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The Nation

New Face of New Orleans Is Male -- and Lonely

November 25, 2005|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — There were shots of Southern Comfort lined up on the bar at the Coyote Ugly Saloon in the French Quarter the other night, as usual, and the jukebox was playing a gravelly rock 'n' roll anthem. All would have been well in Mike Badon's world, except for one thing.

Brassieres still dangled from the ceiling at the bar, which is famous for attracting uninhibited females, but the facts on the ground were these: To Badon's left was a row of police officers from New York state. To his right, three burly contractors were amusing themselves by showing one another photographs on their cellphones.

The only unattached woman in earshot was the bartender, Tara -- who, Badon noted grimly, was his cousin. He bought her drinks anyway, and tried to look at the bright side.

"If you weren't my cousin," he said, "I'd be all over you."

Nearly three months after Hurricane Katrina barreled into New Orleans, life has flowed back into the streets of this city -- but in certain areas, it is a life noticeably bereft of women. City officials guess that New Orleans now has a population of 150,000 during the day and 75,000 at night, after the commuters have left. Sally Forman, Mayor C. Ray Nagin's press secretary, said there had been no official census and no breakdown by gender, but "there's this strange feeling that it's all men in town."

The male-to-female ratio is most obvious in the French Quarter, where workers come to blow off steam in the evenings, but it crosses into other areas. Professional men -- their wives and children settled elsewhere until the end of the school semester -- gather in threes and fours at local restaurants. On Friday afternoons, they leave by bus or car or airplane, staying outside the city just long enough to get a taste of family life.

Sociologist Carl Bankston III said the skew toward a male population was probably temporary, but the faster it changed, the better for the city.

"If people don't set up households, they're not setting up families, which means you don't have a permanent population or a permanent tax base," said Bankston, a professor at Tulane University. "There's lots of construction going on, [and] theme park activities going on downtown. Neither of them are a stable basis for establishing a long-term community. That's a matter of some concern."

In the meantime, social life has shifted perceptibly in this most social of cities.

Brad Giacona, his hair gelled and his beard shaved into a chin strap, gazed from behind the bar at the Big Easy Daiquiri. Plastic cups stood in rows beside him. It had been a quiet afternoon.

"I tell you what, if single women come down here, they'll find a lot of guys," said Giacona, 23. "Put my address," he added.

In the days after the storm, husbands and wives were forced to separate. Mothers, typically, moved to cities where they had family and friends, and where children could enroll in school. Fathers stayed in New Orleans, salvaging businesses and sorting through the wreckage.

For Kenny Rubenstein, 38, whose family owns a downtown clothing store, it has meant coming home every night to a house so utterly quiet that he hears the sounds of floorboards. His wife and three children have been living in Dallas since shortly after the storm. The other night, he heard a sound so loud that he got up to investigate: It was a squirrel, running across the roof.

There are other oddities. At his store, Rubenstein routinely encounters men paralyzed before an item of clothing, unable to make a purchase without their wives' input. Steve Timm, 49, whose wife evacuated to Colorado with their teenage son, recalls walking into a laundromat during the period after the storm and finding himself surrounded by men. "I felt like I was at a gay bar," he said.

It has been a time of air mattresses, bean burritos and painful separations.

When Todd Wallace, a lawyer, first saw his 2 1/2 -year-old son, Jackson, in Dallas after five weeks, the child had begun to speak in short sentences: "You come from New Orleans" and "I coming to New Orleans" were two of them. The boy was taller, heavier. He could say "trampoline."

Sometimes the distance between New Orleans and anywhere else seemed unfathomable, said Nancy Timm. Over the phone, Steve would describe the panorama of destruction. On the other end of the line, she would listen.

"I kept thinking, here I am, out in Fort Collins. I'm playing tennis, I'm going out to lunch. My mother-in-law is doing my laundry for me," said Nancy, 49, who has now returned to her job as director of counseling at the Louise S. McGehee School.

"I can't say that I stewed in guilt, but when I look at the contrast between what I was doing and what he was doing, I am eternally grateful for everything he did," she added.

When they reunited, in late October, Steve had lost 15 pounds.

"There was a lot of physical labor. That was my choice," said Timm, who runs a clothing shop. "I thought seriously about being with [the family in Colorado], but I realized I would go crazy."

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