Shaken but Not Broken
The impact of Katrina really hit me when I couldn't find the restaurant that serves my favorite po' boy sandwiches. I was in the Uptown area, looking for Mandina's. But everything around it was devastated. So I kept driving back and forth and looking--even though I also knew that if I did find it, there was no way in the world it would be open.
It seemed as if my memories of New Orleans had been uprooted, my ancestors desecrated, and my sense of present-day self diminished in some incomprehensible way. To steady myself, I thought of the city I knew as a child, a boy, and a teenager.
I was born in New Orleans in Flint-Goodridge Hospital, right behind the Magnolia Housing Projects. I grew up in little Louisiana towns--and finally, at age 12, moved to New Orleans proper. But in the way that extended family works, I was always a child of the Crescent City. I spent a lot of time in my great-uncle Alphonse Lambert's shotgun house on Governor Nicholls Street, in a neighborhood known as Back o' Town. "Pomp," as we called him, was born in 1883. A stonecutter, he worked for the cemeteries. He would whistle and sing 19th- and early-20th-century tunes and tell stories about voodoo queen Marie Laveau. He didn't even have hot water in his house and came from an era when newspaper could serve as wallpaper. Because reading was a supreme achievement for many in his generation, he taught me the importance of being literate. He also taught me the importance of hard work. He would always say, "You let people know who you are by how you do your job." He didn't believe in shortcuts. Even when people were mowing their lawns with power mowers, he used a push mower. And that's how he made his nephews do it.
The musicians of the city worked hard, too. They were intelligent, talkative, optimistic, depressed, and always broke. Some had to be high all the time. Others eventually stopped playing and found day jobs. My father just kept forging on, playing for some reason we couldn't understand. Sometimes he'd tell me, "If you don't do a thing, it won't get done." He also used to say, "Don't sit around waiting for fanfare."
The musicians I knew taught me how to roll with the unpredictable, crazy ways of life--a good lesson to have learned in these chaotic post-Katrina days. They weren't judgmental people. They were too busy trying to find some happiness to worry about what someone else was doing. And the city loved them. Music was in the soul of the Big Easy, defining and enriching the sense of community. A musician could go into any part of town and be safe. Even the most criminal type would see a horn and soften up: "Say, bruh, you know how to play that thing?"
I got my first trumpet from Al Hirt when I was 6 years old (my father was in his band). It was a gold lacquered Leblanc, which became lonely very quickly because I never practiced.
Keeping time. Eventually, the work ethic I'd seen in my father and my great-uncle Pomp kicked in. At 12, I started practicing and began to work almost immediately. For the next four years I played on a regular basis with a funk band, a modern jazz band, a lounge band, three symphony orchestras, a brass quartet, a church band, a big band, and a marching band. Each musical idiom had its own etiquette. Symphonies started five to 10 minutes late in New Orleans. The lounge band was 20 minutes late. The street parade might be an hour late or more. So I learned to master the art of timing in more ways than one. And I learned that my father was right--don't play for fanfare. Just play.
And so I blew my horn. I played everything from "Tear the Roof Off the Sucker" to "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" to Gustav Holst's Second Suite for Military Band in F to "Shake It but Don't Break It." And yes, "How Deep Is Your Love." I hated that song at first, but the girls loved it so much they made it my favorite.
When I walk around the city today, I'm reminded of all those songs, and of all the great people I've known in New Orleans. And I do feel a little steadier. Pomp used to tell me, "The people may be gone, but these stones I'm cutting, they're going to be here forever." I like to think the stones of New Orleans will always survive--and so will the people. We will be back. Working hard. And with fanfare.
This story appears in the February 27, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.