A Confederacy of New Orleans Characters

Ricky Ray

Pump operator Ricky Ray has remained at New Orleans Pumping Station Number Seven almost since Hurricane Katrina struck, sustaining himself on Beanie Weenies. Anne Hawke, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Anne Hawke, NPR
Curl Up and Dye beauty parlor i i

The storm surge from Hurricane Katrina picked up the "Curl Up and Dye" beauty parlor and deposited it on the house next door. John Burnett, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption John Burnett, NPR
Curl Up and Dye beauty parlor

The storm surge from Hurricane Katrina picked up the "Curl Up and Dye" beauty parlor and deposited it on the house next door.

John Burnett, NPR

Neither Hurricane Katrina nor the National Guard nor the loss of every modern convenience drove away all the characters who make their home in the New Orleans area.

Dr. John, the New Orleans piano professor, told me in an interview a few years ago, "N'awlins has always had a lotta characters," pronouncing the word in his own funky brogue as "CHAR-AC-ters." At times, reporting on the aftermath of the storm, I felt as though I was walking through the pages of John Kennedy Toole's tragicomedy about the eccentric denizens of New Orleans, A Confederacy of Dunces.

For instance, there was the guy in the cafe in Gretna, a tiny working-class city just across the river from New Orleans. Between bites of a fried shrimp sandwich, he was trying to tell his buddy just how bad things were in his neighborhood.

"Lemme put it to ya this way, if I had two Bourbon Street strippers and a roofer right now, I'd keep the roofer."

I love doing radio journalism in New Orleans and Southern Louisiana because the accents — a gumbo of black, white southern, French, Irish and Italian — are so rich, mellifluous, ethnic, and completely regional. Across the river in Algiers, I met Tony Usey, the red-faced, thick-armed yard foreman at the Bollinger shipyard. He was telling me how the Mississippi rose 18 feet in a matter of minutes the morning Katrina blew in.

"And dem big-ass rats dat live under da wharf," he said, holding his hands about two feet apart, "dey got really bad. Dem sumbitches was all over da place. We had to sleep in our cars."

The region that Katrina raked is unmistakably Deep South. And sometimes down here some of the stereotypes do come true. In the pulverized town of Port Sulpher, south of New Orleans, Steven Treadaway, a middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair, red eyes and a speech impediment, stood beside his pickup telling us about the ruination of his Elvis room.

"I lost my Elvis rugs, my Elvis belt buckles, my guitars and stuff," he said as his father handed him another cup of red punch. "The house is flipped over sideways. I need to get inside," he said with a note of desperation, "so I can get my Elvis dolls and my Elvis whisky bottle."

We drove down the road to snap a picture of the storm-tossed Elvis room. But I changed my mind when we got there and a big black snake slithered out from under Treadaway's house. A mile or so later, we happened upon a sight to chill the blood of a big-haired queen of the bayou. The storm surge had picked up a beauty parlor and deposited it at a crazy angle on top of the house next door. The sign on the business read "Curl Up & Dye."

During three weeks of interviews, however, nobody lit up the mike like Ricky Ray. The 51-year-old pump operator for the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board stayed on the job throughout the aftermath of Katrina, helping to pump the water out of the drowned city. One morning, we found him inside the control room of Pump Station Number 7 looking like a hermit in his cave. The poor man had tangled hair, a stubbled chin, sour-smelling clothes, and the thickest New Orleans accent I'd ever heard, next to Dr. John.

Asked how he'd gotten by in the days after Katrina, he talked about camping out on the levee with a coworker.

"We used that jackhammer motor out there to heat up our Beanee Weenees," Ray said, torturing the vowels into "Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeenie Weeeeeeeeeeeeenies."

"We didn't really like the food but we was hungry. I gave him half a can of Beanee Weenees and I ate half a can," he said. "And then a mouse got my Ramen noodles. I said, hey, nuttin's safe."

Ray was the first to admit his roots ran deep.

"I'm home people," he told us, between drags on a Kool. "I don't go too far. If I go to Florida I think I'm in another country."

Indeed, sometimes New Orleans feels like it's in a different country. That's one of things I love about it.

John Burnett is NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas. He reported on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath from New Orleans, and has covered stories there for nearly 20 years.

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