When I arrived in New Orleans, two days after the levees broke, I was afraid that someone would hijack my rented van to get out of the city. So I drove it way uptown, piled a lot of downed oak branches on it, and walked down to the Convention Center, which was filling up with people. There, I bought a bicycle from a guy, (“Hundred dollars.” “Okay.” “Hundred and twenty!”) and used it to get around the unflooded sliver of the city until it got stolen. Then I went back to the Convention Center to buy another. (The New Yorker’s money-lady was extremely nice about this, and reimbursed me for both, sansreceipts.)
I rode down through the deserted French Quarter and into the Marigny. The place was largely, though not entirely, bereft of people. I’ve lived in Southeast Asia, but the heat and humidity those days in New Orleans were as intense as I’ve ever felt; it seemed to be wringing not only the sweat but the grease from my body. I stood and watched a tire store burn for a while, then someone mentioned that a bar was open on St. Claude Avenue, and I rode over to check it out.
It was a nasty, frightening-looking place made of black-painted cinderblocks, with a particularly unsavory crowd hanging out in front. A man with a long ponytail was barbecuing bits of chicken, and people were handing around pints of liquor getting blasted.
I should say now that I’m a bit of a puss, and really unsuited to this whole assignment (unlike Margaret, who developed a taste for combat reporting in Angola.) I’d be scared since entering the city; this place gave me the galloping willies.
Another long-haired guy jumped up, and in the tenderest of voices, said, “Here, sir, let me bring your bike inside; they’ll steal it out here.”
He took it from me and led me inside, which was a black cavern echoing with overamplified Allman Brothers. The people milling around were white and black, young and old; if they shared anything, it was that most of them looked poor. Who else would still be in the city four days after the levees broke? It was here, in Kajun’s pub, that I began understanding that many, many New Orleanians had never been out of New Orleans, had never met anybody from outside of New Orleans, hardly ever left their own neighborhood, and that the thought of being bused out possessed for them an existential terror.
A big, tough-looking woman was obviously the one in charge. She introduced herself as JoAnn Guidos, and even in these extreme circumstances she was wearing makeup and painted nails. She also had a .38 revolver jammed in the back of her jeans and a long-barrelled shotgun standing nearby. She served me an ice-cold can of Pabst and asked me for a dollar.
A dollar!” I cried. “You could be charging twenty dollars!” Finding tepid tap water was a challenge. Ice-cold beer was the elixer of the gods.
“I ain’t takin’ advantage,” JoAnn responded in the peculiar New Orleans accent that is much more Sopranos than Gone With the Wind. “And I ain’t leavin’ my people. They got noplace else to go and I’m not leavin’ ‘em.” She walked off to attend to the generator.
“JoAnn’s something, ain’t she?” the guy on the next barstool said. “She’s got all those guns and she’s telling the cops fuck you and she’s taking care of all these people and you know what? She’s got a dick.”
“Yeah, but these are real!” JoAnn called from across the room, taking her large breasts in both hands. “Forty-two double-D! I got good genes. I got the hormone therapy all done but just ain’t had the time or the money for the surgery!
I spent two days in JoAnn’s bar -- interviewing people, sleeping on the roof, because for a whle I thought I might build my entire New Yorker story around this cast of characters. Here’s the core group, assembled for a cast picture:
David Remnick came to New Orleans during the period I was hanging out at Kajun’s, and I took him over there. As we left, he said, “These people are going to be in my magazine?” I wrote a Talk of the Town piece about Kajun’s, which you can read here, and somehow the fact that JoAnn is transsexual got exised from the piece.
When I asked JoAnn, a year later, if she’d like to tell her life story for my book -- her fifty-year journey from timid-Catholic boyhood to world-beating woman -- she didn’t hesitate at all. We spoke about once a week for four months, often for three or four hours at a time. Often she said, blushing, “I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”