Illustration by Roan Smith
The Profile

The irredeemable Chris Rose

March 2, 2015
Illustration by Roan Smith

Chris Rose’s Pulitzer crystal sits in his small French Quarter apartment, its glass badly chipped from various accidents. The disfigured accolade for his work on a reporting team at the Times-Picayune is a reminder of both prowess and loss.

“The way the people of New Orleans made me feel after Hurricane Katrina—like I was holding this fucking city together all by myself,” Rose tells me at the Napoleon House restaurant and bar, in a graffitied payphone nook where he’s eaten, drunk, and written for a dozen-plus years. “At the time, we had Ray Nagin as mayor; all the city institutions and individuals had failed everyone. The Times-Picayune really stepped it up. And I was the face of The Times-Picayune.”

Rose’s collection of post-Katrina Picayune columns, 1 Dead In Attic (Simon and Schuster), became a New York Times bestseller in 2007. Since then, New Orleans’ news community has seemingly cast Rose aside. No journalism entity in town will hire him, he tells me, not even freelance. If they do answer his calls, they say he’s too much of a risk. And so for all of 2014, the 53-year-old Rose was waiting tables to pay rent and feed his three kids.

Rose looks noticeably frailer, his curly hair thinner, since the public last saw him. He looks like what he is: a man who has fallen, and gotten up, and fallen again. He won his Pulitzer by writing about his intense personal struggles following Katrina. A newspaper columnist who had once been known for celebrity gossip, Rose’s public persona was reborn. He used his column as catharsis, writing emotional, first-person accounts that spoke to—and represented—a suffering community.

Sitting and eating a muffaletta, and later strolling around the French Quarter, Rose is recognized and stopped by people from all over the country who tell him how much his work has meant to them. “I teach 1 Dead In Attic as part of my college course,” two separate people divulge.

Over the last year, Rose also received many compliments on his writing while refilling his customers’ water glasses at the seafood and cocktail bar Kingfish, a job he recently left. “I’d walk up to the table and they’d fuckin’ drop their spoons,” Rose laughs, his eyes welling up slightly as he nibbles on “crawtater”-flavored Zapp’s chips. “When they realized it wasn’t a joke or for a story, they’d tend to get more upset than I ever did about it. It’s not what I dreamed of doing at this point in my life either, but I found myself having to comfort them more than they comforted me.”

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When CJR last reported on Rose in 2008, his tale was one of redemption; he’d shaken an oxycontin painkiller addiction in rehab in order to serve as a bone-marrow donor for his leukemia-stricken sister. But while Rose suffered through rehab, his wife served him divorce papers. “I stayed clean until my sister died in the summer of 2007,” says Rose, who remained clean and clear-eyed all through the publicity run for 1 Dead In Attic on the flood’s second anniversary, including TV appearances with Morning Edition and CBS’ The Early Show. After that, he says, “I’d lost my sister and my marriage, so I went back to eating Vicodin.”

His editors noticed this, and bade him get help. Rose’s Times-Picayune health insurance funded his second trip to rehab—this time in Washington, DC, where Rose could hide out while also helping his parents move into an assisted living facility.

“After I came back [to New Orleans] that second time, I had written so much about depression, and I’d learned so much about addiction … that I wanted to do for addiction what I had done for depression,” Rose recalls, sipping a Pimm’s cup, because he doesn’t fear booze, and doesn’t use the word recovery. “But The Times-Picayune finally decided that New Orleans had heard enough of my personal story.”

Rose continued writing a more lighthearted column, even as he watched the Picayune begin its infamous 2009 contractions by offering buyouts to all employees 65-and-over: one full year’s salary plus health insurance for all voluntary resignations. When, months later, the same buyout was offered to all Picayune employees, Rose packed up his desk that day.

With the The Times-Picayune receiving all royalties from 1 Dead In Attic, Rose continued hustling, writing cover stories for Oxford American magazine and a Mardi Gras episode of David Simon’s HBO series Treme. He became a columnist at Gambit Weekly. Rose found a secondary niche reporting community and culture segments for Fox 8 news. “At that point, I’m on TV three nights a week,” says Rose. “Everybody knew my name, now everybody knows my face.”

New Orleans is neither big nor easy; it is small and challenging. Most in the media here hit their ceiling pretty quickly. With Katrina’s aid, however, Rose had shattered that ceiling. He managed to represent New Orleans while also transcending it. He’d escaped drugs and was now getting great work, and much love from the city. But rather than his increasingly public face, it was Rose’s right hand that caused his third undoing.

“It was a mysterious congenital problem. My thumb stopped working,” claims Rose. “I was in great pain. I couldn’t write. They did surgery … took out a couple bones, replaced it with some steel, then a cast up to my fingertips and up above my elbow. What I thought was gonna be three weeks out of work was five months [physically] incapacitated.”

“I also knew going into the surgery that I was going to get addicted again,” Rose admits. “This is a common problem for addicts.”

Rose finally resumed work in 2011, still hazy on pills. “I came back to Gambit, I came back to Fox 8, and I faltered terribly at both. That’s when I started missing deadlines and doing shit work.” It’s tough for even Rose to pinpoint when he wandered off the Gambit Weekly job, but the magazine never ran another piece of his writing, and now rarely, if ever, answers his emails.

Rose took the hint and re-entered rehab for a third time in New Orleans. Addict lore claims that rehab sticks the third time. Rose sucks his Pimm’s cup down to the ice and recalls this heavy decision in the same stark, sentimental terms he might use in one of his ledes: “First time I went to rehab to save my marriage—didn’t work, lost my marriage and my sister. Second time I went to save my job—I left my job. Third time, I went to save my life.”

Back home, Fox 8 held Rose’s position for him. “They made a great act of faith and flew me back one week per month, and I would tape eight segments at once,” says Rose, for whom Fox 8 rented French Quarter hotel accommodations each visit. This would not last: Calling him a “luxury we can’t afford,” Fox 8 finally released Rose for “budgetary reasons.” “Their budget cuts came down to releasing the lowest-paid, most popular person on their staff,” Rose says, pushing away some uneaten seeded muffaletta bun. “And no other budget cuts. Just me.”

‘It took a while for me to realize… I’m not gonna get a job here. And I had no other marketable skills. For 30 years there’s never been any question of what I was going to do.’

Rose theorizes that his TV career was actually ended by an unhappy Tom Benson, owner of Fox 8 and the New Orleans Saints football franchise: “He was hosting the Super Bowl and I questioned some of the city’s spending on cosmetics when people in Gentilly still didn’t have streetlights,” he says, leaning back in his seat. The Fox 8 organization answered Rose’s accusations thoroughly in an April 2013 Times-Picayune piece. Mikel Schaefer later told CJR that two other Fox 8 positions were, in fact, “affected” for budgetary reasons a few weeks after Rose was cut. But he declined to comment on why Rose hasn’t filmed a Fox 8 segment since.

Clean, sober, and again a free agent, Rose this time found himself deeply unemployed. Having been praised for understanding New Orleans in a special way, he suddenly, finally, also understood its smallness. “For seven months I was getting turned down. I kept thinking, ‘Someone is gonna hire me. I’m Chris Rose.’ It took a while for me to realize, all these unreturned phone calls … I’m not gonna get a job here. And I had no other marketable skills. For 30 years there’s never been any question of what I was gonna do.”

Rose dipped into the well of community love and raised $57,332 from 387 backers in 30 days via Kickstarter, ostensibly to write a new book about his continuing struggles. He promised that he would write, for each donor of $10,000, their personal biography, no less than 50 pages long. Al Copeland Junior, Popeye’s Chicken heir and CEO, paid $30,000 for a 150-page biography (which Rose claims he works on a little every day). To $35 donors, Rose promised: “A walking tour of the French Quarter, blending history, pop culture and tawdry gossip. From the House of the Rising Sun to The Playboy Club; from the studio where R.E.M. and Iggy Pop made records to the apartments where Tennessee Williams made literary history.”

Rose’s donors would convene on a specified French Quarter street corner for their big tour—only after Rose finished his new book. “The dirty secret, though,” said Rose, “was that I’d never written a book before. The last one was just a collection of columns I didn’t even have to edit.” Rose ran through the Kickstarter money without finishing a first draft.

It was then he knew that he had to tie on the server’s apron.

At Kingfish, Rose continued serving his fans—as well as his fellow New Orleans celebrities. “This waiter walks up and it took me probably way too long to realize, Oh my god, I know who you are. I was absolutely startled,” says Harry Shearer, comedic actor, voice of many Simpsons characters, and part-time New Orleanian. “To go from an essential voice to a forgotten voice in the relative blink of an eye is pretty shocking. For a city that reveres tradition and history, a city full of second chances, it seems very puritanical what seems to have happened to Chris.”

Rose orders a second Pimm’s cup to go and we step out into the sunny sweater-weather that passes for winter in Louisiana. Though a natural front-of-house schmoozer, and beloved by his coworkers, Rose tells me he lasted just one year waiting tables. “It was killing my soul. I wasn’t making enough money,” he moaned to me, pitching his to-go cup in a nearby can. “I’m not seeing my kids: I’d leave for work when they were getting home from school, then I’d get home at one in the morning. I’m tired. I’m not writing.” When he fell into another deep depression this past November, Rose quit showing up at Kingfish.

Since then, Rose has been working for the New Orleans grocery store, Rouse’s—writing for the local market’s companion trade magazine, covering food and other local cultural staples, making four times the price that Gambit or Times-Picayune pays freelancers. “That’s how I end up writing for a grocery store, the most lucrative freelance gig for any writer in New Orleans,” laughs Rose, who is grateful to have one sweet gig and an outlet for his voice.

While shaking off his writer’s rust with Rouse’s, Rose has also begun studying for the French Quarter tour guide exam. “I have a passion for public speaking,” he says as we wander said Quarter, past a band of young street musicians struggling to sound and look like old street musicians. “I see people paying $20 apiece for some guy to spend two-and-a-half hours telling stories while he’s drinking a beer—that would take me three restaurant shifts of eight hours apiece to make that much money. Plus, these guys are making up ghost stories, when there are so many true stories in this town.”

His name, he hopes, will be part of the draw. “If I was nobody, there is no way I could pull it off,” Rose admits, lighting a cigarette on the corner of Burgundy and St. Louis. He looks awkward smoking—like’s he’s old enough to know better. “I am counting on the fact that I can go to the concierges and have instant credibility. And what I love is there’s also a lot of writing involved: I’m gonna publish a book with each tour, so you can also just buy the book and take the tour yourself.”

As Rose explains his new plan to me, a man with Louisiana plates rolls down his truck’s window to interrupt us: “You still writing? You in any newspapers?” he asks Rose. “You were in the Gambit last I saw you.”

“That was a long time ago,” Rose responds.

“I remember the speech you gave at Sacred Heart Academy after Katrina.” The man nods his head. “Best speech I ever heard.”

He drives away and Rose continues, “There might be 10 editors in town who won’t let me write, but there are three quarters of a million people who will pay to hear what I have to say. They love me and I love them. So, we will reconvene on the street corner, and I will tell ’em stories.

Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans-based journalist and author of four books. His work has appeared in Salon, McSweeney’s, The Oxford American, and Vice, among other publications. Follow him at @mpatrickwelch.