A New Orleans Stoop: Solace After the Storm The front porch of New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose became an unofficial town hall and community center after Hurricane Katrina. Neighbors congregated to vent, cry and laugh; he likens it to a "24-hour therapy session."

A New Orleans Stoop: Solace After the Storm

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

As part of our summer series on porches, we've been gathering your porch stories. This one came to us from Helen Baffes-Febry of New Orleans. We asked her to read it to us.

Ms. HELEN BAFFES-FEBRY (New Orleans Resident): 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?

NORRIS: Now, after Hurricane Katrina, she goes back to that house in the Lakeview area, and remembers those nights with new insight.

Ms. BAFFES-FEBRY: Sitting in my car looking over the five-foot weeds that now engulf the porch, the house, the gardens and even the water line, I understand the pleasure my parents had when they shared a few quiet exchanges at the end of another day. Ironically, I now still suffer the same fate. My husband and my son only occasionally sit outside with me. But somehow I relish even being there by myself. It is, after all, my place.

NORRIS: Helen Baffes-Febry now lives in Uptown in New Orleans, not far from Times Picayune columnist Chris Rose. He's won awards for his work chronicling the city's emotional and logistical trouble after the storm, work he's now compiled into a book called 1 Dead in Attic. He found ample material on his own front porch.

Mr. CHRIS ROSE (Author, 1 Dead in Attic): My porch sort of served as an unofficial town hall and community center. It's on a main strip in town, Magazine Street, which is usually very busy, and of course wasn't back in the fall.

But it was kind of - I don't know if folks would remember - the old Planter's Peanuts ad campaign. If you opened a jar of Planter's Peanuts, a party would form around it. Basically, there were so few people in this community for such a long time 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.

And so it sort of just began to happen every night. Even if I wasn't here, people would tend to gather on my porch and either live it up and have a good time and play the guitar and sing songs. Or the mood might be something completely different. People would sit around and commiserate about the state of the city and we would we sit around and try to solve the problems of the city, since nobody on any official capacity seems inclined to do so.

NORRIS: How bad was the city at that point?

Mr. ROSE: It was real bad. I'm not even sure we knew how bad it was. So much of what we were dealing with back then was the unknown. And September and into October, you know, we didn't know how safe we were, how bad was the danger of the street violence. Now, in the end, it turned a lot of it was exaggerated.

But I'm sure porches like my own and other ones around the city served both to fan some of the rumors, and also to knock them down. But it was amazing, the full range of information you would pickup in an evening.

NORRIS: Chris, could you describe front porch? What's it look like?

Mr. ROSE: I know your stories are about porches here, but we have a semantic difference here in New Orleans. We don't call things what the other 49 states do, and most folks would call it a stoop. I think technically it's a porch, but we ignore that and just sit on the front steps of it.

And stoop setting is - even in pre-Katrina days - a great pastime and tradition of New Orleans culture, as it is so many cities. But it's a simple concrete structure with three steps and it feeds right out onto the sidewalk and the street. And it became a center for people to gather and to vent to cry and to laugh, that it seemed like we were running a 24-hour therapy session here.

NORRIS: Chris, of all the people that gathered on your front porch, there's one couple in particular that I'm thinking about. Their story revealed the emotional rollercoaster that so many people were on after the hurricane. I'm thinking about someone that you described as the New Orleans girl.

Mr. ROSE: The New Orleans girl. You know, she had a nice job, a good set up. She was supposed to get married in October here, and when Katrina came down, she and her fiancé fled to Atlanta. And in that New Orleans girl fashion, the need, almost pathological need to live in New Orleans overcame here, and she persuaded her fiancée to come back here. And they moved across the street from me and joined our little group on the porch every night.

NORRIS: There was an interesting role reversal, because she was - during that period, you described her as being very dark. But her fiancé was the one who kept her going, and then something changed.

Mr. ROSE: You know, I guess they tried to hold each other up for a while, but the darkness and the despair seemed to consume them. And they made a suicide pact across the street one night, and one of them went through with it, one of them did not, and pretty much ended the two and a half, three month run of stoop setting that we have done.

NORRIS: You said it was a suicide pact and one of them went through with it.

Mr. ROSE: Right.

NORRIS: Which one?

Mr. ROSE: He did.

NORRIS: Chris, if you have a copy of the book, you wrote a column about the New Orleans girl and her fiancé. And if you could read for us the sort of aftermath of their story.

Mr. ROSE: Okay.

"A friend of mine that 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's 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, said she's not going to run way from this. She is a New Orleans girl, and this is where she's going to stay and try again and again and again.

"She told her friends this weekend that she still has hope. Now, I don't know what flavor of hope 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."

NORRIS: Thank you.

Mr. ROSE: Catch me while I'm falling apart here.

NORRIS: Yeah. Well, you got me, too. What role do the front porches play now in New Orleans as people are returning to the city and as the city is trying to get back on its feet?

ROSE: Well, everywhere you go, when you drive around, everywhere you go, people are gathered out front. So many people you see sitting on their front stoops and front porches now. It's almost comical, they're sitting there drinking beer, talking to their friends and neighbors, and you look behind them, the house is completely gutted. People have to make daily and weekly visitations to their house to either do the work physically themselves or monitor what's being done.

But it is still, as it has always been here in New Orleans, a very social, outdoor culture. So around the city, everywhere you go, there's people out. And I think really what serves as the primary therapy for most people here is telling their story. Just finding somebody to talk to and somebody to listen to.

A lot of people have lost the ability really to sit inside and watch baseball on ESPN or watch a rerun of Will and Grace. We're kind of a one-note town right now, and that's all Katrina, all the time.

NORRIS: Chris, it's been great to talk to you. All the best to you and your family.

ROSE: Thank you very much.

NORRIS: Chris Rose is a columnist for the New Orleans Times Picayune and a Morning Edition commentator. His book is called 1 Dead in Attic. You can read excerpts and share your porch stories at NPR.org.

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