Hard Times in the Big Easy ~ VANITY FAIR

0620-NOLA-tout-lede.jpgFifteen years ago Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Now a second storm—COVID-19—has swept in, its death toll eclipsing that of the hurricane, and many in the Crescent City fear the virus could leave untold devastation in its wake.

 

By sheer luck, I missed Mardi Gras this year. My wife, Jane, and I, longtime New Orleans–area residents, were in Mexico, which had yet to get the memo about not hugging your friends or eating in crowded restaurants. Some three weeks later, on March 17, I stepped off a plane, back home, with reason to wonder if I was a walking, talking vector for the coronavirus.

The 7th annual EndymionUS Walking Parade for Kids  Kids at Heart winds its way through the MidCity neighborhood.
The 7th annual Endymion-US Walking Parade “for Kids & Kids at Heart” winds its way through the Mid-City neighborhood .PHOTOGRAPH BY WILLIAM WIDMER/REDUX.
Bourbon Street is packed with a sea of Mardi Gras revelers on the Saturday night before Fat Tuesday.
Bourbon Street is packed with a sea of Mardi Gras revelers on the Saturday night before Fat TuesdayPHOTOGRAPH BY WILLIAM WIDMER/REDUX.

Mardi Gras, which more than triples the population of New Orleans to 1.4 million, is a late-winter blowout. In the weeks leading up to it, Mayor LaToya Cantrell, so I later learned, had been in touch with the Centers for Disease Control about whether to cancel the whole extravaganza, and no one at the CDC had raised a red flag. As the holiday approached, there were no recorded cases of COVID in Louisiana. The national death toll, later amended, still stood officially at zero. President Donald Trump had yet to tweet about a “Chinese virus” that would “miraculously” disappear with sunny weather. He had yet to insinuate that Fake News was crashing the Dow just to hurt his chances for reelection. He had yet to try distracting the nation from his failures of leadership during the pandemic by tweeting reckless fantasies about turning “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons” on protesters decrying the murder of an unarmed Black man by Minneapolis police. Cantrell was and would remain unpersuaded by the president’s groundless insinuations. In early March she issued orders on crowd size and social distancing.

A week later, gatherings larger than 10 were outlawed and table service at restaurants was suspended, a bold move in a city famous for gourmet dining, a linchpin of the local economy. The overarching message: Shelter in place. A public service announcement from retired Lt. General Russel Honoré, one of the few heroes of the otherwise mismanaged federal response to Hurricane Katrina, ended with a stay-home warning to New Orleans worthy of a pissed-off parent. “Don’t make me come back down there again,” Honoré thundered.

Riding in from the airport, we passed the ornamented necropolises of granite and marble visible from the interstate. For all its joie de vivre, the Big Easy has an easygoing relationship with death, all too easygoing you might surmise from our daunting murder rate. The dead live on among us, in a city with a water table so high that caskets rot within months. The necropolises are above-ground crypts where people of sufficient means shelve their dead. And a new testament to our mortality was already being added to the cityscape: refrigerator trucks. Funeral homes and parish morgues and hospitals were overwhelmed by the death toll and needed a place to temporarily stash the corpses, some of them almost certainly casualties of Mardi Gras.

A week later, gatherings larger than 10 were outlawed and table service at restaurants was suspended, a bold move in a city famous for gourmet dining, a linchpin of the local economy. The overarching message: Shelter in place. A public service announcement from retired Lt. General Russel Honoré, one of the few heroes of the otherwise mismanaged federal response to Hurricane Katrina, ended with a stay-home warning to New Orleans worthy of a pissed-off parent. “Don’t make me come back down there again,” Honoré thundered.

Riding in from the airport, we passed the ornamented necropolises of granite and marble visible from the interstate. For all its joie de vivre, the Big Easy has an easygoing relationship with death, all too easygoing you might surmise from our daunting murder rate. The dead live on among us, in a city with a water table so high that caskets rot within months. The necropolises are above-ground crypts where people of sufficient means shelve their dead. And a new testament to our mortality was already being added to the cityscape: refrigerator trucks. Funeral homes and parish morgues and hospitals were overwhelmed by the death toll and needed a place to temporarily stash the corpses, some of them almost certainly casualties of Mardi Gras.

Sophie Lee is the owner of the currently closed club Three Muses on Frenchmen Street.
Sophie Lee is the owner of the currently closed club Three Muses on Frenchmen Street. PHOTOGRAPH BY STACY KRANITZ.

As I arrived on the 17th, there were no paper shamrocks in the gutters along Louisiana Avenue. Cantrell had canceled the Saint Patrick’s Day parade and then sicced the cops on a boozy throng that gathered anyway at an Irish Channel bar. It would not be the last test of the mayor’s resolve. Within a week, some 50 folk assembled on Audubon Street to stage a second line, a New Orleans funerary tradition. Second-liners—sometimes accompanying pallbearers hoisting a coffin—follow a brass band down the street, sidestepping this way and that, waving handkerchiefs and thrusting umbrellas in the air. The police showed up quickly and read second-liners the riot act. The retinue began to disperse. So the cops left. The second line formed again. The cops circled back, and this time they took names. Enthusiasts claimed the event was a constitutionally protected expression of religious belief. The cops had another name for it: violation of an emergency state proclamation banning crowds. Possible penalty: six months in the slammer.

The mayor had made her point. The lockdown was for real.

By mid-April, Sophie Lee was on a roller coaster. She had good days and bad. A jazz vocalist married to a jazz guitarist, she co-owns Three Muses, one of several clubs and restaurants that, before the virus struck, had made Frenchmen Street, in the Marigny, a nexus of New Orleans nightlife. She had enough in the till to feed their two daughters and cover insurance and rent on the shuttered club for a couple of months. But then what? Lee had applied for a small business loan offered through the federal bailout package, and was livid to discover that the kitty—temporarily depleted before she got a dime—had been picked clean by chain restaurants. “How does Ruth’s Chris qualify as a small business?” she demands to know, referring to the national steakhouse chain started decades ago with a lone restaurant in New Orleans.

Beads left behind from the recent Mardi Gras celebration.
Beads left behind from the recent Mardi Gras celebrationPHOTOGRAPH BY STACY KRANITZ.

Lee was voicing an anxiety widespread in New Orleans as spring weather arrived— and President Trump’s miraculous panacea did not. She was already schooled in disaster. Just ahead of Katrina, Lee and her husband had fled the city, taking part in what was, for all its flaws, the largest evacuation in American history. The city’s infrastructure was savaged; parts of New Orleans to this day are scarred. Now, with COVID, there was no evacuation at all, or, put it this way: New Orleanians like Lee retreated indoors and found refuge in their homes. The buildings would still be there when the lockdown eased and it came time to step back outside, reopen shops and restaurants and hotels and colleges. But would a musical city still be alive in anything like its familiar form?

Not a great many New Orleanians were saddened when former Illinois congressman Dennis Hastert was jailed a few years ago in connection with the sexual molestation of young boys. When Katrina hit, Hastert, a Republican, had been Speaker of the House. With New Orleans on its knees, trying to recover, Hastert went public with the view that maybe the City that Care Forgot was itself forgettable. Maybe New Orleans wasn’t worth rebuilding. Oh, sure, the country would still need some vestige of a port near the mouth of the nation’s mightiest river system. But otherwise? Meh. Half of New Orleans is at or below sea level; people were foolish to live there, Hastert opined. What he didn’t need to say publicly was that most of those people were Black and voted Democratic.

The breezy philistinism—Hastert later apologized for it—had a way of concentrating the mind. What reasons were there, really, to save New Orleans?

Edwarrd Johnson surface cleans the French Quarter.
Edwarrd Johnson surface cleans the French Quarter. PHOTOGRAPH BY STACY KRANITZ.

Well, an irreplaceable cityscape, for one. The French Quarter ranks among the most significant historic districts in America, and New Orleans’s architectural treasures are not confined to the Vieux Carré. Then there’s South Louisiana’s cuisine, a national treasure relished around the world thanks to proselytizing chefs the likes of Emeril Lagasse, Susan Spicer, Tory McPhail, and the late Leah Chase, among many others. And, of course, when it comes to nightlife, substance consumption, and the hospitality trade, few destinations match the city’s appeal to conventioneers, tour groups, cruise ship passengers, millennials, and wedding parties thirsting for an unforgettable bacchanal.

The really unique thing about New Orleans, though, is the music. And even before the corona-related death of the patriarchal Ellis Marsalis, in March, it seemed clear that COVID was a mortal threat to it. Not to the sound itself; online access to hi-fi recording holds the promise of eternal life. But to the vibrant culture that engenders and continuously updates it. Jazz is America’s unique gift to world culture, and New Orleans, which gave birth to jazz, is still on its cutting edge. (Even the Saints, the city’s other civic religion, “come marching in,” to a trad jazz anthem.)

~~~  CONTINUE  ~~~

 

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