Of Levees, Lagniappe and Lexington

Full disclosure: I am a New Orleanian. No matter where I live, or how long I live there, I will always call New Orleans home.  I know how to pronounce Tchoupitoulas, am still confused why bars don’t offer to-go cups and can make a roux with my eyes closed. 

I go to Domilise’s for my po-boys and the Spotted Cat for my jazz.  When I was a teenager, I used to sit on the Mississippi riverbank, elephants and monkeys waking up at the Audubon Zoo a few feet behind me, watching the barges and driftwood compete for current.

When I was a little girl, we’d go to the French Quarter to eat souffléd potatoes and grits and grillades.  When we walked into a restaurant, my mom always asked the waiter for an extra tablecloth to wrap around me because air conditioning is its own element in New Orleans. 

My best friend and I would sneak out and take the streetcar down to Jackson Square when it was a full moon and have our fortunes read at midnight.  We paid for it with our babysitting money.

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I never made a plan past what are we eating for dinner?  New Orleans doesn’t require a plan.  In fact, it’s probably best enjoyed without one – which is only a problem when a Hurricane is threatening to demolish the city.  And when the infrastructure  fails and the city marinates in its own filth, not having a plan is a catastrophe.  That is where we are today, 10 years later … picking up the pieces from that catastrophe. 

After Hurricane Katrina blew through the Gulf Coast, the levees burst and many thousands were left stranded, either literally or in limbo. 

The Superdome became a breeding ground for all things horrific, and it was valuable real estate. To give you some perspective, when the dome reached maximum occupancy, people were shuffled to the nearby Convention Center.  John Burnett, an NPR reporter was there, and gave this stark summary of the Government’s epic failure:

“They couldn’t send them to the Superdome, which was already overcrowded and squalid. Yet more and more people were emerging wet and bewildered from their flooded neighborhoods with nowhere to go. Officials later estimated that 25,000 people were huddled inside the vast convention center — the length of four city blocks — and on the sidewalk. Day after day they waited for buses, but no one came. The fiasco at the convention center came to epitomize the disorganized, inadequate response to the disaster by local, state and federal officials.”

The disaster Burnett described, playing out in a structure that only days prior had hosted Wheel of Fortune, is best understood through imagery.

Katrina was a trauma when it happened, and remains a lingering trauma today.

Walk into any bar on Frenchman Street now and you will hear the sultry, bluesy sounds of poets and showmen weaving the storm into their lyrics.

Like gumbo, Mardi Gras beads in the Oak trees, streetcars and potholes, Katrina has become a part of the fabric of the city.  It remains one of those divisive events that slices through a life, separating it into two categories: pre and post. 

It was a category 3 storm. The death toll was over 1800, making it the third deadliest Hurricane in history.  The third deadliest, yes … but it tops the list in cost: over $100 billion. These numbers do not take into account the many who had no choice but to flee the city, their lives forever altered.

Now, a decade later, the dislocated are hearing appeals to return, with promises of a new land.  Mayor Mitch Landrieu recently gave a speech in Houston and while he was thanking the Texas city for providing refuge for the displaced, he summed up a sentiment about the Big Easy that anyone whos spent time there can agree with:

“We don’t talk the way anybody else talks, we don’t dance the way anybody else dances. [Others] don’t eat the way we eat, they don’t hug the way we hug, and they don’t love the way we love. It’s just different. And it’s wonderful.”

Tens of thousands of New Orleanians escaped the storm. Most settled in Houston. Many have returned, but many others have relocated, resettled and are trying to move on with their lives.

Wayne Lewis is one of those people. He and his wife sought shelter in Austin, TX, Raleigh, NC and eventually landed in Lexington Ky, although he admits that he will always call New Orleans home.  Wayne is many things; a new father, a husband, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership Studies at the University of Kentucky, an education reformer, and a passionate musician – to name a few. 

We caught up with each other in a dimly lit bar in downtown Lexington.  Boisterous, serious and lit from within, Wayne immediately captured my attention.  Had I not known he was from New Orleans, I would’ve assumed as much, which is the best compliment I can think of. 

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Before we talked, he pulled out his saxophone and took a few requests from his captive audience. As the honey poured out from his golden horn, my feet instinctively started moving. Mayor Landrieu is right, we dance differently.  The sound that is created by a New Orleans jazz musician is raw, sweaty, alive and gets right on into your blood. In fact, it’s possible that the first note of When The Saints Go Marching In has an invisible thread tied to your big toe; making it impossible not to dance.

That was the scene in Willie’s Locally Known at 10:00am on a Tuesday morning in Kentucky: two New Orleanians lost in the music, talking about the lagniappe of our lives. 

Wayne is above all else, a man of faith.  When he looked back, he attributes his faith as the saving grace through it all.

“I remember the moment I realized we’d lost everything very clearly,” he said. “My wife and I had just gotten our first apartment in Raleigh. We went to the Walmart to shop and when we walked through the doors, we both looked at each other and, at the same time said … ‘we need everything.’”

I remember the moment I realized we’d lost everything very clearly,” he said. “My wife and I had just gotten our first apartment in Raleigh. We went to the Walmart to shop and when we walked through the doors, we both looked at each other and, at the same time said … ‘we need everything.’

Not some things … EVERY thing. 

“But you know what Lillie, we laughed about it,” he recalled.  “We laughed.  Not once throughout the whole thing did we feel hopeless.  It was just understood that God was going to take care of us.  And he did.”

He went on to tell me about how the storm changed his perspective about life in general. 

“When you lose everything and realize that you’re ok, that you’re still the man you were before, maybe even stronger … when you know that in your heart, then you can really see what living is all about.”

saxBWSo, what does living look like for Dr. Lewis these days? Well, for one thing, he plays his sax as often as he can, which admittedly, is not often enough. 

Currently, he plays in a band called The City. One of their songs, The Levee, composed by lead vocalist/guitarist Gene Woods and featuring a solo by Wayne, is a message of solidarity with those left behind in Katrina’s awful aftermath. The song is haunting in its contradiction and counterpoint: a traditional, upbeat N’awlins second line rhythm that defiantly marches the barely concealed pain and heartbreak of abandonment through the sodden streets of the Lower Ninth Ward, past a preacher shouting from atop the ruins: “Hold the line! Don’t you succumb! You gotta find the will. To carry on.”  Sad and honest, mysterious and revealing; it tells the tale of New Orleans after the levees broke. 

Like Wayne, like New Orleans, like many of us, the profound injustice and sadness is disguised behind a facade of determined joy.

The Levee is an appropriately sad song.  Katrina caused immeasurable sadness in the souls of many. She wreaked havoc on the bayous and flooded the streets with hate and anger. 

But in the end, The Levee is a song … because that’s what New Orleanians do. We deal with the heartbreak by making beats, beans and boudin.  We dance when we’re up, we dance when we’re down.  We let the music explain us and guide us.  It guides us to the food most of the time, where we are the happiest, eating lunch and talking about dinner.

What can you do to help New Orleans today?

Go there. Experience it for yourself.  Eat.  Dance.  Fall in love and spend your money on an experience that will change you forever.  Feel alive. Feel it all.  Let your sunglasses fog up when you walk outside and embrace it as the city’s way of crying for you. Cry on your own.  The river will take it.  In the words of Rebirth Brass Band, just “Do whacha wanna do …” and Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler.

If you need recommendations (which you don’t btw), Wayne Lewis is happy to give them to you.

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