New Orleans: One year on

On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Over 1,500 people were killed. One year on, amid fierce fighting over the city's regeneration, widespread disillusionment with the state and federal authorities and with hundreds of thousands of residents still displaced, New Orleans is gearing up to commemorate the storm.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Portraits of a city: Denise Russell

When I first pushed open the door of Jim Russell’s Four Star Record Store on Magazine Street and came across Denise, she was gaping in horror at the TV. The Food Channel was showing two apron-clad women cheerily spreading dollops of mayonnaise onto a freshly-grilled corn-on-the-cob, and from the expression on her face it was clear that Denise considered this to be tantamount to heresy. From her rickety perch by the counter she glanced around for support. With the shop’s only other customer having disappeared round the back in search of some obscure LPs, her eyes fell on me.

“Could you eat that?” she demanded incredulously, jabbing her cigarette at the screen. I readily admitted that I couldn’t. Apparently satisfied with that answer she inhaled another lungful of smoke, swung off her stool, and asked me what I was looking for.

Her store is wonderfully large and cavernous, with peeling walls dotted with colourful posters advertising David Bartholomew and Jody Williams gigs from bygone days. The records sprawl out in every direction, slotted away in rows of wooden boxes or heaped up in dusty piles on the in the corner. It came to life in the 1950s after Jim Russell, Denise’s father-in-law, was fired from his job as a DJ on a country and western radio station in Canton, Ohio for playing R&B over the airwaves. “He barricaded himself in there,” says Denise proudly. “They had to call the fire department to come and get him out.”

After moving to New Orleans, Jim became a major fixture in the local music scene. “He started getting all the artists and DJs in the town together, pushing them and promoting their music. He was putting white people in black clubs and black people in white clubs and constantly going to jail for it.” The store started out as a wholesaler, with Jim hand-delivering records in his little ice-cream van, but eventually he threw open the doors to the public.

Denise, who was born in New Orleans, grew up with a passion for music and started working in the store soon after marrying Jim’s son. “My parents didn’t segregate music, cos’ both of them were music lovers,” she explained. “Growing up in that environment, I listened to everything because they listened to everything. To this day the only thing I don’t listen to is classical. That and country, the real country yodelling stuff,” she grinned.

Denise talks to me between fielding phone calls from family members and long-distance customers, New Orleans natives checking in with their favourite record shop from distant outposts in Houston or Atlanta. Loud and confident, she effortlessly switches from passionately recounting her story, retaining eye contact as she dredges up the memories, to darting out into the store to help the trickle of customers passing through the door. She knows everyone and everything about the shop and the music it sells; like a cool but geeky professor she has complete mastery over her subject.

The store was always popular with locals before the storm and thrived on the loyalty of regular customers, many of whom relied on Denise to guide their taste in music. “I had one guy come in once – he’s of colour – and he ended up buying the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ soundtrack. He came in again the next day and I tried to guess what direction he was going in, so I gave him a Metallica CD and he just loved it!” After plying him with more heavy metal albums, the customer is now an avid rock and roll fan. “Now when he comes in I don’t know what he’s gonna ask for – he came by the other day and asked me for Beethoven’s symphony number five and I just had to shrug,” Denise laughed. “But he said he loved Beethoven cos’ he was deaf, and it was amazing he had managed to produce all this music. So now he gets his kicks from classics.”

For Denise, the memories of last year are shot through with pain – both because of the harrowing experience of evacuation and due to the difficult time they’ve had since returning to New Orleans. When weather reporters abruptly revised their forecasts and announced Katrina was heading straight for Louisiana, Denise and her husband started piling the records on top of each other, covering them with plastic to protect their livelihood. By 8am the following morning the two of them had gathered together their three children as well as Denise’s parents, her father-in-law and her sister-in-law and they all headed out of the city in three cars. Two hours later Mayor Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation.

“We were stuck in the jams to Baton Rouge when some guy came on the radio and said it was clear sailing all the way to Natchez, and all the hotel rooms were available there. So we turned around, drove an hour and a half out of our way to Natchez, but there were no hotel rooms,” recalled Denise. With the hurricane making landfall, it was too late to turn back. The family spent the night in the car in a parking lot outside one of the hotels. “Natchez wasn’t hit by the storm, but we could feel the hurricane in the air and we knew it was hitting New Orleans. And all night it was just rainin’ and rainin’ on the roof of the car. That was real scary.”

A customer comes over looking for some Kermit Ruffin and Denise winds her way through the maze of CDs stretching before us, homing straight in to the right album. When she sits back down and continues with her story, her voice is lower but far more intense.

Huddled together in the cars, the family was waiting desperately for news of Denise’s brother-in-law and his wife, who was nine months pregnant. They eventually discovered she had gone into labour on the highway whilst escaping Katrina, and joined them at the hospital. “It was so crazy while we were there,” she said, looking down. “People were just yelling, everyone was arguing and miserable, we were all tired, worn out, hurt, devastated, and at each other’s throats. Nothing was getting better. And I just wanted to come home.”

They all wound up in Grenada, a tiny Mississippi town about ninety miles south of Memphis. With the hotels full, a local tycoon called Dynamite Kirk took pity on the family and installed them in his hunting cabin in the nearby woods. “It was so gorgeous. You could see deer, and at night it was so dark you could see every star in the sky, even the Milky Way.” Denise shook her head. “But we couldn’t get no radio station at this place and they only had 2 TV channels. We were losing touch with reality.”

Marooned in this strange environment and insulated from the world she had always known back in New Orleans, Denise found her sanity slipping away. “The people were very friendly, they’d give you the shirt off their back they felt so sorry for you. But I was just getting stir-crazy. I mean even things like the food were driving me mad. We’re used to eating well but this was a real small place with only one proper restaurant and they served everything with pork and beans. I mean everything. And sometimes you just felt like, ‘You know what? I don’t wanna eat fish with pork and beans.’”

She giggled to herself at the memories. “They tried to make us red beans and rice once to make us feel at home. We didn’t wanna hurt their feelings but it was terrible. It was like this soupy chicken broth thing.” A middle-aged black man who is trying out some records on an old gramophone player next to us grimaces in agreement. Denise nodded at him. “We had to get back to our hotel and flush that thing down the toilet.”

Denise returned in October to some incredible stories. Her 84-yr old grandma, who was paralysed on one side of her body, had been forced to swim to safety out in Waveland after floodwaters rose up to her neck. “She swears that her left leg moved,” said Denise. And her uncle, whose house had been destroyed in nearby Bay St Louis, had been called up by a woman who had found his graduation class ring in her garden fifteen miles away. “He had kept it up in the attic but just like everything else it flew or floated away. But this woman, who lived all the way in Diamondhead across the bay, she had picked it up and saw his name engraved on it and tracked him down.”

The winds had torn holes in the store’s roof and rain had corroded some of the labels, but apart from that things weren’t too bad, particularly because neighbours had protected the place from looters. And after they reopened business was initially good. “The phone’s were ringing off the wall, with people saying ‘Thank God you’re still here’. But after Wal-Mart (the supermarket behemoth with a branch down the road) also reopened earlier this year, sales at Jim Russell’s plummeted. “I need to make around $600 a day to cover my running costs and make a profit,” Denise said. She shows me her meticulously handwritten sales book. Page after page tells the same story - $290 here, $145 there, and then one disastrous day when she only sold three records. “It’s horrible,” she said, snapping the book shut and reaching for another cigarette. “A lot of locals who used to come in lost so much music and want to replace it, but they can’t take it all the way back to Texas. Also, a lot of them have FEMA trailers, and they don’t want to clog ‘em up with music. And some people are still waiting for money to come through so they can replace their stuff.”

Denise is convinced that the nearby Wal-Mart sent scouts round to her store – they are now stocking records by lesser-known artists like Martin Sease and hoovering up what little business remains in a city gutted of its population. Her long-term boycott of the Wal-Mart empire was tested to the limit during the evacuation after the Red Cross handed out vouchers that could only be used in Wal-Mart. “I hated myself, but we had no choice,” she scowled.

With her southern drawl filled with quiet emotion Denise explained that the store – once named as one of the top ten independent record stores in the world – could close within two months. “If sales don’t pick up I’ll have to file for bankruptcy,” she said. “So I just pray for a miracle, that some computer geek will come along and say ‘I’ll put all your records on the internet for you!’”

“What about Bill Gates?” screeches the man by the gramophone in delight. Denise laughed loudly. “Yeah, lemmee call Bill Gates, and tell him ‘hey, how bout’ helping my store out?’”

Like thousands of small business owners in New Orleans, the trials and tribulations of surviving Katrina have paled into insignificance alongside the difficulty of staying afloat financially in the aftermath of a ravaged city. The vitality that these stores bring to local neighbourhoods produces exactly the kind of character that can draw evacuees back home, yet they are struggling for survival. “You know, me and my husband already discussed moving to a different city” said Denise as she totted up the totals for the day and began tidying up the shop floor. “But it’s just not possible. After we evacuated, we realise that this is the only place for us.” If Jim Russell’s Four Star Record Store is to survive, hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians dispersed across America need to start feeling the same way.


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