I wake up in a shallow pall of sweat and Deet, gasping for air in the darkness and heat, as a Black Hawk helicopter chops into the whine and whistle of the mosquitoes spiraling into my ears. I stay still and hope the mosquitoes will find their spot -- ankles, knees, nose, crotch, anywhere -- and get it over with, so I'll have a chance at some more sleep, the scarcest commodity now.
The radio tells us these things have been sucking disease out of floating corpses. Now they always seem intent on entering my ears to suck on the gray matter in my brain. And sure enough, after the thunder of the helicopter fades, there are the mosquitoes again, falling like bombs into my brain. This is dawn, New Orleans, post-Katrina. And I love it.
Still in swim trunks I haven't shed since Katrina started whispering through my windows 13 days ago now, I walk outside, the new sun tickling the roof of the slave quarters across the street, and step from the cobalt air into the turquoise swimming pool, hardly less wet, and lie at the bottom until the itching from 100 fresh bites stops.
When I kick up to the surface, I whack my head on a 16-ounce can of Busch floating there, crack it open, take a long pull, stare across the surface at the other cans floating. Full bottles of Pinot Grigio are scattered along the bottom. It's the only way to keep them cool. All leftovers from my birthday the night before. As are the sleeping bodies strewn about the patio in this old courtyard in the center of the French Quarter. On the steps up to the main cottage a Miami Herald reporter sleeps in his own vomit. He spent the night with us to do a story on our little commune of French Quarter rats, and he wound up like many another tourist in the Big Easy. There are fewer of them now. All the more liquor for the rest of us.
"Us" is me, photographer Ellen Harris and eight acquaintances -- a mechanic, river boat captain, writer, film location scout, art shipper, framer, dishwasher, truck driver -- now tighter than family. We banded together, pooled our resources -- ungodly quantities of food and drink, ice, coolers, bikes, a couple scooters, candles, flashlights, water, batteries, charcoal, antibacterial hand wipes -- and brought them here to the corner of St. Peter and Burgundy deep into the center of the French Quarter.
A dear friend of mine, who split for Missouri the morning before the storm, told me where the keys were and gave her blessing to use the place, a complex of old quarters and houses. Its two greatest assets are the pools, for bathing, and the space of the brick courtyard, which beats being locked up indoors in our own apartment every night after 6 p.m., the curfew.
The 10 of us had prepared for the Doomsday -- New Orleans becoming Atlantis -- that so many books and ecologists had long said was coming. Yesterday on my birthday, I called friends and family from my apartment, still standing on the Mississippi River, just down St. Peter Street. It was the only land line I knew of that worked. The conversations were more or less the same:
Them: "Where are you?"
Them: "Where? Houston? Baton Rouge?"
Me: "No. At my place."
The response involved some sort of assessment of my sanity, and rantings about roaming hordes of pillagers and piles of corpses, and had I been shot or lit on fire and wasn't I at least under water?
You must understand it never occurred to me to leave. And now I've decided that when they do ram the gate open and drag me into a bus at the tip of an assault rifle, and send me off to Houston, I'll simply get out at the first rest stop and start walking back. That'll likely be Baton Rouge. And it's only a 15-hour walk.
This is home. Where else would I go? My family's cottage on Cape Cod would get boring fast. My mom's house in D.C. would get claustrophobic. What on earth would I do in those places but know what it means to miss New Orleans?
And what would I have in those places? Air-conditioning and gas? I've grown quite accustomed to life without them. And I suspect they'll be back long before I'm ready for them. Can you imagine what it's like to have no energy bills, no rent, no cellphone invoices, no health, car, life, whatever other kind of insurance, and no taxes? We can. And we're doing it like kings. And legally too -- so long as you ignore all that "forced evacuation" stuff by skulking through shadows and looking somehow official.
I have to tell you, there's a certain thrill to thriving among the ruins. Daily life as we knew it is gone. We see the elation in each other's faces, although we don't say anything about it. We share a wink and nod that will be our secret forever.
We are in not in denial of the immense tragedy that surrounds us. We saw the exodus of people dragging themselves, their belongings and their babies through the neighborhood on their way to the Superdome, only to be bused to Texas. The second day after the storm, I asked a man carrying a small plastic shopping bag if he was carrying his lunch. "Lunch? Shit," he said. "This's everything I got left in the world." We've seen dead bodies just blocks away, floating down the flooding streets like mannequins.
My company is Light of New Orleans Publishing. And so long as light shines here, so will we. Our first book was "French Quarter Fiction," a tribute to the vast literary talent this neighborhood has fostered, and will continue to foster. And while Katrina has screwed the release dates for our next three books, it's given me more material than I need for another. For the last two weeks I've tape-recorded the voices of those who remain here in all their tragedy and comedy. Coupled with my own adventures, it'll make for one hell of a book, the proceeds of which will go to a relief fund. I'll be damned if I'm not going to at least try to create something from this destruction.
And now I fear I may be the only one left to do it. Some of our city's great writers have indeed returned after the storm to share its burden with the world. Others have been sent here from the world over, mostly squirreled away in guarded hotel high-rises or the suburbs. But I know of no one else from here who stayed here and who's still here.
Now our numbers are dwindling as residents, scared by big men with big guns and diseased water, scurry away along with the media. This place is now a ghost town, undergoing a strange restoration. Navajo scouts from Arizona remove fallen trees from Jackson Square. Police from every Louisiana parish and town, state troopers, Harbor Patrol, Border Patrol, National Guard, Army, Special Forces, fire departments and emergency personnel from Oregon to New York funnel in bunch by bunch.
A couple of kids from the National Guard told us yesterday that the press had made this thing out to be like Hiroshima. The most action they see is standing in a line outside Harrah's Casino, waiting to squirt ketchup on cheeseburgers.
Unlike them, however, we have had no newspapers, no magazines, no nightly news, no Fox to find dark in it all, no Jon Stewart to find light in it all. We have not seen what you have seen. We see what's in front of our faces, what we can touch, nothing else. And I offer you this daily journal, so that you may see a bit of it too.
America's oldest bohemia is now taking a last gasp before reincarnation. Never has a place felt stranger. And never have I felt more at home.
A Saks Fifth Avenue dummy, framed beneath bullet holes and the reflection of Harrah's Casino.