A New Orleans Stoop: Solace After the Storm

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Chris Rose's Porch i

New Orleans musician Gary Hirstius (with guitar) is among the neighbors and passersby gathered on Chris Rose's New Orleans porch on this night in October 2005. Scroll down to read an excerpt from Rose's book 1 Dead in Attic. Charlie Varley/Sipa hide caption

toggle caption Charlie Varley/Sipa
Chris Rose's Porch

New Orleans musician Gary Hirstius (with guitar) is among the neighbors and passersby gathered on Chris Rose's New Orleans porch on this night in October 2005. Scroll down to read an excerpt from Rose's book 1 Dead in Attic.

Charlie Varley/Sipa

Katrina: One Year Later

Sharing Porch Tales

As part of our summer series on porches, we've been collecting your porch stories. This one is from Helen Baffes-Febry of New Orleans.

"With Red Skelton on the screen, my brother and I marveled at how my mother and father could only pass through the living room, glass of burgundy in one hand and fruit bowl in the other. How could they possibly prefer to sit outside on summer evenings with only wine and fruit and each other when so many delights came across the airways? ... With oh so many wonderful things going on — school, friends, movies, dances, Mardi Gras — how could anyone enjoy passing through the living room with wine and fruit with only the front porch as a destination?"

Now, she writes, after Hurricane Katrina, she goes back to that house she grew up in — it's in the Lakeview section of the city — and remembers those nights with a different understanding.

"Sitting in my car looking over the five-foot tall weeds that now engulf the porch, the house, the gardens and even the water line, I understand the pleasure my parents had. ... Stories not intellectual or earthshaking, but only the recollections of their day, of their memories, of their dreams. Ironically I now suffer the same fate. My husband and my son only occasionally will sit outside. But somehow I relish even being there by myself. It is, after all, my place."

After Hurricane Katrina, Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose's porch became an unofficial town hall and community center. Neighbors gathered there to sing songs, commiserate about the state of the city and "solve" New Orleans' problems.

There were so few people in Rose's neighborhood, he says, that "if you went out on your front porch and popped open a beer or brought out a cup of coffee, inevitably, people would begin to gather. So it began to happen every night. Even if I wasn't here, people would gather."

Rose's own porch — or stoop, as they're known in New Orleans — is a simple concrete structure, with three steps that feed onto the sidewalk. People congregated to vent, cry and laugh; he likens it to a "24-hour therapy session."

But sometimes, stoop-sitting wasn't enough.

Rose recalls a woman he calls "the New Orleans girl," about whom he writes in his book of Katrina essays, 1 Dead in Attic.

She and her fiance fled to Atlanta during Hurricane Katrina. But she had "an almost pathological need" to live in New Orleans, so the couple returned to the city. They moved in across the street from Rose and became a part of the stoop-sitting group.

They held each each other up, Rose says, until despair and darkness consumed them, and they made a suicide pact. But in the end, only the fiance followed through. After the death, a months-long run of stoop-sitting on Rose's porch came to an end.

Elsewhere in the city, the role of the porch is playing an important role in the recovery process.

In pre-Katrina days, stoop-sitting was a great pastime and tradition of New Orleans culture, Rose says. And once again, in neighborhoods around the city, people are gathering on their porches.

He says that in some parts of the city, it's almost comical: People are "sitting there, drinking beer, talking to their friends and neighbors, and you look behind them and the house is completely gutted."

"Everywhere you go, there are people out, and I think what serves as the primary therapy for most people is just telling their story."

The Storm That Keeps Killing

1 Dead in Attic Cover

From 1 Dead in Attic by Chris Rose. Reprinted by permission of the author.

She had a nice house in Old Metairie, a nice car, a great job, a good man who loved her and a wedding date in October.

A good life.

He was from Atlanta and had moved here to be with her because she is a New Orleans girl and New Orleans girls never live anywhere else and even if they do, they always come back.

That's just the way it is.

For the hurricane, they fled to Atlanta. His city. His people.

Meantime, her house was destroyed, her car was destroyed and within days, she was laid off from her job. And, of course, the wedding here in New Orleans was canceled.

When all settled down, he wanted to stay in Atlanta. But she is a New Orleans girl and you know the rest. Equanimity courses through our blood as much as platelets and nitrogen — it is part of our DNA — so she was determined to return, rebuild, recover.

So they moved back here.

A few weeks ago, they moved into my neighborhood. She arrived first. That afternoon, she came over and joined the group that sits on my stoop every night solving the world's problems.

I introduced her around to the local gang and welcomed her back to the neighborhood; she had been a neighbor many years ago.

Like many Post-Katrina First Timers, she was a wreck on that first night. Didn't say much. Just sat there. Not the girl I used to know. But then, who is?

To add to her troubles that first night, her fiance, who was following her to New Orleans that morning in a rented truck, had gotten a flat tire outside of Mobile and was stranded on the side of the road.

She drove on because she had the pets in her car. He called the rental company for help; it wasn't the kind of vehicle with a tire that just any John Doe can change.

He called the trucking company all day. They kept telling him that they would be there within an hour and that's what he told her so she waited. We all waited.

By 8 p.m., he got fed up with the trucking company and called them and told them he had started the engine and was going to drive to New Orleans on the exposed tire rim. And that's what he did, calling the trucking company every few minutes to give a new location.

When she related this news to us, we all knew right then that we would like this guy.

Naturally, the trucking company showed up within minutes and changed the tire. He arrived late that night. He met all the neighbors and they all knew the story of him driving on the rim and they all thought that was hilarious.

And so their new life began on my block. They were one of us now, the survivors, the determined, the hopeful, the building blocks of the New City. Members of the tribe.

They settled in. I used to see them walking in the park and reading the paper on their front porch and occasionally they sat on my stoop, and life went on.

But I guess things were not going so well. She was always pretty grim — not the girl I used to know — but he seemed jolly enough and we would talk in the 'Hey, how ya doin'?' kind of way.

Turns out, he couldn't stand it here. And, truthfully, if you weren't from here, didn't have a history here, didn't have roux in your blood and a stake in it all: Would you want to be here?

I wouldn't.

But she is a New Orleans girl. To hell with no house, no car, no job, no prospects. This is where she belonged. And her mama lives here. End of discussion.

He moved back to Atlanta. She stayed. He came back. Try again. Work it out. Whatever it takes.

A few nights ago, they drank wine and in some sort of stupid Romeo and Juliet moment, decided that they would kill themselves because all hope was lost and living here amongst the garbage and the rot and the politics and the profound sense of failure was sucking the marrow out of their bones.

Not even love could overcome. Here, in the smoking ruins of Pompeii, sometimes it's hard to see the light.

She told friends later that she didn't really think they would do it. Said they got caught in the moment and let the bad stuff crawl all over their minds. The darkness can be so damn dark and they weren't thinking straight. But she didn't think they were really going to do it.

But he did. Right then, right there.

So he's dead, and a family in Atlanta has lost a son, a brother, a friend. Another notch in Katrina's belt.

My stoop is empty these nights. None of us really knows what to say anymore.

This is the next cycle. Suicide. All the doctors, psychologists and mental health experts tell us the same thing: This is what happens next in a phenomenon like this. But has there ever been a phenomenon like this?

Where are we now in our descent through Dante's nine circles of hell?

God help us.

The most open, joyous, free-wheeling, celebratory city in the country is broken, hurting, down on its knees. Failing. Begging for help.

Somebody turn this movie off; I don't want to watch it anymore. I want a slow news day. I want a no news day.

A friend of mine who used to live here said on the phone from Philadelphia the other day: "I don't know how you guys can even get out of bed in the morning."

Well, obviously, some of us don't.

But we have to try. We have to fight this thing until there is no fight left. This cannot be the way we go out, by our own hands.

My neighbor is in a hospital in another part of the state now, learning how to deal. She talked to friends over the weekend and said she is not going to run away from this. She is a New Orleans girl and this is where she is going to stay and try again. And again. And again.

She told her friends this weekend that she still has hope.

I don't know what flavor of hope that she's got, or how she got it, but if she's got a taste of it in her mouth, then the rest of us can take a little spoonful and try to make it through another day, another week, another lifetime.

It's the least we can do.

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Books Featured In This Story

1 Dead in Attic

by Chris Rose

Paperback, 158 pages |


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