YOU NOW LIVE IN NEW ORLEANS. WHERE ARE YOU ORIGINALLY FROM?
"I'm actually from Madison, Wisconsin. I grew up there. Then I lived in St. Paul, Minnesota for about 13 years and then made my way to New Orleans."
WHEN DID YOU MOVE TO NEW ORLEANS?
"It's been 6 years."
WHAT BROUGHT YOU THERE?
"I had come to visit. I really had not even heard of New Orleans. I came to visit a friend and literally, the day I came here, I was like "I love this place. I want to live here!" So that kind of got the wheels turning and 2 years later I sold my house, changed my job and got a new house in New Orleans."
WHAT DID YOU LOVE SO MUCH ABOUT IT, THAT YOU WERE WILLING TO UPROOT YOUR LIFE?
"Everything! I loved the people. Everybody's so laid back and fun and spirited. Everything's a parade, a party. I love the houses, the architecture, the food, the music. Any given night, you can go listen to free music. Amazing music anywhere you go."
THE MUSIC WOULD BE A HUGE DRAW. WHEN I VISITED THERE LAST YEAR, I WENT TO FRENCHMAN ST. AND SAW SOME GREAT LIVE MUSIC!
"What's cool about that is it's not as touristy. That's where a lot of locals go. It's not as frat house as Bourbon St. is (laughter). It goes all night long, music in very single club."
I REALLY ENJOYED THAT. PROBABLY MORE THAN BOURBON STREET.
"Right. And people do. That's what's so wonderful. A lot of people will come to New Orleans and they're like "Agh, this is it?" Cause they hear about Bourbon St., but it's kinda like a frat house extended down the street. But if you can get them onto Frenchman or some of the local places, it's a completely different atmosphere."
DO YOU EVER REGRET MOVING THERE?
Oh, never! Never, never, never! Especially when I go home and it's like 20 degrees. I love it (here) so much. What's so wonderful is that, when my family comes to visit, they absolutely love it. So much so, that my mom bought a house last year here. It's a rental. She's not living in it. She comes to stay with me. She comes a lot. My brother and my dad, they've come quite a few times. I miss my family and I at least get home quite a few times a year, so that makes it worth it."
WHAT DO YOU DO DOWN THERE?
"I run my own business called "Rustik Nola". I make art and furniture out of recycled wood and tin. There's still so much home construction going on since Katrina, that there's just so many recycled wood items. It's such a big thing here. I have my items in two different stores. That's really nice. I do art markets."
DO YOU SELL OUTSIDE OF THE NEW ORLEANS AREA?
"I do. I have a website (www.rustiknola.com) and a Facebook page (Rustik Nola). Quite honestly, I've put pictures of the art booths on Facebook and I sold and shipped it in different states. They'll look at the picture and message me that they want the wall hanging in the left corner or something."
SO, DO YOU LIVE ANYWHERE NEAR WHERE KATRINA HIT?
"What I learned the first time I came down here, and I had no concept how much of the city was flooded until then, was that 80% of the city was under water. I didn't really understand that until somebody said "Picture the city you live in (Madison, Wisconsin) that 80% of the city boundary being under water." Anywhere from 3 feet to 18 feet. In that aspect,I was able to really see and understand how much of their city was really hit. And the fact that it wasn't that the water just came in and left, it sat, because New Orleans is like a bowl, for weeks. So that's where the damage really happened, was sitting water for that long. My house (previously owned) didn't flood. It came up to the step. And the only reason was that my block and a few blocks around my house, sits just enough on this little ridge, just enough so that the water only came to the top of the steps.
I'm right in the middle of the city, I'm 3 blocks off the street car line.
2 blocks away my friend was under water and she couldn't get in her house for 8 months and she's only a few blocks away. She was living a little outside the city and coming in to work on her house every day. She had to rip out sheetrock and all. She had about 3 feet of water, I believe."
DO YOU STILL SEE DAMAGE AROUND THE AREA?
"Definitely. It's crazy, but they are rapidly fixing up houses right now. It's getting further and far between where you see it like that. Certainly, when I came here two years after the storm...I mean, how much work has been done in those years is unbelievable. It almost doesn't see like the same city."
DO YOU THINK THERE HAS BEEN PROGRESS AND IMPROVEMENT IN NEW ORLEANS SINCE THE STORM?
"It's hard for me to really gauge that since I wasn't living here then. But things that I DO hear, is that the school system they've improved. And it's cleaned up tons of housing that was dilapidated anyway. That has changed. They're building a world renowned research center, VA clinic and all that in the downtown area and that's been being built over the last couple of years. I think that's changing things tremendously because the whole area is bringing in a lot of professional jobs and people. The rent and housing has gone up. You're bringing in thousands of people to work in these clinics and they need homes. So that's been a fast track to fixing things up."
BEING A RESIDENT OF NEW ORLEANS, AND OBVIOUSLY, MARDI GRAS IS GETTING READY TO TAKE PLACE, WHAT'S THAT LIKE AS A LOCAL?
"When I first moved here, the week that I moved here, was the start of Mardi Gras. I was blown away cause I'd never seen anything like it. I worked downtown where a lot of the parades are. And there was this smell! I went into work and was like " What is that smell outside?" My co-worker said "Well, like my Grandma used to say; it smells like sin." (Laughter) I've never forgotten it. It was my first year and it totally does smell like sin outside. So that's kind of a little phrase that I think of at Mardi Gras. It kind of encapsulates it all."
DO YOU ATTEND MARDI GRAS EVERY YEAR?
"I have gone every year that I've been here, yes. It's so prolonged that there's parades every night. So I don't necessarily go every night to the parades, but I've gone to a few parades each year. Last year I didn't go on Mardi Gras day. But other than that, I go down every year."
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO SOMEBODY THAT MIGHT BE A LITTLE AFRAID OR INTIMIDATED TO GO TO MARDI GRAS?
"Oh my goodness! Go! You can always pick and choose. Every night they have like three parades in a row. You can go to the first one, then go back to your hotel. Pace yourself. I think people start out the first day and they are gung-ho and then they can't make it."
"I would say there's a rally small percentage of people that don't care for it. They (the ones that don't like it) actually go out of town. Because all the kids have off the week of Mardi Gras, so a lot of the families may go on vacation, skiing and stuff like that, I've heard.
The thing that's amazing; It does get crowded, but when you go to a parade, there's just as many locals there as there is tourists. It's so mixed. When you said that your site is "One, Unified" (and what it meant), that's what's kind of cool about it. There are so many tourists, but there are so many locals that every year think it's the most awesome thing, as if they're seeing it for the first time. That's the thing that's so amazing. You can go to a parade and there may be three others parades going on in the city at the same time and it's packed, it's rows deep. And I'm like "Where are all these people from? There's so many people here and there's other parades going on as well, that there's just as many people at!"
You cannot catch a cab. I had some cousins come down one year for Mardi Gras and I took them out, not even Mardi Gras day, a few days prior, and you can't catch a cab. It is packed."
WHAT'S THE CRAZIEST THING YOU'VE SEEN THERE DURING MARDI GRAS?
"Probably Mardi Gras day in the quarter. We typically go early, like 9:30 in the morning, and it's crowded but you can still move around. Just the costumes! You could sit and people watch and hours could go by and you think it's 10 minutes, just cause of the costumes that people come up with. I don't know if there's any one specific moment. To me it's just the whole thing. It's hard to describe. To be honest, we leave the French Quarter on Mardi Gras day by 3:00 in the afternoon 'cause it's getting jam packed where you can hardly move. I never even stayed down there at night time on that day."
IT REMINDS ME OF OUR MUMMER'S DAY PARADE, THOUGH IT DOESN'T GET QUITE THAT UNRULY. YOU DON'T TYPICALLY SEE ANYONE PULLING UP THEIR TOPS AT A MUMMERS DAY PARADE. (Laughter)
"You know what, this is actually a good thing (to share with your readers):
On Bourbon Street you certainly see a lot of that but at the parades, it's very, very family friendly. I was at a parade a couple of years ago. It was a day parade and, you know, of course there's people that are absolutely loaded around there. And this woman pulled her shirt up and the police came and got her. She was a tourist and they were like "You know what? This isn't what this is. This is a neighborhood. There's kids all around." She was crying. I don't know what wound up happening. They took her to their car. I don't know if they gave her a ticket, or what they ended up doing. My cousin, from out of town, couldn't believe they "arrested her" or whatever. But people don't do that at the parades, cause it is family friendly. I mean people are drinking but it's very family friendly. Now, going down Bourbon Street is a totally different story."
MENTIONING THE POLICE; DO THEY HAVE A HARD TIME HARNESSING PEOPLE?
"I would say it's almost organized chaos. I think every police officer in the city has to be on duty during Mardi Gras. They also call in the state police, just so there's police presence. But what's amazing is that the energy is so happy. There may be pick-pockets here and there. But I think the police just, with their presence, and there's certainly people that are drunk, but it never seems to get out of control. It's such a happy time that people are happy drunks and in a happy mood that it never seems to (get out of hand). I'm sure there's some arrests for public drunkenness. I've never been around, at any parade I've been at, or really even heard of anything horrible happening. It's so different from anything that I've ever experienced. It's just fun."