“A pool is, for many of us in the West, a symbol not of affluence but of order, of control over the uncontrollable,” Joan Didion once wrote in an essay. “A pool is water, made available and useful, and is, as such, infinitely soothing to the western eye.”
For writers covering the aftermath of Katrina, a pool in New Orleans is something similar: infinitely soothing to the reportorial eye.
Witness today’s New York Times. As part of an ongoing series, “Voices from the Storm,” the Times’ Michael Luo profiles (in Didion-esque prose) a New Orleans pool that survived Katrina much to the delight of the neighborhood holdouts.
“Behind the closed doors of a courtyard on Burgundy Street,” writes Luo, “next to a fallen pear tree and a collapsed wall, the famed bon temps of the French Quarter survive in a 30-foot aquamarine oval that looks like a mirage amid Hurricane Katrina’s carnage: a swimming pool.”
Luo goes on to chronicle a day in the life of the pool. First-timers arrive bearing gifts of raspberry champagne. Then a regular, named Sukhdeo Doobay, shows up with a cockatoo, named Iko. Meanwhile, the pool’s de facto caretaker reminisces about a group of police officers who arrived there the day after the storm hit and “stripped to their underwear and sat in the water up to their necks for about an hour-and-a-half, subdued because of their helplessness amid the growing chaos outside.”
As it turns out, when it comes to chronicling swimming pools in hurricane-torn neighborhoods, everybody it seems wants to jump in. Recently writers from the Wall Street Journal to the Weekly Standard to the San Antonio Express-News to the Washington Post have used swimming-pool anecdotes and descriptions to lend poignancy to their post-Katrina features. And for good reason. After weeks of witnessing how much misery water can cause people, there’s something deeply satisfying about the sight and sound of people swimming for pleasure rather than survival.
Perhaps the best of the poolside dispatches comes courtesy of writer Joshua Clark, who has been penning a series of stories for Salon called “Apocalypse N.O.,” which reads like a celebratory, drunken middle-finger aimed at all those who prematurely pronounced New Orleans dead.
In “Partying at the end of the world,” Clark recounts how he gathered with a group of his friends to ride out the hurricane’s aftermath at a friend’s place in the French Quarter that had at its heart a small pool, its levees unbroken.
“Still in swim trunks I haven’t shed since Katrina started whispering through my windows 13 days ago now,” writes Clark, “I walk outside, the new sun tickling the roof of the slave quarters across the street, and step from the cobalt air into the turquoise swimming pool, hardly less wet, and lie at the bottom until the itching from 100 fresh bites stops.
“When I kick up to the surface,” Clark continues, “I whack my head on a 16-ounce can of Busch floating there, crack it open, take a long pull, stare across the surface at the other cans floating. Full bottles of Pinot Grigio are scattered along the bottom.”
Bon temps, indeed.
Of course, not every would-be pool partier in New Orleans has it so good. On September 8, the San Antonio Express-News profiled a New Orleans resident named Patrick McCarthy, who refused to evacuate his home in the Irish Channel, a working class neighborhood outside the Lower Garden District. McCarthy, the writer noted, had started catching rainwater as it rolled off the roof of a shed and collecting it in the back of his Ford pick-up. “If it gets full enough,” McCarthy told the reporter, “I’ve also got a pool.”
Our favorite, though, may be a September 8 profile in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, wherein we meet a group of rescue workers who had recently returned to Missouri from New Orleans where they reportedly slept in odd places and bathed in an undisturbed swimming pool. “I’m sure there’s a ring around that pool by now,” said one of the rescue workers.
A ring of dirt, maybe. Or perhaps a ring of reporters.