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Before the Floods

Posted on 20th February 2008. No Comment

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It’s 3am in New Orleans. In exactly one week’s time, Katrina will ravage this place. Life here is nocturnal. There’s little to entice you away from the air-conditioned comfort of the Holiday Inn amidst the belting heat of hurricane season. So you step out as daylight dwindles, and you stroll back in as the sun creeps up.

So there we were, 3am, on our way home from an evening on the other side of town, trying to escape the brutally tourist-oriented French Quarter, beyond which few wander. It’s a city mesmerizing and vulgar all at once. There’s a life and buzz which lasts well into the night. But step a block out of Lonely Planet proscribed lines and you’re in trouble.

You’re amidst shady characters, depravity and poverty, the like of which you thought belonged in another world. We’d ventured there once during a rare trip into daylight hours. We’d wanted to explore those infamous New Orleans cemeteries, where they intern the bodies above ground because the city lies so prone to flooding.

Houses seem decrepit out here, shady characters line street corners, and a beasting, hooded hulk of a man appears to be following us. We go into a petrol station to lose him. We don’t. He wanders in and asks for money. You don’t mess with him. You’re in another world, and you give the man some money. That was another day, and we hot-stepped it back to the sheltered safety of the French Quarter.

Back to the night, 3am, on our way home. There are three of us. I’m strolling a fair way ahead, on my own, oblivious to the dark character, homeless, leaning ragged against a wall on a street half a mile away from our hotel.

He comes to life – ‘Hey’. ‘Hey’, I reply, knowing not what else to do. He pulls a gun. I’ve never seen a gun before. It’s the middle of the night thousands of miles from home. There’s five dollars left in my wallet. Gun or no gun, chances are those five dollars will be in his pocket before this night is out. And so they were.

He offers to shake my hand, as if we’d just done business; which, I guess, we had. I shake his, and move on, back towards the Holiday Inn that will, a few days later, become home to so many of the media throng who descend upon New Orleans to cover the destruction wrought upon the city by Katrina’s floods.

I don’t know what became of the characters we came across. But I know that Katrina devastated the lives of the homeless, the poor, and those who didn’t live where the levees had held. Instead, she destroyed the likes of that man who pulled the gun, or the fellow from the petrol station by the cemetery. She broke those who, in America, were left with nothing to do but use a gun to make a living in the middle of the night.

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  • Stanley said:

    Blanche DuBois:
    “The first time I laid eyes on him I thought to myself, that man is my executioner!”

    Good article – you should be our chancellor, not Bill Bryson. His travel writing is dull dull dull.

  • Livingstone said:

    W.E.B.DuBois
    “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line — the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.”

    If the author wrote a travel book I’d buy 7 copies. One for each day of the week.

  • Omar Khayyam said:

    “There was a drop of water. It joined the ocean. An atom of dust became one with the earth. What is your coming into this world? A fly appeared and disappeared.”

    I am dead and Persian, so I couldn’t buy fine Mr Khajuria’s writing. But oh how I would like to!

    (“L’amor che move il sole e le altre stelle”)

    Shut up Dante! Shut up!

    “Beach bum makes it big – went from $30K/year to $30K/month”

    Truly are we still blessed with fine writing!

  • Hunter said:

    Shut up Zaki. I know you can’t really speak french.

  • Stanley said:

    Or Italian, even…

  • zaki said:

    Don’t you have a dissertation to finish?!

  • Fats Domino said:

    I’m walking to New Orleans, I’ve got no time for talking, I’ve got to keep walking.