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New `family' emerges in one New Orleans hotel

NEW ORLEANS—Only seven of them are left in the Dauphine Orleans Hotel: Ed Keyes and his mom, Christine; Bill the waiter; Aaron and Melissa; Reese; and Wayne the tattoo artist, former biker and—since the night of the storm—ex-coke addict.

Ed was the hotel's engineer, before the manager and owner fled Hurricane Katrina. He told them that he and the other employees would look after the place. But the other employees raided the bar. They got drunk every night. Somebody hit someone else over the head with a broomstick, and most everyone but Ed started using the bellman's cart to transport looted booty.

That made Ed, 41, who's possibly the squarest man in New Orleans—he doesn't drink, smoke or dance—seethe in anger and disgust. He locked them out and secured the protective services of Wayne, who knew how to use a baseball bat and had somehow come across a pistol as well.

Disasters destroy families, but sometimes they create them, too.

A strange, strange family is growing here, in a dark hotel in the French Quarter. It's not fancy, but it's comfortable and gracefully built, with four floors, a decent library and 111 rooms, empty but for a handful. The lobby door is locked and the only way in is past an iron gate in the parking garage. That's locked, too. Only Ed has the key, which he keeps with many others on a chain at his belt.

He is the taskmaster, assigning the cleanup duties he's sure the manager will want done, should he ever return: sweep the halls of this four-story hotel, clear the rubble-strewn roof, put the pool back in working order.

Melissa Marcelus, 28, serves meals-ready-to-eat and screwdrivers and scotch, not looted but donated by bartender friends. Bill Schiele, 49, tidies up the cafe and reads English murder mysteries in the afternoon by the pool. Reese Pursell, 40, who's covered down to his knuckles in tattoos, discourses knowledgably and at length on the metaphysical implications of body-marking.

Christine, 67, mourns her husband, dead these last few years, and her house in St. Bernard Parish, drowned in oil spilled from a Murphy's Oil refinery after the storm hit. Nothing was saved except what went into the van at the last minute: two changes of clothes for her son and that ancient photograph of Thomas, her husband—a great, strong, silent man who piloted Mustangs over the Pacific during the war but killed himself with cigarettes.

Wayne Frazier, 51, plies his trade in Room 216 with a sterilization machine for the needle tubes and flat surfaces swabbed down with alcohol. There's been great demand of late for his scripted K's. They have long spidery finials, and around them the blowing wind, cruelly torqued to suggest the rotation of a storm system.

Customers below, holdouts left in the city, bellow up to the balcony: "Wayne, I'm here for the ink!" He takes his pay in gasoline and alcohol, rarely cash these days, and puts his earnings in the communal pot.

But he's marking Ed for free. He's almost finished a portrait of Ed's dad, Thomas, on Ed's back, taken from that ancient photograph.

Wayne—long-haired and bandanna'd, with a ring through his lower lip—switches from booze to ice water and puts on spectacles. Ed hunches over, shirtless and crew-cut. Watching this is no stranger than anything else around here now.

Wayne stabs and scrapes Ed's back until black ink runs with red blood and Thomas' lips are dark and full. Thomas was a handsome man in a leather bomber jacket with fleece lining and goggles pushed up, and all this comes through. He had a distant stare and this, too, comes through.

Ed sweats and grimaces and the tendons in his neck pull tight. During a break, he looks in a mirror and pronounces himself immensely pleased. Ed is always tight. His brothers and sister left and he was the one who stayed at home with his mom and dying dad; that responsibility made him tighter than before. Only maybe now he's loosening up some. He already owns a motorcycle and that is a good sign, says Wayne.

Preachers would agree that Wayne hasn't led a good life. He has fathered and left baby girls. He has consorted with loose women and spent too much money on coke. He says he is lonely and unhappy.

But he's enjoyed living these last two weeks with Ed and his mom, and he says he's picked up some tips from them about how a good life should be lived.

Is it too much to want that, out of this agony, there might come what the alcoholics call a moment of clarity, that a handful of people might make communion with others and know that it is good?

But Ed's mom wants to move to Reno, and of course Ed will go to take care of her. And Wayne: He's sometimes an honest man, and he figures he'll go back to the coke sooner rather than later, and maybe head up to Alabama.

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(Spangler reports for The Miami Herald.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-KATRINA-HOTEL

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