"The promoter had an odor like a day old floater
And a pencil with a pad of blue"
-- Main Street Blues, a song by the Red Stick Ramblers
One Tuesday in August, from a bench in Jackson Square, we watched a group of restoration experts hovering over a big black parlor grand piano. The lacquered finish was remarkably shiny given that the piano had spent weeks under water, and when retrieved was covered in mud and mold.
"We are very proud that we got two strings to play," Lynn Harrington, head conservator of the project, told a reporter and a half-dozen tourists, who stopped to watch.
The Steinway belonged to New Orleans music legend Fats Domino and was taken from his Ninth Ward home after Hurricane Katrina. It was harvested by history and restoration experts to be part of the Louisiana State Museum's permanent collection.
Fats, himself, was a casualty of the storm, the tourists told us. They had heard it in Chicago, and Minneapolis, and Fargo, North Dakota.
We assured them he was alive and living in Harvey, Louisiana, on the West Bank, across The River from Jackson Square. Furthermore, he is planning on returning to his Ninth Ward home.
When Domino's music made him wealthy he built his home a few blocks from where he had grown up in New Orleans' mostly black, mostly poor lower Ninth Ward. His house has since been repainted but some early visitor after The Storm painted, "R. I. P. Fats," on the side facing Caffin Street. That image went around the world on electronic waves of false witness.
Like Mark Twain -- hell, like New Orleans itself -- reports of Fats Domino's death were greatly exaggerated. Fats turned up alive inside the Superdome, where he had given authorities his legal name, Antoine Domino, rather than his famous nickname. It took a while before those looking for him recognized Antoine Domino was Fats Domino.
In celebration of the storm's first anniversary (August 29) Domino's piano will be the center piece for an exhibition of Katrina remnants gathered by the National Geographic Society and running through December 31, at the Cabildo.
Lower Than The Ninth Ward
The author sips a medicinal red at Tujague's on rue Decatur. Photo credit: Frank Parsley
Below the Ninth Ward, Orleans Parish ends and Saint Bernard Parish begins. It is a low coastal parish downriver from New Orleans. It is where the Battle of New Orleans was fought, in the War of 1812, America's second war with England.
The battle might more accurately be called the Battle For-and-Near New Orleans. Ironies aside, had Colonel Andrew Jackson and his pirate allies, from nearby Barataria Sound, lost, the Union Jack would have flown over The Crescent City until someone forced it down.
Luckily, Old Hickory, his Tennessee Volunteers and the oft-unsung pirates, defeated the bloody British. As later school children sing the story:
"In eighteen and fourteen we took a little trip
Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip
We took a little bacon and we took a little beans
And we caught the bloody British near the town of New Orleans."
White Flight, Black Flight
Saint Bernard grew like kudzu in the post segregation era, but not exactly as classic urban white-flight. True, the parish was always greatly whiter than Orleans, which was seventy-percent black before The Storm.
Saint Bernard's rapid growth came from economic shifts related to integration -- former poor black folks now had jobs -- and because of newly feasible real-estate development on what had previously been wetlands. These events brought both black and whites, "Down in The Parish," to build their dream homes by the Sea. And lately in it.
Meet My Ugly Sister
Rita was a second hurricane three weeks after Katrina. It took landfall a hundred miles to the west of New Orleans, in the state's colorful Cajun Country. It did to "the land of boudin" what Katrina had done to New Orleans. (Boudin is a rice sausage original to the area.)
Rita was the stronger hurricane. Towns, such as Cameron, simply washed out of existence while in New Orleans, her monstrous swells caused the Gulf of Mexico to reopen levees hastily plugged after Katrina.
When it was over, much of New Orleans and all of Saint Bernard were under water for a second time. In Saint Bernard virtually no home remained habitable.
An oddity about New Orleans is that it never had truly segregated neighborhoods. The City had free-black immigrants from its early days. Some of those free blacks, like Madam Rosette Rochon, whose Faubourg Marigny home survived numerous hurricanes (up to and including those of 2005), bought and sold property and people. These black owners of black slaves were sometimes more prosperous than their white neighbors.
When Rochon died, in 1863, she left an estate worth over a million current U. S. Dollars. (It might make a fitting study to find if New Orleans' free-blacks ever "owned" indentured European whites.)
Here Comes da Crow
The Jim Crow laws that followed defeat in the "War Between The States" are regarded here as having been devised by post-war Northern immigrants. The Ku Klux Klan was, after all, founded in Indiana.
Dick Gregory, a 1960's civil rights comedian, used to put it this way: "Down here they don't care how close you get, long as you don't get too big. Up North they don't care how big you get, long as you don't get too close."
The Beat Goes On, The Beaten Just Go
Today, miles and miles of coastal Louisiana still lay in waste, and one year later half the population of New Orleans has not returned for lack of housing.
Businesses on the sliver of green along The River that went un-flooded are today trading prosperously with workers, volunteers, speculators and bureaucrats who have come to mine the promised flow of repair dollars.
New Orleans famed cafe cult has resurfaced after months of serving limited meals on paper plates to less than ebullient diners. Restaurant giants that once caused millions to travel to New Orleans are again filled with those noted above, and repatriated New Orleanians. Every cafe in Town is hiring.
But souvenir shops that once served thousands of daily visitors now stand empty, or worse, closed.
The promised big bucks from Washington remain promises. Worries bubble up, like water from the many broken water lines. Will those big bucks all end up in the pockets of Entergy and the Saints? Or maybe some politician's freezer? Time will tell.
In This Corner
On August 15, insurance lawyers won a major judgement in Gulfport, Mississippi, when U. S. District Judge L. T. Senter, Jr. accepted their twisted argument that flood damage was not caused by the hurricane. The ruling was against Paul and Julie Leonard of Pascagoula but will affect everyone attempting to rebuild after the loss.
"Almost all the damage to the Leonard residence is attributable to the incursion of water," Senter wrote in a thirteen-page decision, ignoring the role wind played in moving the water out of its usual location and into the Leonards' home..
Down In The Parish
Meanwhile, Rocky Vaccarella of Meraux, in Saint Bernard Parish, left to drive across country, with an "honorary" FEMA trailer in tow. It is against the law to hitch up your FEMA trailer and drive off with it. Rocky is taking his mock-up to Washington, D. C., where he hopes to invite no less than George W. Bush to dinner.
He wants the trip to express thanks to the American people and spur interest in the rebuilding President Bush waxed over during his klieg-lighted Jackson Square visit after the Storm, when everything else in New Orleans was pitch black.
Keep watching, he should get there about August 29. The rebuilding may take a little longer.
Another Succulent New Orleans Meal
We left Fats' piano in front of the Cabildo and walked to Brennan's, on rue Royal. The heat and humidity kept most folks indoors and we were happy to join them for a bloody Mary and a big bowl of oyster soup with a handful of crab.
This giant of New Orleans Creole gastronomy was shut down much of the year following Katrina and Rita. It only reopened a few weeks ago, and the day it did another overweight angel in Heaven got its wings.
Pre-K, locals treated Brennan's as something sometimes too precious, or too touristy, or just for breakfast. Friends from Lafayette, Louisiana, where food is also of great importance, have long called it their favorite French Quarter restaurant for lunch.
Our lunch was like you wish your Mamma could make.
You simply must try these:
• The ceviche at The Marigny Brasserie, Frenchmen Street at Royal. Most upscale place in Faubourg Marigny. Great!
• Bayona, rue 430 Dauphine, in the nearby distant faraway French Quarter. Flagship of Susan Spicer, a magnificent chef and restaurant owner.
• Tujague's Restaurant, established 1856. The second oldest (second only to Antoine's, the oldest in the US) eatery in New Orleans, for a sandwich available only in the bar. It is their signature boiled brisket on a baguette, dressed and slathered with European remoulade. Serves two small people.
If you visit nothing else see the magnificently classy New Orleans photographs, without a hint of hurricane pathos, of Louis Sahuc's Photo Works Gallery, at rue 830 Chartres, two blocks off Jackson Square. They emote le bonheur de vivre (the joy of life) that makes charming New Orleans charming once again. You can view his work on line at www.LouisSahuc.com.
Leonard Earl Johnson is a former cook, merchant seaman, photographer and columnist for Les Amis de Marigny, a New Orleans monthly magazine. Post-Katrina, he has decamped to Lafayette, La. Columns past, present and future are at www.lej.org.
One Tuesday in August, from a bench in Jackson Square, we watched a group of restoration experts hovering over a big black parlor grand piano....