“Katrina” sounds accusatory to me now. It used to be a comforting word.  I knew this woman named Katrina enough to ask to share her table at coffee, on one of those outrageous days when people who don’t normally drink coffee are bored or cold or whatever and they invade my coffee sanctuary as stupid as Napoleon in Russia.  Now the word is an indictment– in any tone.

So when I went to the Kemper yesterday, and saw a label for David Bates’ show that said “Katrina,” I was deflated.  I hadn’t come to an art museum to confront political realities or national catastrophes.  I didn’t find the presentation too accusatory, though.  One large panorama of black faces is confronational, for sure, but I found a variety of moods across the walls.  There were scenes of the flooded New Orleans.  The compositions and the execution were so lovely that I could only enjoy them.  The lines were nice slashy ones, like Van Gogh’s, and something of the colors reminded me of our great Thiebaud tugboat at the Nelson.

Because I found New Orleans the most romantic city on the planet (no, not Paris– too sophisticated, so you’re always slightly nervous, and not Rome, which is just sex on plates), the destruction looked romantic to me, too.  Ravaged.  You screamed through it, but you wanted it.  (Of course no one in New Orleans asked for that or wanted that, what a horrible idea! I’m just talking paintings here, in my aesthetic vaccum.)

The portraits also impressed me, technically speaking.  I can introduce colors that pull at each other, and pound my way to a composition I won’t mind looking at on my wall, but the subtleties of color mixing and juxtapositions escape me.  Bates uses the lavenders and gasoline greens on faces right where they belong, to show how interesting the planes of faces really are (at least to fellow humans).  They kept my eye busy and curious all across a gloomy visage.  The pieces stood up as paintings without any political fuel.

Maybe this is all me, though: maybe the show seems both accusatory and political to others.  I don’t find a great lesson in the Katrina disaster.  All societies have an underclass, a group denied and shuffled aside and asked to go without.  And every society treats is rich better than its poor.  We’ve come a long way toward creating more equality in human civilization.  We also have a long way to go.  I’m glad to participate in making things more equal, although I don’t expect this to cause radical or even lasting change.

What I did see something of, in the despairing faces, is the bitterness of experience, and the horror of watching things change and die.  Some people get hit with that a lot harder than others.  For some people, great loss inspires great insight.  For other people, it knocks them into a bitter, tight corner.  I understand that.  I’ve been both places.


I went straight from a Midwestern Baptist-style funeral to summer-steamed New Orleans. One minute I was singing a hymn in a pew, and hours later I was on a bus staring at the rehabbed Superdome, seeing the ghosts of the abandoned along the clean sidewalk.

I had to say some firm, abbreviated goodbyes to get out of the church and to the airport on time.  Once I was installed behind the security lines, I disciplined myself to read the newspaper, as if it were a normal day.

I was woozy with exhaustion when I finally got to the New Orleans airport.  I just had to get a ride to the hotel.  Then I could let go and sleep.  But the van was the cheapest way, and the van was a while in coming.  The van drove us by the Superdome.  That was the first I saw of New Orleans.

People had told me, It’s like Europe, and as I looked out the dotted side window, I thought, This isn’t like anything else.  The darkness of it, the narrowness that suggests age, and the patina that proves a city values history—it was strange to me.  There was nothing out those windows that said America.  Americans prefer to tear down a building just when it is getting interesting.  Americans need things opened wide.  There could be aliens or time travelers hidden in this city.  I looked for ghosts.  I saw empty lots.

I was a ghost by the time we got to my hotel.  It was the very last stop on the van’s ring-around-the rosy drop off pattern.  It was also, blessedly, in the French Quarter, in an ancient building, and not part of the dull convention center zone.  I had time for only a few hours’ sleep before my convention began the next morning.

I stumbled through the next day’s work fueled with Styrofoam cups of coffee.  Since this was a business trip, I wasn’t sure that I would partake of New Orleans’ pleasures at the end of the day.  I had a one-drink-with-the-boss limit that I’ve always strictly observed.

However, once we were installed in a piano bar, the drinks began to flow, and almost all of them were gifted to me by other members of our party, and I counted slowly: wine, wine, sazarac, sazarac…. The waiters circulated, jacketed in neat red uniforms.  The cellar walls of the bar ringed us with darkness. The man next to me slashed song titles on a napkin with ballpoint pen, checked them with me, sent them up to the performers.  And I was gleefully tipsy, while safely less drunk than my colleagues, who were singing into their straws and swordfighting with their cocktail swords.

Back at the hotel, I looked at myself in the garish glare of the mirror.  I thought of the good Christian crowd at the funeral.  Boy, if they could see me now.  I drank four cups of water, glugged them down like a trouper, and lay down to try to sleep.  It would be another night of not enough sleep, and another long day of conference sessions in frigid, plain rooms.

My last night in New Orleans, I danced in a blues bar on Bourbon Street.  It was almost empty—a slow night. They sometimes have time during the funeral when people can stand up and say something about the dead person.  I had said something about Grandma.  I told a story about her dancing, although the room was full of dancephobic conservatives.  The story might have been awkward for the crowd, but I thought it did Grandma justice.