Post-Katrina New Orleans lacks woman’s touch
NEW ORLEANS – There were shots of Southern Comfort lined up on the bar at the Coyote Ugly Saloon in the French Quarter the other night, as usual, and the jukebox was playing a gravelly rock ‘n’ roll anthem. All would have been well in Mike Badon’s world, except for one thing.
Brassieres still dangled from the ceiling at the bar, which is famous for attracting uninhibited females, but the facts on the ground were these: To the patron’s left was a row of police officers from New York state. To his right, three burly contractors were amusing themselves by showing each other photographs on their cellphones.
In fact, the only unattached woman in earshot was the bartender, Tara, who, Badon noted grimly, was his cousin. He bought her drinks anyway, and tried to look at the bright side.
“If you weren’t my cousin,” he said, “I’d be all over you.”
Nearly three months after Hurricane Katrina barreled into New Orleans, life has flowed back into the streets of this city – but in certain areas, it is a life noticeably bereft of women. City officials guess that New Orleans now has a population of 150,000 during the day and 75,000 at night, after the commuters have left. Sally Forman, Mayor C. Ray Nagin’s press secretary, said there had been no official census and no breakdown by gender, but “there’s this strange feeling that it’s all men in town.”
The male-to-female ratio is most obvious in the French Quarter, where workers come to blow off steam in the evenings, but it crosses into other areas. Professional men – their wives and children settled elsewhere until the end of the semester – gather in threes and fours at local restaurants. On Friday afternoons, they leave the city by bus or car or airplane, staying outside the city just long enough to get a taste of family life.
Sociologist Carl Bankston III said the skew toward a male population was probably temporary – but the faster it changed, the better for the city.
“If people don’t set up households, they’re not setting up families, which means you don’t have a permanent population or a permanent tax base,” said Bankston, a professor at Tulane University. “There’s lots of construction going on, (and) theme park activities going on downtown. Neither of them are a stable basis for establishing a long-term community. That’s a matter of some concern.”
In the meantime, social life has shifted perceptibly in this most social of cities.
Brad Giacona, his hair gelled and his beard shaved into a chin strap, gazed from behind the bar at the Big Easy Daiquiri. Plastic cups stood in rows beside him. It had been a quiet afternoon.
“I tell you what, if single women come down here, they’ll find a lot of guys,” said Giacona, 23. “Put my address,” he added.
In the days after the storm, husbands and wives were forced to separate. Mothers, typically, moved to cities where they had family and friends, and where children could enroll in school. Fathers stayed in New Orleans, salvaging businesses and sorting through the wreckage.
For Kenny Rubenstein, 38, whose family owns a downtown clothing store, it has meant coming home every night to a house so utterly quiet that he hears the sounds of floorboards. His wife and three children have been living in Dallas since shortly after the storm. The other night, he heard a sound so loud that he got up to investigate: It was a squirrel, running across the roof.
There are other oddities. At his store, Rubenstein routinely encounters men paralyzed before an item of clothing, unable to make a purchase without their wives’ input. Steve Timm, 49, whose wife evacuated to Colorado with their teenage son, recalls walking into a laundromat during the period after the storm and finding himself surrounded by men. “I felt like I was at a gay bar,” he said.
It has been a time of air mattresses, bean burritos and painful separations. When Todd Wallace, a lawyer, first saw his 2 1/2-year-old son, Jackson, in Dallas after five weeks, the child had begun to speak in short sentences: “You come from New Orleans” and “I coming to New Orleans” were two of them. The boy was taller, heavier. He could say “trampoline.”
Sometimes the distance between New Orleans and anywhere else seemed unfathomable, said Nancy Timm. Over the phone, Steve would describe the panorama of destruction. On the other end of the line, she would listen.
“I kept thinking, here I am, out in Fort Collins (Colo.). I’m playing tennis, I’m going out to lunch. My mother-in-law is doing my laundry for me,” said Nancy, 49, who has now returned to her job as director of counseling at the Louise S. McGehee School. “I can’t say that I stewed in guilt, but when I look at the contrast between what I was doing and what he was doing – I am eternally grateful for everything he did.”
When they reunited for the first time, in late October, Steve had lost 15 pounds.
“There was a lot of physical labor. That was my choice,” said Timm, who runs a clothing shop. “I thought seriously about being with (the family in Colorado), but I realized I would go crazy.”
January could bring a wave of decisions for families as the first post-Katrina semester ends. The singles scene, however, is likely to stay off-kilter for a long time.
From the corner of Bourbon Street and Orleans Avenue, where he is a doorman at the Tropical Isle, James Heffernan has made a study of the male-to-female ratio. Two weeks ago, he counted 6 to 1; since then it has become less pronounced.
Still, during a five-minute period Friday night, 86 men walked by – men wearing hats made out of balloons, men in windbreakers wearing cellphones clipped to their belts, men drinking out of green plastic cups shaped like space aliens, men in government-issue camouflage. The number of women who walked by: 28.
It has proven a satisfying period for Renee Charpentier, a 39-year-old with long, straight, honey-blond hair.
“I’m loving it. There are just men everywhere, in all shapes and sizes,” said Charpentier, who works as a waitress at Cafe Maspero. “I hope the New York Police Department never go home, honey.”
Charpentier said that after spending more than two months in Houma, she returned to New Orleans to find that the social life had been transformed – and not just by the abundance of single men.
In a city where “everyone was a loner” before the storm, she said, people are seeking out companionship. Suddenly, they want to talk for hours.
Charpentier said she is going out with five men. All five are New Orleanians she knew before the storm; only afterward did the friendships turn the corner into romances.
“I am enjoying the company,” she said. “Tell ‘em to come see Renee; she’s taking applications.”
It’s been a similar windfall for Misty Robinson, who tries to buy her own drinks, but rarely succeeds more than once a night.
“I knew something was up when I was sitting in the hospital and a guy started hitting on me,” said Robinson, 25, a cashier at Cafe Beignet. “I mean, he didn’t know what I was (there) for.”