By Wayne Curtis | When friends ask what we were thinking when we moved from Maine to New Orleans, buying a house there a year after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures and the flooding of 80 percent of the city, I have a ready answer: Drink drove me to New Orleans.
I’ll admit it’s a glib response, the type of thing someone would think up over a third cup of coffee or a second glass of bourbon. But it also has the merit of being largely true. I had been researching a book on the cultural history of rum—it’s a long and pleasingly debauched history, I assure you—when in January 2005 I flew to New Orleans to interview a noted rum collector and speak to some of the founders of the Museum of the American Cocktail, which then occupied a space one floor above the leeches and tinctures at the Pharmacy Museum.
In the course of my research I happened to visit a number of historic bars in the company of eminent cocktail historians. What I found pleasantly surprised me. For here were bars where I could sip cocktails like the Sazerac and the Ramos Gin Fizz and the Brandy Crusta that had long been rendered extinct in the rest of the nation. What’s more, these drinks were being unselfconsciously consumed, not as a marketing gimmick or because The New York Times dining section had recently run a colorful feature on them. They were drunk because this was what drinkers had been drinking for the past century, and no good reason to switch had yet presented itself. It felt like walking into a cellphone store at the mall and being offered something with a rotary dial. (Two later drinks closely associated with the city, the Hurricane and the Hand Grenade, were concocted for out-of-towners.)
I had scheduled in an extra day to wander around, as I knew little about New Orleans other than its reputation for the public display of bosoms. The city, I discovered, contained much more. I found a place with fierce links to the past at almost every turn. Not only in what people drank, but in what they ate, where they lived, and in the music they listened to.
I’d arrived expecting to find a few asthmatic old men blowing disinterestedly into horns as they played Dixieland jazz for tourists, like musicians on display in a music zoo. What I found was a music scene that had mutated and morphed into something that was both old and new at once. I happened upon a 10-piece brass band made up mostly of teenagers playing remarkable street funk on a downtown corner, putting their own twist on century-old melodies. Another night I wandered into a narrow, packed club far from tourist areas and found a sweaty audience dancing to a tuba player riffing on “Little Liza Jane.”
I’ve always suspected I was born about 150 years too late, so the city fit me like a pair of old jeans. Then again, maybe it was the influence of excessive drink. Or the warm winter weather. Whatever it was, a stray notion lodged itself in my head. When I got home, I told my wife: I think we should move to New Orleans.
As small notions sometimes do, this one metastasized, eventually growing from amorphous idea to vague imperative. Eight months later I contrived to visit again, this time to attend a large conference of cocktail historians. Several times I slipped out of the proceedings to scout neighborhoods and gather real estate spec sheets. I flew home in late August, clutching a sheaf of homes for sale to show my wife. Three days later, an unambitious Category 1 hurricane named Katrina ambled across southern Florida, then veered into the Gulf of Mexico.
Like everyone else across the country, I followed the unfolding disaster of Katrina and its aftermath on television, radio, and in newsprint, horrified and mystified by the tragedy that followed the levee failures. The early reporting for the most part suggested that the city was, essentially, gone: the live oaks uprooted, the homes flooded, the businesses shuttered, the culture decimated, the residents all in motels outside Houston except for a few who stayed behind to loot plasma screen TVs. Friends in whom we’d confided our moving plans called to offer condolences.
Yet as the water receded and the city slowly resurfaced, I seized on reports that life was stirring amid the muck. So six months later I flew south again.
New Orleans often felt like a movie set on my pre-Katrina trips: sometimes a screwball comedy, sometimes a gritty police drama. When I returned in March 2006, it was a backdrop for another genre—a movie about post-apocalyptic America. Whole sections of the city still lacked power and were dark and quiet as the night woods in Maine. Along Carrolton Avenue, strip malls and chain restaurants remained haphazardly boarded up with plywood. On flanking streets, hand-painted stop signs were propped up against sawhorses underneath non-functioning traffic lights. Under the I-10 overpass in Mid City, hundreds of mud-caked cars awaited disposal.
Near Lake Ponchartrain, I was reminded of old classroom films about the aftermath of nuclear war. Sturdy brick ranch houses and Pasadena-style bungalows stood empty, with great mounds of moldering furnishings towering in front and lawns rapidly reverting to meadow. Only infrequently would I detect a pulse, which more than once turned out to be someone standing silently in a doorway with a face mask dangling around his neck, taking a cigarette break from the endless work of house gutting.
People from outside of the region had repeatedly assured me that Katrina and Rita were only warning shots, and that nastier, more devastating storms were all but guaranteed to sweep through summer after summer, pummeling the levees and inundating the city again and again. (I rarely heard this talk within city limits.) Global warming would certainly sound the final note at the city’s funeral, a situation best summarized by a friend I’d run into on the airport shuttle in Maine. When I told him my wife and I were considering this move south, he spoke to me as if to a dimwitted child. “You do understand, don’t you,” he said, enunciating every word, “that New Orleans is sinking and the seas are rising.”
I quickly concluded that a move here could not involve any rational decision-making. It could be done only with a mix of faith and a more advanced form of creative reasoning. If the dark prophets were right about the Lost City, I figured, I wanted to witness the denouement, to be part of the final evacuation and at least get a taste before it was handed back to the waves. But my hunch was that, while these dire predictions might come to pass over the next century, it would likely be decades or more before they were realized. And if that was the case, I wanted to witness the rebuilding and rebirth of a remarkable city.
So we came. And amid all that was not normal, we focused in on whatever normalcy we could find. The unflooded area near the Mississippi—the “sliver by the river” or the “isle of denial”—was bustling. We had drinks with friends while leaning on temporary plywood countertops in their rebuilt kitchen, and they proudly pointed out the new brass plaque installed at chest height showing the floodwater level. We started looking for a house, working with a young real estate agent who at times came into the office apologizing for smelling like muck-filled rooms. Investors were buying whole blocks, she said. I scanned the real estate listings on Craigslist daily. Among the amenities listed were homes featuring “lots of neighbors.” We eventually bought a house uptown, in an unflooded neighborhood. (Our faith in the city did not extend to the Army Corps of Engineers.)
And gradually, we became cast members in the post-apocalyptic movie. These films don’t involve just widespread destruction and horror, of course. That’s just the first 15 minutes. The rest of the film invariably focuses on a band of intrepid fighters resisting a far more powerful force intent on destroying the old way of life.
So it has been in New Orleans.
Life here still has a bit of that resistance-army feel. (A local history professor put it a little differently: New Orleans, he said, is the only city in America where you can be an expatriate.) In many cities, discussions about restaurants and food center around what’s new. Here, the discussion focuses on what’s not: who is doing something interesting with bread pudding or gumbo and doing so with a reverence for their predecessors. It’s like jazz. You improvise and you interpret, but you always respect the melody. A short time after Katrina, a local musician on tour in the Midwest was asked by someone in the audience if he was worried that New Orleans would fail to come back. No, he said, “because we hate your food and we hate your music.”
I liked that.
We still get the occasional friend who questions our sanity. They ask us about the city’s future. We don’t have much of an answer. We didn’t invest in the city’s future. We invested in its past.
Our New Orleans movie these days roughly parallels World Without End, a 1956 film in which some astronauts are accidentally propelled into the future. When they return home, they find a world destroyed by radiation, and the Earth’s surface ruled by mutant cyclops. In time, they come upon a subterranean culture hell-bent on preserving the old traditions. The astronauts set out to help these people defend themselves against the one-eyed horrors. At the end of the movie, the cave-dwellers eventually prevail over the mutants, and return to the surface, where they begin to reconstruct their lives.
As the movie fades out, these words appear on screen: “The beginning.”
Wayne Curtis G’84 is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic Monthly and the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails.