Beyond the Breach

Wright Thompson on New Orleans:

With the air conditioner off for filming, the only noise in Steve Gleason’s home is the breathing machine that keeps him alive. That’s as good a place as any to start a Katrina story, with the wires and plugs and tubes strapped to the back of his wheelchair, a life-support apparatus doing the heavy lifting for one of the most fervently alive people the city has ever known. The city has known its share. New Orleans treasures hyperlocal folk heroes: Soulja Slim, the king of the street rappers before the storm, shot at least three times in the face and once in the chest, dead in his black Reeboks; Trombone Shorty, who closed out this year’s Jazz Fest instead of Elton John or Lenny Kravitz; Chris Rose, the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist who wrote the best stories about the storm until his life unraveled and he found himself waiting tables. Gleason is that kind of hero. In the team’s first night back in the Superdome after the storm, he stretched out his arms and blocked a punt in the opening series of a Monday Night Football game. There is a 9-foot statue of him outside the Dome now, but the actual Steve Gleason is paralyzed, four years into an ALS diagnosis. Most people don’t make it past five.

“OK, I’m rolling,” the camerawoman says.

Gleason uses his eyes and an interactive tablet to highlight the first sentence of the text, one of a series of love letters to the city that a local nonprofit asked influential citizens to write on the 10th anniversary of the storm. Since he can no longer use the muscles in his mouth, he speaks through a computerized voice, his humanity blunted by a droning, syllable-centric machine. Nothing works but his eyes.

“Dear New Orleans,” he begins, and when he finishes reading the letter, one of his assistants, Lauren, wipes Gleason’s eyes and nose with a towel.

“I cry every time I read it,” he says.

Lauren stays strong in front of Steve but when she gets around the corner into the kitchen, she falls apart, slipping into a bedroom to be alone. It’s an ugly thing to watch someone fight a battle he cannot win. Living, then, is in the fighting. “No White Flags,” it says on the Team Gleason foundation’s T-shirts and wristbands.

Dear New Orleans.

No white flags.