The fifth in a regular series of columns by Chay Lemoine: ‘New Orleans’, in which Chay revisits the city of his birth; still bearing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina but now also facing the devastating Gulf Coast oil spill.
Once again I return to New Orleans in the mist of tragedy. Four years ago I returned in the aftermath of Katrina. I am now sharing with the residents of the New Orleans coastal community the terror of the worst ecological disaster in US history. The livelihood of the coastal fisherman is being destroyed by the slow moving oily mass. The birds and wildlife are dying and massive efforts are being made to clean the soiled animals. As I write this piece the oil is still flowing and there is no end in sight.
The Louisiana residents seem shell shocked. The area restaurants are selling out of the remaining oysters. The anger increases but also the panic. New Orleans has tasted tragedy. They know too well its bitter aftertaste and their conversations are peppered with the fears of life after the oil spill.
This past weekend, very early Saturday morning, I walked the French Quarter with friends. The alcohol caused the stories to flow and the crowded chaos of the Quarter gives a feeling of euphoria. The stories told of Katrina are so fantastic that I wondered if they could be true. One of my friends recalled the shoot to kill orders posted all around the city “in order to protect their families from the looters”. “People were hungry and there was little drinking water”. “Some were trapped inside their flooded homes with the dead bodies of family members”.
In the early aftermath of the storm families had to live in tents for weeks before the arrival of the FEMA trailers. New Orleans was a “war zone” attacked by the terrible forces of nature. By the time the National Guard arrived with the tanks and trucks offering protection and food for the area residents they were too weak to cheer their arrival. When residents were allowed back into their devastated homes, neighbourhoods bonded together. There were crawfish boils and sharing of fuel for generators, for those that were lucky enough to have generators. One man even distributed expensive racing car fuel to his neighbours so they could have electricity for their homes.
They not only shared fuel but as is the tradition in New Orleans they shared alcohol. “We drank both day and night sometimes in order to forget”. “If there was a chicken around we would play chicken drop”.
(I shook my head. Although I grew up in New Orleans I had never heard of the ‘Chicken Drop’.) There was laughter all around.
They explained that it’s a gambling game. A sheet was spread out on the lawn with numbers painted on it and a live chicken would peck and walk around and if the chicken crapped on your number you won whatever prize was offered. The same chicken could be used for several rounds of the game.
I left the group and decided to walk around the Quarter alone reflecting on the night many years ago when I walked away from New Orleans. I walked around the country and even around the world. I walked to Key West and I walked to Iceland and I walked back again. It was 4 or 5AM thirty-five years ago and I was very young man returning to my car after a night of drinking in the Quarter bars.
I walked and wondered if I was going in the right direction. I could see in the distance two young men talking, maybe arguing but there was no sense of urgency in their conversation. I did not sense trouble so I continued to walk in their direction when I saw a glint of steel in the early light that was colouring the heavy humid air. The knife came down once in silence and then it came down again. It came down a third time and one of the men fell to the ground. The assailant slowly walked away.
I quickly approached the victim. “Are you OK?” I asked. He looked up at me. “F___ off”, he said. He tried to stand and allowed me to help him. He began walking and I followed. The morning was quiet with the slight sounds of music in the background. There is also music floating in the wet humid air. I kept my head down and we both walked slowly through the empty street. Although there was no chance of loosing him in the night I followed the trail of blood that he was dripping on to the sidewalk. I asked him again if he wanted me to call the police and this time my question was answered with silence.
He turned and walked up the short steps to a door and banged and yelled. The door was answered and there was more yelling. The door closed and the sounds were muffled and then there was silence. I slowly followed the blood trail back to my car. I became very much aware of the city breathing down my neck.
I am an old man now. Maybe not old but surely I know enough to appreciate the night. I sit on one of the steps and listen to the never ending sounds of music that permeates the city. A young lady has passed a few times but noticing my indifference she sits next to me and asked if I want a cigarette. I thank her but decline. A few minutes later a young man sits on the other side and we all listen to the city breathing. He turns to me and asks “what do you think is going to happen now”. I did not have an answer.
Chay Lemoine is an American scholar who, among other things, is a renowned Halldor Laxness expert. Chay writes a regular column called ‘The View from Here’ on IceNews where he talks about Laxness, life, Iceland, and whatever else is on his mind.
Illustration courtesy of Steve Broussard