A City of People Unnoticed

Five years on from Katrina, Nathaniel Rich takes a snapshot of a city that’s still making a living from daring to be different

Mr Okre, courtesy of Diane Bock

On the corner of Ursuline and Royal, an obese prostitute withdraws her breasts, one by one, from her shirt and she exhibits them to a Budweiser deliveryman in the hope of a free bottle. The man, emerging from his truck with several boxes of beer, pretends not to see her. He drops his cargo off at a deli, which sells it to tourists, who drink it from clear plastic cups and then freely urinate in the middle of the street.

New Orleans is a city of such profligate madness that milder expressions of derangement rarely elicit a reaction. It is not uncommon, for instance, for a band of drunks to close down an avenue for their own private parade.

They are doing nothing illegal; they’ve filed a permit months in advance, paid the fee, and are even accompanied by a police escort. In the Lower Ninth Ward, a man mows his yard and mends the iron fence that surrounds his property. He does not care that his is the only house on the block, and one of the few houses within a half-mile, or that his property is surrounded by weeds higher than his head and other, stranger vegetation that seems visibly to grow higher by the day in the subtropical heat. Before his neighbourhood was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina five years ago, his was one of 10 houses on the street and neighborhood kids rode their bicycles on roads that were still flat.

For a while I lived on St Philip Street in the Bayou St John, an area in the middle of the city that was as quiet as it was hot. The only sounds were the brief astonished noises you heard when a person left the air-conditioned sanctuary of his house and, before reaching the air-conditioned sanctuary of his car, was exposed to the elements.Sometimes you’d hear a burst of manic laughter; other times it would be a long, miserable sigh or a shout muffled almost instantly by humidity that prevented any excessive motion. The only other noise that disrupted the tranquility of St Philip Street was a deep voice on a loudspeaker reciting an incantation: “I got oranges and bananas. I got eating pears. I got collard greens…”

“4907 Magazine Street, was rented by Mr and Mrs Lee Harvey Oswald from May through September of 1963. They paid $65 a month”

I pulled open the blinds to see a truck rolling down the block at a pace slower than a man’s gait. It was as if even the automobile couldn’t bear to exert any excessive energy, lest the gas tank combust. The truck was painted red and black, its hubcaps pastel green. The flatbed was loaded with cardboard boxes filled with tomatoes, onions, garlic, peaches, and red plums. On the side of the truck it was written, in large green bubble letters:


I ran into the street, absorbed the first blow of heat, then caught up with the truck. I selected three tomatoes, an onion, and two pears, dropped them into a plastic bag, and approached the driver’s side window.

There was Mr Okra: an enormous man in a white wife-beater with a stomach that took up most of the cab. In one hand he held a megaphone; the other he extended out of the window, palm up. He glanced several times between me and the plastic bag, performing some bit of mental algebra. “Seven dollars,” was his final judgment. Not a bargain by any means, but Mr Okra did not seem like a man to be haggled with. The truck recommenced its slow rumble. No one else came out to join us. “I have onions. I got oranges and bananas…”

When I moved to Magazine Street several months ago, I couldn’t help but notice a peculiar turquoise house one block away. The second floor appeared to be boarded up, but the front door was always open.

The porch was crowded with items that looked like they were salvaged from a landfill: a sunken couch, covered desultorily by a dirty blanket, cardboard boxes, fuel canisters, a ladder, a toaster oven. Inside there were more boxes and furniture. I couldn’t find anyone who knew the residents, but I did learn that this house, 4907 Magazine Street, was rented by Mr and Mrs Lee Harvey Oswald from May through September of 1963. They paid $65 a month.

Their first floor apartment has a long living room, a screened-in front porch, and a fenced-in yard right on the street. A photograph taken of Oswald in that yard, posing with the rifle he used to shoot John F Kennedy, made the cover of Life magazine the following year.

Left: Lee Harvey Oswald’s old house on Magazine Street. Right: Oswald in his backyard, Magazine Street. This image was used as the cover for Life Magazine, 21 Feb. 1964

Older patrons of Henry’s Uptown Bar, which stands directly across the street from my house, still tell stories about Oswald. In August of 1963, shortly after he was arrested for handing out ‘Fair Play for Cuba’ pamphlets on Canal Street, he showed up and asked the bartender – Henry – to turn the television to the news. Henry refused him: the TV was only for sports. Oswald stormed out in rage. Henry shrugged.

At a bar near Tulane, the bartender, Monty, asked whether I needed furniture for my new house. He recommended looking for estate sales.

People were dying all the time in the greater New Orleans area, he said, and many of them were without family or relations. Monty appeared to have expertise in estate sales. I asked him what he bought at estate sales. Rare books, he said. “My mother is an antiques collector. I never had much interest in that. But I did notice that sometimes she sold books. They’d go for a lot of money, too. I couldn’t believe it.”

He began scouting local estate sales but soon went further afield. At a garage in Scottsdale, Arizona he found a first-edition copy of Through the Looking-Glass, thrown into a box with a bunch of other old books. Worried that he might alert the owners to the presence of the book, he bought the entire box for $50. “They didn’t know what they had,” he says, shaking his head, still in disbelief.

In Chicago he found the first English translation of Dante’s Inferno and bought it for $200. It’s worth $9,000. Monty keeps his books locked up in a flood-proof vault on the second floor of his house. A friend of his, a carpenter, constructs airtight boxes for each book. He never sells the books, though – they’re a long-term investment. “It’s my retirement fund,” he says.

I wondered whether his collection had a specific focus. Were there certain authors or books that he sought more than others? Certain eras in literary history? He gave me a stagnant look, as if he had taken a sip of sour beer and was trying to figure out where to spit it. “I don’t read them,” he said. “They’re investments.” He seemed suddenly concerned that I hadn’t been listening to him at all.

“‘Name one good book that hasn’t been made into a movie’, he said, crossing his arms over his chest. ‘Name One’. I conceded this point and stepped out into the bright, white heat”

“You don’t read any of them?” I asked.

“Why would I?” He took a different tack. “If I want to know what a book’s about, I watch the movie. Why waste two weeks on something when you can see the movie in two hours? Waste of my time.”
“Not all books are made into movies you know.”Monty grinned. Now he knew he had me beat. “Name one good book that hasn’t been made into a movie,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest. “Name one.”

I conceded his point and stepped out into the bright white heat. It was enough to dazzle the brain. I almost missed the sight of a very tall, slender black man in a white suit with red shoes and red socks. He walked right by, a guitar slung over his shoulder. I’d like to say that he lifted his cap as he passed, but I suspect he didn’t even see me.

Nathaniel Rich is an author and essayist. His most recent novel The Mayor’s Tongue is available now