RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: New Orleans uses Katrina, which did not win out over the tough city

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson

NEW ORLEANS – A poster of the Neville Brothers is on the apartment wall. In the courtyard, asparagus ferns threaten to take over the world. Johnny’s Poboys serves eggs on French bread halves the size of kayaks. A jazz band called the Loose Marbles plays its socks off on Frenchmen Street.
New Orleans is New Orleans. Still.
I’ve known people who were like this city. Folks whose bad luck did not change them essentially, who handled death, disaster, loss and devastation with aplomb. They did not fold, but incorporated dense layers of life and loss into their faces and character.
That’s how it is here. Different, but the same.
Hurricane Katrina is the way this old town tells time now – Before Katrina, After Katrina – and the way politicians are measured. The storm is also the grist for art and literature and photographic exhibits at the history museum. It’s the new high-water mark to clear for those hurdling through life with innocence of heart and joie de vivre.
The point is, Katrina is used. It has not won out over this Rocky Balboa of a place. Not completely. Not forever.
So much has been written about population loss, property loss, demographic shifts. And all of that, of course, is part of the story.
The bigger story, or so it seems, is the spirit. Alive and kicking. Tired exuberance, if there’s such a thing. All of us still need New Orleans for the food, beauty, culture and an endless and admirable example of alternative approaches to living life. I’m here for my fix.
The New Orleans Museum of Art closed its doors for six months after the storm and laid off 85 percent of its employees. NOMA’s insurance company hired a security firm using New York police to keep watch. That sad hiatus is captured in a Richard Misrach photograph of a cop behind binoculars, manning the docent’s seat.
The museum touts its temporary exhibit of Katrina graffiti photos as a “Lascaux Cave” experience. Misrach’s shots are as empty of people as the streets were after the storm. Frustration literally was painted on the walls of abandoned houses, destroyed businesses, crumpled cars. Yet, as you follow the sequential line of photos, you sense that a grim good humor, despite all, began to resurface hours after the worst that could happen happened. The sad, sad photos are infused with resolve and hope.
“Please remove your car from the boat without crushing it. Boat owner.” (A hand-painted sign propped next to a car landed atop a skiff, mating style.)
“Dogs. We have animals. Not leaving.”
“Don’t Try. I am sleeping inside with a big dog, an ugly woman, two shotguns and a claw hammer.”
“Yep, Brownie. You did a heck of a job.”
“Yard Sale.” (Written on a pine tree that’s blown across a home’s roof.)
“Isaiah 26:3.” (Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee.)

Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a syndicated columnist who lives in the Iuka vicinity. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38854.