Piling Up the Dead
“Mortui Vivis Praecipant”
— A sign posted in the Katrina morgue at St. Gabriel: Let the dead teach the living.
It was painful to watch, even as a recreation, even if the ground truth were exaggerated for effect. There were in fact “officially” only 86 John Does at St. Gabriel by February 2006, the reality was gruesome. Causes of death on some victims was listed as “decomposition.”
But I am not here to quibble with facts but to marvel at how Simon and his team build a compelling, dramatic story around LaDonna’s search for her brother and bring out the gruesome ground truth beneath the story, just as the great historical novelists of the 19th and 20th did.
At the same time, the off-camera passing of Antoine Batiste’s mentor and following funeral were understated and told only obliquely a story just as horrific: the slow deaths that piled up upon the official Louisiana toll of 1,577. Journalist Robert Lindsay spent years following the continuing toll upon those indirectly victims of the flood – the broken-hearted elderly who died during their displacement, those who died because of the lack of medical care, the epidemic of suicides: all the other causes that fall under the clinical and statistical name “excess deaths,” the significant and well-documented anomalies in the post-Katrina death rate in New Orleans and other affected communities.
Antoine’s teacher stands in for thousands who died in the months that followed, each and every one as much a victim of the flood as Chief Lambreaux’s wild man found beneath his boat.
New Orleans has always been famous for our cemeteries, the cities within the city, avenues of raised tombs walled in by mausoleums. These are among our most popular attractions, and the day we buried blogger Ashley Morris at St. Louis No. 3 what should happen but a tour bus pulled up, and visitors stood with their cameras in uncertain amazement watching people dressed in their best clothes dancing to a brass band in an oppressive Spring heat. I wonder if any of them have watched the show, said, “when we were in New Orleans…”
Most every Thursday on my way to a poetry reading at the Gold Mine Saloon on Dauphine Street, I pass one of the popular Ghost Tours standing on the corner of Orleans and Dauphine. I have not taken one, but I understand they traffic in the more gruesome tableaux from the Musée Conti Wax Museum, the ones the buggy drivers share as they circle the quarter. After 300 years, we certainly have our share of ghosts. Those born of the flood were a palpable presence driving ruined neighborhoods, and still are today once they have touched you.
Tonight’s visit to St. Gabriel and the death of Antoine’s mentor reminds us all that here in New Orleans our ghosts and our dead are not historic drapery for the benefit of the tourist trade but something every much among us. And somewhere in that crowd the spirits of John Steinbeck and Emile Zola stand in amazed approval, acknowledging a fellow master and comrade.
— wet bank guy