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Normal in the Big Easy 

What's the future of the 30 percent of New Orleanians who lived in poverty?

NEW ORLEANS--The waiter pours an inch of Blackstone Napa Merlot into a plastic cup and offers it to me. I swish it around. "Very good."

We've landed here at Vincent's, an old-line Italian restaurant where Dean Martin plays on the jukebox. The doors open to the rumble of the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, when it's up and running. Tonight, the avenue is dark in sections, and the sidewalks are lined with duct-tape-wrapped refrigerators. Vincent's is the only Uptown restaurant open for business. It's an hour before the 8 p.m. curfew, but there's still a long wait for a table.

The waiter is complaining about how he fumbles around with these plastic cups. He just can't wait for the return of wine glasses. The pasta is served on paper plates, with white plastic forks and knives carefully placed beside them, all arranged across a red tablecloth. The Italian sausage is recommended--just got it from Dorignac's Food Center in Metairie this morning. The ice is from Metairie, too. Don't worry; the water is bottled.

It's all so normal that a friend asks for his salad dressing on the side. The waiter talks him out of it. Right now, he says politely, it's a little hard to fulfill all requests. This waiter lost his house a month ago, but he doesn't tell me this until later, after the meal. He's not a complainer.

It's getting cooler outside. The season is turning. Down Tchoupitoulas Street, the Winn-Dixie supermarket's produce section displays a single row of pumpkins. CC's Coffee House on Magazine Street is still shuttered, but patrons bring their own coffee and sit outside with laptops, tapping into the working wi-fi to check e-mails.

I stop into City Hall to witness a school board meeting. Everything is fracturing into charter schools. Nobody really knows how the funding mechanism will operate for next year. But a revised academic calendar for 2005-2006 already includes two days off for Mardi Gras.

New Orleans is no longer a militarized wasteland--at least, not all of it. You learn to cross off areas in your mental map: the Lower Ninth Ward, the housing projects, parts of Mid-City, New Orleans East, Lakeview, Chalmette, St. Bernard. But Uptown, there are blocks and blocks of standing houses. A man jogs in Audubon Park. A neighbor is out walking her Yorkshire terrier past my still-boarded house.

It's all getting so normal.

We linger in Vincent's. When we finally make our way out, we pass Hank Staples, the owner of the Maple Leaf Bar, one of the city's best music clubs. He's starting to have live bands every night. He makes a joke about other club owners, says they can kiss his ass. As for him, he's opening up. By Saturday, the Leaf will be as crowded as it is on any good weekend night during Jazz Fest.

A few bar stools away from Hank, a well-dressed woman drinks a bottle of beer and sobs to herself. Nobody pays her much attention. The thing is, everybody's messed up. We all know this. It's normal.

red Johnson is a founder of the Black Men of Labor, a social aid and pleasure club. It's one of many city clubs that sponsor second-line parades, a New Orleans tradition in which club members dress in colorful tuxedos, carry decorated umbrellas, strut to brass bands and carry on with great pride across mostly black neighborhoods in the city.

It takes a lot to get ready for a parade. The weekend of the hurricane, the Black Men of Labor were at Sweet Lorraine's jazz club on St. Claude Avenue, preparing their umbrellas and banner. The TV news played in the background, but nobody paid it much attention.

Fred had sent his family out of town on what he expected to be just another evacuation. He woke up on Sunday morning and did a 10-mile run. Then he called a Black Men of Labor member who served as head of security at the Hyatt hotel, located behind the Superdome. A few of them went to the hotel to ride out the storm. In the middle of the night, they were directed to the fourth floor, where they stayed for the next 48 hours.

At one point, Mayor Ray Nagin walked by the group.

"How are you doing, Mr. Mayor?"

"Let's get ready for phase two," Nagin said.

"What is phase two?"

"There's a breach in the 17th Street Canal."

The following days all rush together in Fred's mind. But for the Black Men of Labor, the new project became evacuating the tens of thousands in the Superdome. Flooding around the Superdome meant the crowd would be brought through the New Orleans Centre shopping mall. The National Guardsmen lined up to become a human corridor. The buses lined up to receive the evacuees. Fred and the Black Men of Labor lined up to hand out bottles of water. The dome's doors opened.

Fred thought he knew the city very well. It was his home. But he can't forget what he saw that day.

"I got to tell you, man. I just cried and I cried and I cried," Fred says. "I've been working for years to teach and train first-time homeowners. I knew we had poverty issues. But those folks started coming out of there, those old people, those children, people covered in urine, defecation, blood."

In the days that followed, club members worked search and rescue. They'd spend days convincing a single resident to leave. "If you don't leave here, you're going to die here," they'd say. "If you continue to piss and shit where you are pissing and shitting, you are going to die here."

"We had to break it down to them," Fred says.

Parade day passed. The Black Men of Labor stayed in the city for 22 days. Ever since then, he still thinks about what he saw.

"In my opinion, what was in that Superdome was more poverty than any of us knew," Fred says. "We had all the demographics; we had all the information. But we never did anything. It kept getting deferred."

How bad was poverty in New Orleans? According to U.S. Census data compiled by The Greater New Orleans Community Data Center (www.gnocdc.org), nearly 30 percent of my city lived in poverty, compared to 12.4 percent in the United States. Forty-three percent of kids who are roughly the age of my son--5 years old or younger--lived in poverty. That's more than twice the national average.

Those kids aren't in New Orleans anymore. Some of them aren't coming back. Their ultimate destination is the topic of much debate these days.

The week after the storm, when Barbara Bush toured Houston's Astrodome, the former first lady infamously stated that the evacuation is "working very well" for kids who were "underprivileged anyway." She was deservedly criticized. These kids are suffering trauma. They feared for their lives. But in my city of New Orleans, that was normal--even before the hurricane.

A friend who works as an attorney for some of the city's worse-off residents admits that if, before any hurricane, the government had decided to offer $2,000 to families to get out of New Orleans and make a new start, he'd have advised some of his clients to take the money.

There's much talk of Katrina as a cleansing agent that flushed poverty out of New Orleans. Let the poor wash away to cities better equipped to help them. Let them clog the unemployment lines and homeless shelters elsewhere. Some of these voices have a sinister ring to them. James Reiss, a wealthy New Orleanian and a member of Mayor Ray Nagin's 17-member Bring Back New Orleans commission, told The Wall Street Journal, "Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically. I'm not just speaking for myself here. The way we've been living is not going to happen again, or we're out."

Fred Johnson hears the talk about Katrina as a purifier. He hears theories everywhere he goes. Some of his friends are scared to death that they will be excluded from the new New Orleans, he says. Not him. "I helped build the city," he says. "I'm 52 years old. I'm not going to succumb to that fear. I intend to be working here."

Fred says that instead of a cleansing agent, we should think of post-Katrina New Orleans as a classroom. He says that for too long, things had gotten too bad. Now, we've all seen the people pouring out of the Superdome. This is our national test. We must fix New Orleans in New Orleans.

He says he's also been thinking about Emmett Till's mother, who helped galvanize the civil rights movement when she decided to open the casket so the world could see how her son had been beaten and killed by racists. "She said, 'If I have to see it, they have to see it.' That's what I say about New Orleans."

The morning before I dined at Vincent's, I met a man who turned out to be the Big Chief of a Mardi Gras Indian gang. He put down his cell phone to show me the back of a house that his brother had remodeled. He pointed out the door where the members of his gang emerge each Carnival Day, resplendent in feathers and beads. He talked about past years and past costumes. Nearby, a section of backyard grass was matted and brown. A dirty blue cap lay nearby. That's where a body was found. Someone named Max. Flies and mosquitoes swarmed around us.

If you visit The Times-Picayune's Web site and go back into the archive a few weeks, the prose disintegrates in front of you. Articles about Mayor Ray Nagin's plan to build a new city of casinos recede in an onslaught of raw and conflicting personal accounts of water and death. It's all there, lying just under the surface in a city that's struggling to become normal.

I walked through the Lower Ninth Ward last week. As far as the eye can see, it's blasted homes, caked mud, overturned cars. My press pass got me in. Residents still aren't allowed to see it for themselves.

I also walked through a new park of trailer homes north of Baton Rouge. Planners say that people will be living there for the next 18 months. Tiny, wheeled homes on blocks stretch out over a gravel field in all directions. New occupants are walking around, trying in vain to distinguish one home from the other.

I turned to a housing advocate who is organizing residents. "I'm trying to imagine living here for a year-and-a-half," I say. "So are they," she says.

On Sunday, Oct. 9, the city of New Orleans had its first of what is sure to be many jazz funerals. A second-line honored chef Austin Leslie, who died of a heart attack in Atlanta during the evacuation. The Hot 8 Brass Band played, and a few members of the Black Men of Labor danced. But they were outnumbered by journalists from The New Yorker, The New York Times, CNN, CBS, The Associated Press and others in search of a symbol of regeneration. As the band passed, workers in hazmat suits stood on the sidewalk and stared.

I'm like all those other journalists. I'm looking for a sign, too. Something to tell me that we're going to pass the test. I haven't found it yet. Maybe it's too soon. Maybe we just need to start the rebuild without one.

More by Michael Tisserand

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    • Mar 9, 2006
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    • Feb 2, 2006
  • Leaving New Orleans

    As families decide to leave the Big Easy behind, those who are staying feel abandoned
    • Nov 10, 2005
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