Tint City

Tracy Thompson works the runway in her tarpaulin creation earlier this month during the Blue Tarp Costume Fashion Show at Antoine's Restaurant in New Orleans. Below, Thompson, left, and Janine Hayes show off their designs. The event was a fundraiser for the Campaign to Save Costal Louisiana. Below right, Ricardo Pustanio and Jules Richard staple a tarp to a Mardis Gras float.
Tracy Thompson works the runway in her tarpaulin creation earlier this month during the Blue Tarp Costume Fashion Show at Antoine's Restaurant in New Orleans. Below, Thompson, left, and Janine Hayes show off their designs. The event was a fundraiser for the Campaign to Save Costal Louisiana. Below right, Ricardo Pustanio and Jules Richard staple a tarp to a Mardis Gras float. (Carolyn Kaster - AP)
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 27, 2006

There are but three colors now, in the deadest days of winter, besides the brown and the much beloved federal graydom of the trees, streets and sky: There is the orange of traffic barrels. There is the Big Bird yellow in the squares of Georgia-Pacific insulation going up along another new ticky-tacky condo on 14th Street NW.

And, no matter where you find yourself, there is the electric blue of tarp.

Blue tarp is going flappa-swappa-flappa. It is draped over the back of what remains of a row house in Shaw, which you can see from the alley, and it seems the owners are in an infinite stage of renovation, and you're starting to think the contractor skipped town. There is a vacant lot north of Woodbridge on which a few tarps are covering something low to the ground, and you get out the car to look, think better of it (the mud, the Kenneth Cole loafers, the wind, the trespassing) and move on. The tarps are coming loose on a half-finished apartment building farther down Route 1, and twisting in the breeze. Is this beautiful or depressing? Is it almost Christo, or much too Home Depot?

Blue tarp is tied down over the firewood, it has slid off the boxes in the garage. You fold it into squares and it makes a horrible crackling-crinkling, a sound that makes you think of landfills. It has come flying off the back of a pickup track, makin' lazy circles in the sky , some sort of bird that isn't on anyone's endangered species list.

Of life's ubiquitous, polymer-resiny things (bolted-down fast-food tables, dead Hewlett-Packard computers, white CVS bags snared in the trees) only the blue tarp is having its celebrity moment:

What chronicler of New Orleans's post-Katrina recovery effort can resist describing the flight into the city? He sees miles and miles of roofs still covered in blue tarp, hammered onto damaged homes. Contractors hired by the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Army Corps of Engineers have in some cases been overpaid (by thousands of dollars) to cover the city and suburbs in blue tarp, and this report was greeted with outrage -- and more despair. The blue tarp became symbol of something permanently temporary, a lasting aura of plastic, of the unfixed. Musicians and satirists there have written several variations on the blue tarp blues. "Passing through Met'rie I felt such a dread/As I saw the water marks way over my head," penned one. "We're known for our jazz, food and booze/But down in New Orleans we got the Blue Tarp Blues."

Some of the Mardi Gras parade clubs have used blue tarp symbolically in this year's floats. (The Krewe of Mid-City hemmed all its floats in it.) A wetlands-preservation benefit at Antoine's restaurant last week featured a blue tarp fashion show, with outfits made by local artists. According to the Times-Picayune, one model "took a turn in her own frock, swishing back and forth in the season's hottest look, a five-tiered tutu and matching corset in the fabric du jour: blue tarp."

Out West, when you go on a Native American vision quest (there are workshops), the medicine man sends you to the desert with exactly three things: your walking stick, your gallon jug of water and your blue tarp. You're out there for two or three days or more, waiting for the vision, and what you do with those objects is up to you, and beside the point. You are out there to listen to the wilderness, the rocks. A woman named Nancy Blair Moon posted this about her vision quest to a Quaker online forum:

"So I talk to the rock. I say, gratefully, 'Rock, I'm glad to see you. Would you help me hold up my tarp? I'll have to move you, but if you are willing, I will appreciate it very much.' (At this point, truthfully, I'm better at talking to the rock than I am at understanding its response. But I trust myself. It makes a difference that I have addressed the rock at all, and that I have asked permission. Sometimes I say to the Mystery, 'If you don't want me to do this, you'll have to let me know.') And I see a creosote bush a little larger and less brittle than some. 'Bush, may I tie my rope to one of your branches to hold my tarp? Thank you!' "

Other tarps, other oddness: Laura Palmer, the dead girl from the 1990 TV series "Twin Peaks," was found wrapped and duct-taped in clear plastic, more like a shower curtain, or those cheap dropcloths. Between then and now, it seems, the blue tarp has become a key piece of evidence, the bit player of so many "CSI" episodes. ( The fabric du jour . ) From an episode of "Larry King Live" three years ago, when everyone was looking for Laci Peterson, the famous Modesto, Calif., murder victim:

Larry King: Dallas, Texas, hello.

Caller: Hi, I just wanted to know what happened to the blue tarp. There was a -- if they had a tarp out there at the marina. I want to know if his boat was covered when he went out there with the tarp. I feel like -- I just -- I feel something. . . .


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