New Orleans Skin
In 2009, New Orleans was rebuilding its spirit at the same time I was rebuilding mine. I never knew pre-Katrina New Orleans, only its aftermath: destruction and redemption on the bodies of crippled buildings; high water marks like blood on gravestones. The splintered and abandoned double shotgun cottages in the lower Ninth Ward. The Treme’s orange and purple shutters bursting through shambles. The houses: Glimpses of brightly colored ghosts, all dressed up for a parade.
My Mom died of Cancer and I was numb, gutted and alone. I flew to New Orleans from Los Angeles to strip my way through the last year of grad school because I heard there was still money in the topless clubs in the French Quarter.
I placed my past and future on Royal Street and followed it to a foreign place. California had been my Mom: Redwoods and fog and the Pacific Ocean full of fresh crab that filled pottery bowls at Christmas. I’d scattered her ashes off a Mayan temple in Tikal and ended up in a hospital with Typhoid fever. Doctors shoved a needle in my spine and I was quarantined. I projectile vomited and the migraines were back. I needed to get strong again.
>In New Orleans, I found traces of the hurricane in the buildings and in the faces of locals. I elbowed my way through the mob on Bourbon Street, which smelled like Red Bull puke, fried fish and beignets. Broke and anonymous, I carried my bag of g-strings and stilettos through the crowd, sucking the hot, wet heat into my new motherless skin. I passed by a man painted silver, posed as a statue on a ladder in a striped suit, defying gravity. I wanted to grab his face and say, “Let’s not stay frozen. Let’s crack together.” I put two dollars in his tip bucket and walked the rest of the way to The Bruiser on Bourbon Street to work.
Here. In the lap of New Orleans, is the Superdome. Construction began in 1971, one year after I was born. It’s the largest fixed dome structure in the world. Once inside, you can’t see the outside world. It was built with no windows.
Outside the Super Dome in August, 2005 were unstoppable rains, whipping winds, dead rats and howling dogs. Rescue workers slept in abandoned cars in parking lots. With fake government ID’s, they went looking for bodies. Scraps of wood that were homes splintered on the ground, covered in sludge. In the wet darkness were piles of abandoned beds and towers of garbage collapsed in the underwater muck. The thing you would hear is the animals howling all night, they said.
In 2005, inside the Dome were over 20,000 evacuees on tiny cots. Sleeping and not sleeping in two inches of urine at the 50-yard line. Putrid waste. Hungry half clothed people writhing in the incredible heat. Kids cried for their dogs and cats who were left in an elementary school in St. Bernard’s Parish, entrusted to local policemen who immediately shot them. A power outage sent a rod crashing through the Super dome’s surface. A gash in it’s golden skin.
In 2009, the Dome held over 76,000 ecstatic Saint’s fans. It was the year the Saints couldn’t lose. I’m not a sports fan. Never have been. At home, it was my Dad who howled for the 49ers. Joe Montana was a household name but in the dank mosquito hole of Visions, with plasma screens on the walls, I threw my arms around every toothless obese local in the room, and yelled along with them, while they blew cigar smoke in my cleavage and Drew Brees threw five touchdown passes against the Patriots, becoming the first player in more than thirty-four years to average more than sixteen yards per attempt in a game.
I danced in a g-string the size of a thread on the bar in Visions and averaged over six hundred bucks per night. The Saints kept winning. Their velocity couldn’t be halted. Their performance caused contagious joy that held the city in a collective kiss. Parades, pralines and gold and black streamers and bands filled the streets. In the hot night were screams of unbridled joy and bands that played, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
I rented a cozy apartment in Algiers Point, a white enclave in a predominantly black neighborhood where those eleven guys were murdered trying to get to dry ground during Katrina. On a Sunday, I rode the free ferry across the Mississippi into the French Quarter. A fragile, elderly woman decorated in black and gold Saints pins walked with a cane onto the ferry.
“How’d the Saints do today?” I asked her.
“We kicked some ass baby,” she said. I ran on the levy along the brown river every afternoon to the sound of cicadas and filled the gap in my heart with New Orleans and made it my home. In Algiers Point, I finished my thesis paper for school. I wrote a lecture. I handed in my final manuscript. I ate crawfish and lap danced and paid my bills and stayed a lot longer than I’d planned. I allowed my grief to leak into my writing. I began to heal from the loss of my Mom. I finished grad school.
When the Saints returned from playing away games, thirty thousand locals welcomed their team at the airport. New Orleans has a higher crime rate than any other city in the U.S., but during Saint’s games, there were no murders and the crime rate plummeted.
One night at Visions, two huge guys came into the bar and sat down. Thighs like concrete blocks. Necks big as my waist. Bandanas tied around their foreheads. I figured these guys were trouble. Drug dealers. “What do you do?” I asked one of them. They looked at each other. One shrugged.
“How old are you?” He took my jaw in his hands and moved it side to side. “Don’t tell me. You’re 32.”
“Wow. You’re good,” I said. I was actually pushing thirty-eight.
“You just won yourself a topless dance,” I said. Later, in the dressing room, the girls were a-flutter. “That’s number 97 and number 99!” one girl squealed and showed me the guys bio’s on her phone.
When the Saints played the Vikings in the playoffs, we strippers held hands and stared up at the TV and prayed for yardage. The game was tied which meant that the first team to score was going to the Super bowl. The way to determine who got the ball first was a coin toss. The coin toss has always been controversial because the stakes are high and the game is left entirely to chance, which is the same thing as magic. “Have faith,” Christy said, looking at the screen and grasping my hand tight. The referee tossed the coin and the Saints won; the spirit of New Orleans changed the game, the magic belonged to New Orleans. The Saints kicked a field goal, pushing ahead three points for the victory. All of us screamed and jumped and hugged. The bartenders, security guards, floor managers and customers all held their bellies and cried, doubled over in gushing, full bodied joy, with tears rolling down their cheeks. The Saint’s had never been to a Super Bowl. Ever. There were parades all night in the streets and I danced in the club until the sun came up.
>In 2010, the New Orleans Super Dome was given a paintjob to restore the luster of its original “champagne bronze” color. The renovation repaired the damage that occurred during Katrina. The Dome was also given new windows, allowing views into and out of the building and it has a shiny, gold metallic skin, without a trace of damage, but I know it’s there bubbling inside of the joy, glistening like a blazing sun.
Antonia Crane is a sex worker and freelance journalist from Humboldt County. Her essays have appeared in Black Clock, Word Riot, The Whistling Fire, The Coachella Review, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Rumpus Women Vol 1 and lots of other places. She is contributing columnist for The Rumpus and has been working hard on her memoir, SPENT. She lives in Los Angeles with her cats and earns her keep pole dancing in New Orleans. She holds an MFA from Antioch and she blogs at antoniacrane.com.