Three Steps to Nowhere

Letter from New Orleans

In our grandparents' day, smoke-stacked factories pumped crap into the air like the whole world chain-smoking filterless Camels, like Hitler gassing the Jews, but slowly, more profitably and now with an advertising campaign. Coughing, sneezing, emphysematic urban Americans smiled: filthy air meant work and jobs; clean air produced panic.

Here's a black-and-white photograph of your Grandma Minerva hacking bloody phlegm into an Irish lace hanky.

Last week, I flew into New Orleans' ghost town Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, the trumpeter's symbolic fanfare muffled since Katrina. Driving the 1-10 into the city, we hit a traffic jam; I take this for a hopeful sign. I mention it to a man on Bourbon Street, and he tells me, "Oh, it's a sign all right—a sign the city's dead." Everyone with money has decamped to the suburbs, he says; commute times have soared. Then he abruptly shifts rhetorical gears into what I'll soon learn is Chamber of Commerce Overdrive: "But the city is coming back," he says.

Bourbon Street is certainly back. On Friday, women show us their breasts. Men drop plastic beads from wrought-iron balconies. A man dressed inexplicably in a striped referee's shirt hawks a thriving strip club—"Big titties, medium titties, little titties, no titties!" He tells me he's a grad student at Tulane. Moments later, I hear the ferocious retching of a drunk, turn to see a woman of maybe 21 or 22 projectile vomiting into the gutter, holding her neon-green long-stemmed cocktail glass safely behind her, and then hear the cop next to me say to his partner, "Gotta be getting on to 11 o'clock." One day, that'll be someone's Grandma Britney, a symbol of postindustrial progress caught in full-color on her Sigma Epsilon boyfriend's cell phone.

I relate this to a security guard who tells me to avoid all cops; most of them are corrupt, he says. "The good ones quit," he claims, and too many of the rest are fighting each other and the gangs for control of the city's drugs and prostitution. "I'm black, you're white," he says. "I have the advantage over you because I know how to act around a white policeman. You want to act like you're a black man and it's 1920, you know? You gotta know your place." A white policeman listens patiently to me as I relate this exchange. He says the private security men now manning the front doors, back doors and doggie doors of every Bourbon Street hotel are often poorly trained locals, quick with opinions and guns. His department is aware of charges they're crooked; he points out that just that day, his own department stung a crooked cop who was preying on Latinos.

When I leave the hotel for an early evening run, a security guard under the front canopy tells me not to go more than seven blocks down Bourbon Street. "This is like an island," he says, "and that's the edge of the earth."

I go eight blocks, 11, then lose count. I turn down side streets. The sun dims. There's silence but for the broken glass crunching like gravel beneath my feet. Trash rises up on each side. The streetlights glow only faintly. When a dog howls and a woman screams, I turn back.

The next day, in a bus filled with journalists, I venture beyond the edge. We see whole neighborhoods reduced to something like pasture, the little wooden homes swept away, the concrete front steps still there, three steps and then nothing, three steps to nowhere but more grass. In neighborhoods where the homes are still standing, they're corpselike, spilling their guts onto their front porches or side yards or behind themselves, or just drunk, leaning on their foundations. Some streets look untouched, but like the set of a post-nuclear movie (I'm thinking Fred Astaire in On the Beach), the houses complete but empty. The trip nearly ends when the tour guide (the passionate, erudite publisher of New Orleans' alternatively weekly Gambit) tells us he's going to let the driver drive and let us just stay with our thoughts for a moment. It turns out that his voice is a narcotic; when it stops, I look out on the expanse of grass and front steps and trash piles and I swear I can hear the terror of parents trying unsuccessfully to calm absolutely freaked-out kids, the panic edging into the parents' voices, the wind screaming at all of them, and old men and women in attics beating arthritic fists against the tar paper over their heads, the water and air temperature rising to meet like lines on an actuarial table.

The entire trip nearly ends when I step off the bus into a grass parking strip. I take a few steps and land on a squeaky toy, its cry something like "mama." In the muck where razor-sharp grass is taking over I find a pink Teddy bear; its red heart says in white-gone-brown stitching: I wuv you. I bite my lip, put my sunglasses on, and look away, but the tears are already coming, and I feel, like the black cabbie who takes me back to Louis Armstrong that night, that I hate everyone: George W. Bush who did nothing for days, the Army Corps of Engineers that did so much and so much of it wrong over half a century and Mayor Ray Nagin (about whom she invariably and, I think, maybe unnecessarily uses the N-word after the word "stupid"). Mostly, like the cabbie, I hate myself.

"I blame me," she says thumping her chest like a penitent, not as an empty gesture, but like she could really punch through her own sternum and stop her heart from beating and keeping her painfully alive and aware. "I told people the government wasn't going to do nothing if this happened. And when the government was doing nothing, then what did I do? I told everyone how goddamn smart I was."

I climb out of the cab. She turns and puts her hand out.

"Tell your friends in Orange County don't forget us."

"I will," I say.

"No, really," she says, "tell them, 'Don't forget the people of New Orleans.'"

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