James Nolan, 58, is a widely published poet, essayist, fiction writer, and translator. He is also a fifth-generation New Orleanian. While he spent much of his adult life traveling and living abroad, he considers the French Quarter home. This interview was conducted December 21st, 2005, in Mr. Nolan’s Dumaine Street apartment.
Born into Hurricanes
I actually love hurricanes. When the low pressure comes in, there’s an incredible build-up of energy. I find it exhilarating. I was born during a hurricane, the one that destroyed New Orleans in September of 1947, in a hospital called Hotel Dieu, which means Hotel of God. The first light I ever saw was from a hospital generator. My first trip was in a rowboat, going from Hotel Dieu to our home in the Faubourg TremÈ, not too far from here.
Growing up, we moved around a lot. The house I remember most was in the 7th Ward, the old Creole neighborhood. Mostly Creoles of color. My memories of childhood are of big, extended families. Lots of screen doors slamming. Lots of unmarried aunts and uncles. I never understood what they did. Our house had about four or five generations of people in it, all within this shotgun-double house. There was little privacy. But it was a wonderful house because right around the corner was an old Creole plantation on Bayou Road where some great aunts of mine lived, and I had the run of that place. There were always big, long tables of people and food, everyone speaking all at the same time in both French and English. There was no question of child care or of nursing homes. Everyone was nursed at home till their death.
I couldn’t wait to leave. I thought New Orleans was backward. I grew up during the civil rights era, and I was just horrified by what was happening—the racism and violence. I often thought, of all the places in the world, why did I have to be been born here? Why couldn’t I have been born in New York? Or California? But now I’m glad I was, and that I’ve come home.
We Never Evacuated
I remember a lot of terrible storms, the lights were out for days, and we lit candles and made due. We never evacuated. It was unheard of. First of all, a lot of people didn’t have cars. And also I grew up in a hurricane culture. From mid-July on, you were geared to a hurricane coming.
There was a whole set of things you had to do. We had to fill up the bathtub with water so that we’d have some if the tap water was cut off. We put plastic jugs in the freezer to freeze water. If the lights went out, you put them in the refrigerator: they kept food fresh for three or four days. We got out hurricane lamps, we clipped the wicks, we bought candles, we got batteries for radios. It was just part of the way we grew up.
But I have to say that this was during a time when everyone I knew lived in the old part of the city. The houses were traditionally constructed. I didn’t know people that lived in places like Lakeview or Lake Vista or East New Orleans, where houses had slab foundations built flat on the ground.
There are other reasons I don’t evacuate. You need to be in your house to deal with the storm as it’s happening to prevent damage. You see those two French doors? And their storm shutters, that block the wind? During Katrina, the wind snapped the shutters open, and those two glass French doors were about to blow in, which would have sucked everything in my study onto the balcony and into the street. So while my friend JosÈ and his girlfriend Claudia held the door shut, I wedged a wooden soup spoon in between the handles and saved my study. If I had come back a month later and found my entire study had been blown into the street, I would be a pretty unhappy person today.
Another reason I don’t evacuate is because I’m more afraid of the human chaos than the natural chaos. There have always been fires and looting after hurricanes in New Orleans. So everyone has to stay to maintain a civic presence. If people are sitting on their front porches and see their neighbors going about their normal activities, the city will come back much quicker.
The Hurricane Experience
The first news I had of the hurricane was when I saw neighbors board up their windows with plywood. I thought, oh, there must be a hurricane coming. The stores were filled with people buying batteries and candles, stocking up on canned food, and things like that. There was a community emergency in the air. People not usually open to you would talk your ear off. The community behaves like pioneers when the Indians attack, drawing their wagons into a circle. They hunker down and protect themselves.
Of course, this was after an incessant two-day campaign on television—which I don’t even watch—that we should evacuate. All they showed were the evacuation routes. The highways you should take. Or shouldn’t take. Well, I don’t drive. I don’t have a car. And neither do so many people in the French Quarter—and in New Orleans. I’d say maybe a third of the population doesn’t have cars, either because they’re too poor, or they don’t know how to drive, or, like me, they’re temperamentally not suited to automobiles. So there was no way out for a week, even though the authorities incessantly were telling us that we had to leave. It was absolutely the most neurotic thing I’ve even been through. Constantly we were told you must leave, you must leave, but leave how? No cars were allowed in. No cars were allowed out.
The night of the hurricane, my friend JosÈ (JosÈ Torres-Tama, an Ecuadorian-American performance artist) was unsure about staying in his house in the Marigny, so he and his girlfriend Claudia Copeland came over. I cooked for them. We had gazpacho for the first course, red beans and rice for the second. We had Claudia’s Ph.D. celebration cake for dessert. Then we had some cognac that I had just brought back from Spain. We toasted the hurricane on the way.
It came and it blew. The French doors provided the only moment of crisis. After that, we went onto the back gallery and watched the storm with my neighbor Kip. We were having the cocktails I call Peter Monkeys, which is dark Bacardi, tonic water, and lime. We were all so tired and worn out by the preparations, and so in awe of the whole thing, that we really didn’t talk much.
The hurricane was brilliant. It was gorgeous. I’ve never felt so close to God. There was a bluish light. And the wind—there was a tree in the courtyard that the wind was whipping until it was absolutely touching the ground. Then it would spring back. Amazingly enough, the glass French doors on the back gallery weren’t even shaking. When the wind enters a closed brick courtyard, the walls stop it, so really there was little damage. A few bricks fell from the chimneys and slate shingles from the roof. That’s it.
When I woke up, JosÈ and Claudia went back to their house. The electricity had gone out during the night, but I went about living my life. I opened all of the windows and the doors. There was no air conditioning and it was probably 95 degrees. The weather was beautiful, as it often is after hurricanes. I went about clearing up whatever mess there was left from the storm. I had taken all my plants from the front balcony and put them on the back balcony. So I moved them all back onto the front balcony, thinking, well, it’s all over, now everybody will come home. That night I cooked and washed dishes by candlelight. It felt like summer camp. I wasn’t unhappy. There was gas, water, and a working phone line.
People began calling me. My 15 year-old niece, who lives in Lafayette, was insisting that I had to get out of the city. I just explained the situation to her, because she’d never really lived here and didn’t understand. People were calling, curious why I was still here. These were people glued to CNN 24 hours a day. But it didn’t even occur to me to leave.
At night, it was a little boring because the entire French Quarter was absolutely pitch black. For the first time in my life, I could see the stars. I sat on my balcony, watched the stars, and listened to the treefrogs croak. There was no one in the street, except for a couple of neighbors who had stayed, and we would scream across to each other. I found one of those portable lamps that you clip onto a book, powered by battery—I got it free with a subscription to The New Yorker–and I started reading a novel called The Secret History by Donna Tartt, a creepy mystery about some students of Greek who murder one of their classmates. I tried to sleep, but it was incredibly hot. I tossed and turned.
The next day, Tuesday, I got a lot of hysterical calls from people. From San Francisco, from New York, from Barcelona, from Madrid—people insisting that I was under water. “No,” I said, “I’m standing here on my balcony, and the street is bone dry. I’m sorry, I have to disagree with you: there’s no water in the French Quarter.” That was the day the levee broke on the 17th Street Canal. I was told that possibly the water might reach the French Quarter. I really doubted that. I didn’t know the extent of the flooding at all.
A Very Crazy Situation
On Tuesday night my neighbor Kip was about to expire. Kip was on dialysis three times a week. He’d had a kidney transplant from a cadaver 25 years ago, and hadn’t had dialysis in six days so he was starting to bloat. He was told he had to go to the Convention Center. At 8:00pm he waded with a flashlight to the Convention Center. There were no buses and no dialysis machines. He waded back and waved at me, sitting on my balcony. That’s when I decided that I should think about leaving.
The only advice offered by the city was to go to the Superdome or the Convention Center. I knew they were going to be chaos because during Hurricane George, which I was here for, they put everyone in the Superdome and didn’t let them out for three days after the hurricane didn’t hit. They only served the people hot dogs and Kool-Aid. In New Orleans, that’s a culinary sin. So people rioted. When they left, they took every computer cable, every door handle, every seat they could lay their hands on. Most people in New Orleans know you don’t want to be part of a scene like that.
That night I heard the sound of crashing glass, and suspected things were being looted. I considered how much food and water I really did have, and how long I could stay. But I really wasn’t convinced yet that I wanted to leave.
Wednesday morning, I woke up and found that the water had been turned off. That pretty much almost did it for me, because we learn two things growing up here: one, you never buy a dead crab, and second, you never drink the tap water after a hurricane. WWYL, the only working radio station, said the reason the Mayor gave was that the water wasn’t drinkable. I knew it wasn’t drinkable, but it was the only thing that kept us surviving here. Without that, we couldn’t use the toilets, we couldn’t take showers, we couldn’t cook. So that really made me mad.
When I walked around the French Quarter; it looked like the day after Mardi Gras. There was a lot of trash. People walking around. Very few cars. Nothing was open. There were already police helicopters flying overhead.
Claudia and JosÈ came back. They said looting was starting in their neighborhood, that kids from the projects were riding around with guns, and that the streets were becoming chaotic and violent. They were the only hold-outs in their block and wanted to stay with me because they were afraid. I said, yeah, come stay with me. Then Claudia said something strange: “Well, um, we can’t use the toilets, so we’ll have to go in the courtyard.” I said, “I don’t know about that. Let me have a cup of coffee and think about this.” Then she said, “We can’t drink coffee because that will make us have to go to the bathroom.” I put my foot down. “First of all, I’m not going to shit in the courtyard,” I said. “Second of all, I’m not going to skip my coffee in the morning.”
Then my neighbor Tedde asked me something I’ll never forget. She said, “I hate to mention this, but what are we gonna to do with Kip’s body when he dies?” I thought about that. You can’t call the morgue. You can’t call the hospital. 911 isn’t working. So at that moment things came together—no water, being told I couldn’t drink coffee, and the thought of Kip dying, right here in the courtyard. I said, “Maybe we should evacuate.”
I was calling people saying, “I think we might eventually want to leave, can you come get us?” No, they couldn’t come get us. The National Guard and State Police were not allowing anyone into the city. And they were also not allowing anyone out of the city. It was a very crazy situation.
Someone told me that there might be buses leaving from the Monteleone Hotel. JosÈ and I walked down Royal Street, asking various policemen along the way if they knew if there were any buses. They said, “You have to go to the Superdome, buses are leaving from there.” I didn’t believe them, but I’m always polite to the police. I said, “Thank you, officer.” And just walked on. Stupid cops.
We finally get to the Monteleone at 5:00pm. Sure enough, they had chartered ten buses. They put up $25,000 dollars to hire private buses take out their guests and other Quarter residents. They were selling tickets for $45 each. So we ran back here. I found Kip and said, “Pack! You’re coming.” We had exactly fifteen minutes.
We got there for 6:00pm. We each bought a ticket, which were these little red Admit One tickets you get at the circus. The day was dying and five hundred people milled around in the Monteleone Hotel. It was like Hotel Rwanda, you know that scene when they’re in the lobby of that hotel waiting for the buses to come to take them out? Exactly like that. So we went inside and waited. The hotel clerk was Austrian, and she told me: “Der buzes vill be here at six o’clock sharp.” I doubted it.
By seven o’clock, of course, the buses still weren’t there.
There was a tearful scene outside: two women arrived in wheelchairs being pushed by a third woman. All three of them were elderly and they didn’t have tickets. They were told they couldn’t get on the bus. The entire scene was illuminated by the headlights of one squad car. All the while we were protected by these sixteen-year-old black kids wearing New Orleans police T-shirts with assault rifles thrown over their shoulders.
The most bizarre thing I saw—maybe I’ve ever seen—was in the middle of this, a tractor came pulling a flatbed behind it, on which was seated an obscenely obese man. I mean, he took up the entire flatbed of the truck. He was bearded, and at first I thought it was Paul Prudhomme, but it wasn’t. He was going to get on the bus. The floodlights of the police car were illuminating this tractor, and then like a Mardi Gras float came this obscenely obese man who couldn’t walk.
So we’re talking, we’re waiting. About ten o’clock at night, two headlights appeared down Royal Street, and we all broke into applause: the buses are here, the buses are here. It was one Jefferson Parish school bus. And that Jefferson Parish school bus wasn’t one of the chartered buses. What the drivers told those of us standing near where it parked was that the buses weren’t coming, that they’d been confiscated by the State Police. But this bus was offering passage to Baton Rouge for $100 a seat.
Allen Toussaint was there, and I asked him, “Allen! How did you find out about this?” He kind of smiled, as if to say, uh, we shouldn’t talk about these things. He was staying at the hotel because his house had been flooded, and he was trying to get to any airport that would take him to New York. I had my doubts about this school bus, because I heard that buses were being hijacked by looters or confiscated by the police. If the police had confiscated these other ten buses, why wouldn’t they confiscate this bus? We’d wind up at the Superdome and be out of our money. Then I saw Allen get on. I thought, well, this bus must be going somewhere.
All the seats were taken, and everyone seated on the bus were middle-class black people, probably tourists staying in the hotel. There were a couple of hip-hop kids with their parents, but their hip-hop gear was like five-hundred dollar, brand-name items. These weren’t poor people. We sat on the floor in the wheelchair access section. We’d bargained them down—wound up paying $175 for the four of us.
The driver of the school bus was a short fat Cajun man in white Bermuda shorts. His partner was a barefoot black guy. I asked them about the bus. This is the story they told me: they’d been following the ten chartered buses—I guess they were Gray Line—when they were confiscated by the police. The police said: “Follow these buses! We’re confiscating these eleven buses!” So at the first intersection, being New Orleanians, they took a right and skedaddled. They thought, well, all these people at the Monteleone Hotel are waiting to pay money to get out of here. So they came to scalp their services.
The atmosphere on the bus? Total silence. We were all praying. Yeah, I was praying, because I was very dubious of this bus. I didn’t think they were criminals—after all, to live outside the law, you must be honest—and I knew they were honest thieves. They were just pirates. But like the Battle of New Orleans, the pirates did better than the soldiers. I really don’t blame them. I was thankful that they did it because the authorities weren’t doing anything. And the city was just descending into chaos. There were no preparations—the only thing anyone ever told me was to go to the Convention Center or the Superdome.
I was mostly concerned with the police and their irrational orders. It was the Wild Wild West: anything could have happened. I knew that I might have to bribe some people. I carried about three or four hundred dollars, which I usually don’t carry. That was enough to buy my ticket at the Monteleone, and then to pay sixty dollars to sit in the wheelchair access section of the pirated school bus. I knew I’d be spending some money to get out.
As we drove to Baton Rouge, there were no lights on the Crescent City connection. We were the only vehicle on that completely dry road. On Wednesday evening. Two days after the hurricane. That entire highway should have been filled with school buses. Unbelievable.
When we got to Baton Rouge, Kip bought a ticket to Oklahoma City. He took a flight out the next morning, and got his dialysis done the next day, so he’s alive and well. However, he can’t come back to New Orleans. There are no dialysis machines in this entire city.
We stayed at Andrei Codrescu’s house. I immediately got the commission to write the piece for The Washington Post, and was grateful for that, because I had something to focus on. I sat there shirtless on Andrei’s porch, in a pair of shorts, writing for a day. That completely cleared my head. The rest of the time I cooked. When I got to Andrei’s there were ten people with ten laptops and ten cell phones and nobody was getting together. There were Laura’s two sons—and their girlfriends and friends—and then Jose and Claudia and I, and Andrei and his wife Laura, and Jeb Horn from The Times-Picayune, so I just decided to start cooking and sit everybody down to civilized meals. What did we have? Boiled shrimp one night, pad thai and potstickers another, and asparagus and chicken in oyster sauce another night.
I went to St.Petersburg, Florida, to visit David Wise, a close college friend of mine who has been diagnosed with cancer. I wanted to see him anyway, so I went there to be with him for three weeks. Then I came back here and went through the entire cleaning out of my refrigerator. Then, by a lucky coincidence, I was invited to Spain by Fundacio La Caixa in Barcelona to speak on Jaime Gil de Biedma, a great Spanish poet I translated for City Lights Books. And for a few weeks, at least, I could forget about Katrina.
The Returning Evacuee Experience
I came back before we were officially invited back. I said if the lights are on, I’m going home.
I barely recognized New Orleans. The city seemed like an ancient ghost town. I couldn’t believe how empty and desolate it felt.
I came home, and at first the lights didn’t work. I didn’t know how to turn on the master switch. I thought I came back for nothing. I tried to call Entergy and, of course, I got the recording that said: “For English, press one.” Finally, I found the master switch.
The defining moment in any evacuee’s return was opening the refrigerator. It was filled with live, wriggling maggots. I turned the freezer on high and froze the little fuckers. Then I cleaned out their corpses. How did I clean the refrigerator? I used a mixture of diluted bleach and vinegar. I put opened boxes of bicarbonate of soda in the refrigerator, which absorbed the smell. Within three or four days, it was fine. When I first came back to New Orleans, I recognized this sickly sweet smell of decay. I didn’t know exactly what it was until I opened the refrigerator. Then I realized it was the smell from the refrigerators lining the streets.
The National Guard was everywhere. Everywhere. I really resented that. There hadn’t been a murder in New Orleans since the day before the hurricane, which is saying something. There was no reason for the continued military presence. But everywhere I went, there were roadblocks saying you can’t go in this neighborhood, you can’t go into that neighborhood. My favorite story is of this matronly woman with perfectly done blue hair who wanted to go see her home in Lake Vista. Armed National Guardsmen were blocking her car, telling her that for her own safety, she couldn’t go into her neighborhood. Finally she just gunned the car and screamed back: “So shoot me!”
My life, which used to be, let’s say, three feet wide, is now two inches wide. There are so many things I can’t do. There’s no public transportation, and I don’t drive. My health club is closed so I can’t swim. The mail isn’t being delivered, which is particularly hard for writers. I haven’t received any of the magazines I subscribe to since August. The only movie house in town is closed.
And it’s very difficult to buy things now. It’s like living in Havana, and having to make shopping trips to Miami. I had my Christmas tree tinsel imported from the suburbs because it’s simply not sold in New Orleans—I can’t find it. Little things. You go to store and there’s no milk. You’re constantly spending lots of energy and time just doing basic survival things. I’m not sure that’s what I want to do at this moment in my life.
We in New Orleans have a third-world mentality. A Spanish doctor told me that in Barcelona, when there’s a fire, the Spaniards stay in the building and wait for the firemen to save them while the Moroccans and Latin Americans jump out the windows. This, he said, is a distinguishing third-world characteristic. I said New Orleanians are therefore third-world, because we have no faith in the government to save us. That’s why you saw so many people doing extraordinary things, like borrowing boats, in quotation marks, to go rescue people from rooftops. Or, commandeering school buses.
The authorities in New Orleans have always been so inefficient. Patronage, corruption, poor education, hot weather. But the people are very independent and resilient here, and they usually figure out things themselves. If we’d been left to our own devices, and not forced out, we would have done much better than what happened.
I’m angry that they cut off the water. The water wasn’t potable, I know that, but we could have survived here for many, many days with running water. Why do I think they did that? I think as of Wednesday, there was a sea change. The Mayor said on Wednesday—I was listening to him on the radio—that “we’ve got too many chiefs and not enough Indians.” I think what happened on Wednesday was that FEMA finally tried to take over from Washington. FEMA is now part of Homeland Security. Homeland Security’s been complaining since 9-11 that they don’t have a plan in action to evacuate an American city in case of a bio-chemical terrorist attack. Homeland Security decided to practice on New Orleans, to drive everyone out of here. This is the first time in the history of the world that a major city has ever been emptied, at gunpoint, of all its citizens. They were creating a no-man’s land and, to a large extent, it still is.
Many things made me suspect this. This was not the first time the military’s practiced on us. A year ago, between January 21st and February 17th, there were Marine maneuvers in urban warfare here. Marine choppers flew so close over our homes that they set up a separate hotline for people to complain about structural damage. A convoy of armed trucks came into the Bywater area, announcing over loudspeakers: “We’re friends of the Iraqi people. Stay in your homes.” In English, of course. This was just before Mardi Gras, and we didn’t know if they were making a movie, or if Mardi Gras was starting early, or the Mayor had declared war on Washington. I was complaining constantly to the Military Commander. Later I heard an official say on the radio that the Marines picked New Orleans because “it’s our most foreign city.”
They wanted the whole city empty, even dry areas, like the French Quarter, Uptown, the Marigny, the CBD, where people were happy to stay. Molly’s had opened—Molly’s as selling ice—and if we had stayed, and formed a civic presence, the city would have recovered much more quickly. That’s what we’re used to doing. And yet soldiers were going around in Humvees, pointing guns at people. Making them leave their houses. The most tragic case was of an 87year-old woman who was living in the house she was born in. She had never left New Orleans in her life. She didn’t know anybody elsewhere. And they were forcing her out at gunpoint. She said, “I have food. I have water. I have candles. I’m happy to stay here.” So this absolutely irrational attempt to empty the city of everybody was what devastated New Orleans. It wasn’t really the flooding, or the hurricane. It was the one month of sending everyone out of this city. People put their kids in school elsewhere. They bought houses elsewhere. They started jobs elsewhere. Being forced at gunpoint was such a traumatic experience for many people that they’ve decided they never want to go through that again.
Up until two or three weeks ago, the National Guard controlled the city. One horrible example I have is when my friend Maggie first got back. She called up all of her friends and they decided to meet at Muriel’s, a restaurant at the corner or Jackson Square. They were glad to see each other—table hopping and kissing, then sitting down to eat. Suddenly a Humvee pulled up with four National Guardsmen. They walked into the restaurant armed with M-16s, then stationed themselves in sentry positions along the four walls of the restaurant. And just stood there. Well, of course, the restaurant went silent. People didn’t know what to think, what to say. Then twenty minutes later, the soldiers left. Now what was the point of that? What was the point of a military presence through December? It makes no sense to anybody. This was a humanitarian crisis, but why a military response? Instead of immediately sending in food, water, medical attention, and buses, they sent in soldiers. I call it Plan Baghdad. As if the government can only respond in one way, whether in Baghdad or New Orleans: Halliburton, Blackwater, and the National Guard.
A Necessary Pruning
What was New Orleans like before the hurricane? The murder rate was up to 430 by August 25th. Compare that to 70 murders in Manhattan. The city was spinning out of control. Guns, drugs, violence, and just total incompetence. The public schools had just absolutely collapsed. To the point where the state had brought in an independent auditing firm from New York that said that the schools had been an open candy jar for twenty, twenty-five years. The schools were such a violent mess where girls were raped in the bathrooms and boys were machine-gunned during general assemblies. The public schools, or course, are the measure of the future of a city.
This summer I was in Spain doing my book promotion. But when I returned home, I found out that a good friend of mine had been murdered in a demented love triangle. It involved strip clubs on Bourbon Street, a world like that. After Lark was murdered, I just wanted to go on Canal Street and scream New Orleans stop! Just stop!
That’s what Katrina did. So in some sense, like my friend Joanna says, it’s a necessary pruning. You’ll notice a lot of fallen limbs on the ground from live oaks that have been standing for three or four hundred years. These trees have been pruned by worse hurricanes, a lot of dead wood has been lost over the centuries, and that’s why they’re still standing. Now we have the opportunity to rethink who we are, where we’re from, and where we’re going.
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