The Subterranean Homesick Blues
Monday, April 10, 9.15am
I’ve taken the scenic route to New Orleans, driving south to Gulfport and then west through the once-anonymous, now infamous communities of Bay St. Louis and Waveland. The drive is like the opening few notes of a symphony yet to come: nearer to my hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on each side of the highway great swaths of pine trees tilt gently northward, like hair brushed in an unexpected direction. Yet by the time
I have reached the coastline they are leaning as fully over as ballerinas at the balance bar. And that is if they have not snapped off completely.
I’ve seen some of this before – I flew home immediately after Hurricane Katrina, and worked for the relief efforts for several weeks – but what comes next no one could have anticipated. I turn west onto Highway 90, and suddenly, a block after the high-rises end, there is nothing. Nothing. To my left are the beach and the Gulf of Mexico, ahead is the empty highway, and to my right is – a void. Where once were gasoline stations, shopping centres, fast-food joints, now are concrete slabs. Are piles of rubble knee-high at the most. Where once there were massive live oaks presiding over gorgeous antebellum homes, there are windburnt stumps echoing the pylons of buildings blown away like sand.
All I can think is: this is insane. I stop, get out of the car. Everywhere I look, steps lead up to the remembrance of doors, warped iron gates open onto an empty sky, and billboards, if they are still standing, advertise their rusting ribcages. Seven months on and still only shards of life. I would have thought I’d be prepared for this; in my scholarly work I study absences, which more often than not require some foreknowledge that a building or a monument had once existed. Here, though, all my stores of theories suddenly turn rancid. A tattered, wind-whipped flag snaps at the sun.
Flashing blue lights in my rearview mirror. I pull into a parking lot bleached fish-belly white, where the officer takes my licence and registration. Ten minutes later he returns, asks if I’ve been taking any photographs in the area. I say yes, of gutted Wal-Marts, Rite-Aids, other ruined structures. He tells me that he received a call from panicked girls sunbathing on the beach, reporting a suspicious male with a camera, driving a silver car. Stunned – I’ve seen virtually nobody except demolition crews all morning – I try to explain the purpose of my travels, but the policeman cuts me off. “Cameras make people nervous these days, son,” he says. “So remember, voyeurism ain’t against the law, but it sure does freak people out.”
I approach New Orleans from the east, via Chalmette. A few wrong turns in the upper Ninth Ward and I finally arrive at the Habitat for Humanity site, where my friend Eli is directing the construction of new homes for musicians displaced by the storms. Eager volunteers – mostly college-aged with a few silverbacks peppering the crowd too – hammer, pour, saw, shout, sweat. Each musician, Eli tells me, must put in three hundred and fifty hours of ‘sweat equity’ on their own house in order to live there; in a year’s time seventy-eight musicians and their families will occupy this block, which will sit across the street from a new performing arts centre and concert space, also built by Habitat. It is but one of many such efforts across the city to aid the scores of artists struggling since the storms; I’d like to talk to Fredy Omar, the trumpeter whose house is just now receiving walls this afternoon, but he has already left. But Fredy’s band is playing Café Brasil on Wednesday night, Eli says. Two nights later, we’re both there – and what seems like half the city too.
Tuesday, April 11, 11.30am
On Royal Street tourists aim their cameraphones at iron balconies dripping with coloured beads. Apart from rattling delivery trucks and the occasional buzzsaw, it’s a quiet morning in the Quarter. I’m sorry to see that Felix’s, my old oyster haunt, is gutted and wrapped by health inspectors, but across the street its arch-rival, the Acme, is open. Under normal conditions I wouldn’t dream of cheating on my beloved, but as my faithfulness to raw oysters outweighs my faithfulness to who shucks them, I sigh and head inside. Business is brisk. I take the last seat at the bar next to two businessmen whose sleek shirts and sleeker hair gleam as brightly as the mirrored counter. With a miniature flood wall of shells already in front of them I set to work on my own, and on my third dozen I net a pearl. Tiny but silken, the shucker calls it a good luck omen. I’m hedging my bets.
Wandering down Bourbon Street I realise I’m not very sure what I’m looking for, if anything. Certainly the neon has survived the storms, that much is reassuring. The tawdry gift shops, too, with their new post-Katrina stock: shirts with slogans such as ‘FEMA: The New Four-Letter Word’ and ‘Hurricane Evacuation Plan: Run Motherfucker Run!’ – but far and away my favourite is the bumper sticker saying simply, ‘Make Levees Not War.’ Even the hustlers are out in force; I’m approached four times in as many blocks by folks promising they won’t drink if I help ’em out a little. Which is a shame, really, because a cold beer on a hot day like today would be just the ticket.
Wednesday, April 12, 1.30pm
At the restaurant in Houma last night – I’ve been staying with my brother, a journalist there – the toilets are labelled Inboards and Outboards for the ladies and gents. Cajun country. But that compares little to Pointe aux Chenes, and its Isle de Jean Charles, where I am now driving, photographing, thinking. This is the deepest heart of French Acadiana, a narrow spit of land pinched between two long and lustrous bayous in which lurk redfish and drum the size of housecats, all under a pulsing sun whose imprint glitters confetti-like upon the water.
If I like, I can buy pit bull pups, says one sign nailed to a tree. But as generous as the offer is, I’m more interested in the resolve of these people to remain right where they are, against every ounce of ecological sense. One more angry hurricane – which will come, rest assured, one of these days – will sweep every last one of these houses into the bayou. Yes, Bayou Perdu, this place should be called. But life seems to go on: where one abandoned trailer rusts and rots away, another crops up right beside it.
Back in town, at the Clover Grill on Dumaine, David Rubin is telling me about his experience following the storms. Whilst ‘in exile’ in Cleveland – a common turn of phrase for evacuees – the curator at the Contemporary Art Center describes the daily, often hourly flurry of phone calls and emails crisscrossing the country as artists and curators and dealers scrambled to find one another and learn about the fate of their homes, their studios, and their livelihoods. While the majority of artists have since returned to New Orleans, a fair number have also elected to put down roots in cities such as Houston and New York, where their careers have blossomed in unexpected directions.
But Rubin is sanguine about the future of the visual arts in the Crescent City. All week I’ve been trying to sketch a portrait of what has happened and is likely to happen to the arts, but one of the lessons of the storms is that no two individuals’ situations are alike – which does make drawing generalisations about the art scene more difficult, says Rubin, but which often results in serendipity. Almost every week he gets wind of an evacuated artist returning or deciding to return, or netting a show or an exhibition in their adopted hometown. But even here, with hurricane season looming, he and his colleagues feel a keen resolve to get back to work. “There is an unquenchable magic in the visual art community in New Orleans,” Rubin says, “More kindred spirits here than in any other city in which I’ve ever lived.”
Thursday, April 13, 9.50am
Not surprisingly, says the sculptor Jacqueline Bishop, in the period after the storms some artists said they were utterly unable to create anything. But curiously, there were a few who had furious bursts of productivity. I’m at her studio in the lower Garden District, getting an artist’s perspective on the altered landscape. Rubin sent me over, and I’m glad of it – Bishop’s stories are as insightful as they are harrowing, and she describes the power of place in a way I believe many New Orleanians would echo. “After the storms, the sheer fragility of life here has made us nomads in our own home,” she says. “But personally, I tell you – I can’t imagine living anywhere else.” Her gaze fixes on the butterfly iris by her feet. “There’s just no way.”
Starting at the Mississippi River and driving north, as the city sinks deeper into its bowl you can see the waterlines on the buildings rise like ghostly signatures left by an unseen hand. I’m on an organised tour of the devastation – about which I have multiple moral reservations, as do the tour guides themselves. The closer we get to Lake Pontchartrain the election signs for the upcoming mayoral race fade away, in favour of sad but necessary adverts: mould fumigation, house gutting, demo work cheap. We cross over the 17th Street Canal, where crews are still patching the breach, and within minutes everything becomes a photograph. A man shovelling. The enigmatic X left by rescue teams, spray-painted ciphers awaiting a key. A hole in a roof where someone chopped their way to the sky.
Soon, nothing is a photograph. Everything is what it is. Was. Could be. The French photographer Herve Guibert once wrote that photography speeds the process of forgetting; as we pass a bass boat turned belly up in the neutral ground, never has this seemed more true and untrue all at once.
Friday, April 14, 12.30pm
So much seen and yet so little, so much said and yet nothing at all. As I sit in Louis Armstrong International Airport waiting for my flight to London, something that a friend once said drifts back to me – that to appreciate New Orleans, you have to “get” it, she says. There’s something in the air you can’t quite pin down into words. Its unashamedly European character, its picaresque politics (only in New Orleans would seven candidates for public office vow to resign if elected), its almost intolerable climate – all these things are part, but only part, of some indefinable spirit that sets it at an angle to just about every other major city in America. I’ve been coming here for years and only now, I think, am I starting to ‘get it’. What will the rebuilt city look like? Well, that nobody really knows. Nor does anyone know what the word ‘rebuilt’ means anymore, but – if my few short days here have shown me anything – that hasn’t stopped anyone from believing it will happen just the same.