In late 2003 I started collecting obituaries from the Metro section of the local New Orleans newspaper, the Times Picayune. The single criteria for inclusion was that the deceased must have a nickname of distinction, something capable of eliciting a giggle or a frown or a raised brow. Admittedly, it’s an odd thing to collect, and in its mounted form on my kitchen wall, the hundreds of pinned clippings would often serve as a point of conversation and, occasionally, disapproval. I never felt that the collection was disrespectful to the dead or to their families. The people of New Orleans are death obsessed, and for better or worse, I suppose that I am too.
I liked these obits because they captured snippets of lives that are a reflection of the community I love. New Orleans in the pre-Katrina world was full of characters that you’d sooner expect to read about in a Flannery O’conner short story than meet in real life. These scraps of paper survived Katrina in my beaten up Mid City home, and as I gaze on them now, they are a poignant reminder of what’s been lost. Infrastructure can be rebuilt with money, sweat and time. Social structure is a more complicated endeavor.
With 80% of the town still in forced exile a full 3.5 months after Katrina, I wonder how “Tangle Eye” would have done in Salt Lake City or how Mr. “Dolomite” would have been received in Minneapolis. I imagine “Rabbit Carwash” working as a detail technician in Bose, Montana and I fear for his life. And what about the next generation of “Puddins” and “Stumpies” and “Mumbles” and “Roundheads”?. How are they making out right now?
As my friend Ian McNulty recently confessed to me in a moment of clarity, many of us live in New Orleans not by choice but because we can’t function anywhere else. The reality is not that extreme. The pre-Katrina city was unique because it allowed people to be their true eccentric selves. A lot of the New Orleans evacuees will certainly succeed in moving on and finding jobs and creating successful lives in other cities, but will those cities allow them to be “Snake” or “Baudy Man” or “Betty Boo”?.
I have my doubts.
PS: A word on the title. "Didn't He Ramble" is a song frequently played at Jazz funerals just after the dirge comes to an end and the body is carried off to a final resting place. It's a vibrant tune, great for parading through the streets.
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