Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Laughter & disaster at the Humming Bird

Within hours of the Times-Picayune posting a story about a man who apparently committed suicide in Chris Owens's Bourbon Street nightclub, I received a joke on an email list out of New Orleans.

There was a suicide last night at Chris Owens bar.
Some are saying she will name a new drink, The Head Shot.

From my days as an ink stained wretch in the newspaper trade I recognized this immediately. It was the dark humor common to newsrooms, police stations, firehouses. It is the coping mechanism of people who look at tragedy daily, if not hourly; people who jobs don't allow them to turn away.

It reminded immediately of one memorable light night breakfast at the Humming Bird Grill. At an adjoining six-top were crewes of Emergency Medical Technicians, having their lunch break. One of them looked to be, maybe, eighteen years old. The grand old man of the group was attacking a huge platter of scrambled eggs, and describing to the new guy the suicide who took a header out of a downtown flophouse earlier in the evening.

"His brains were all over the place," he said as he hoisted a precariously full fork of eggs up to his mouth. "They looked like, well, kinda like his," he said, waving his fork around, "like scrambled brains." Into his mouth went the quivering yellow mass.

In my last year in the newspaper business, the shuttle Challenger exploded. I still remember that day clearly. I'd been stuck attending a Terrytown Rotary Club meeting to hear a politician ramble on about a subject I've long forgotten. The meeting broke up quietly after a waiter let the word into the room about the tragedy.

I hurried back to the office in Gretna, where we had a pathetic old black-and-white television connected to Cox Cable. In the early days of CNN, I saw the contrails, the explosion, the descending bits of the ship that held seven brave souls over and over and over again.

By the time I made it to the Abbey that night, I had an extensive repretiore of Christie McAuliffe jokes. It was what we did when confronted with horror. We were a select group, inured to tragedy, able to laugh at anything.

It was how one coped with a job that depends upon the tragedy of others. How else do you handle being sent out to try and collect a photograph of the tragic teenage traffic fatality from his grieving parents, with the remains of a plane scattered where a day care center once stood, with the stuff of news.

Now, everyone in is in on the secret. You don't have to spend your nights in a squad car or ambulance, or chase them with a scanner. has created a tragedy of proportions not seen in this country since the Civil War. Thousands dead, hundreds of thousands of homes destroyed, 23,000 miles devastated (not acres, as misreported by Time magazine) .

Three months later, the thin barrier island between the river and the back swamp that makes up New Orleans today is full of people who've made it back home, or who've never left. They can buy a newspaper and a cup of coffee, can go out to lunch or dinner. I saw a report that retailers on Magazine are looking at a banner year, their best in a long time. Life, for some, is something superficially normal.

But no one back in New Orleans can escape what lurks less than a mile away from any of them. A city in ruins. The catastrophe of storm and flood are the elephant in every room, the unspoken obscenity in every conversation, the invisible stain on everything in view.

I don't live in New Orleans now. I can only glean what it is like from conversations with or emails and blog posts from friends and acquaintances. But I know living in New Orleans now is difficult beyond anything other Americans can imagine, because nothing like this has happened in America before.

Still, if you've got a home to repair or a job to go to, you have to get up and get out and cope. And people who would have been shocked by it only a few months ago are discovering the secret release of gallows humor.

I wasn't distressed to receive the joke about the suicide at Chris Owens. I was surprised it had taken so long to get one.

Well said. A group of friends and I had planned a trip to Charlotte to see the Saints play on September 11. Just like everyone else, we were scattered following Katrina, but we managed to pull four of us together to go to the game. It was a lot of fun, but everyone we met was just confused that we could be laughing after all the tragedy that had come upon our city. Two of us lost our homes in the flooding, and a third lost his job. I told more than one person that it was because of the tragedy that we were able to enjoy ourselves so much. I don't think they understood.

Keep up the fine writing and insights.
My God -- you know, I used to work at the NOPD (COMSTAT crime mapping). I swear I think I heard that story repeated.

Thanks for reminding me about the Hummingbird? Those were the days!

Hey, what does a dumb schmuck like me get to be an ink-stained wretch in the paper business? I'm pretty fed up doing computer work, and journalism was actually my first choice for a major. I switched to history because I didn't think any of my journalism instructors knew anything more about the world than how to write a lede.

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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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