CHRIS ROSE’S PULITZER CRYSTAL SITS in his small French Quarter apartment, its glass badly chipped from various accidents. The disfigured accolade for his work on a reporting team at the Times-Picayune is a reminder of both prowess and loss.
“The way the people of New Orleans made me feel after Hurricane Katrina—like I was holding this fucking city together all by myself,” Rose tells me at the Napoleon House restaurant and bar, in a graffitied payphone nook where he’s eaten, drunk, and written for a dozen-plus years. “At the time, we had Ray Nagin as mayor; all the city institutions and individuals had failed everyone. The Times-Picayune really stepped it up. And I was the face of The Times-Picayune.”
Rose’s collection of post-Katrina Picayune columns, 1 Dead In Attic(Simon and Schuster), became a New York Times bestseller in 2007. Since then, New Orleans’ news community has seemingly cast Rose aside. No journalism entity in town will hire him, he tells me, not even freelance. If they do answer his calls, they say he’s too much of a risk. And so for all of 2014, the 53-year-old Rose was waiting tables to pay rent and feed his three kids.
Rose looks noticeably frailer, his curly hair thinner, since the public last saw him. He looks like what he is: a man who has fallen, and gotten up, and fallen again. He won his Pulitzer by writing about his intense personal struggles following Katrina. A newspaper columnist who had once been known for celebrity gossip, Rose’s public persona was reborn. He used his column as catharsis, writing emotional, first-person accounts that spoke to—and represented—a suffering community.
Sitting and eating a muffaletta, and later strolling around the French Quarter, Rose is recognized and stopped by people from all over the country who tell him how much his work has meant to them. “I teach1 Dead In Attic as part of my college course,” two separate people divulge.
Over the last year, Rose also received many compliments on his writing while refilling his customers’ water glasses at the seafood and cocktail bar Kingfish, a job he recently left. “I’d walk up to the table and they’d fuckin’ drop their spoons,” Rose laughs, his eyes welling up slightly as he nibbles on “crawtater”-flavored Zapp’s chips. “When they realized it wasn’t a joke or for a story, they’d tend to get more upset than I ever did about it. It’s not what I dreamed of doing at this point in my life either, but I found myself having to comfort them more than they comforted me.”
When CJR last reported on Rose in 2008, his tale was one of redemption; he’d shaken an oxycontin painkiller addiction in rehab in order to serve as a bone-marrow donor for his leukemia-stricken sister. But while Rose suffered through rehab, his wife served him divorce papers. “I stayed clean until my sister died in the summer of 2007,” says Rose, who remained clean and clear-eyed all through the publicity run for 1 Dead In Attic on the flood’s second anniversary, including TV appearances with Morning Edition and CBS’ The Early Show. After that, he says, “I’d lost my sister and my marriage, so I went back to eating Vicodin.” CLICK HERE to read the rest of this story at Columbia Journalism Review…
Or, watch this long video of Chris Rose discussing post-Katrina progress: