New Orleans is a city we know well. We both have family roots there, and Jake played rugby for Tulane. We wanted to see the devastation; we were braced for emotional heartbreak. We both already know, though, that the years of poverty and generations “on the dole” there in NOLA had set in place a sort of desperate disaster there for many, many years before the storm that flooded the city did. Many people there believe the storm was the best thing that could’ve happened, in retrospect, to give the city back some pride and to get some new buildings and houses built…and so, they wait.
We drove through vast areas of emptiness and decay; mildewed homes never to be entered again. Enough of this. Jake, feeling melancholy and wanting a remembrance of the things of New Orleans that were familiar, took me back round Marengo Street, near where he’d lived in college. In fact, we found the old house. But it was a shell of its former rugby hooligan days, where crazy parties and proud, young, drunk ruggers stood their ground. Where he and I had once climbed up to the roof to be alone….
It was empty and near ruin; water damage all over, roof missing. A neighbor of questionable authority told us, “That’s Daphna’s house now. She don’t like guests.”
Intrigued, we entered. Straight away we saw her in the parlor, half mad, half beautiful, mumbling and possibly not yet aware we stood, watching, transfixed.
I called to her, “Daphne?” “No,” she replied, “Daphna, not Daphne,” a phrase she would utter somewhat incoherently for many moments throughout our stay. “Daphna, not Daphne. Daphna, not Daphne.”
Jake said, “Do you live here now? What happened to Mr. Billeaudeaux?” She said, “He gone. I am waitin for Ben. Waitin for Ben.”
Ben soon arrived, delivering a meal. But that was not his name. He said he was Henry. He did not wish to be photographed. He told us Daphna is lost, mentally and physically, and that her son Ben died in the storm, or in a war, or who knows, he said. So she waits. He said, she waits at the window, afraid. He said she is schizophrenic, but has no insurance and had to be released from State Hospital for room for those more badly in need after the storm. And he left, other meals to deliver to other shut-ins and crazees. Hey, his words, not mine.
I had but one roll of damaged 120 Tri-X film left for the Hasselblad, as I had accidentally dropped it in murky, oily water in Harahan, the other side of the river. The film was moist, and splattery in spots, but I did get two or three good images. Some of the film’s emulsion was gone in spots, and the silver seemed to gather in the developer in processing. But hey, not bad for a day’s work.
In life, we do animal rescue. But as never before in these broken moments, I wished I had had the way and means to do people rescue. For in this troubled person, I know there lies a heart that beats as mine does; a soul that longs, as mine does, to be free.
As we left Jake’s bygone, ruined college house, the same man who approached us on entering asked for money. That usually happens in New Orleans. I said, “I never give hand outs to able-bodied men, but if you talk to me, I will pay for your time.” So, we sat, he and I, and talked about Daphna.
He said she had lived in the old Billeaudeaux house for months, since the storm, when its last renters had abandoned it and its power had been shut off for safety violations. He said that cats fed off Daphna’s Meals on Wheels scraps. He said she was not a drug addict or a whore, like most of ’em. He said, "Leave her be. I watch out for her, " and demanded a twenty. I gave him ten because I had to buy more film. But last, I asked, as I handed him the bill, “Who is Ben?” “No one knows,” he said. “But he dead.” Without saying thanks, he wandered away.
As we left, I saw Daphna, at the windows, hands against the glass, as she stood waiting. Waiting for Ben, whomever he was, and wherever he is.
I wish he would return for her and save her, for certainly, I can not. I could far more easily save her cats, than she, and that is a sad, sad story about life today in the USA, particularly, in New Orleans; the city that time forgot.
A note on the photograph – Medium format and 120 Tri-X film, scanned.