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Still in tune with the city

The last time we saw them, they were frozen in the most perilous moments of their lives. From a storm that produced limitless gripping images, theirs became iconic. But we never knew the people inside the frame. A year later, we found them. They are ordinary people, trying to get back to the way ordinary used to feel.

By VANESSA GEZARI
Published August 29, 2006


People call him Mark "Tuba" Smith, and his instrument is like a part of him. He's been playing since he was a kid in the Magnolia projects in New Orleans. His sousaphone - a kind of tuba that wraps around the body - was battered and dented, wrapped in silver duct tape, with a piece of garden hose for a mouthpiece. He thought it sounded better that way.

"I love my horn," he said. "That's my life. Without the horn, there's no more me."

When he left New Orleans, the beat-up horn was one of the few things he carried. He also took a change of clothes and a few pictures of himself playing in the French Quarter. He played with the Jackson Square Band and the Tornado Brass Band, and was an original member of the Pin Stripe Brass Band nearly 30 years ago, before brass bands got big.

He ended up in an apartment in Dallas with relatives. Bruce Ward, a former volunteer programmer for WWOZ radio in New Orleans, helped him get a used sousaphone, in better shape than his old one, through the Grammy Foundation's MusiCares program.

In Dallas, Mark, 46, cooked for his relatives. He had worked as a short-order cook, so feeding people came naturally: spaghetti and meatballs, red beans, chops, meatloaf.

"I'd worry about my town, and I was just eatin' and sleepin', I didn't have a job, I couldn't play no music at night," he said. "So in order to keep the stress off me, I guess I was cheatin' myself by getting obese, by staying in the icebox too much every day."

By the time he got back to New Orleans in February, he weighed over 300 pounds and was nearly diabetic. He said he has lost most of the weight now.

At first, New Orleans seemed strange. The old spots brought back bad memories. Musicians have scattered to Atlanta, New York, Houston. Mark played in Jackson Square again, but it felt ghostly.

He got a job at Sav-A-Center, cleaning floors and bagging groceries. He played at Mardi Gras and has been picking up gigs ever since at clubs, restaurants and weekend wedding receptions. He plays When You're Smiling, Just a Little While to Stay Here, Hello, Dolly. He plays Mack the Knife. His favorite is I Ate Up the Apple Tree, a Pin Stripes signature tune.

He has been house-sitting, but soon he'll have to find his own place. He saved some money, but he lost his wallet a few weeks ago, and someone cleaned out his bank account. Rent has soared in New Orleans, and Mark can't afford it on his Sav-A-Center pay. But he doesn't want to live anywhere else.

"I love my home, I love my life, I love my city," he said. "I was born and raised here for 47 years. I ain't goin' a step."