At the Dew Drop Inn, four men who stayed and faced Katrina's fury have a window on a much-changed world.

October 10, 2005|By ROBERT LITTLE | ROBERT LITTLE,SUN REPORTER

NEW ORLEANS -- The four men sitting on creaky chairs out front amounted to a crowd in the empty city. They hardly moved during the day because of the heat and the thick air, but nighttime was so gloriously quiet it reminded them all why they'd chosen to stay, even when the place was swallowed by water and smell.

It was in those darkening moments of fly-swatting and tale-telling, when the haze lifted and the men started drinking beneath stars they'd scarcely seen in years, that the life of today's New Orleans emerged. Surrounded by dirt and silence and uncertainty, the crumbling old boardinghouse on LaSalle Street was a picture of what the Big Easy has become.

But then, that's how it's always been at the Dew Drop Inn.

Fifty years ago it was hopping with the likes of Allen Toussaint, Eddie "Guitar Slim" Jones and countless other blues and jazz artists of renown. Ray Charles, James Brown and Little Richard all performed at the Dew Drop, back when people still called it the "Groove Room" or "The South's Swankiest Night Spot." Before whites and blacks could use the same clubs and concert halls, the Dew Drop Inn was a birthing ground for much of black New Orleans' musical legend.

Then when the club shut down in the late 1960s, leaving only the 20-room boardinghouse behind, the Dew Drop Inn offered prime seating for another New Orleans legacy -- the unimaginable poverty and violence. Across the street at the Magnolia housing projects, young men built a new legend for the city with drugs and guns, while the Dew Drop installed steel gates on the doors and windows. Longtime residents still talk about a weekend when seven people were slain across the street, including a baby.

And then came Hurricane Katrina. The wind ripped the Dew Drop's exterior walls down to the sheathing, and flooding left a dark ring 4 feet up on the block walls inside. Four of the Dew Drop's residents chose to stay through it all, scrounging for food, enjoying the peacefulness, and wondering each day if anyone would ever return. And for one month after the hurricane struck, the Dew Drop Inn provided the quintessential New Orleans experience once again.

"We sit here, look at the empty buildings, then go to bed," said 69-year-old Roosevelt Randolph, crouched on an overturned stool by the front door late last month.

"We listened to the radio until the batteries died; now we just sit here," added Jerry Hopson, 68.

"My birthday was last week," said Charles Smith, 65. "We sat here, looked at the buildings, got drunk and then went to bed."

Such was life in September in New Orleans, a city where the stray dogs seemed to outnumber the full-time residents. The days revolved around critical tasks like airing out the beds, or lighting the grill to boil water. In between were the slow hours sitting on the sidewalk out front, squinting into the sun, watching things that never moved and treating each passing car like a potential rescue, not that anyone wanted to be rescued.

"I don't want to go nowhere, and wouldn't know where to go anyway," said Glynn Dabon, 46. "Every day I wake up I figure I've been through the worst of it."

The flood was the worst of it. Randolph, who's always gotten a break on his $59-a-week rent by cleaning up and collecting others' rent money, tried to hold the water back with the front door, until the water threw him to the floor with such force it dislodged the false teeth from his gums.

"I went one way, the teeth went the other way, and I still ain't found them yet," he said. "I'll tell you, I always figured you had to go out into the ocean to drown, not that the ocean would come to you."

Most of the rooms are on upper floors and stayed dry. The men swept up and scrubbed the concrete floor and the walls, and they threw the pieces of the Dew Drop's siding into a pile out back. The toilets kept flushing through it all and the bathtub water seemed clean enough for washing. With the floodwater gone, then the debris hauled away, only the stench remained, and the hot New Orleans wind carried more and more of it away every day.

Getting food and drinking water was a problem, resolved by handouts from the National Guard, or gifts of sandwiches and ice from utility workers. A tree trimmer stopped by once with five packs of cigarettes. The men also picked up food and supplies from the streets outside the neighborhood's shattered convenience stores, but the pickings dwindled as the days passed.

Replenishing supplies

Still they ambled off and returned each day with a fresh supply of soda, canned goods or batteries, although they gave less information about just where it came from, or how aggressive their searching had been. No one was around to notice anyway, save for the police officers and soldiers who occasionally tried to make them leave. Sometimes they walked for blocks without seeing man or beast.

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