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'The tiniest bit' 

Unbearable memories of grace in the Emerald City

I never made it to the makeshift morgue. I was headed there, believe me, pretty much the minute our empty plane landed at the New Orleans airport. It would be awhile until our group of people would be cleared for evacuation, we were told, and I am, after all -- probably above all -- morbidly curious.

We were warned before we took off from Atlanta about the state of the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, told to "prepare ourselves," as the entire B Concourse had been converted into a rudimentary morgue. On the way there, a Federal Air Marshal further expounded that "morgue" might not be the right word. "Dumping ground is more like it," he said, as bodies had been simply shunted in that area, some still slumped in the airport wheelchairs that had been commandeered as provisional gurneys to get them there. Once we landed, it would be six hours before our people would be ready to leave. "You can wait here," he told me. "You don't need to go out there. The place is contaminated." Upon arrival, I was the first one off the plane.

I've always been that way. Even against my better judgment, I seldom pass up a chance to ogle catastrophe, dead bodies in particular. My own father's funeral was open-casket, and my mother graciously gave us, her teenage kids, the option of not viewing him in that state. "You can wait here," she said. I was the only one of my siblings who went in. I stood with him a long while, wondering if I could run my fingers through his hair. Finally I did. It was his hair all right, and I was surprised that his hair was there but he was not. In the end, I wish I hadn't seen him like that, I wish my last memory of him could have been the last time I saw him alive, when he was making cocktail sauce, adding the horseradish very gingerly. "You just need the tiniest bit," he said. "The tiniest bit is enough. It flavors everything else."

He was from Birmingham, and he used to talk about New Orleans like it was some kind of Emerald City, an enchanted wonderland. Even during his surprise last days, he used to constantly recount how he once saw Louis Armstrong at Preservation Hall. "You walk down the street," he used to say, "and you hear music coming out of every doorway. I heard that trumpet and walked inside, and there he was." It was like my father lived on that memory, kept it protected like a treasured talisman, and pulled it out often to ward off the harshness of a world that would relegate a man who loves music and the magic of New Orleans to an efficiency apartment and a job at a used car lot adjacent to LAX.

So when I was 16, I went to New Orleans and decided to stay a good while, moving in with my hotel's maid when I ran out of money. One night I took her to Gunga Din's on Bourbon Street to watch the mangy drag queens insult the audience. Her name was Shirley and she had an Afro like a perfect daffodil, and that one tiny bit that I did -- "taking her out on the town," as she called it -- was enough to brightly color the rest of our relationship. After that, she refused to charge me rent anymore. "You keep your money," she insisted, and I am still astounded by her kindness. On another day, we walked through the French Quarter and stopped to listen to a child play the violin on the street corner. A crowd formed, and an elderly man asked Shirley to dance. He spun her through the street in beautiful, pitch-perfect ballroom maneuvers, his posture so erect and his face so proud, his steps so achingly graceful. In light of Hurricane Katrina, it is an almost unbearable memory.

Today, the New Orleans airport is a lot like the city itself; dead but not dead, animated by oddities that should not be there, like the National Guardsman who pulled the jetway to our plane, and the tented "hospital" on the tarmac where actual surgeries are performed, and the Red Cross workers, and the makeshift morgue. Most people have a gun or a badge or both, and those who don't, the minority, are evacuees. They wander aimlessly in clothes that are not theirs and, oddly, almost all of them are wearing brand new baseball caps bearing industry logos.

I did not make it to the morgue because a truck had pulled up a few hours beforehand with a litter of 16 puppies, which were each almost immediately adopted by disaster workers, who then walked them on improvised leashes throughout the atrium. It was probably almost the only thing that could have brought light into the eyes of these bereft people, and in the end, that was worth seeing more than a makeshift morgue.

You wonder about the world, the sorrow and loss, how lasting that is, how thick and insurmountable it seems, and then you see puppies. And then you remember how an elderly gentleman once danced in the street with a kindhearted cleaning lady -- held her in his arms like the perfect daffodil that she was -- and you remember the beauty of that, the aching grace of that, and suddenly you realize the tiniest bit is enough. The tiniest bit flavors the rest.

Hollis Gillespie's second book, Confessions of a Recovering Slut: And Other Love Stories (Regan Books) is now available. Her first book, Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales From a Bad Neighborhood (Regan Books) is available in paperback. Her commentaries can be heard on NPR's "All Things Considered."

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