By his own admission, Chris Rose spent most of the last 10 years “reveling in the frivolity of the entertainment industry.” As a columnist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, he churned out quirky copy detailing everything from Lindsay Lohan’s behavior during a local movie shoot to his own cameo on a Britney Spears special for VH-1. The writing was as crisp as the topics were vapid; for some New Orleanians, it was the column you loved to hate. But that all changed after the levees broke and the water started to rise.
For the past year Rose has issued regular dispatches from New Orleans’ pain centers, describing up close the wonders and horrors of post-Katrina life. “I started covering the story the way it unfolded to me,” Rose said. “I’m not Mike Royko. I’m not pretending to be Everyman here. I’m just wandering through neighborhoods on foot and bike, trying to get flat tires fixed, dealing with the suicides of my friends.” In February he collected and published the first four months of those dispatches as 1 Dead in Attic. A fund-raiser of sorts (proceeds are being shared with Tipitina’s Foundation and ARTDOCS, two charities that help New Orleans artists and musicians), the book also features the work of British photojournalist Charlie Varley.
Rose, a Maryland native and University of Wisconsin graduate, joined the Times-Picayune as a crime reporter in 1994. He fled to Mississippi with his wife and three kids as Katrina approached. A week later, after learning their house had weathered the storm, Rose put his family on a plane to Maryland and went back to work in New Orleans. He set up shop on his front porch, where he was joined by fellow journalists and other neighborhood holdouts.
Watching his family board their flight in Baton Rouge inspired Rose to write his first post-flood column, “Dear America,” a letter of introduction for evacuees landing in cities across the country. At a time when some politicians questioned the worth of rebuilding, Rose defiantly basked in regional pride. “We dance even if there’s no radio,” he writes. “We drink at funerals. We talk too much and laugh too loud and live too large, and, frankly, we’re suspicious of others who don’t.”
In those early days after the hurricane, the Times-Picayune web site became a national source for Katrina news, and the response to Rose’s column was immediate and enormous. He says the first onslaught of e-mails — maybe a thousand or two — crashed his laptop. Some came from evacuees compelled to share their own stories. “I’m sure I have the largest archive of personal Katrina stories that anybody has made,” Rose said. “They’re far more devastating than anything I’ve gone through. I’ve been through some emotional hardship, but these stories are of death and destruction, sorrow and displacement.”
For some stories Rose didn’t have to look much farther than his front porch. One of the starkest columns included in 1 Dead in Attic is “Despair,” the story of two of his neighbors — a New Orleans native and her fiancé, a transplant from Atlanta — who, “in some sort of stupid Romeo and Juliet moment,” make a pact to kill themselves. Only the man goes through with it. “Another notch in Katrina’s belt,” Rose writes.
1 Dead in Attic refers to the markings that a search-and-rescue teams left on one house that Rose drove past on a weekly basis. In the column of the same name, he wonders about the person who died in that attic: “Was there anyone with him or her at the end and what was the last thing they said to each other? How did 1 Dead in Attic spend the last weekend in August in the year 2005?” But as Ernie Pyle did after the German air attacks on London, Rose manages to find beauty in the rubble. He sees hope in the Mardi Gras Indian costumes displayed in front of ravaged homes: “The colors of these displays are startling because everything else … is gray. The streets, the walls, the cars, even the trees. Just gray. So the oranges and blues and greens of the Indian costumes are something beautiful to behold, like the first flowers to bloom after the fallout.”
In another column, “Mad City,” Rose takes the city’s emotional pulse: “Everybody’s got it, this thing, this affliction, this affinity for forgetfulness, absent-mindedness, confusion, laughing at inappropriate circumstances, crying when the wrong song comes on the radio, behaving in odd and contrary ways.” Neighbors meet at the drugstore and talk about antidepressants “like they’re the soft-shell crabs at Clancy’s.”
Rose acknowledges that he wasn’t immune to the despair. At times, he writes in the book’s introduction, “all I could do was curl up on the floor, rock back and forth and howl.” He too turned to medication but says his column also helped. “It’s a great advantage to be able to creatively exorcise your pain,” he said. “There’s no measure for that. Other people go to the gym or the bar, and I think a lot of creative folks go to their muse. Then you can dump it in your readers’ laps in the morning.”
The city has slowly started to recover, but Rose doesn’t see himself returning to celebrity gossip. He says one of the biggest battles New Orleans has to face now is restoring and defending its image. “I think there’s a great cross-section of America that thinks we deserved it because we don’t castigate our gay citizens and because we embrace music and eccentricity and beer. We’ll always have that to deal with. It’s ludicrous to suggest that having Mardi Gras or going to a football game constitutes a moral affront. Survivor’s guilt gets you nowhere.”
In columns written since the book came out, Rose has rebutted editorials and news reports (including one in the Chicago Tribune) that question the wisdom of celebrating Mardi Gras or going to a Saints game when there are still wide swaths of destroyed houses and thousands of suffering people. In an open letter to Joe Theismann, published days before the reopening of the Superdome, Rose asked the ESPN commentator to tell his audience “that New Orleans is still the best city in America. Tell them to come see for themselves, that we’re happy, hopeful, joyful and celebratory still. Then tell them this: New Orleans is a broken, suffering mess, weakened and scared.”
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This story was originally
The Chicago Reader.