“We’re all expats here, they just let us keep our American passports,” Bill says steadying himself against the table at Mimi’s. Bill, like almost half the people I run into in New Orleans, is from Brooklyn. Unlike most of the New York expats though, he came here before Katrina. Katrina is the B.C./ A.D. in New Orleans, any statement people make is qualified by its relationship to the hurricane.
I know little about “Pre-K” New Orleans, I had always imagined lots of Girls Gone Wild-type stuff: coeds in crooked tube tops surrounded by beer-soaked frat boys. Like many people that are here now, New Orleans didn’t interest me all that much until it was hit by a hurricane — after which government neglect (and/or ineptitude) led to a total breakdown in society. But I wanted to see for myself what it was like, beyond all the cable news sensationalism and sentimentality. So here I am.
This city is like New York in that most people aren’t actually from here. They move here. And though, superficially, New York and New Orleans don’t have much in common, it seems to attract the same people. You can go into any bar on Frenchman Street and there will be at least one cluster of New Yorkers, almost always hipsters from Brooklyn. And most will say they are just visiting, but it’s always very open-ended. “I thought I was only coming down for spring break to gut houses with Common Ground [an anarchist volunteer group] and then suddenly I’m living with a local family, I own a dog, and I’m dating a middle-aged painter with a pickup truck,” a girl sitting next to me at Mimi’s mutters into her drink. But New Orleans has always been known for being that kind of vacuum. It seems like nobody who comes here has any intention of staying.
The people here from New York fall into three categories, though most of them overlap. There are the activists, the artists, and the layabouts.
The activists have obvious reasons for being here — the potential for something better to come out of this wreckage, idealists constantly talking about phoenixes rising. Not all of them are necessarily starry eyed; some saw it as a personal opportunity. Jacob, who came down with Red Cross, “anticipated hero status,” but quickly realized that being “in a big Red Cross vehicle, and doing organizational ‘good work’” allowed him access into the kind of private and isolated communities where members were known to pull shotguns on outsiders. “In October, I was the only northeasterner — or fancy-college type, for that matter — who I met. Whereas by December, I’ve met all sorts of jerks: Georgetown, Harvard… It’s becoming the new Fort Green south.” Mark, from Clinton Hill, who came down in October to get away from his paralegal job tracking down fake-Rolex manufacturers, also saw an opportunity in New Orleans. He was “appalled by the way the government handled the disaster” and started a relief kitchen in an Off Track Betting parking lot in St. Bernard Parish. “In the evenings, I sit in my office — a blue tent in the middle of a fucking swamp — and drink beer with other volunteers. Two nights a week I go down to the French Quarter and get smashed.”
Then there are documentarians — there are more people making documentaries here than you can imagine — mostly shooting footage of wrecked houses out of car windows. A group of dreadlocked guys from South Slope, living in a van down the street from Café Flora, are down here working on a film about “corruption.” “It’s like money is their God,” one of them shouted over Model T at d.b.a.; he had to repeat it at least three times before I could hear him, and by that point even he felt silly.
Then, there is the whole class of New Yorkers who don’t even bother with the pretense of being helpful in order to justify being here. There are the Proust-reading layabouts from Williamsburg who take odd roofing jobs here and there to buy dime bags and vintage bicycles. “I was on the phone with my friend and he starts reading an article from the New York Times, about how people are making $25-$30 an hour and that’s why I came,” one of them tells me, fishing around in his pocket for a lighter — but it seems like a stock answer. Cheap rent, nice weather and a fast buck might be nice, but they aren’t the only reasons people come here. But for those who have chosen to live outside the grind, to witness a moment in history, it’s very hard to articulate their reasons for being here without sounding like ambulance chasers. It’s not merely gawking at a train wreck, it’s an honest quest to understand something. Moments of crisis, not unlike the Blackout of 2003 or the Transit Strike of 2005, offer brief windows into the breakdown of a machine, and most people would be lying if they said they didn’t find those moments exciting.
Understandably, people who actually live here are not thrilled. “It’s just sick the way all these people came here after the storm, to be part of some movement,” says a woman in Café Flora. People’s houses have transformed into cinematic symbols of anarchy and danger newcomers with nothing to lose. Wandering deserted streets, rubble shrouded in fog, there is a timelessness and relief in a vague dread being confirmed.
Sitting on a moldy couch in the hallway of a semi-gutted building, stray dogs barking in the distance, a guy from Williamsburg is telling us that he has no idea why he came down, but that it feels important, for some reason that he be here right now. The power flickers off, which it seems to do regularly at this hour of the night, and there’s a strong feeling that we’re like draft dodgers, watching Tarkovsky films and biking through devastated areas collecting other people’s soggy photographs.