After two decades living in New Orleans, reporter Chris Rose has soaked up every scrap of its contradictions, possibly without seeing its largest.
In 1 Dead in Attic (Simon & Schuster, $15), a collection of columns that he started writing for the New Orleans Times-Picayune in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Rose casts the dry eye of a Mark Twain on the absurdities of living in a city "held together by duct tape and delusion," a place where he feels the guilt of his own family surviving but takes delight in a fellow Uptown resident's revenge on a neighbor.
A hauling company had already picked up the rest of the fetid refrigerators on his block when a newly returned neighbor tied a rope to his and used his car to drag it out to the curb. "It fell open," Rose writes, "and your mama's seven-week-old casserole spilled out. And it stank. And he left it there, an open and stinking invitation to all manner of biblical-proportion infestations and plagues."
Later that day, when a contractor with a Bobcat drove by, another guy on the block offered him $20 to pick up the refrigerator and drop it in the offender's driveway.
"Now, I know what a lot of you are thinking," Rose writes. "There are people in this town who lost everything ... And all that you rich and idle Uptowners on dry land can find within your hearts to do is bicker over appliances?"
"But consider this: Maybe this signals a return to normalcy. Maybe this is even a healthy sign of the human spirit. Or maybe we're all just a bunch of petty ingrates."
Whatever the case, it's clear that Rose, whose wife and three children spent the next year in Maryland with relatives, did not walk out in the flood. It's also painful that he speaks of the persistent "thievery" in New Orleans without speaking of its poverty. But what's undeniable is that, in his own, slow-cooked contradictions, Chris Rose has become a voice for New Orleans and its struggle to carry on.
You talk about little signs of normalcy returning. What was the moment for you when you said, "It's coming back." I heard that so many times when I was in New Orleans last year for JazzFest.
We tell each other that all the time, [but] apparently we're plagued by doubts. I think the first Mardi Gras was such an emotional blood-letting, such a proclamation of our faith in ourselves and our community, such an embrace of our culture and our pride and our way of life. It kinda reminded me of that scene from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas when everybody in Whoville wakes up and all the presents have been stolen, but they still come out and they hold hands and they sing. That was us.
But the people in Whoville cry now at the drop of a hat -- a sign, I believe, of post-traumatic stress. You quote someone in the book saying that everyone in the city is now mentally ill.
Anyone who's not slightly mentally ill from all this I see as being delusional. Even the strongest among us emotionally has still got a touch of Katrina fever. It's hard to live surrounded by this story and not be affected. Even if your job and your house and your car and your family all survived intact, you deal with it on a daily basis in other people. There is at times such as these, collective despair and sorrow, it's going to break you down. It's got to at some point. The way you make it through that is just hope they pass and the good days come. And there are lots of good days. There are lots of reminders of what a great, wonderful, tolerant, spirited city this is, and we get that more and more, but still it's become a long, hard road. The only currency more valuable than money in this process is patience. If you're not patient, you're not going to make it through this. It is the very trite phrase "it's not a sprint, it's a marathon," and it's clear if you look around the city at the two-year mark, there's a lot of work to be done, a long way to go.
Walk me through the landscape of New Orleans. When I was there a year ago, there were still whole parts of the city that weren't rewired yet.
There still are. You can live and function and travel about in the areas of the old city -- the Garden District, the French Quarter, Uptown -- for a long time without seeing many physical manifestations of the storm. A lot of the place is put back together nicely or wasn't particularly destroyed. That's sort of the functioning living community. But if you try to cross town or move around in wider circles, you still go through massive spreads and areas of desolation, emptiness, empty homes, overgrown lots. There are some areas -- Lakeview comes to mind and Mid-City -- which are still sort of, I think they call it the jack o'lantern effect: There's a nice house here and a bad one there, a nice house here, a bad one there as you move up the street. But there are still some neighborhoods -- a lot of Gentilly, still, and Lakeview -- where block after block, there doesn't seem to be anybody there and, at two years in, you have to question whether they're coming back. I drive through these areas and look around and the emptiness and the stillness and the quiet are mind-boggling. You want to get out of your car and shout, "Where is everybody?!"
My fear is that -- I drive around and see this stuff every day and I've kind of realized that it loses its shock value. It's part of the landscape. It is the new normal, all this stuff, these busted-up houses and rubble on the side of the road. I guess if you stay in it too long, you get used to it, and I think it's very important that we never lose our sense of shock and outrage about it.
What percent of the population is back?
I don't know. The last count they tried to give us based on the postal service estimate was that two-thirds of the people are back. Driving around, I'm not convinced of that.
Why isn't there more rebuilding going on?
I'm not an expert on any of the financial or political or engineering stuff that goes on, but my understanding is that there's still some monies held up. There's rebuilding all the time, but I guess the settling period that we all have to wait for is that once every business and every individual who's wanted to rebuild has come in and done so, then we have to look at the wasted housing stock that remains, these properties, and figure out what to do with everything. A lot of that is going on right now. The city has condemned a great number of properties, and they need to, but they're also messing it up. In a lot of cases, you're hearing about houses being torn down of people who had every intention of fixing them. There's just a lot of miscommunication, a lot of incompetence in this whole process that's just really aggravating.
The dispersal -- people were sent all over the country. Do they ever come home?
Well, a lot of people don't want to, for a lot of reasons, and a lot of people can't, for economic reasons or that they have nowhere to go. They may even be property owners, but they're property is a cleared lot, 30 feet by 90 feet, and they don't have the resources to rebuild, and you wonder if anyone is ever going to make a fair offer on these places so people can put it all back together. I mean, we're two years in. You gotta start thinking in terms of everyone who wants to be back is probably back.
You really think that? I think there's still loads and loads of people out there who keep telling people in whatever communities they're in that they're coming back some day, but as time passes, you've got to wonder how that's going to happen, if it's not just wishful thinking.
Do you hold anyone responsible for what happened? Well, you know, after all this time, apportioning blame becomes almost a moot process, but obviously, anyone and everyone who was involved to a degree in the design but certainly in the construction and inspections of these levees has to be somehow held accountable. They failed the first test they ever got ... miserably. And it seems like anyone who studied it knew it would happen. But I'm so past the blame part. What can you do? You can spend all your time being pissed off and throwing blame, but it begins to sound tired. Our mayor keeps doing it. I think our mayor has got to stop operating off the blame period of his early days and look forward. I mean, either there's going to be some sort of recompense or restitution or there won't. It's not say, "Wash your hands of it and let the lawyers divide it up," but I'm not much preoccupied with that anymore. I think you can sit around and be consumed by anger and blame and resentment and despair and it eats you up. I've been through it.
Talk about that anger. You crescendo in your columns to the point where you snap at someone littering out of a car.
Yeah, that's one of my hobbies, yelling at litterers. I did more than snap. Over time, over the slow, methodical and relentless collecting of stories of despair and sorrow, it broke me. I think I probably entered this period of my life with a borderline melacholic personality [that I've had] all my life, but by last summer I had slipped into a nearly incapacitated state, a dysfunctional human being curled into a fetal position and unable to function as a reporter, as a father, as a husband, as an operative cog in the civic system, and I went to seek professional help and was disagnosed with clinical depression. I did a little therapy and took the meds for a while, but I'm now off them and feeling better.
Tell me how the city is coming back. What are the positive signs?
The positive signs are the relentless determination of the people here, the nearly tribal sense that, despite our well-publicized political, racial and economic divisions, we are 92 percent of one voice and one cause and one mission, which is not to put New Orleans back together as it was, because that's impossible, and not entirely desirable, but my food and nourishment for the soul is the overwhelming sense of the triumph of the human spirit, that we can do this, we will do this and that we have to do this. I have learned over the past two years that despite the message sent out by 40 years of popular music from the Beatles to Hannah Montana that the most important four-letter word in the English language is "love," I beg to differ; I think it's "home." And we've discovered that here. We're willing to fight for it. ... I know people are very tired of our proclamations that we are more interesting. We spend an awful lot of time talking about how clever we are, how much more fun we are, how much better our food is, our music is, our life is. But the fact remains -- it's largely true. [He laughs.] There's a certain sense of self-love here that probably makes other people uncomfortable, and the fact we laugh too much and talk too loud and dance on Sundays and drink at funerals makes a lot of people uncomfortable. That's why we like being here amongst each other because we get each other and we appreciate each other.