The worst thing was riding in one of those Greyhound Scenicrusiers… Do
you remember that time I went to Baton Rouge in one of those? I vomited several
times. The driver had to stop the bus somewhere in the swamps to let me off
and walk around for a while. The other passengers were rather angry. They must
have had stomachs of iron to ride in that awful machine. Leaving New Orleans
also frightened me considerably. Outside of the heart of darkness, the true
—Ignatius Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces
On Saturday night and into Sunday morning before Katrina landed,
the hotel bar kept its shutters open and the libation flowing well after the
bartender’s shift had ended. All the televisions were tuned to the Weather Channel
and workers buttressed the hotel’s smoked-glass windows with sheets of plywood.
BAMM-BAMMM-BAMMM-BAMMM. Through the discord, I was telling a pal about the statue
of Jefferson Davis on Canal Street, and how it was covered in pigeon shit, and
none of the ghettoized disenfranchised seemed in any hurry to clean it up. News
reached the bar that a) rental cars were now nonexistent and b) the airlines
had canceled the remaining flights out of Louis Armstrong Airport and c) that
tourists, travelers and townsfolk were on their own. A besotted patron began
bellowing a truck-driving song with the lyric, “Roll truck roll/take me to baby/gotta’
get back, Donner Summit is closed.” The song ended with a refrain of “I’ll be
late getting home.” Between sips of her mint julep, some saucy siren at the
bar asked the tipsy troubadour where Donner Summit was and why it was closed.
Suddenly, the conversation became a drunken history lesson about cannibalism,
which became a grim metaphor for the dark turns humanity takes when it is trumped
by the awesome power of Nature.
At that point, Katrina was no longer a cable news abstraction — it had morphed
into a supercollider. Those who could not get out of town would be swimming
with the cottonmouths or tossed to the moon. I was among the fortunate. My travel
agent booked me on a bus leaving Sunday morning to the nearest airport out of
harm’s way, and one that had the ability to get a bird in the air to LAX, George
Bush Intercontinental in Houston, Texas.
I left New Orleans early Sunday. As I checked out of my hotel, I asked the clerk
when he planned on getting out. “Oh, we’re planning on staying. The hotel is
staying open, and I’ll be here until we decide to close.” I had a mental flash-forward
of pinwheeling shards of glass flying through the hotel lobby at 170 mph and
cutting bellhops in two. The clerk’s selflessness struck me as noble and yet
somehow misguided. Would this young man running my credit card even be alive
by the time the transaction found its way to my bank statement?
It was a 20-hour bus ride to Houston. Before we even got off Convention Center
Boulevard, it was clear as a clarinet that Ignatius was right: This was a ride
out of the heart of darkness and into the wasteland. We climbed onto Interstate
10 West somewhere between the Confederate Museum and the Superdome, and immediately
the road was pinched and gridlocked and pointless. Only half the interstate
was being used — and it wasn’t like there was any great demand to get into the
city at this point. Frustrated, our busman got off I-10 and double-clutched
down onto surface streets before making a right on Highway 61. There the exodus
ground to a halt again. Motors idled, and tailpipes puffed and nobody was going
The first 10 miles took six hours. The skies continued to darken over the Mississippi
River. The winds began to gust. We were stuck on the flip side of downtown’s
steel and smoked-glass Convention Center and Vegas-inspired mega-mall Riverwalk.
The windows offered a relentless montage of a Dickensian underclass, a panorama
of the doomed, the tableaux the Chamber of Commerce doesn’t want you to see:
strip malls strewn with broken glass; rusting automobiles and ramshackle liquor
stores stocked only with pork rinds, cigarettes and the cheap stuff. Poor people
lined the sidewalks. It was like a tracking shot from the dreariest of Russian
New Orleans is a complete two-class society, with the middle class having hot-lapped
out of there to tract homes on the north side of the Causeway before the masters
of chain-casino gaming could prop up a Harrah’s between the Convention Center
and Pat O’Briens. With the middle-class vacuum, the only jobs left are those
serving the tourists: restaurant and casino work, drug dealing and private security.
The industry is dressed up real pretty, and thrives because of the exotic crustaceans
endemic to Lake Pontchartrain. But serving crawfish étouffée in N’Awlins is
just a gussier version of supersizing a Big Mac.
When the same homeless guy passed our bus for the third time, I thought: Looting
is just a matter of time.
Once we passed the shuttered airport, our bus driver bailed on the interstates
and took parish highways through swamps, plantation country and sugar cane fields,
which allowed for a lengthy meditation on the duality of the South as well as
the imminent devastation. Thirty-six hours later, while my plane was stuck on
the tarmac in Houston, floodwaters began washing up the Confederate dead in
Mississippi, floating Civil War coffins over coastal highways.