Notes From Under Water
What life looks like when it all gets drowned
I’d intended to knock out a column today, but if I’m being honest, I haven’t felt much like writing for the last 36 hours. I’ve been too glued to the bad-news parade on television - while caffeine-addled and bleary-eyed - watching our Florida friends’ lives get blown to bits and/or drowned with Hurricane Ian splatting them as though they’d been hit by a derailed freight train.
As I once wrote of Detroit, it’s tempting to crack wise about Florida, which has become a safe place to snub out the butt of our jokes. It’s the news-of-the-weird capital of the world, “a sunny place for shady people” as the unofficial marketing slogan goes. And if you’re of a certain centrist stripe like I tend to be, it also seems to attract every bomb-throwing crackpot of the modern political age, from Matt Gaetz, the pride of the western panhandle’s first congressional district (if by “pride,” you mean “shame”), to the tangelo-flavored real estate developer who runs a golf club/classified-documents storage facility in Palm Beach. Hell, when it became apparent that Hurricane Ian was coming, I made plenty of gallows jokes to friends myself, wondering if Governor/Professional Culture-Warrior Ron DeSantis now wished that the migrants he’d sent to Martha’s Vineyard had saved him a seat on his taxpayer-funded publicity-stunt charter.
But as the day wore on, and as I watched footage of what looked like an angry whitewater river running down the streets of Naples, Fla., cars bobbing along it like corks, the dark comedy dried up. You realized what you were witnessing: scores of people’s lives coming undone. Our fellow Americans losing everything they own. There’s not a damn thing funny about that.
I covered Katrina on the ground, and I remember, in the days and weeks that followed that devastating storm/levee failure, a lot of victim-blaming going on: “Why would those morons build The Sliver By The River in low-lying floodlands?” The same will get said, if it already hasn’t been, about Florida residents who build dream houses on the barrier islands or more modest dwellings in the myriad canal-cities. The human eye/heart never ceases to seek out beauty to lighten the load, no matter how closely that beauty cozies up to peril. They just want what so many people naturally desire in easing the drudgery of life: the sun shining on them, water proximity, maybe a fishing boat to escape the pressures of this world. Which, whether you live in the tropics or in the Minnesota tundra, nobody ever manages to escape. Not entirely.
We can’t all live in the Midwest. And besides, plenty of coastal types like to discount their misfortunes, too: “Why do those people choose to live in Tornado Alley?” To which I say we all live in a Tornado Alley of one sort or another. There’s some disaster, natural or otherwise, with all of our names on it. Don’t be arrogant, and pretend you’re above it. Because if you do, that’s all you’re doing, is pretending.
So in tribute to our friends who are going through it in Florida, and who will continue to do so for a long time - cleaning up the mess, going to war with their insurance companies if they’re fortunate enough to have insurance, waiting for normalcy to return, etc. – I’m going to rerun my Katrina piece. It was the first of a massive New-Orleans-trilogy-after-the-storm that I wrote over the course of a year-and-a-half. New Orleans being a city that has always been near and dear to me, as it is to nearly anyone with good taste in music and food.
Rereading it now, I realize there are plenty of things in it that will upset sensitive readers: human desperation, violence, racial language from one of the subjects who served as my Sherpa while I was there. I don’t endorse that last bit, and in fact, I decry the apparent racism that was on display when scores of New Orleanians were left abandoned by their government in the squalor of the Convention Center, which I visited. And so, I was tempted to edit some of the language out. But I’m leaving it all in, because that’s how it unfolded. And I’m in the business of relating life as it happens, not just as we wish it would. So here are my “Notes From Under Water,” a story that keeps repeating.
I'M NOT A BIG SUPPORTER OF MEN CRYING. But I nearly did so while watching the flood waters roll over New Orleans, drowning it in Katrina's backwash. Not only because of the obvious human toll, but also because this Jobian plague befell the greatest city in America. Sure, New Orleans regularly leads the league in all the wrong categories. It's been the fattest city, the most corrupt city, the most murderous city, and so forth. But it's a city you can't help but pine for, and not just because of the grace and grandeur featured in the picture books.
Go there just once, and if you see the right things with someone who knows the place, it's a city that sticks to you like a roux stain on white linen. You understand what it means to miss it if you ever stood in line outside now-defunct Uglesich's, a 10-table dive on the wrong side of town where even the gentry nursed Abita beers on the sidewalk, gladly cooling their heels for hours just to get a crack at the shrimp and grits. Or if you've ever downed Pimm's cups and oyster Po' Boys at Napoleon House on Chartres, one of the most hospitable places on the planet to kill an evening. Or if you've ever pulled an all-nighter in Pirate's Alley off Jackson Square, with fantasists in buccaneer shirts clanking their broadswords after dipping too deeply into the bourbon.
As I write this, I'm listening to Doctors, Professors, Kings and Queens: The Big Ol' Box of New Orleans. It features the Meters and Professor Longhair and Sidney Bechet & His New Orleans Feet Warmers, along with all those mad-genius brass bands bringing up the Second Line: Dirty Dozen and Rebirth and Tuba Fats' Chosen Few. My gnawing sadness returns. Because all this music came from a place. And as a fellow New Orleans enthusiast I know says, "It's one of the last places that feels like a place." New Orleans had Voodoo doctors, and stride-piano professors, and Mardi Gras Kings and Queens. The rest of us have Home Depot and Applebees.