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Chris Rose speaks for the people of New Orleans. But at what cost?
By Rebecca Catalanello, Times Staff Writer
Published August 19, 2007
1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina
By Chris Rose, Simon & Schuster, 364 pages, $15
NEW ORLEANS - Chris Rose became the voice of New Orleans the day he penned that letter.
"Dear America," he scribbled on his left arm as he absorbed the fear and sadness worn on the faces of hundreds pouring in and out of a Baton Rouge airport. "I suppose we should introduce ourselves. We're South Louisiana."
In 600 words published in the Times-Picayune on Sept. 6, 2005 - then reprinted in 40 newspapers, posted on dorm room doors, tacked to cubicles and forwarded from e-mail to e-mail - the newspaper columnist said with humor and heartache what New Orleanians scattered across the country could not collectively voice through their shock, homelessness and grief:
"When you see us now and you look into our eyes," he wrote, "you will see the saddest story ever told. Our hearts are broken into a thousand pieces. But don't pity us. We're gonna make it. We're resilient. After all, we've been rooting for the Saints for thirty-five years. That's got to count for something."
The first time I read those words, I was in Baton Rouge. Sept. 10, 2005. After 10 days reporting my hometown's horror, Baton Rouge was the first stop on what I termed the "evacuation rounds" to see my sleep-deprived family, dispersed to other towns.
The saddest story ever told was everywhere. When I walked up the driveway of my stepbrother's Baton Rouge home, and I got close enough to see it in their eyes, I reached for my mama's neck. "Do you know what I saw?" I wanted to ask when the tears started to come.
It's the same look I saw in Rose's eyes last week when he turned from the counter at the crowded Maple Leaf bar. His tired brown eyes searched mine for a second, long enough for my stomach to flip when I sensed this man might be broken.
Please don't be broken, I thought.
In one way, it seems almost inappropriate the way Rose, a 47-year-old father of three, became one of the city's most recognizable names. And, trust him, he gets that. "Natural disaster is a great career move for somebody in my line of work," he said wryly as the Rebirth Brass Band prepared to take the stage.
For 21 years before Aug. 29, 2005, Rose wrote to a low-volume fan base about politics, economics and, most recently, celebrities colliding with the sweaty funkiness that is New Orleans.
For a class clown who grew up in Chevy Chase, Md., thought Springsteen wrote Born to Run about him and grooved to the Neville Brothers long before he ever stepped foot on Louisiana soil, New Orleans made sense, a "let-it-all-hang-out, make music, make art, make love kind of city" that attracts back-row students and makes them unfit to live anywhere else.
But the water that rushed into the city changed everything. Besides killing almost 2,000 people, destroying homes and exiling thousands, it infused Rose with a voice of authority about his city. It elevated his stature in the community from household name to favored brother.
It is all chronicled in 1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina, a compilation of two years of columns written with a raw elegance that captures the manic-depressive journey New Orleanians have been on ever since. Rose self-published the first year of columns under the same title last year, selling 65,000 copies and nabbing the attention of New York publishing houses.
His stories track life after storm, from traveling to his parents' home in Maryland with nothing but a suitcase of naked Barbie dolls for his kids, to breaking down at the Winn-Dixie while stumbling to explain to the cashier that the reason he wanted to pay for the bottle of mouthwash and have it returned to the shelf was because he took one months earlier, when there were no stores open and desperation clashed with personal ethics.
"I get it, baby," he recounts the clerk saying. "And she gently took the bottle from my hands and I gathered my groceries and walked sobbing from the store."
Rose is indignant and humble and prideful and angry at the right times. In September 2006, he refers to suddenly elusive Mayor Ray Nagin only as "Car 54." When the Superdome reopens and the Saints crush the Atlanta Falcons, the victory is crazy exhilarating as Rose collides in a group hug with strangers.
As the first Mardi Gras approaches and everyone discusses the merits of continuing the celebration, he mocks the national media's simplistic take: "THEY think we're drunk, insouciant, lascivious and racist. . . . But is anybody going to point out that 98 percent of the people flashing and taunting for beads on Bourbon Street are from THEIR hometowns?"
Rose is one of the lucky who live uptown, now known somewhat disdainfully by those elsewhere as "the sliver by the river" because it was spared widespread flooding. His architectural losses amounted to a cypress-pummeled swing set, a broken door and a loose gutter.
But he can't stop looking. In the early days, he finds himself driving through the destruction intentionally. One route takes him past 2214 St. Roch Ave., where rescuers with spray paint proclaimed "1 Dead in Attic" on the front of the house. "One of us," he writes.
It was no surprise to his loyal readers when, last October, Rose penned the longest column of the collection, "Hell and Back." It recounts his spiral into depression, a state that for much of his life he considered "pretty much a load of hooey."
"I thought antidepressants were for desperate housewives and fragile poets," he confesses.
Readers and colleagues have repaid him for his fearless voice. He was part of the team awarded two Pulitzer Prizes for its Katrina coverage. He was a Pulitzer finalist for his columns. The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer secured him as a regular commentator. Hollywood bought the movie rights.
The irony can be oppressive. "I'm doing all this stuff that I not only always dreamed of doing, but which also never occurred to me to dream of doing," he said, the moody blue light on the Maple Leaf's back patio exaggerating his smile lines. "But it's pretty hard to enjoy this. Because basically, the whole thing is a phenomenon of an enormous catastrophe."
Rose told me he's off antidepressants. Last winter, convinced they weren't working, he substituted pain medication and became addicted. He's out of rehabilitation and is going through a divorce from his wife of 11 years - news not likely to sit well with people like my flooded-out aunt from Gentilly, who has long been a fan and, as fans do, formed strong opinions about a celebrity's life. "No one uptown gets it except Chris Rose," she told me last year.
"It would be easy to lay this blood on the hands of Katrina," Rose writes in the introduction to his new collection, "though there is more, much more, to the story. There always is."
Things that were weak before the storm had a hard time surviving afterward, he says. Branches dangling from rotted trees crashed to the ground. Many who were emotionally fragile before the storm took their lives, and those who tended toward melancholy became clinically depressed.
He has stopped writing about himself in his columns because things have shifted so dramatically. So far, the Times-Picayune hasn't published details about his sister's battle with leukemia. Rose was a bone marrow transplant match, but he had to enter rehab before they could go through with it. She died before the procedure could take place.
It makes me sad to hear these things. Just as I'm rooting for my hometown to survive and be better and stronger, and for the murder rate to drop, and for its leaders to follow in the footsteps of countless determined individuals who are rebuilding out of sheer passion so that the city can keep rocking and rolling and bowling, I'm rooting for Rose.
His words kept a city afloat when it seemed no one understood. Others took their Pulitzers and families to more prestigious papers in healthier cities without miles of crumpled houses, where mental health professionals are in less demand.
He said that as soon as he sent his book's introduction to Simon & Schuster, he regretted including personal details about his divorce and addiction. He doesn't feel like a victim, and he doesn't want others to perceive him as such.
Like most things here, it is what it is. Hell, New Orleanians tell grocers their deepest secrets.
There's more work to do and, as Rose illustrates, telling the ugly, terrible and still somehow glorious tale of life in New Orleans is an essential toil.
"To raise up a great city, a great region, from ruin," he wrote on the eve of 2007. "To defy the odds, the naysayers (and the forgetters), and live life to its richest possibilities . . . We choose to be in that number. To go marching on."
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or email@example.com.
1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina
By Chris Rose, Simon & Schuster, 364 pages, $15
On the Web
Listen to Chris Rose read from his book at life.tampabay.com.
[Last modified December 14, 2007, 22:17:26]