Life as an evacuee in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is strange. No routine, no certainty for the future, not much income, bills that still have to be paid...and then all the thoughts about what's happened, what's still happening at home, the ever-present drone of CNN and the other networks' wall-to-wall coverage of the wet demise of my city. There are so many important "life" things to worry about, so many sad and tragic things to cry about, so many grotesque and macabre thoughts to avoid thinking. I'm from New Orleans, and, man, do I need a drink.
I saw a report the other day in which a news correspondent was walking amid the debris on the Saint Charles Avenue streetcar line (not far from my condo). She came upon four residents sitting on lawn chairs, sipping whiskey sodas. When she asked why they hadn't evacuated, they said, "This is where we live. It's a great city, and these are our homes. Why would we leave?" When she asked them what they were doing there, they answered, "It's cocktail hour!" Though I know they were being stupid -- it's not a safe place to live right now -- I had to admire the strength of the sentiment. You can't stop New Orleanians from loving their city or from having a good time.
Everyone knows what New Orleans is known for -- was known for, before Katrina: Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, Bourbon Street, booze, debauchery.... All that was there if you were looking for it, but the part of New Orleans that was a party destination for the rest of the country existed because it was alongside a close-knit local culture in which food and drink and music were paramount values; where the places you ate and drank said more about you than what you did for a living. You could live on nickels, live well on dimes, get drunk on ten dollars, and eat like a gourmet on minimum wage if you knew the right places -- and I knew lots of people who did.
The first chapter of my life as an evacuee is taking place in Destin, Florida, a beachside resort where food and drink are never far away either. Thing is, there's an element of Disneyworld to many of the establishments around here, a sheen of quality control and forced smiles that says "profit motive." Few of these places would be missed if they left, and most people would know they were gone due to the ensuing frenzied scramble for the real estate.
In New Orleans, the bars and restaurants are real pillars of the community -- even the ones the tourists know about -- they're the genuine article, unapologetic if they're a little rough around the edges, haughty if they're not. But what does it matter? That's part of the experience, and you're there for the food, aren't you? A couple of months ago, an old restaurant called Uglesich's closed its doors forever when the owners retired without heirs. It was a citywide event with a jazz funeral and great lamentations. I can name three people who I saw cry for the loss of an institution that carried with it some of the best fried soft-shell crab po-boys known to man.
I don't know how things are going in the evacuee-heavy towns of Baton Rouge and Houston, but in Destin there's never much lack of a nightlife. They're winding down the summer season, but what with the recent Labor Day weekend and some beautiful weather, the party here is still going on. It's an odd feeling to try to have fun in a situation like this, and an odd feeling to be surrounded by people who are oblivious to, or at least can't understand, the situation you're in. How can you go out to party when you're not sure if all of your former drinking buddies made it out of the city alive?
I went out for drinks to a few of the local joints on Thursday night with a second cousin of mine (who ended up here after the storm as well) and some evacuee acquaintances. We started out at Hammerheads, a restaurant/bar on the bay where someone's friend had found a part-time job. We had some beers and margaritas and started talking -- catching up with the ones we knew, introducing and getting to know the ones we didn't. So odd to be drinking beer with people we don't know, each of us with our own friends and social circles now scattered around the country, wishing we were back home doing our usual Thursday-night things.
On a typical Thursday night, I might have stopped off at the Circle Bar on the way home from work to have a drink with some friends. It's a little dive of a place, converted from an apartment on Lee Circle (where downtown meets the Garden District) and caters to the cheap-beer and indie-rock scene. The tattooed bartender -- lead singer of a few local bands -- usually has a fierce game of dominoes going. If there's no local troubadour crooning in the red lights up against the fireplace, you can take your Dixie outside in the thick humid nighttime heat that makes you thankful for a cold beer and watch the moon rise from behind the skyscrapers and the statue of Robert E. Lee. For the New Orleans bands that play there each night and the low-key hipster contingent that loves them, the Circle Bar is a refuge and a home...at least until it gets late enough to move on to Mimi's or Molly's at the Market or Snake and Jake's or The Saint.
Hammerheads, by comparison, looks like a movie set of a beachside cantina, with fake deep-sea fishing memorabilia and the kind of intentionally worn decor that must have cost a fortune. The theme thing attracts tourists like chum in the water. We're not tourists this time, not really, but the beer is reasonably priced, so we stay for another round. Everyone in my group is friendly, and as always happens among New Orleanians, we know more about each other than we thought at first; connections are made.
Greater New Orleans may have had a population of over a million, but my friends and I always said it was just 500 people and mirrors; either they know your mom'n'em (family) or they went to Jesuit (High School) with your brother or you live right down the street from their Parran (grandfather) in Lakeview (currently underwater). Or something. It's a big small town.
There's nothing else to talk about, no context except Katrina: our own stories, those we've heard from friends, the rumors, the news, the scandals; and what our plans are for the future, where we're going, how soon we'll go back to town, if ever. I know better, but from here, I can't see a point where New Orleanians will ever talk about anything else.
We move on to the next bar, called the BluePoint, which looks like an upscale chain restaurant with a vaguely nautical theme, but has a fairly nice bar area and $2.50 pints. There's a frat-boy-looking guy with an amped acoustic guitar on one side of the bar. He plays a mix of Dave Matthews and Jack Johnson and the obligatory Jimmy Buffett tunes. Though it fits the atmosphere, it grates the nerves.
We're soon soothed to learn that this place serves Abita beer, from a New Orleans area microbrewery that's a great source of pride and inebriation around town. The beer is good memories, but this music reminds me of what we've left behind: long Tuesday nights at the Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street, watching the Rebirth Brass Band, jumping and dancing crazy to the horns, sweat-drenched, shoulder-to-
shoulder in a writhing mass of 300 humans in a room the size of your bedroom till 3 or 4 in the morning, squeezing your way through that crowd to the bar for an Abita Amber and going out to sit on the curb to talk with friends and escape that funky heat for just long enough to be ready to dive back in. Sigh -- does that kind of thing happen anywhere else? I don't know.
After a round or two of Abita Turbodog at the BluePoint, the tone of conversations starts to pick up and people wax pleasantly nostalgic about their former lives and sound more hopeful than not about the future. That there's opportunity for us in this disaster seems to be the general feeling; time to get out of town and make a go of things in better economies, to make it elsewhere and then, eventually, come back and make New Orleans a better place than it was. Some of us think we'll be gone for years; some of us plan to return as soon as they let us back in. Not one of us expects to stay gone. New Orleans has always drawn people back, and that doesn't seem likely to change, especially now that the city needs us. New Orleans has always been a city that is comfortable with its ghosts, a place where every street corner has a historical and personal significance, and when we get back, well, it'll just have more.