New Orleans-- --You notice their differences, sure, but what you really remember are their similarities. They all have a different story and they all have the same story. It's amazing, really.
You should know this much: There are two questions you can ask any of them -- and you have to ask - and you'd better be ready to sit on that barstool until closing time because the answer isn't short and it isn't simple.
The first seems inconspicuous, but if you do ask it, you'd better mean it. How you doing? is an invitation to a tale of woe that serves as oral history as much as an emotional purge; a detailed critique of government and political leaders; an explanation of all that is wrong with insurance companies and all that is right about everyday people. You'll hear a story of love and of loss and of lost love.
Inevitably, the first question leads to the second. There's no earthly reason for the two to be linked, but they are. They are because these are passionate people and their lives, their dialogue and their routines are guided every single day by these two questions.
You ask any of them, How bout dem Saints? and you're going to hear about years of frustration and just as many years of faith; hatred for an owner and love for a team; countless instances of blown opportunities and yet a renewed sense of hope that right now is as strong as ever.
In fact, they're so crazy about this hapless football team that one year after a hurricane chased everyone out of New Orleans, season-ticket sales have hit record numbers. As the team prepares to return to the Superdome this season, about 60,000 fans have already purchased tickets to every single home game.
And sitting in each seat of the Superdome will be a Saints fan, tired and alive and excited and beaten down and hopeful. Each different, each the same.
Blackie and the bayou
The first thing you notice about Blackie Campo is his hands. They're huge, each of them big as a baseball glove. The rest of Campo has the same color and texture, his dark skin aged more by the sun than by time, which is nice to say when you have 88 years of life behind you.
Deep in the bayou, Campo sits in a white plastic chair on the dock that he, a son and a grandson recently rebuilt. Campo's been a fisherman his entire life, right here in Shell Beach. In fact, he points to the empty lot across the road and explains that storms had destroyed his home before - in 1947, 1956 and 1965.
One year ago, he was evacuated from the area and watched Katrina's wrath on a television. Campo knew his house wouldn't win the battle - the waters here rose about 15 feet - but he also knew that he'd return to the marsh and try to erect house No. 5.
"My daddy was a fisherman right over there," he says, pointing toward Lake Borgne, "back when we didn't have reels and all this stuff. This is home to me. I don't know how to be nowhere else. I took my first breath right here, and this is where I'm gonna take my last."
He lives in a white trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The fishing business has dried up for now. No more guided tours for Campo, but he does provide gas and bait for the few who still come through. His house used to stand right across the street from the dock. The whole thing, it just disappeared. He did find one of his Saints jackets, though, and he did find a football given to him by Saints owner Tom Benson. "The damned thing was three blocks away," he says, "Can't find a house, but found me my football."
Since the Saints began play in 1967, Campo had missed just one game until last season. For years his seat has been right on the 50-yard line and he went to every game with the same seven buddies. When he renewed his ticket this year, he could track down only three of his friends, though.
"I like the football, but even if they lose, I just like being out there with all those peoples," he says. "Long as I'm around, I'll be out there watching dem Saints."
He says those final words well aware that doctors say an aneurysm near his heart could strike at any moment. He seems about as scared of that as he is another hurricane.
Campo rises from the seat, talking about the fish salad Mable, his wife these past 66 years, is making for dinner. He shakes your hand - his mitt swallowing whole everything it comes in contact with - and wishes you well. And you feel guilty because you know that it's Campo, a son of the bayou who has a Saints ticket but no house, no business and not a lot of time, who deserves some good fortune.
The first thing you notice about Ray Byrd are his eyes. Dark and piercing, they'd seen so much and now they store it all somewhere deep inside. These eyes had been opened wide by everything they'd witnessed, and Byrd looks like he is trying really hard to close them again.
He starts right in. "Did you see that game last night? Have you ever seen something that ugly?"
Something that ugly? A football game? A preseason football game? It's funny how we can use the same words to describe two very different things. Because out of anyone you'll ever met, Byrd knows the depths of ugly.
The officer was recently promoted to sergeant with the New Orleans Police Department. He's credited with helping save 93 people stranded in a flooded hotel.
One year ago, he was ready to ride the storm out in his home, but the air didn't feel right. He didn't hear the birds, didn't see the squirrels, and his three dogs were acting funny. Today the people here don't really say "Katrina" very often, but even then, Byrd was concerned because the storm carried a female name. He was well-aware the devastation those wicked sirens Betsy and Camille had done to his city in the past.
"Plus, I have a sister named Katrina," he says with a half-smile, "which could only mean bad news."
He went to the La Quinta over on Crowder Boulevard, figuring he'd ride the storm out and be in a better position to resume patrol the next day in the French Quarter. That next day didn't come, though. The floodwaters trapped Byrd and everyone else in the two-story hotel. Radio communication was down.
Byrd reassured everyone. He rationed out whatever food, water and supplies they had, but after a couple of days, it wasn't enough. After the floodwater filled the first floor, Byrd and a couple of other men plunged into the black filth and swam for a mile to a fast-food restaurant, where they found freezers of floating food. Their tired arms and dampened spirits swam back, toting the food in garbage cans, just enough sustenance to keep everyone going a bit longer.
Four days would pass, and Byrd had everyone in the hotel tying bedsheets together. The water was pushing them to the roof and they were about to create a chain of New Orleanians, praying and crying but not giving up on each other.
"We didn't know what would happen to us and we didn't see no help coming," he says. "I still can't believe it. This wasn't no helicopter that crashed in the desert. We were in the middle of our own city, just waiting."
The police radio finally started crackling and they were able to send out a signal for help. They'd all survived and were soon rescued.
Unfortunately, Byrd hadn't seen anything yet. For police officers, the next several days were blurred images of death, destruction and lawlessness. "I was in the Marines for six years," he says. "I went through Desert Storm. I thought I'd seen the worst you could see in this world. But this was something totally different."
The cadence of his voice slows when he talks about those cell phone messages, the ones he heard weeks later when service was restored. There were at least two dozen of them, all cries for help from his brother's girlfriend. In October, a full month after the storm had passed, his 33-year-old brother's body was finally found. Michael was a diabetic who had no medicine, who had no help.
The police sergeant saved those people in the hotel, but he's haunted by all the people who weren't saved, a death toll that climbed to nearly 1,500 in Louisiana.
It makes it easier to look at a ruined house and feel fortunate. For right now, Byrd's home is the FEMA trailer that's sitting on his front lawn. Except on Sundays this fall. On Sundays this fall, home will be the Superdome. Byrd said with the Saints' signing of quarterback Drew Brees and drafting of running back Reggie Bush, he had no choice but to get season tickets.
The sergeant is as proud as ever of his city getting better, and the Saints are a big part of that.
"Knocked down, but not knocked out," he likes to say. "We're still fighting, still proud of who we are. No storm can take away our hospitality, our accents, our food or our Saints. Still got that."
When he's done telling his story, his eyes are noticeably lighter - not because he's more awake, but because he seems a bit relieved. The people here just want to be heard, to be understood and to make sure that everyone knows that as long as the people of New Orleans are still standing, the spirit of New Orleans is strong.
Touring Lower 9th
The first thing you notice about Bill Coleman is that smile. It's like his muscles are frozen stiff and you can't help but wonder, What's this guy so happy about? After all, Coleman lost his home, saw the building to his business ruined and pillaged, and watched the city he loved so much nearly drown.
"Get in here," he says, patting the passenger seat. He's promised a tour of his hometown, the one he wouldn't for a second think about ever leaving. "It's been a whole year," he says, "but you're going to be amazed by what you see."
Coleman has had season tickets to see the Saints since the beginning. "We'll be back in there soon," he says, pointing at the Superdome, where a large banner promises: "Reopening 9-25-06."
And he drives by the lake where boats were tossed like tin cans. Throughout the city, the buildings that remain still bear spray-painted markings, a code that reveals the number of bodies found inside each dwelling.
Light posts are decorated with crude signs advertising electricians, dry-wallers, roofers, painters and, of course, lawyers. The sad images turn ghastly as Coleman crosses a bridge and you enter the Lower 9th Ward. "Like a nuclear bomb," Coleman says, "without the nuclear."
Street signs are hand-scrawled and most of the homes have been bulldozed. On Tennessee Street, just a few hundred yards from a levee breach, one empty lot still has a statue of the Virgin Mary in the front yard. Just a few feet away you see cement porch steps that lead to nowhere.
"I gotta show you something else," Coleman says, and you leave the Lower 9th. Though most of the destruction you remember seeing on television had come from that area, Coleman says it's not representative of New Orleans' biggest structural losses.
We start to tour middle-class neighborhoods. Street after street, mile after mile. Each subdivision turned into either a ghost town or into a trailer park, with white FEMA trailers decorating front lawns.
You pass one abandoned home off Crescent Road that has a sign on the porch - "In this home, a family grew for forty years" - and on a raggedy table sits two framed family portraits, both faded from water damage. And it suddenly occurs to you that in every house you drive by, in the tens of thousands of empty homes, family portraits once decorated the walls.
"If you think about it, the hurricane got us the same way the Saints got us," Coleman says. "They went after every single one of us and didn't leave no one out.
"What I always liked about football, about the Saints, is that on Monday, you could have a CEO of a company and the guy cleaning the toilets talking about what they both saw the day before. It has this way of bringing people together."
As Coleman drives to one final stop, he tells you about his business, an apparel distributorship. Whatever was spared from flood damage was quickly snatched up by looters, he says in an almost carefree tone.
The only time the smile fades from Coleman's face is when you enter his own home, which has been gutted and soon will be rebuilt. Coleman shuffles through the rooms, running a finger along the wall and studying the floors. He says hardly a word until you get back outside.
"Thirty years we've lived here," he says. "Both our kids, born and raised in this house."
The tour is over, and he drops you off. Despite all the destruction he'd shown you, that smile is still there, and you're grateful for it. "Good luck to you, and remember" - he pauses briefly and your eyes widen for any nugget of wisdom - "Go Saints!"
No fans are as excited about their team's first home game as the people of New Orleans. From the television, it'll seem like they're cheering on the black and gold, and that's only partly true.
"It's like gumbo," says Byrd, the police sergeant. "Joe Horn is the crab. Donte' Stallworth is the shrimps. Reggie Bush is the base. Coach [Sean] Payton is the flavor. We have some ingredients this year."
But they're also cheering on each other. One year later, about 200,000 of the 450,000 people who lived here have returned. They made it. They've survived. They're still standing.
Community - real community - isn't defined by geography, not in a place like this. These are a people of shared experiences, shared losses, shared passions.
For the past year, they've been linked together by a dirty brown line that runs its way all across the city, along the walls, homes and gates. The stain left by the rising floodwaters is an omnipresent reminder of what connects the dots in the Crescent City.
And as the people try to move forward, and scrub that line clean, the rest of the world will see that they're actually linked by so much bigger than tragedy.
How you doing? We're getting better. How bout dem Saints? They're helping us heal.
Sure, you notice the hands, which are laying new bricks ... the eyes, which witnessed history ... and the smiles, which somehow persevere. You notice all of that, but it's their spirit, that's what you'll remember. firstname.lastname@example.org