City of Misfits and Dodging the Bullet

The morning after Hurricane Gustav was a huge relief, but also a disappointment. I was all ready to sneak in, flash my press pass, etc. to return to New Orleans, but none of that was necessary. It was too easy to just slide right into the city limits, wonder at the empty overpasses and the silent streets, gloat a bit over the carte blanche parking situation, and open my condo to the same peaceful scene I always see when I get here… the quiet courtyard and my own little tiny place to be when I want to escape. It was as if Gustav had never come. Great news financially, but an emotional downer.I threw my bags on the bed, made a pot of coffee (yes, there was still electricity), and climbed to the wide windowsill, thinking I would enjoy the quiet morning and the empty building, do some soul searching, maybe write a little… That lasted about half an hour, then I was suddenly lonely beyond words, feeling like I was on an island and hadn’t seen other people in twenty years. Hm. Time to put feet on the street, do the thing I do when sadness or loneliness overwhelms me. With no Deborah here, I was stir crazy and just wanted to see some other live humans.

Out the front door of the building, a CNN crew is hanging out looking confused. There is nothing here to report. WTF? They are debating whether to even unload their mobile satellite, and I’m kind of smirking to myself, thinking how gleeful they must have been, anticipating recording all the pain, like before. Sorry fellas, no pain here. Only emptiness.

There’s one place I’m sure there will be people. The French Quarter is the heart of the tourist trade, and surely things will be buzzing there, shop owners cleaning up, chainsaws roaring. I walk the ten or so blocks it takes to get there, amazed at how little evidence there is of the storm. It’s breezy, but warm, and I make it all the way into Jackson Square, finally seeing the street sweeper, who has rakes and a few illegals helping clear the sidewalks of small branches and piles of green, wet leaves.

I look at my watch and realize, it’s only 7:30. Keep walking, snapping a few pictures of a fallen alligator gumbo sign, a broken glass window, a funny board on a window that says, “We don’t run from hurricanes, we drink them.”

I see some National Guard guys, and when they see my camera they puff up their chests and try to look important and busy. I guess they think I work for the paper.

And then I’m at Johnny White’s, which may have been the destination in the back of my mind all along. I never go there. It’s a tiny neighborhood bar between all the fun bars and the gay bars on a lost little block in between. But it’s where Chris Rose and two other Quarterites spent the weeks after Katrina, when the city was a scene from Revelations, and it was the setting for so many unforgettable chapters in Rose’s book that I couldn’t resist going in. I thought I would find stoic locals who rode out the storm. What I found was a bar full of very dirty people who needed to be told that the water was still on – and GO TAKE A BATH.

But because I had come this far, I sat down, ordered coffee, shook hands with the young girl beside me, and deflected a hug from a young punk who smelled like Absinthe and wannabe poets and old attics. I get it. You’re an artist. Now go home and take a BATH. The girl, Amber, tells the bar maid to go ahead and give her a shot now. This girl is wasted, and so is everyone else. Gotta love this town. Alcohol can get you through anything – and so can a bar full of supportive strangers. I just settle in and enjoy the coffee, the newscaster’s voice on TV and the comaraderie of people who have survived – yet another – near miss.

We invent a drink called a Dodge the Bullet. It’s named for Gustav and contains Crown, 151, tonic and two BC powders. The hangover medicine is already in it, so when you wake up, it’s like nothing happened – just like the hurricane.

Amber and I chat a while. She can’t be more than twenty-two or so, but she proudly tells me, lifting her second shot, that she’s a bartender on Bourbon Street. I get her whole life story (all twenty-three years of it), ending with how she came to New Orleans, fell in love with a guy, and the city, and never went home. The guy is long gone, but the city is in her blood now. She’ll die here. I get it. I get it. I’ll die here, too.

And after that, I walk out of the dark bar into bright, hot sun. It’s still only 9 am. Bobby calls and we scream at each other through a bad cell phone connection for a few minutes, give up, and I at least catch the point that he and Michael will be downtown later this afternoon… so I’ve still got some hours to kill.

I walk back to Jackson Square and meet a middle-aged guy on a bike. He starts telling me all about the historic cathedral, and I tell him I know, and thanks, and we go inside, as that’s the only way I can think of to make him quit talking. It’s beautiful and empty and big. I have never seen the place like this, had it all to myself. Just me and God and this chattering person… for a minute, I really do think about coming for mass the next morning. It’s at 7:30 am every day. Hm… it’s a bit too early for me.

So we dodged a bullet. A big fat Category 4 bullet, and this is my city, and these are all the dozen drunk people in it this morning, and I think about something Amber said. She said she never fit anywhere, never felt she could be herself until she got here. “We’re a city of misfits,” she says, and so it is. Everyone I know here is a little whacked, and makes no apologies for it. I don’t apologize, either.

In this place, at this time in my life, I can do this. I can walk empty streets and step over glass. I can walk the distance of the neighborhood back to my little condo, and I am slowed down enough here to realize that what is missing is the music in the air this morning. The saxophones and trumpets are all safely tucked away for now, sitting in old cardboard suitcases and velvet-lined leather instrument boxes, and wherever else the musicians have stashed them until the storm passes.

Just like us, all this humanity floating around, emerging in the morning after a storm, the sounds of the endless party will return. I heard them last night at Preservation Hall. I saw a light in my daughter’s eyes as she tapped her foot beneath the table, letting the horns and the tempo of Misfit City get into her bones. We dodged a bullet. We’re here among the misfits. And we’re going to be just fine.