For New Orleans

Ten years ago this week George and I were in Houston, Texas with most of our staff for an exhibition of his work.  None of us knew what was coming and that it would be many months before we returned home to New Orleans.  
In memory of those times, I share with you below a story I wrote in 2011 for the New Orleans weekly paper, Gambit, and integrated later within the book, The Other Side of the Painting (UL Press, 2013).  Honoring, today and always, a wonderful and unique city-
*Photographs by Tony Bernard and Don Sanders, September 21, 2005; click to enlarge-
For New Orleans
From the back porch of our Faubourg Marigny home, I see the west bank of the Mississippi River through the branches of our enormous tree, a live oak that Mr. Foche probably nurtured himself when he built this house in 1835.
God only knows what the tree has endured. Nicholas Foche, a free man of color from Jamaica, arrived long before the levees. That means that the Mississippi River rushed periodically through the ground floor, from the back door to the front. The water settled at times, I know it did. It delivered alligators, snakes, and lots and LOTS of rats, and it bred millions of mosquitoes, spreading fever, disease and death throughout this, a great American city.
As a series, I don’t think the HBO production Tremé (based on a neighborhood only a few blocks from ours) is fabulous, but on the other hand, the fact that I find it difficult to watch may be a testament to its insight. I recall the pilot as a misrepresentation, even a joke, on behalf of the Tremé writers to suggest restaurants and groceries and water bills and newly painted houses and dumpsters and taxis (and Elvis Costello and a limousine!) and Zapp’s potato chips and safe neighborhoods, and people who feel like singing — all just three months after the storm.
And yet right this second, six years to the day after George Rodrigue and I (the oh-so-fortunate) sat in a hotel room in Houston and watched on television as our city drowned, I sit on our 175-year-old porch and watch the tops of the ships go by. I see tourists wave to the shore of the river that made Louisiana the key state in Napoleon’s sale of 828,000 square miles of this country, and I watch our oak tree, now held together by steel wires and sprouting strong, near floating, swaying, and shaking its branches to the beat of New Orleans. Three months after or six years after — I guess it doesn’t much matter.
We were the lucky ones. Out of our house for only nine months. No flooding. But much of the old asbestos roof blew off, leaving our house wet, moldy, uninhabitable, and yet nothing to complain about. I’m ashamed, but nevertheless admit, that as we stayed with our former neighbors in Lafayette, George and I worried about our tree:
“What should we do? How can we save it?”
We couldn’t ask for help. It’s a tree!
Through the kindness of a police officer we were allowed into New Orleans three days before Hurricane Rita struck. We saw an abandoned city, a twilight zone, not a car, not a person, not a bird, not a sound, nothing. We walked through an empty and immaculate Jackson Square, perhaps the only place in New Orleans devoid of debris, the backdrop of our president’s televised speech.
We found our back door wide open and our house remarkably, shockingly, without vandalism. In the 100-degree heat we climbed up and down the Creole townhouse’s three flights removing paintings.
You see, we did not evacuate, but rather, by happenstance, were in Houston for an exhibition. Evacuation differs from weekend travel. Weekend travel is cocktail dresses, bathing suits and make-up. Evacuation, however, is paintings and photo albums and whatever that last little thing is that one dreams of having on a deserted island.
These are the things we grabbed. Silent and rushing, we observed our tree from a distance. Its roots raised our courtyard in places three, five, and six feet high, so that we couldn’t get close. The oak was split but standing, with George’s life-size painted fiberglass cow (from the 1999 Chicago Cow Parade) caught upside down, high in its branches. Pained for our entire city, we stared silently at our tree and ignored the complaints of our (later replaced) insurance adjustor:
“I can’t work in these hot conditions! Where can I get a cold drink? Don’t you have a better way to pack those paintings? That bathroom is filthy!”
We have pictures of all of this, but I hate looking at them and share only the few in this essay.
Tremé misses a lot. But I think that’s okay. The show actually idealizes us in some important ways, too painful, too heady, and too political to detail here. However, I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who wouldn’t fall on their knees to see a Mardi Gras Indian dressed and singing with conviction even now in their street.
And yet our oak, twice each year since Katrina, holds parrots, a whole hierarchy of them, from the top of the tree to the bottom, the macaws to the finches, a migrating flock of freed animals, perhaps the meaningful equivalent of a costumed tradition.
I realize that Tremé is a TV show; it’s reality-based fiction, not a documentary. It’s okay with me that the story is skewed. And it must rouse feelings for everyone here in New Orleans who watches it. Somehow Tremémakes us look wonderful and like a third world country, both at the same time. Heck, just three months after Katrina we’re downright beguiling! But then, maybe we always were.
I remember the first time I laughed after the storm: My friend Geri described the $200,000 worth of rodent damage to her house as “squirrels gone wild.”
I remember the first time I sang: It was Lundi Gras 2006 (the day before Fat Tuesday), and the Chee Weez lead thousands of us, strangers from the entire Gulf Coast, people from Biloxi, Pass Christian, Slidell, almost all living in FEMA trailers, gathered together at Spanish Plaza and singing a capellaas though we’d practiced it for months,
“Jeremiah was a bullfrog, Was a good friend of mine…”*
Treasure New Orleans. Go to Vaughn’s and hear Kermit Ruffins. Eat a po’ boy. Visit the New Orleans Museum of Art. Dance at Mulate’s.  Ride an airboat through the swamp.  Drink a hurricane. Take a cemetery tour. Admire the oaks. And if nothing else, walk on a levee.

*”Joy to the World” by Hoyt Axton

Note: Prints from George Rodrigue’s painting We Will Rise Again raised $700,000 for local humanitarian relief following Hurricane Katrina.  See the original painting, on view through October 4th 2015 at Rodrigue Studio, New Orleans.  Full story linked here