In the Nawlins Muck, They're Yukking It Up

A float in the Krewe du Vieux's Mardi Gras parade takes a poke at a popular target around town -- the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
A float in the Krewe du Vieux's Mardi Gras parade takes a poke at a popular target around town -- the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. (By Linton Weeks -- The Washington Post)
By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 27, 2006

NEW ORLEANS -- Cringe-inducing, really, some of the edgy humor that is creeping back into this city six months after Hurricane Katrina.

Like the float in the Krewe du Vieux parade (Theme: C'est Levee) that depicted Hurricanes Katrina and Rita as naked lesbian lovers, or the T-shirt that shows two strategically placed satellite photos of swirling Katrina and Rita, with the words "Girls Gone Wild." Or several floats in separate parades referring to the Corpse of Engineers.

If humor is the best medicine, storm-shocked New Orleans is still tinkering with the dosage. Is it funny that women are fashioning dresses out of blue tarpaulins, like the ones that now cover the roof holes where trapped people chopped their way to freedom? Is it okay to make fun of toxic debris? Can you mock the agencies of first responders and relief workers?

The jury's still out. Maybe it's too early, or too late, for Katrina-based humor. Some people are trying, though, in this town famous for not taking itself too seriously.

At umpteen T-shirt stores, you can buy across-the-chest messages that read: "Where Is FEMA? Federal Employees Missing Again." Or "NOPD," which stands for "Not Our Problem, Dude" instead of New Orleans Police Department.

Or "I Stayed in New Orleans for Katrina and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt, a New Cadillac and a Plasma TV" -- which makes light of the looting. At his night club, TV star-turned-civic activist Harry Anderson tells looting jokes before performing magic. "If we learned anything from Katrina" he says, "it's that plasma TVs fit through doors too easily." Not many laughs.

He assures us later that another joke works better: "The looters did so well that if you buy a $20 Rolex on Canal Street now, you get the real thing."

The city's boosterish slogan, "New Orleans -- Proud to Call It Home," is the source of much satire. Omnipresent bumper stickers read "Proud to Crawl Home" and "Proud to Swim Home." Now there's a new white T-shirt, one with a red sketch of a FEMA trailer that reads: "Proud to Call It Home."

Some of the sort-of-funny moments are intentional. One float in a satirical parade proclaimed: "Buy us back, Chirac!"

Others are unintentional. A tour guide said that she heard a TV reporter ask a New Orleans woman if she was devastated by the destruction of all the churches in the area and the woman replied, "Not really. I eat at Popeyes."

That's a local fried chicken reference. If you don't get it, ask a New Orleanian.

On Decatur Street Sunday, Mike Tschirhart of San Antonio was wearing a fuzzy purple hat, carrying a rubber chicken on a long stick and sporting a green and white T-shirt that read, "Throw me a trailer, Mistah."

He said he had wondered if New Orleans was ready for some poking-fun humor and decided it is. "We were going to come in hazmat suits," he said.

When asked if he had ventured out past the high-ground touristy spots to see the vast devastation, he said he hadn't. "We were given a chance to take a tour of the Ninth Ward but decided not to," he said. "We thought that might kill our buzz."

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