Random Play by Graham Reid

Drinkin' Muddy Water

Here is a piece I wrote recently. I offered it to the Herald but haven't heard back. It may have dated a little but . . .

The first time I went to New Orleans I stayed in a small hotel a couple of blocks north of the French Quarter.

After I had checked in the gentleman at the desk with a French surname and a treacle-slow southern accent gave me some advice which I guessed he offered all his guests: “When you leave the hotel, sir, be sure to always turn to your left. That will take you to Bourbon Street and the French Quarter. You don’t want to turn right, that can be a dangerous area -- even by day.”

So after I had showered and unpacked, I went downstairs -- and turned right.

Within half a block it was as if the colour had been drained out the world. On the footpath outside 7-11s and liquor stores were the broken and abused, some holding out containers for spare change, some just sleeping on the ground. Further on I could see the graffiti-covered apartments with their broken windows and abandoned vehicles.

I swear the temperature dropped a few degrees. I turned on my heel and made my way back to the relative safety of the clubs, bars and restaurants in the crowded French Quarter.

I say relative safety because at regular points in side-roads off Bourbon Street were signs warning of the potential for being robbed if you strayed down them.

New Orleans struck me then, as it has on subsequent visits, as a pretty dangerous place. So the lawlessness in the wake of Hurricane Katrina came as no surprise.

One third of people in New Orleans -- a city with a population about that of Auckland -- live below the poverty line. Crime is endemic, drugs a serious problem, homelessness a way of life for many. Many are condemned to generational poverty.

So when the flooding came and some took to looting, grabbing guns and generally spinning out because they couldn’t make a connection with their dealer I was reminded of what Bob Dylan once sang: “When you ain’t got nothing’ you got nothing to lose.”

A significant portion of those who couldn’t or wouldn’t leave New Orleans had nothing to lose.

The comments now about New Orleans now being like some Third World dump in a First World economy could just have easily applied to some sections of this wonderful city two weeks, two months and 20 years ago.

But people don’t go to New Orleans to deal with that.

They go to party along Bourbon Street, buy beads and beer, dance in clubs to blues and cajun bands (it is getting harder to hear decent jazz), and generally take advantage of a town where morality takes a sabbatical for the duration of your stay. Especially if you are a white, northern college students down for a few days.

The first time I went was to go to the famous New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival held at the fairground just a short bus-ride from the t-shirt shops and open bars on Bourbon Street.

It was everything I had hoped for -- music by Dr John, gospel choirs, the great Irma Thomas -- and more. The “more” however was torrential rain which arrived on second morning and which had, by lunchtime, reduced the festival site to knee-deep mud in front of the stages.

I took photographs of the lakes growing before my eyes.

And that was because in New Orleans, a city below sea level, water has nowhere to go. It just sits.

In this city of cemeteries dating back centuries the graves are constructed above the ground, because flooding lifts buried bodies. God knows what is coming up out of the ground right now.

Floods have been common in southern Louisiana: Bessie Smith sentimentalised them in Muddy Water, and Blind Lemon Jefferson wrote Rising High Water Blues about the devesting floods of 1927.

More recently Randy Newman wrote of them and the chorus of his song, about political indifference from Washington, was, “Louisiana, they’re tryin’ to wash us away . . .“

There were floods in 1993 and 95. But nothing like what has happened this past week.

As the rescue operation finally starts to swing in the questions are being asked why there was such a delay.

Among those for whom poverty is a way of life you know what they will be saying: it is because we are poor, because we are black, because we are southern.

They will say, and they would be right, that it was always this way.

The social divide in parts of the south can be shocking. Drive just minutes from the business centre of many major cities and you will see it. It is there in the small towns and subsistence farms.

And it was always there in New Orleans, that magical city in which once free blacks owned slaves, and where a former mayor prepared a place for Napoleon to stay after he would be rescued from St Helena.

Now Americans and international tourists to New Orleans are having to confront an uncomfortable truth about this marvellous city, the voodoo queen which gave the world jazz and its own brand of funk. It is a unique crucible of the arts, food and culture. It proudly sang while other cities spoke in a hushed voice, it bragged and seduced with its architecture, literature, gambling, nightlife, and the evocative pull of the powerful Mississippi River.

But that was then . .

The other night I heard the desperate voice of an unnamed police officer talking to CNN. It was a few days after the hurricane hit when lawlessness was at a peak and the extend of the damage was becoming apparent.

He looked at his hometown drowned in the flood and sobbed, “it’s gone, it’s gone.”

He may be right but -- flawed and socially divided as New Orleans is -- every part of me prays it isn’t so.