and then failed to deliver (it starts with a big U and ends with a little l). as a consequence, when i met Katrina, i had two dogs with me in the tiny cab and about 60% of our worldly goods in the tiny trailer. the rest had been abandoned on the curb in brooklyn. it gave me some small satisfaction that the stuff that didn’t make the cut was never on the curb when i came back down with another load. the curb-pickers were a polite lot, mostly middle-aged asian women from parts unknown. an elder would question me about a pile, get an affirmative in duplicate, and when i returned she would be there and the stuff would be gone.

worked for me.

two things that would not be given up were the surfboards. on that i was adamant.

even though there was no room.

when the truck was packed to bursting, we strapped them to the top of the trailer in the back. don’t ask why i had and have so many bungee cords. i just do. i used them all to secure two longboards for an indefinite relocation to louisville, ky.

we live in hope.

i turned the key the next morning and flung myself into the darkness and the unknown.

as the dogs and i came around a hairpin turn, we met Katrina. she beat the shit out of us. every wave shook the frame. the rain obscured the windshield and windows in driven sheets. the wind howled through invisible gaps i had never imagined. the dogs took cover, huddling together on the passenger floorboard next to the plants.

after about an hour of this, a semi passed us on the left. the driver matched our speed and began gesticulating wildly. he was doing a throat-cutting move. he was pointing at the ceiling. throat cut. pull over. pull over. ceiling.

so i pulled over.

i found the surfboards hanging perilously over the back of the truck, one sharp turn from being deployed as missiles dialed in to strike traffic behind me.

i climbed up in the horrid rain to see what could be done. i guess cloth-lined bungee cords are not recommended for maritime use. they stretch when they’re wet.

for the next half hour i scrambled around eleven feet above the road on the slick white surface, pulling and knotting, tugging and shifting, slipping and sliding. at times the rain was opaque. the wind itself came in hellish burps that like to swept me into the stone embankment to starboard. every time a tractor-trailer passed, i grabbed what i could in a death-grip and held on until the rocking subsided.

at last i was somewhat confident that i could get the beloved boards to the next truck stop and purchase some rubber bungees. i crawled to the cab of the truck. before i dismounted, i took a look around. i had seen some storms. this one was positively biblical. the israelites would have assumed jehovah had finally given up on them faced with a storm like this, i surmised. 

it had been a rough couple of months. i was stuck in my own puny world, rattling slightly out of control down a steep slope. 

i wondered if this were a sign that going to kentucky was a bad idea. i considered my own bad behavior that had led to the dissolution of holy matrimony and thought maybe the idea of divine retribution wasn’t so kooky after all.

soaked to the bone, riven and driven after completing a fool’s errand, i raised my eyes (squinting in the stinging rain) and hands (pruny) to the heavens.

“WHAT??” i said.

a tanker blew by at that exact moment. i couldn’t get my hands on anything in time. i went over the side of the truck, ass over teakettle. just as i caught the aluminum gutter on the windshield, my balls were split by the passenger side mirror. there, eyes lolling in pain, i saw my dogs. dad was back, but he didn’t look so good.

and there i realized it wasn’t about me.

this was Katrina.

of course, even in the midst of personal chaos, i knew about Katrina. unusual hurricane. direct hit. bad levees. whole wards underwater. federal malfeasance. corps of engineers neglect. pandemonium. looting. superdome slum. cops shooting people on bridges.

but, somewhere in my consciousness, it didn’t seem so bad. really. we were talking about new orleans, after all.

new orleans was the first city i loved.

the first woman i loved was a native of new orleans. a graduate of mcghee’s. one of the medical libraries at tulane is named after her grandfather. i dressed as a masquer and danced at a ball for her coming out. old family. deep roots. i saw a side of new orleans not many casual visitors have a chance to see, i reckon.

and she was a bit of a rich-girl hellion, so i managed to experience some of the tawdrier aspects of the town that wrote the book on tawdry, as well. far from the quarter, i assure you...

i fell in love with the people. wildly diverse, from all backgrounds and classes, in any situation or circumstance, though, i found the common denominator their warmth and hospitality. just seriously gracious folks, these people of new orleans. they always seemed to have time for me.

so, of course, it hurt my heart to hear about their unhealthy fling with Katrina. i checked on the people i was still in contact with; no major devastation. but, in my mind, i was always thinking something like: hell, these are people who can make a pretty penny selling boiled swampbugs from a bucket on a sidewalk or shitty cocktails with names like Skylab Fallout in stinky sticky bars on Bourbon Street. these are the descendants of folks who survived fires and plagues and malaria and swarms of mosquitos miles wide; who made it through a number of flag changes unfazed; people who lived through thirty-one days of august every year in that soupy swath of satan’s asscrack; these are people who either politely retire to biloxi for mardi gras or show off their coconuts and bruises from Zulu... these people have strategies for getting by in that dirty little town. if getting by were a game of chess, i always assumed that new orleans had a couple of extra Cardinals on the board-- Uber-Bishops that could move with the fluidity of Queens but didn’t cost the city a turn or something...

it’s not like Katrina had hit the hamptons, for chrissake.

so i hacked out a little patch of normalcy in louisville and began trying to assemble a working relationship with life. 

and i began meeting Katrina refugees here (their accents gave them away immediately). and my opinion began to shift.

Katrina, apparently, was bigger than i had known. bigger than i had given the time to know, i suppose is more accurate.

there were people who weren’t going back, which was inconceivable to me. i met an upright astute young fellow, born and bred uptown. he’d gone to school, become an educator, and returned to new orleans to work in a failing, “hopeless” school as a third grade teacher. 

he wanted to go back. but his home was gone. his school was gone. most of the kids were gone.

and they wouldn’t be coming back anytime soon.

i met a cab driver. he said he was going to stay in louisville because the town obviously needed at least one cabbie who knew how to get somewhere.

and, yeah, there weren’t going to be any fares back home anytime soon, either.

the inconceivable began to become conceivable to me. turns out, new orleans didn’t have any Cardinals on the board, after all. matter of fact, it didn’t have many pieces left in play at all. most of their castles and horses and pawns and kings and queens and guys in funny hats were up to their eyeballs digging out of the fetid Mississippi muck. the place was bracingly mortal all of a sudden.

the federal response was bogus, shameful, disgraceful and (i hate to say that kanye west was right about anything, but, yes) racist. i don’t think anyone can argue that without averting their eyes.

maybe they too were convinced that if there were a mythical realm of hardy inhabitants who could rebuild a city just with their pluck and cussedness, it would be called new orleans. 

i’m being too kind. they kicked NOLA to the curb. plain and simple.

but the damned place came back.

people like kirsten, whose pictures you’re seeing here, helped dig her out. kirsten is bona fide new orleans, but found herself marooned in western kentucky at the time (and poor as a church mouse). but she kept going down, rescuing domestic animals and facilitating reunions with their families.

a couple of years later i took a job that required regular travel. one of my ports of call was new orleans. in the last few years, it has been encouraging to see the town return to normal a little more every visit. as much as i loathe the industry in which i make my ducats, the conventions in NOLA have been growing more robust. attendance is up at every show.

as a rule, i’m a pretty frugal traveler. i try to stay out of the chains and hotel restaurants in my high-dollar work zone. i stock up on portable food and entertain myself on the cheap. every dollar unspent on the road is a dollar i can spend at home.

that economy goes out the window as soon as i hit Louis Armstrong International Airport. i pour my budget around liberally. i tip a little bigger. i stop for a nightcap once (sometimes twice) on the way back to the hotel. i dump bills in the musicians’ cases and buy art from the creators. when i get back to the airport, if i have broken even,i feel like i’ve done my job. i figure they need the money more than i do.

i suppose the wheel has turned nearly a full revolution in the past six years. some aid and money got freed up and made it to the places that needed it. Brees and Dem won the super bowl. kirsten and her family have returned to new orleans. i can claim a credible imitation of a life in louisville. i have met the last woman i will love, and my son has a pretty sweet setup.

so, i considered it a piece of great good fortune that i would get to spend time with the watsons (kirsten, rhett and their two girls) this past november.

whenever my duties at the convention center allowed, i’d be whisked away into the city and treated like visiting royalty by Watson Hospitality Enterprises, Inc. i got to do everything i wanted, just not enough of it, i suppose. it was a quick trip.

on my last night, i experienced one of those rare transcendent, sublime moments where you are acutely aware of the transcendence and sublimity as you are experiencing it. you may not fully understand it. you may not be able to identify the complete context in which it occurs. but, in that instant, looking down on yourself and the tableau in which you find yourself, for a moment you know:

THERE. RIGHT THERE. THIS IS ALL OF IT. 

we took the ferry across the river to algiers to check out their annual bonfire. the way i heard it, the massive bonfire was lit out on the point each year to remind santa claus of the way in to the city (of course santa travels by water down there).

off the ferry, we parked the car and crested the levee. from this vantage, it didn’t look like much could go wrong with the evening. there was a fairly large crowd. there were booths selling local food. there was a stage under a tent from which a funky band kept the partiers moving.

and off at the point, there appeared to be a ziggurat on the horizon. this is a standard bonfire structure, i understand. we met the sister of the firefighter who had built it, and she confirmed this. the guy can burn shit in an astounding number of ways, apparently. he’s the guy in the NOFD who builds the structures that firefighters train on. if he wants a roof collapse in fifteen minutes or a smoke-choked stairwell, i believe he’ll get it. up close, the structure was an impressive feat: about thirty feet square at the base, rising up about three storeys in to the dusk, with a christmas tree stuck right in the peak. as a firebug myself, i tipped my hat at the engineering and got excited to see the thing go up in flames.

but what added another dimension to the annual event this year were the drawers inset all over the faces of the ziggurat. just typical drawers of all shapes and sizes, built into the walls. hundreds of them.

seems a local woman spent time walking the wards after the river crept back to its bed. she began collecting the ubiquitous drawers she came across. drawers that had been dutifully serving their mundane functions--holding pens and buttons, keeping clothes clean, hiding precious or illicit items-- right up until the moment Katrina kicked over the levee and sent the river into their homes. now they were litter in the muddy landscape.

 she gathered them up. put them together as an installation/exhibit. the drawers had been on tour, and had become something of a sensation. and now they had come back home. they wouldn’t be going anywhere else after tonight.

(you can find the full story at http://www.floodwall.org/)

so we got right up on the drawers to check them out. some of the drawers still clung to their personal effects. after all their traveling and all they had been subjected to, they were still steadfast in their vocation. that touched me.

the aspect of the drawers that struck me hardest was their smell, though. even stuck on the face of a plywood structure, the inside of which housed gallons of kerosene spread generously over tons of straw, you could smell the river. below the mold and the rot, even, you could smell the river.

and, frankly, it smelled malevolent. murky and confused and angry. i hope i never smell that again. but if i ever wind up in a close-quarters brawl with a testosterone-oozing escaped murderer and get my face clenched in his armpit, i suspect i will smell something similar...

night was falling, and the crowd was gravitating to the bonfire site. we refreshed our tumblers of scotch one last time (curiously there was no bourbon to be had... ???) and staked out a position on the perimeter.

by and by a police boat appeared on the river. as it got closer to the point, we could see st nick on the bridge. who knew that he was friends with the mayor? they both waved their ceremonial waves until the boat docked. santa continued on (probably updating his map of the shoals for next month’s journey) and the mayor joined the party. he disappeared from view for a while, then reappeared in firefighter’s protective gear.

there was no speechifying. there was no commentary. i think the people there knew that this was a significant moment.

a firefighter lit a few punks about five feet long and handed one to the mayor, who approached the structure and tossed his igniter into the doorway. a couple of firefighters did the same, and everyone backed off.

within minutes the flames were illuminating the inside of the building. we could see the orange glow through the drawer openings. the first flames began licking through and the crowd gasped and cheered.

but the anticipation was escalating. would this just be a slow burn, a gradual process? a polite affirmation? a handshake when we needed a big sloppy grinding kiss? somehow we wanted something more apocalyptic, something a little more on the scale of the storm that had brought the drawers to algiers point in the first place.

the guy who built the structure was a master, i remind you. he did not disappoint.

after a few minutes, several more tongues of flame were lapping the outside. then the christmas tree got a wee whiff of flame, turned to cinders in a crackling instant, and as if on cue, the whole goddamned ziggurat heaved into a massive mountain of flame.

elation, relief, closure, appreciation, satisfaction-- it all came out in one great burst of a cheer from the assembled throng. it was a full-throated howl, a roaring YES! and everyone joined in.

and then there was a minor crush as everyone tried to get a little distance between themselves and the searing inferno. the heat was tanning my face from fifty yards away. my scotch on the rocks turned instantly to dewar’s breakfast tea.

honestly, the rest of the bonfire was anticlimactic. we had to stay until i saw the last upright timber finally tap out and keel over into the pit. 

then we gathered ourselves up and headed back toward the car.

we crested the levee again. from there we could see that the line for the ferry was formidable so we took a seat.

one of kirsten’s friends had brought a passle of kids with her: some were hers and some were loaners. sarah, rhett and kirsten’s eleven year old, had ditched us the moment she arrived to run with these kids. they had resisted leaving with admirable tenacity. now they found themselves with an unexpected reprieve, a lagniappe. they weren’t going to squander a minute.

while the adults sat and flapped their gums, the troupe did what kids in a town with no hills have been doing for generations. they kicked off their shoes and rolled themselves down the grassy levee.

and then they climbed back to the top and flung themselves down again.

and then they climbed back to the top and flung themselves down again.

over and over again. they never lost their enthusiasm. you’d see a skinny child in a hoodie standing at the top. then one or two more. they were indistinguishable in the last edge of the parade-ground lights, facing the long slope into the darkness and the parking lot way down at the bottom. and then they would be spinning on the ground, hooting and hollering as they picked up speed, their exaltations diminishing over sod and distance. you’d lose the shape of them where the light didn’t reach, but you could see a bright patch of clothing cease to move where the levee ends.

they would lay still for a minute. perfectly still, like they were waiting for their sense or soul to catch up to them...

then they would hop up.

and then they climbed back to the top and flung themselves down again. 

i was aware that this pure joy was the most beautiful thing i could have been blessed to see at that precise intersection of time and space.

that’s when i thought: 

THERE. RIGHT THERE. THIS IS ALL OF IT. 

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