Sorry. I slipped out on business for a few days. Hope all is well out there in NewspaperLand.
Mark Johnson asked Dan Barry for his Pulitzer entries, and here they are. Forgive the funny characters.
A Last Whiff of Fulton ‘s Fish, Bringing a Tear
By DAN BARRY
It smells of truck exhaust and fish guts. Of
glistening skipjacks and smoldering cigarettes;
fluke, salmon and Joe Tuna’s cigar. Of Canada ,
Florida , and the squid-ink East River . Of funny
fish-talk riffs that end with profanities spat
onto the mucky pavement, there to mix with
coffee spills, beer blessings, and the flowing melt of sea-scented
This fragrance of fish and man pinpoints one
place in the New York vastness: a small stretch
of South Street where peddlers have sung the
song of the catch since at least 1831, while
all around them, change. They were hawking fish
here when an ale house called McSorley’s opened
up; when a presidential aspirant named Lincoln
spoke at Cooper Union; when the building of a
bridge to Brooklyn ruined their upriver view.
Take it in now, if you wish, if you dare,
because the rains will come to rinse this
distinct aroma from the city air. Some Friday
soon, perhaps next month, the fish sellers will
spill their ice and shutter their stalls, pack
their grappling hooks and raise a final toast
beneath the ba-rump and hum of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive .
And on the Monday, they will begin peddling
their dead-eyed wares inside a custom-made
building in the Hunts Point section of the
Bronx , to be named the New Fulton Fish Market
Cooperative, and the old Fulton Fish Market —
that raucous stage of open-air overnight commerce — will be no
The fish market’s closing should come as no
surprise, though it does. From the beginning,
New York questioned the location of this rough
and odoriferous trade. In 1854, a city elder
wondered whether ”a more advantageous
disposition may not be made of that valuable
property by the removal of the Fish Market.”
And in 1859, another sachem suggested moving
the market uptown, in part because the ebb and
flow of the East River was, as The New York
Times delicately put it, ”not sufficiently strong to carry off the
Offal and the official’s concomitant complaint
of a blanket of maggots on the water were not
issues in the decision to move the market
finally to Hunts Point (a plan that dates back
at least to the mid-1950’s). Instead, the
creeping conversion of Manhattan into a
monstrous mall for the affluent played a role,
as did the grudging realization that the market
had become impractical, anachronistic.
Fishermen haven’t unloaded their catch there for more than a
Before it leaves us, then; before it lives only
in news footage and movies like ”Splash”: one
last look at a part of the city taken for
granted, save by fish people, nighthawks and
urban anthropologists. One long, last
inhalation of the exquisite Fulton Fish Market bouquet.
Three in the morning, and forklifts clatter
over rutted pavement, unloaded trucks sigh in
escape, and workers pierce wax-coated cases
with grappling hooks — whup! whup! — as they move fish from here
Some lights of the market stand before the
silvery truck of a man who calls himself Steve
the Coffee Guy. Beansie, the union official, is
there, smoking a cigar, and Richie Klein, a
burly fish salesman, savoring a cigarette, and
Joe Tuna, on his forklift, drinking tea. When
Joe Tuna glides over curb and cobblestone, his
meaty biceps jiggle so much that the tattoos move like cartoons.
They wear rubber boots and soiled sneakers that
never cross the thresholds of their homes;
clean jeans and fish-bloodied shorts; polo
shirts and T-shirts, some torn in the back by
the tips of the hooks slung over their shoulders.
In winter, the East River winds blow through
you no matter what you wear, so Steve the
Coffee Guy will warm himself with a propped-up
propane heater, in homage to barrels of flames
that once flickered wickedly along South
Street. On this summer’s night, though, the
muggy air clings like lotion to the skin, and
coolness is found at the coffee truck’s icy bed
of soda, over which hangs a dated photograph of
a beautiful young woman in shorts, briskly walking.
The rumor, or the hope, is that it’s South
Street Annie, also known as Shopping Bag Annie,
that shrunken woman with wild gray hair who
strolls the market calling ”Yoohoo!” Selling
cigarettes and newspapers from her red-wire
cart, she is coarse, ribald, ubiquitous: the
flawed mother of fish town. A worker confides
that on his first day in the market more than a
decade ago, he was instructed to kiss one of
her pendulous breasts — for good luck.
In the market, superstition demands that you
watch out for stray animals and broken people.
The men take care of her, enduring her rants,
her feigned grabs at their crotches. The New
York Post costs a quarter; the men give her a
dollar. The Daily News costs 50 cents; they give her a dollar, maybe
Thank you, sweetie, she says. What a guy.
Burly Mr. Klein grabs his coffee and walks over
to Stall 31, where he and a partner run Third
Generation Seafood in what is known as the New
Market Building; the old building was
demolished after a chunk of it fell into the
river in 1936. He passes crates of croakers,
porgies and ”day-boat” Montauk fluke, which
means it was caught less than 24 hours ago.
He pauses to watch one of his fillet men,
Wilson Quirizumbay, slice a tuna carcass so
close to the bone that only maroon wisps of
flesh remain. ”They have a feel for the bone,
and for the knife,” Mr. Klein says. ”The
skill is in the yield. He’s gonna give me 70 percent.”
In the next stall stands Vince nt Tatick, of the
Joseph H. Carter Fish Company. His father ran
Frank Tatick Fillet under the old Sweet’s
Restaurant. Both are gone now, and here is the
son, twirling a grappling hook as though it
were a child’s toy. He wears a dark-green
shirt, dark-green pants, and a camouflage
headband, sports five pencils and a pack of
Parliaments in his breast pocket, and keeps a
Marine Corps knife on his hip. Rambo among fish.
Mr. Tatick has no opinion about the market’s
move, he says, other than: what is, is. But he
wonders about leaving behind the nuns at St.
Rose’s Home, on the Lower East Side , who nursed
his father in his final two years. During that
time, the Taticks agreed that it would be nice
to give the nuns some fish, 25 pounds worth, every Friday.
When his father died, Mr. Tatick says, ”I
didn’t know how to say, ‘Sorry, the deal is off.’ So I never said
That was more than 40 years ago, he says. ”I still give them
This is just one story among thousands, tens of
thousands, to rise from the fishy swirl, only
to dissipate from memory with the passing of time and old
All those market fires, including the
devastating blaze of 1878, possibly caused by
rats munching on matchsticks. That strange,
huge turtle brought to shore in 1900. The dream
that a customs official had during Prohibition,
leading to the discovery of 2,000 bags of
whiskey hidden among tons of fish in the hold
of the schooner Caroline. The dead fisherman
found hanging over an ice machine in 1939,
leaving nothing but a last known address of the
Seamen’s Church Institute, 25 South Street .
Many of the stories centered on characters who
worked hard for their nicknames: Iceberg Tommy,
who settled his nerves by immersing his feet in
ice; Shrimp Sammy, who promoted the freshness
of his shellfish by eating them raw; Porgy Joe,
who strolled the market with two live crabs
clinging to his ears by their claws. Men of the water, now dust.
There was Alfred E. Smith, governor and
presidential candidate, who often bragged of
earning his degree from F.F.M., for Fulton Fish
Market, the educational institution of his
fish-peddling youth. And Joseph Lanza, a
mobster who controlled the market for decades
— whether in or out of prison — and whose
sobriquet of ” Soc ks” referred to his penchant
for punching those who refused to pay him for the right to sell
A hearing in 1931 became one of the first
tutorials in the true ways of the market,
thanks to the testimony of several
uncomfortable witnesses, including a fish-store owner named James
”A man called up and told me to send down $40
by my buyer, or the carriers would not deliver fish to my truck.”
”Why did you pay it?” he was asked.
”Because I wanted my fish.”
The mob and the market became so intertwined,
with tribute to wiseguys as common as a buck to
Annie, that a government investigation of some
kind always seemed under way. Successful
crackdowns have considerably reduced the mob’s
presence, but still: one section of the city’s administrative code
begins with the assertion that the fish market ”has for decades
been corruptly influenced by organized crime.”
More than the ghosts of characters, though,
more than the whiff of the mob, there lingers
in this city corner a palpable, connective air
to who we once were; what we saw; what we said.
The eels wriggling free along Fulton Street .
The hook fights among fishmongers. The
ice-coated masts of sloops in winter. The
fedoras, the aprons, the scales of fish
justice. That market man who, on one summer’s
night in 1872, called out an order:
”Lively, Jim , 10 baskets of lobsters.”
On this night, one of the last, it is Frank
Minio who calls out. ”Lemon sole is
one-thirty-five today, and the large is
one-fiftyI got one day-boat gray sole left, three-fifty.”
Mr. Minio is bald, muscular and in full command
of his domain, a business on the west side of
South Street called Smitty’s Fillet House. A
college graduate, he had planned to ”pursue
theater,” as he puts it, but his father died
in this very stall 27 years ago, and, well, it’s a family business.
He says he looks forward to some aspects of the
move to the Bronx : not freezing in winter, for
example, and not paying for so much ice in the
summer. Still, he wonders, couldn’t the city
have built an enclosed market here, alongside
exhibitions that celebrated New York ‘s inextricable connection to
”It’s been done this way a long time,” he
says, before moving toward a man poking at the
cheeks of fish. ”Good morning,” he says to
the bold customer. ”One-sixty on the pollock.”
The sky begins to lighten. Below a for-sale
sign on an old brick building, circa 1830, a
fat man eats a turkey-on-a-roll near a gray
mound of grouper. A skinny man shovels ice,
shoosh, onto some snapper the color of the
pinkish dawn. Someone calls out, ”Frank-e-e-e!”
Another forklift clatters past. South Street
Annie appears, selling fresh news. Behind her,
the Brooklyn Bridge , looking almost new.
May 11, 2005 , Wednesday Late Edition – Final
Section B Page 1 Column 1 Desk: Metropolitan Desk Length: 794 words
About New York ; An Old Hand, Betrayed By His Belt
By DAN BARRY
JOE GILLUM of Harlem fell from the sky last
week. He plummeted silently through the air of
a Silk Stocking neighborhood and broke upon
impact, as did that extra appendage of his, a squeegee.
He washed windows for a living, often working
so high above the ground that your hands
perspire just thinking of it. At 68, he was
still strapping on his trusty old belt — too
old, it turned out, and not so trusty — and
suspending himself in the air, his back to the
world, his silhouette reflected in the soot-caked windows of others.
Until last Thursday, that is, when he dropped
nine stories in about the time it takes to soak
a rag in a pail of soapy water. Up above, the
two canvas straps that he had secured to the
sides of the window could do nothing now but wave goodbye in the
The initial police report on his accidental
death attached his middle initial of L to the
end of his given name, and so in most of the
brief news accounts he was rechristened Joel
Gillum. ”It was Joe,” said his wife, Ollie. ”It was Joe.”
Mrs. Gillum, 67, small-boned and white-haired,
sat deep in a couch’s hug in the worn apartment
on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard that she
had shared with her husband for more than 30
years. She seemed composed, but this was Monday
morning, within the exhausting awkwardness that
comes after the death and before the wake.
The telephone beside her rang again, but her
sister-in-law, Marie Colbert, in from Oklahoma
for the funeral, was fielding calls and jotting
messages in a spiral-bound notebook. ”Thank
you for calling,” Mrs. Colbert said again into the receiver.
Some of the callers were friends and relatives.
Others were wondering where their window washer
was. ”His clients don’t know,” Mrs. Gillum
said. ”They’re expecting him today.”
Joe Gillum, of Georgia, and Ollie Colbert, of
Oklahoma , met nearly 49 years ago in a Harlem
nightclub on Eighth Avenue . He was working in a
hospital morgue then, and she was setting fake
gems in costume jewelry at some factory. They
talked about where they came from, how they had
wound up in New York City — jobs, basically —
and what they liked and disliked. At some point
she revealed her love for apricots. Next day,
here comes Joe Gillum, bearing apricots.
They married in 1957, and shared more fruit,
bitter and sweet. The first child, Joe, died in
infancy. The second child, Sabrina, would give
them three grandchildren. And one of those
three would give them a great-grandson.
The years can blur into one long workday. But
Mrs. Gillum said she is sure that her husband
started his own window- and floor-cleaning
business in the mid-60’s, because it was after
President Kennedy’s assassination and before Martin Luther King
After 30 years of wrestling electric sanders
over parquet floors — those machines have
minds of their own — his back hurt so much
that he decided a decade ago to concentrate on
windows. By then he had built up a good
clientele, which meant that every spring he was out, and up.
”He never was afraid of heights,” said Mrs.
Gillum, her eyes looking for distraction from a muttering
”That was his life,” said her brother, Nemiah
Colbert. ”That’s what he did for a living.”
The telephone rang again. ”They’re calling for
him to come to work today,” Mrs. Gillum said to the television.
LAST Thursday morning, the Gillums made plans
to go food shopping that evening. Mrs. Gillum
told her husband that she might be a little
late from her job minding an apartment on the
Upper West Side . ”His last words, and it was
so soft,” she said, ”was, ‘I’ll be right here waiting for you.”’
Then Mr. Gillum headed for a job at a nice
brick apartment building at 430 East 57th
Street, carrying, his wife recalled, ”his
belt, his pail, and his squeegee.” When asked
whether her husband ever updated his equipment,
Mrs. Gillum slowly shook her head and said, ”Uh-uh.”
By 11, he was dead. By noon , his blood had been
scrubbed and sprayed from the sidewalk by one
of the building’s employees. And by the
afternoon, a neighbor of the Gillums who had
spoken to detectives had taped a note to their
door, saying, ”Please see me, it’s an emergency.”
A funeral service was held at Canaan Baptist
Church in Harlem yesterday morning, followed by
the long ride out to Calverton National
Cemetery on Long Island for the burial of a fallen window washer.
For the record, his name was Joe Gillum. Joe L. Gillum.
November 2, 2005 , Wednesday Late Edition – Final
Section B Page 1 Column 1 Desk: Metropolitan Desk Length: 861 words
About New York ; Button Up Your Overcoat
By DAN BARRY
THESE days have been uncommonly mild for
autumn, but Derek Ivery insists on wearing a
sweater and jacket over his tall and very thin
frame. He cannot get sick. He has things to do.
Mr. Ivery is an office worker in a city of
office workers. He works Mondays through
Fridays, 9 to 5 , in the biology department at
Queens College . He answers the telephone,
registers students for classes, and makes sure
that professors get their mail. Then he walks
to the home he shares with his mother in Flushing .
An average man, living an average life. But he
is only 26, with plans to go to graduate school. He has things to
Growing up, he did not stand out among the
3,300 students at John Bowne High School , save
for a brief speaking role in the school’s
production of ”Les Misérables.” And he didn’t
stray far when he enrolled at Queens College ,
down the street, to become one student among some 17,000.
His only extracurricular activity was with the
college’s peer advisement program, which trains
students to assist others in making the
sometimes-difficult adjustment to college life.
Soon, he was helping to recruit other students for the program.
One day in 2002, he met another one among the
17,000: Nidha Mubdi, a young student who wanted
to become a peer adviser. The daughter of
Bangladeshi immigrants living in Briarwood,
Queens , she had a riveting smile and an upbeat
demeanor that belied the life story she shared with him.
In August 1998, when she was 18, Ms. Mubdi was
told she had leukemia. When she was 19, she
underwent a bone marrow transplant. When she
was 20, her kidneys failed — the payment due
from all that chemotherapy and medication — and she began dialysis
Through bad movies and graduation parties and
gentle teasing, a platonic friendship developed
between this Muslim woman and this Methodist
man. Mr. Ivery became accustomed to her
dialysis routine. Three mornings a week, she
sat for three hours in a medical office in
Jackson Heights , hooked up to a machine that
did the work her kidneys could not. After that,
several hours of sleep. This was her life, at 21, 22, 23, 24, 25.
A year ago, Mr. Ivery had an idea, but set it aside. No, he decided.
Then, a few months ago, Ms. Mubdi e-mailed to
her friends the address for her Web site, which
included a section called ”My Story — Looking
For a Miracle.” It began: ”Could you be a
person of selfless sacrifice & godly humanity
able to donate their spare kidney?”
That idea returned to Mr. Ivery. Without
telling his friend, he had his blood type
checked and learned that it matched hers. Then
he sent her an e-mail message that opened with
a couple of goofy jokes and ended with the
words: ”But if you want a kidney you can have mine.”
Ms. Mubdi did not answer right away, and has
trouble articulating why. In the past, others
had expressed interest in donating a kidney,
but for this reason and that reason those plans
fell through. ”I was taken aback,” she says.
A WEEK later, the two friends went to a
fast-food place on Union Turnpike. He had a
vanilla milkshake, she had some strawberry-ice
concoction, and they talked about it. She was
surprised that he didn’t have any questions
about the process. He was surprised that she
was so quiet — brought to wordlessness, it
seemed, by the enormousness of what was being offered. .
That evening, the Methodist gently patted the
hand of the Muslim. ”To let her know it’s all right,” Mr. Ivery
The two friends underwent testing to confirm
the compatibility between his kidney and her
body. He had to meet with his ”transplant
team.” He had to have a C.T. scan. He had to
be examined by a psychologist, to make sure he knew what he was
Through it all, Ms. Mubdi has assured Mr. Ivery
that he can still change his mind — it would
be all right. Mr. Ivery has assured her that
this is what he wants to do. They both worry
about complications, including the possibility of rejection.
Now the time is upon them. Ms. Mubdi and Mr.
Ivery are scheduled to report early Friday
morning to New York-Presbyterian/Columbia
hospital in Upper Manhattan. But they have been
warned that the transplant will be postponed if either one of them
That is why Mr. Ivery bundles up during these uncommonly mild autumn
September 8, 2005, Thursday Late Edition – Final
Section A Page 1 Column 2 Desk: National Desk Length: 1215 words
STORM AND CRISIS: STREET SCENE; Macabre Reminder: The Corpse on
By DAN BARRY
NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 7
In the downtown business district here, on a
dry stretch of Union Street, past the Omni Bank
automated teller machine, across from a parking
garage offering ”early bird” rates: a corpse.
Its feet jut from a damp blue tarp. Its knees rise in rigor mortis.
Six National Guardsmen walked up to it on
Tuesday afternoon and two blessed themselves
with the sign of the cross. One soldier took a
parting snapshot like some visiting
conventioneer, and they walked away. New Orleans, September 2005.
Hours passed, the dusk of curfew crept, the
body remained. A Louisiana state trooper around
the corner knew all about it: murder victim,
bludgeoned, one of several in that area. The
police marked it with traffic cones maybe four
days ago, he said, and then he joked that if
you wanted to kill someone here, this was a good time.
Night came, then this morning, then noon, and
another sun beat down on a dead son of the Crescent City.
That a corpse lies on Union Street may not
shock; in the wake of last week’s hurricane,
there are surely hundreds, probably thousands.
What is remarkable is that on a downtown street
in a major American city, a corpse can
decompose for days, like carrion, and that is acceptable.
Welcome to New Orleans in the post-apocalypse,
half baked and half deluged: pestilent, eerie, unnaturally quiet.
Scraggly residents emerge from waterlogged wood
to say strange things, and then return into the
rot. Cars drive the wrong way on the Interstate
and no one cares. Fires burn, dogs scavenge,
and old signs from les bons temps have been
replaced with hand-scrawled threats that looters will be shot dead.
The incomprehensible has become so routine here
that it tends to lull you into acceptance. On
Sunday, for example, several soldiers on
Jefferson Highway had guns aimed at the heads
of several prostrate men suspected of breaking into an electronics
A car pulled right up to this tense scene and
the driver leaned out his window to ask a
soldier a question: ”Hey, how do you get to the interstate?”
Maybe the slow acquiescence to the ghastly here
— not in Baghdad, not in Rwanda, here — is
rooted in the intensive news coverage of the
hurricane’s aftermath: floating bodies and
obliterated towns equal old news. Maybe the
concerns of the living far outweigh the dignity
of a corpse on Union Street. Or maybe the
nation is numb with post-traumatic shock.
Wandering New Orleans this week, away from news
conferences and search-and-rescue squads, has
granted haunting glimpses of the past, present
and future, with the rare comfort found in,
say, the white sheet that flaps, not in
surrender but as a vow, at the corner of Poydras Street and St.
”We Shall Survive,” it says, as though
wishing past the battalions of bulldozers that
will one day come to knock down water-corrupted neighborhoods and
rearrange the Louisiana mud for the infrastructure of an altogether
different New Orleans.
Here, then, the New Orleans of today, where
open fire hydrants gush the last thing needed
on these streets; where one of the many
gag-inducing smells — that of rancid meat —
is better than MapQuest in pinpointing the
presence of a market; and where images of irony beg to be noticed.
The Mardi Gras beads imbedded in mud by a
soldier’s boot print. The ”take-away” signs
outside restaurants taken away. The corner
kiosk shouting the Aug. 28 headline of New
Orleans’s Times-Picayune: ”Katrina Takes Aim.”
Rush hour in downtown now means pickups
carrying gun-carrying men in sunglasses,
S.U.V.’s loaded with out-of-town reporters
hungry for action, and the occasional tank.
About the only ones commuting by bus are
dull-eyed suspects shuffling two-by-two from
the bus-and-train terminal, which is now a makeshift jail.
Maybe some of them had helped to kick in the
portal to the Williams Super Market in the
once-desirable Garden District. And who could
blame them if all they wanted was food in those
first desperate days? The interlopers took the
water, beer, cigarettes and snack food. They
did not take the wine or the New Orleans postcards.
On the other side of downtown across Canal
Street in the French Quarter, the most raucous
and most unreal of American avenues is now
little more than an empty alley with balconies.
The absence of sweetly blown jazz, of someone
cooing ”ma chère,” of men sporting convention
nametags and emitting forced guffaws — the
absence of us — assaults the senses more than any smell.
Past the famous Cafe du Monde, where a slight
breeze twirls the overhead fans for no one,
past the statue of Joan of Arc gleaming gold, a
man emerges from nothing on Royal Street. He is
asked, ”Where’s St. Bernard Avenue?”
”Where’s the ice?” he asks in return, eyes
narrowed in menace. ”Where’s the ice? St.
Bernard’s is that way, but where’s the ice?”
In Bywater and the surrounding neighborhoods,
the severely damaged streets bear the names of
saints who could not protect them. Whatever
nature spared, human nature stepped up to
provide a kind of democracy in destruction.
At the Whitney National Bank on St. Claude
Avenue, diamond-like bits of glass spill from
the crushed door, offering a view of the
complementary coffee table. A large woman named
Phoebe Au — ”Pronounced ‘Awe,”’ she says —
materializes to report that men had smashed it
in with a truck. She fades into the
neighborhood’s broken brick, and a thin woman
named Toni Miller materializes to correct the record.
”They used sledgehammers,” she said.
Farther down St. Claude Avenue, where tanks
rumble past a smoldering building, the roads
are cluttered with vandalized city buses. The
city parked them on the riverbank for the
hurricane, after which some hoods took them for
fare-free joy rides through lawless streets, and then discarded
On Clouet Street, where a days-old fire
continues to burn where a warehouse once stood,
a man on a bicycle wheels up through the smoke
to introduce himself as Strangebone. The nights
without power or water have been tough,
especially since the police took away the gun
he was carrying — ”They beat me and
threatened to kill me,” he says — but there are benefits to this
”You’re able to see the stars,” he says. ”It’s wonderful.”
Today, law enforcement troops began lending
muscle to Mayor C. Ray Nagin’s vow to evacuate
by force any residents too attached to their
pieces of the toxic metropolis. They searched
the streets for the likes of Strangebone, and
that woman whose name sounds like Awe.
Meanwhile, back downtown, the shadows of
another evening crept like spilled black water over someone’s
October 3, 2005, Monday Late Edition – Final
Section A Page 19 Column 1 Desk: National Desk Length: 1554 words
STORM AND CRISIS: NEW ORLEANS; One Month Later,
Flickering Lights Reveal a City That Is Far From Being Reclaimed By
NEW ORLEANS, Oct. 2
Abandoned city buses on deserted streets, doors
opened for the boarding of ghosts. Fast-food
restaurants, darkened and reeking of rancid
meat. Tainted tap water, unsafe for contact
with skin. Entire neighborhoods of empty, moldy
houses, waiting for that bulldozer’s first punch.
If you can imagine this. If you can imagine a
helicopter that crashed weeks ago still planted
across from a post office, like a piece of
public art. If you can imagine officials
warning that you enter many parts of this major
American city at your own risk. If you can
imagine all this, you can begin to imagine what
it is like in New Orleans a month after the deluge.
True, those from the luckier west bank section
of Algiers can hug their children and sleep in
their own beds. True, discarded refrigerators
now stand like upturned white coffins on the
high-ground streets of Uptown and the Garden
District, signaling that housecleanings have begun.
And true, some lights have returned to this
city’s naughty-Disney thoroughfare, Bourbon
Street, the reports of which may have led
people elsewhere to sigh and think that
normality, as manifested by the tossing of
beads and the flashing of breasts, cannot be far behind.
But consider what those lights now reveal: more
businesses closed than open; pockets of
stinking garbage; gawking bands of
firefighters, disaster relief workers,
journalists, all from somewhere else. Traffic
on the street means a United States Marshals
vehicle, then a sheriff’s pick-up, then a
National Guard Humvee, then a New Orleans
police cruiser with one headlight out.
And the lights of Bourbon Street do not shine
upon, say, the Martin Luther King Jr.
Elementary School and Library in the Lower
Ninth Ward. The school’s doors gape open, mud
cakes the floor, mold creeps across the
portrait of the namesake. Outside, not far from
a brimming sewer in which small fish dart, a
volume of a youth classic lies in the muck, and
it is almost too much: S.E. Hinton’s ”That Was Then, This Is Now.”
Anyone who dares to return home might be fooled
at first by the illusion of quick recovery. The
bus and train terminal has a bustling air, but
only because it serves as a makeshift jail.
Cars without telltale flood marks glide along
the streets but belong to postcatastrophe
cleanup companies with names like Amigos Restoration.
And some businesses operate amid the rising
mounds of garbage, including the Sheraton
Hotel, where the 1,000 or so guests — mostly
journalists and people with the Federal
Emergency Management Agency — can almost be
fooled into believing that what was New Orleans, is.
Hotel valets will park your car in a garage so
that the powdery mist of recovery work does not
cloud your windshield. Hotel buffets on the
second floor offer an option to the Salvation
Army food truck outside. Hotel televisions
offer HBO, once you click past the in-house
commercials for the ”chocolate dipping
fountain” at Harrah’s New Orleans Casino, just
down the street and all boarded up.
And the rooms, especially ones on the 40th
floor and above, offer a Zeus-like view of a
metropolis in seeming repose. But leave the
hotel womb, and you remember again that this is
not urban repose, but urban shock.
A month after the hurricane, nearly two-thirds
of the power is out, telephone and Internet
connections remain down, and tens of millions
of cubic yards of debris need to be carted away
— with ”debris” the catchword for everything
from tree branches to family possessions.
In once-desirable Lakeview, hard against the
17th Street Canal that famously gave way, the
several feet of water that sat for weeks has
finally receded, leaving behind a
neighborhood’s skeleton to bake in the hot sun.
Walk past a tossed-aside car, past the dangling
strips of siding that slap and groan in the
warm breeze, across a silt-browned lawn that
once received a lot of care, and peer through
the beveled glass of someone’s front door. This
is what you see: black mold several feet up the
white walls and three-quarters up the carpeted
stairs; thrown furniture wearing a mucky
veneer; and mud on the floor that is still
shiny wet. The whiff through a cracked window is of something awful.
These conditions were not bad enough, at least
not yet, to earn one of the orange city
stickers that are suddenly so ubiquitous,
saying, ”This structure is unsafe and its use
or occupancy has been prohibited by the building official.”
The other famous markings, of course, are those
left by rescue-and-recovery teams on every
building, every abandoned bus — even that
downed helicopter, across from the Mid-City
post office — to answer the question: Bodies inside, yes or no?
In Uptown, two of these markings festoon the
porch at 4734 Laurel Street. One dates from
early September (one body), the other from late
September (no body), an inadequate account of
why the house’s owner, Alcede Jackson, lay dead
for nearly two weeks before men in white
protective suits finally came to collect his body on Sept. 12.
The different-colored scribbles on a house
nearby provide a dialogue between animal-rescue
crews: dog in yard; dog given food and water; dog still here; dog
Of course, virtually no one is here to read
these markings. A visitor can drive for miles
along dusty, mosquito-infested streets and not
see a soul, especially through poor
neighborhoods like Bywater and the Lower Ninth
Ward. A war zone is not the proper analogy; something approaching Chernobyl is.
Stop anywhere, and uneasiness takes hold. Pull
into the parking lot of the Sarah T. Reed High
School in New Orleans East, and park between
the vandalized Ford Windstar and the vandalized
Dodge pickup. That crackling beneath your feet
is not autumn leaves, but hundreds and hundreds
of dead perch. And those abandoned dogs racing
toward you: they are not looking to be petted.
The few people moving across this deserted stage have stories to
Here, leaning against an old car on Dauphine
Street in Bywater: Dennis Landry, unshaven, and
Donnalee Eyraud, in Winnie the Pooh sneakers,
drinking in the unnatural evening quiet with
whatever is in that cooler on the ground. They
talk simultaneously to create a symphony of
hardship: no power, cigarettes hard to come by,
a days-old Times-Picayune cherished as though
it were the Gospel, looters still lurking.
”I’m telling you, I’ve been packing a gun in
my pocket for a week,” Mr. Landry said.
”Not me,” Ms. Eyraud said. ”I have my machete. I’m not into
And here, sitting on the ground outside a work
camp in Algiers, waiting for The Man to pay
him: Tyrone Brustie, just one of thousands of
workers from near and far who are now cleaning
out putrid food lockers, picking up fly-swarmed
piles from the curbs, buzz-sawing through downed trees.
He is a Tom Joad of this disaster. A carpenter
from the city, he was evacuated to Houston,
hitched a ride back with a Pentecostal
minister, hooked up with one of the many
disaster-relief contractors and got a job
collecting garbage from 6 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. He
sleeps in one of those tent cities cropping up
along General Meyer Avenue in Algiers, where
the men in the exhaust of their nights talk about how they better
Mr. Brustie is supposed to be paid $10 an hour,
and that was why he was waiting patiently for
The Man, who drives a black Humvee. Others who
wanted to get paid — a few subcontractors, a
truck driver, a secretary — shuffled nearby,
and their muttering made sheriff’s deputies
guarding the camp get out of their cruisers.
There was no confrontation, though, because The Man never came.
When nighttime falls on this city under curfew,
it conceals the devastation like some Mardi
Gras mask. But New Orleans always lived for the
night — for the food, the talk, the music. And
just as there are no children, there is no music.
Except here and there on Bourbon Street. In a
club on Saturday night, a crowd of 20 listened
to a zydeco band called the Bonoffs sing old
songs for a spectral city, with an exuberance
intended to wake the dead. Their words called out to empty streets:
Talkin’ ’bout, Hey now! Hey now!
I-ko, I-ko, un-day
Jock-a-mo fee-no ai na-né.
Jock-a-mo fee na-né.
A large man in Louisiana State purple and gold
raised his fist in the air and howled long and loud, as if to say: Exactly.