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Are you nuts?

If you're from around here, you can't help but be

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Chris Rose

It has been said to me, almost a dozen times in exactly the same words: "Everyone here is mentally ill now."

Some who say this are health care professionals voicing the accumulated wisdom of their careers and some are laymen venturing a psychological assessment that just happens to be correct.

With all due respect, we're living in Crazy Town.

The only lines at retail outlets longer than those for lumber and refrigerators are at the pharmacy windows, where fidgety, glassy-eyed neighbors greet each other with the casual inquiries one might expect at a restaurant:

"What are you gonna have? The Valium here is good. But I'm going with the Paxil. Last week I had the Xanax and it didn't agree with me."

We talk about prescription medications now like they're the soft-shell crabs at Clancy's. Suddenly, we've all developed a low-grade expertise in pharmacology.

Everybody's got it, this thing, this affliction, this affinity for forgetfulness, absent-mindedness, confusion, laughing at inappropriate circumstances, crying when the wrong song comes on the radio, behaving in odd and contrary ways.

A friend recounts a recent conversation into which Murphy's Law was injected -- the adage that if anything can go wrong, it will.

In perhaps the most succinct characterization of contemporary life in New Orleans I've heard yet, one said to the other: "Murphy's running this town now."

Ain't that the truth?

Here's one for you: Some friends of mine were clearing out their belongings from their home in the Fontainebleau area and were going through the muddle of despair that attends the realization that you were insured out the wazoo for a hurricane but all you got was flood damage and now you're going to get a check for $250,000 to rebuild your $500,000 house.

As they pondered this dismal circumstance in the street, their roof collapsed. Just like that. It must have suffered some sort of structural or rain-related stress from the storm and now, two weeks later, it manifested itself in total collapse.

Now I ask you: What would you do if you watched your home crumble to pieces before your eyes?

What they did was, realizing their home now qualified for a homeowner's claim, they jumped up and down and high-fived each other and yelled: "The roof collapsed! The roof collapsed!"

Our home is destroyed. Oh, happy day. I submit there's something not right there.

I also submit that if you don't have this affliction, if this whole thing hasn't sent you into a vicious spin of acute cognitive dissonance, then you must be crazy and -- like I said: We're all whacked.

How could you not be? Consider the sights, sounds and smells you encounter on a daily basis as you drive around a town that has a permanent bathtub ring around it. I mean, could somebody please erase that brown line?

Every day I drive past a building on Magazine Street where there's plywood over the windows with a huge spray-painted message that says: I AM HERE. I HAVE A GUN.

OK, the storm was more than two months ago. You can take the sign down now. You can come out now.

Or maybe the guy's still inside there, in the dark with his canned food, water and a gun, thinking that the whole thing is still going on, like those Japanese soldiers you used to hear about in the '70s and '80s who just randomly wandered out of hiding in the forests on desolate islands in the South Pacific, thinking that World War II was still going on.

The visuals around here prey on you. Driving in from the east the other day, I saw a huge, gray wild boar that had wandered onto the interstate and been shredded by traffic. Several people I know also saw this massive porcine carnage, all torn up and chunky on the side of the road.

It looked like five dead dogs. Directly across the interstate from it was an upside down alligator.

I mean: What the hell? Since when did we have wild boars around here? And when did they decide to lumber out of the wilderness up to the interstate like it's some sort of sacred dying ground for wildebeests?

Just farther up the road a bit are all those car dealerships with rows and rows and rows of new cars that will never be sold, all browned-out like they were soaking in coffee for a week, which I guess they were.

All those lots need are some balloons on a Saturday afternoon and some guy in a bad suit saying: "Let's make a deal!"

Welcome to the Outer Limits. Your hometown. Need a new car?

Speaking of car dealers, no one epitomizes the temporary insanity around here more than Saints owner Tom Benson, who said he feared for his life in a confrontation with a drunk fan and WWL sportscaster Lee Zurik at Tiger Stadium last Sunday.

Admittedly, the shape of Lee Zurik's eyebrows have an oddly discomfiting menace about them, but fearing for your life?

Just get a good set of tweezers and defend yourself, Tom. Get a hold of yourself, man.

Maybe I shouldn't make light of this phenomenon. Maybe I'm exhibiting a form of madness in thinking this is all slightly amusing. Maybe I'm not well, either.

But former city health director Brobson Lutz tells me it's all part of healing.

"It's a part of the human coping mechanism," he said. "Part of the recovery process. I have said from the beginning that the mental health concerns here are far greater than those we can expect from infectious diseases or household injuries."

The U.S. Army brought Lutz onto the USS Iwo Jima a few weeks ago to talk to the troops about how to deal with people suffering from post-traumatic stress. They were concerned, primarily, with the dazed-out looking folks who wander around the French Quarter all day.

"I told them to leave those guys alone," Lutz said. "They may be crazy, but they survived this thing. They coped. If they were taken out of that environment, then they could really develop problems. Remember that, in the immediate aftermath of all this, the primary psychiatric care in this city was being provided by the bartenders at Johnny White's and Molly's."

Interesting point. I mean, who needs a psychology degree? All anyone around here wants is someone to listen to their stories.

I thanked Lutz for his time and mentioned that our call sounded strange. It was around noon this past Thursday.

"Are you in the bathtub?" I asked him.

"Yes," he said. "And I'm having trouble coming up with sound bites."

Like I said, we're all a little touched by Katrina Fever.

My friend Glenn Collins is living in exile in Alabama and one Sunday afternoon he went to a shopping mall in Birmingham. He went to the Gap and was greeted by a salesclerk with a name tag that said "Katrina."

He left immediately. He went next door to the Coach boutique, where he was greeted by a salesclerk with a name tag that said "Katrina."

He kinda freaked out. He asked the woman something along the lines of: What's with all the Katrinas? And she blurted out: "Oh, you know Katrina at the Gap? She's my friend!"

"I wish I was making this up," he told me. "I mean, what are the odds of this?"

He needed a drink, he said. So he went to a nearby Outback Steakhouse and ordered a beer but the bartender told him they don't sell alcohol on Sundays.

"But I'm from New Orleans!" he pleaded. "Don't you have a special exemption for people from New Orleans? Please?"

They did not. So he drove across three counties to get a drink. He said to me: "The Twilight Zone, it just keeps going on and on and on."

. . . . . . .

Columnist Chris Rose can be reached at; or at (504) 352-2535 or (504) 826-3309.

Dealing with post Katrina stress and/or depression? Click here

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