Saturday, December 31: “This is where I got to, under this bridge.” I’m driving with Cuvée waiter Larry Nguyen across the Mississippi. He’s telling me his evacuation story. “I had one stubborn friend who wouldn’t leave.” So Larry weathered the storm with him uptown. Trees fell. A window blew out. The elderly lady across the street stood in the road and shook her hair, “defying Mother Nature.” The following morning, there was no electricity, but they had gas and running water. The neighbors were out with chainsaws, using up their fuel. Everyone thought they had dodged a bullet. Then Larry’s cellphone went crazy with texts: “Get out! The levee broke! Water is coming!”
Larry and I are on our way to the West Bank to eat Vietnamese food. The city’s largest new immigrant population, the Vietnamese settled after the fall of Saigon in Jefferson Parish and New Orleans East. West of the levee, Jefferson escaped Katrina. New Orleans East was swallowed. Now West Bank restaurants like chef Maria Vu’s Tan Dînh are busy with an influx of folks from the east. People are staying with family and friends. “We’re not afraid of living 10 or 12 to a room,” Larry says. We eat pho with beef, meatballs and tripe in a this-side-of-sweet, aromatic broth. We eat rice-flour cakes with pork loaf and carmelized shallots. We eat roasted Cornish hen with sticky-rice cakes cooked in coconut milk. A mason jar on the table is filled with Maria Vu’s housemade fish sauce. She sends us out the door with avocado and taro bubble teas.
After the storm, Larry and his friend walked downtown for news and instructions. “I heard ‘Whoosh!’” Someone had knocked out Wallgreen’s window. “People were going nuts.” The Hilton was swarming with Army and media, but no one could tell them what they should do. “So you know those big wheeled trash cans?” They filled one: Budweiser, red wine, filet mignon, lobster-and-shrimp raviolis. “The packs of batteries were all taken from the hardware store, so I pulled them out of the smoke detectors and toys. I got down on my hands and knees and reached way back on a shelf for the last four candles.”
Larry and I go to the Hong Kong Market, a sprawling suburban grocery where they make extraordinary $2 bahn mi that New Orleanians call “Vietnamese po’boys.” Chefs love the Market; there’s stuff here previously unheard of in New Orleans. Larry holds up a tub of coagulated blood for what he calls “Vietnamese pizza. You kill the duck, you cook the meat with sesame, herbs and blood, and everybody loves it!” I buy tiny, pickled eggplant. I buy a dozen quail eggs for 99 cents. I buy candied ginger, taro, coconut, chickpeas packaged in a plastic lazy Susan.
“The second day after the storm, we had no water. I said, ‘We gots to go’,” Larry continues. They walked to the Mississippi River Bridge. A truck crammed with people dumped them on the other side. Jefferson Parish was on lockdown. Cops were duct-taping people to benches. “All of a sudden, a car pulled up.” Larry knew the driver. “It was Ricardo!” Ricardo was down to a quarter-tank, and the ATMs weren’t functioning. Larry had cash; Ricardo had wheels. And that’s how Larry got to Houston.
I drop Larry off at Cuvée and drive through the Quarter. Colorful locals are posing for cameras. Hawkers are shouting, “Two-dollar shots!” In the Bywater, folks stand on the sidewalk sipping outside the wine shop Bacchanal. A military Hummer rumbles by. A puddle bubbles up from a manhole cover. “That’s the Katrina Zen pool,” someone says. Someone else says, “I was baptized in that water.” In the Upper Ninth Ward, a woman named Ruby says, “Take a picture of that wall.” The wall says “Next time we are to vote for somebody who cares.” “Take a picture of that trash,” Ruby says. “You should take a picture of those trailers because I’ve been waiting on a trailer for the looongest time, and all them are sitting up there with nobody in ‘em. Hey, you see the barge rammed into the canal yet? You should take a picture of that.”
I go the way she sends me, over the canal to the Lower Ninth Ward. Cars are upended here. Houses are cracked in two. Electrical poles lean ragged like the masts of grounded ghost ships. I head out Chef Menteur Highway. Someone told me that the Vietnamese people of New Orleans East are living out here in tents now and lighting campfires to cook. This person said, as everyone in what they call “the bubble” says, “I saw it on TV.” I drive until it’s dark. I find no campfires. I stop to ask some National Guardsmen, “Is anyone out here living in tents?” “Yeah,” they say. “We are.” A Guardsman offers me a roll and a fatty steak inside a Styrofoam box from the military caterers. He says, “It’s New Year’s Eve dinner.” I drive back into the bubble, to an Uptown party. On Magazine Street, the fog rolls in. The restaurants are full of couples. From a bar somewhere, a horn blows a mournful jazz rendition of “Auld Lange Syne.”