The quiet of New Orleans is deathly. In a town once filled with noisemakers, revelers, Carnival celebrants, songsters, drinkers, raconteurs, and what the late banjo man Danny Barker called “night people”a town where neon normally flashes, jazz and soul clubs beckon, restaurants and bistros teem with chattering natives and tourists alike in love with their chicken and andouille gumbo, dressed shrimp poboys, red beans and rice, oysters sardou (I could go on a long time with this list)it’s that silent dark night over most of the city that still unnerves me.
My first encounter with the terrible silence, combined with the putrid smell of death and burned buildings, was on the inky fogged night of September 6, when ABC News got me back into the heavily guarded and vacated city to comment on the situation as a cultural catastrophe. A few nights before I found myself becoming, against all instinct, a disaster celebrity on Nightlinebeing questioned along with broadcast journalist Cokie Roberts, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, and writer Michael Lewis. I mused off-air with Ted Koppel over the irony that they, all natives, had not lived in New Orleans for years and did not face or “taste the wave” as a local had begun to refer to the hurricane-into-flood experience. I, on the other hand, was a convert to the culture of America’s great Mediterranean-African-Caribbeansouth of the Southhome to jazz architects Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and Sidney Bechet; perch for writers Lafcadio Hearn, Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Walker Percy. I’d first landed in New Orleans just after college, at the end of a Kerouac-style road trip.
My emotions ran higher yet as I came back to my home city past the many levels of securitynational guard, Louisiana state troopers, New Orleans police, private guards in black, all wielding machine gunson a media pass. What struck me most was the absolute darkness and absence of peopleexcept for clusters of soldiersin a city famous for music, bon vivants, and nightlife. I camped out in a ramshackle media village of RVs and tents on Canal Street, the dividing lineor “neutral ground,” as it’s calledbetween the downriver French Quarter and upriver American Sector, now known as the Central Business District. Reporters fresh from the Iraq war were already cavalierly calling New Orleans the “wet Baghdad.” I resented that characterization and instead lulled myself to sleep with the thought of favorite songs I’d just played on my first post-storm American Routes radio program: Fats Domino’s eternally sad and mysterious song of return, “Walkin’ to New Orleans”; the schmaltzy, but now tear-jerking “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?” performed by Louis Armstrong; Randy Newman’s mordantly fatalistic anthem, “Louisiana 1927” (with its famous line “Louisiana … they’re tryin’ to wash us away”). Another would continue to resonate: “Basin Street Blues,” a late 1920s romance sung by everyone from Armstrong to Harry Connick Jr. that first painted the city of Creole musicians, fancy plasterers, noted writers, street tap dancers, Mardi Gras celebrants, and culinary wizards, as a “land of dreams”a place where one could always return to renew the spirit by sensory means of all kinds … until now.
Sleeping fitfully in a car at the news compound, I was awakened early for an interpretive walk through the Quarter and to my American Routes radio headquarters for the benefit of the evening news. I was pleased to see that my second-story studio on Royal Street was high and dry. I was grimly happy that the wind had ripped off a massive wooden gate and blown it up against the door, discouraging would-be looters. The improvised coat-hanger wire seal I’d left on the unlockable door shutters was still wound tight.
The TV crew left to file for World News Tonight. I walked alone across the deserted French Quarter, still shocked by the stillnesseven the birds had been blown awayof what would have been a bustling day of workers, tourists, quirky long-term dwellers, and artists any time before Sunday August 28.
On that day I had awakened in my home a few miles Uptown to the news that this would be a Category 5 storm and immediately abandoned my New England-bred, “keep a stiff upper lip and ride it out” plan to take the family, including two young children, to a high-rise hotel for a few nights of expected disruption.
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