I’ve never been to New Orleans but my friend Casey Mclaughlin has, and when she returned she brought me a book called 1 Dead in Attic, by New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose.
The book is a collection of Rose’s columns dating from September 1, 2005, three days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana, to New Years Eve 2006. Without blinking, Rose chronicles the absolute loss of his city, including his own dismal plummet into depression. He also documents the ferocity with which he, and others, refused to accept this loss.
The title comes from a sign painted in front of a house in the obliterated 8th Ward of New Orleans. It may strike some as odd that such a slender phrase was chosen by the author to encapsulate such an engulfing tragedy, but there in lies the potency of Rose’s testament.
Many of the Katrina statistics are mind-boggling. Property damage, for instance, clocked in somewhere north of $100 Billion. I find once a given number grows so large that it ceases to have practical use in my life, it becomes difficult to grasp and thus its impact diminishes.
$100 Billion is such a figure.
By contrast, 1 Dead in Attic is a very different kind of statistic, an ad-hoc census indicating the presence of one single person in one single attic, who was alive before Katrina, but isn’t anymore.
And that’s what Rose does in his collected columns; he tells singular stories.
He tells one about walking into a salon for his first (long overdue) post-Katrina haircut and being overwhelmed by the kindness of the barber. He tells another of a mural-painter who found himself unemployed (no walls left to paint) and decided to gather other visual artists to form a house-painting crew.
And then on December 6, 2005 he published a story called “Despair” about a girl from New Orleans and her fiancée from Atlanta. She moved back to be in the city she loved, and he followed her. But Katrina got her claws in them. Rose writes:
“A few nights ago they drank wine and, in some sort of stupid Romeo and Juliet moment, decided they would kill themselves because all hope was lost and living here amid the garbage and the rot and the politics and the profound sense of failure was sucking the marrow from their bones.
“She told her friends later that she didn’t really think they would do it. Said they got caught up in the moment and let the bad stuff crawl all over their minds. But the darkness can be so damn dark, and they weren’t thinking straight. But she didn’t think they were really going to do it.
“But he did. Right then, right there.”
Before I read 1 Dead in Attic, Hurricane Katrina was an abstraction to me — something horrible that happened somewhere else. Chris Rose reminded me that we are all on this planet together, and darkness will eat you unless you eat it first.