"It is my belief that you don't choose New Orleans — New Orleans chooses you. Those who have fallen for her, live with her, are sprung, lost and turned out in love with her, know exactly what I mean. Ain't no amount of wind, water, gunfire, potholes, 'ignant' politics or doomsday predictions can pry your death grip from her. Come hell or high water, you stay — or return.
"She makes you high from laughing too much and too long. She breaks your heart till you're crying on the kitchen floor. She haunts you, melts you and is just a damn joy to live in.
"I think she's a cult."
— From the introduction of Notes From New Orleans (2007), by
Deborah Cotton, a tireless chronicler of the New Orleans brass band and second-line community and a Gambit contributor, was among the 19 people shot when a gunman opened fire on revelers at the Original Big 7 Social Aid & Pleasure Club's annual Mother's Day second line. As we went to press May 17, Cotton was recovering at Interim LSU Public Hospital.
Cotton, 48, was raised in Texas and Oklahoma. She majored in African-American studies at San Francisco State University before moving to Los Angeles. After 15 years of visiting New Orleans, she moved to the city in 2005 shortly before Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures.
After an evacuation to Houston by cab ("Taking a cab from New Orleans to Houston is certainly an original, if not inexpensive way to escape Armageddon," she wrote breezily), Cotton returned to her adopted city with a mission to chronicle some of New Orleans' most important but underreported traditions: second lines, brass bands, social aid and pleasure clubs, Mardi Gras Indians and the rich culture of her new neighborhood, Treme. Cotton blogged, photographed and filmed the events, eventually publishing a 2007 book titled Notes From New Orleans. Its subtitle — "Spicy, colorful tales of politics, people, food, drink, men, music and life in post-breaches New Orleans" — summed it up.
As "Big Red Cotton," she wrote about a variety of topics in post-Katrina New Orleans: the death of famed chef Austin Leslie; the eternal divide between native and non-native New Orleanians; the stories of the people of the 9th Ward; "The Welcome Arrival of Zoloft and the National Guard"; her search for the perfect "big black man named James" ("a tall black bear with a big belly who loves him a thick yella girl, the kind that would inspire Jill Scott to write a third album"); and her growing disillusionment with then-Mayor Ray Nagin.
"I'd love nothing more than to be wrong about Mayor Nagin's ability to lead us out of darkness," Cotton wrote. "But you know — especially the ladies — how you feel something deep inside that you don't want to be true, so you say to yourself, 'Maybe I'm wrong. ... ' But later on, when the shiznit hits the fan, you realize how foolish it was to doubt what your wisdom and intuition told you."
Cotton eventually expanded "Notes From New Orleans" into a web feature on NOLA.com. In 2009, Cotton approached Gambit about becoming a contributor to the paper. Actually, we had been pursuing her for a while, fascinated by her commentaries on subjects ranging from Michelle Obama's evolving fashion style ("The Gays Got to Her") to Nagin's public demeanor ("Signs Your Mayor Might Be a Psychopath"). And for the last four years, Cotton has written about second lines and brass bands for Gambit's Blog of New Orleans, posting YouTube videos of parades, performances, street celebrations and whatever strikes her fancy.
Last September, as musicians and club owners organized at Kermit Ruffins' Speakeasy bar in her Treme neighborhood to decide what to do about a citywide crackdown on music club permitting, Cotton emerged as a leader to come up with solutions. She also worked with brass bands and second-line groups on matters large and small.
"How the f—k do I do a parade without Big Red?" Dismas Johnson, the manager of the Original Big 7, told Gambit last week. "It's not the same. How am I supposed to do a parade without Big Red? She's always asking us how we pick clothes, how we pick the band."
But the shadow of New Orleans violence was never far from Cotton's mind. The deaths of Hot 8 Brass Band snare drummer Dinerral Shavers in 2006 and TBC Brass Band saxophonist Brandon Franklin in 2010 hit her hard — as did the murder of 2-year-old Ja'Shawn Powell, who was killed by his father in 2009. In 2011, when community organizer Rafael Delgadillo was shot, she helped publicize RAFApalooza, a benefit for him.
All this took a toll. Cotton wrote openly about her depression and grief, seeking solace from clergy, psychologists and antidepressants. She developed an ulcer and was hospitalized more than once. But she has never stopped writing about the city she loves. Earlier this year, she launched NewOrleansGoodGood.com, which she called "an online arts and entertainment magazine that introduces readers to those only-in-New Orleans people, traditions, events you always wanted to know about —and the mainstream media doesn't cover."
When violence erupted near a second line in 2010, and some were calling for the tradition to be shut down, Cotton wrote an essay for Gambit calling out the media, pointing out the good that social aid and pleasure clubs do in troubled neighborhoods — and noting pointedly that no one blames Mardi Gras krewes for trouble that breaks out along Uptown parade routes.
Writing on the website Humid City (www.humidcity.com) last week, the local blogger known as Liprap said, "New Orleans may not have been perfect, and it may have lashed out at her, but it has sustained her all these years. She's believed in it for so long, worked so hard for it, that I couldn't help but think that one of the greatest tributes to her toils was [New Orleans Police Chief] Ronal Serpas making the point that the second line was not to blame for the shootings — and most everyone agreeing with that assessment."
The last words of Notes From New Orleans ring as true as they did when she wrote them six years ago:
"Yes, New Orleans is raggedy, disorganized and unprofessional. But it's also the most humble, fun-loving, humanistic community left in the United States. In June 2005, I left the urban warfare loop and let the rat race go on with one less rat.
"I've chosen instead to grab a daiquiri on those rough days and revel in the grace of strangers in the city we all call home."
— Deborah Cotton's book, Notes From New Orleans, can be ordered for $18 at www.cafepress.com/deborahcotton.