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.There's a litany of personal struggles there we wouldn't wish on anyone. It's hard to see why this should become a permanent barrier to employment. "No journalism entity in town will hire him." That sounds pretty sinister. Your instinct is to react the way Harry Shearer does.
At Kingfish, Rose continued serving his fans—as well as his fellow New Orleans celebrities. “This waiter walks up and it took me probably way too long to realize, Oh my god, I know who you are. I was absolutely startled,” says Harry Shearer, comedic actor, voice of many Simpsons characters, and part-time New Orleanian. “To go from an essential voice to a forgotten voice in the relative blink of an eye is pretty shocking. For a city that reveres tradition and history, a city full of second chances, it seems very puritanical what seems to have happened to Chris.”But you look again and you see the several examples of employers having been flexible and patient. FOX 8 flew him into town and put him up in a hotel several times, apparently. And yet it keeps not working out somehow. Except that actually it does work out. Rose is writing professionally again and "making four times the price that Gambit or Times-Picayune pays freelancers."
For some reason that isn't good enough, though. Somehow, despite every humbling experience, Rose maintains a distinct air of "Don't you know who I am!" about him.
Clean, sober, and again a free agent, Rose this time found himself deeply unemployed. Having been praised for understanding New Orleans in a special way, he suddenly, finally, also understood its smallness. “For seven months I was getting turned down. I kept thinking, ‘Someone is gonna hire me. I’m Chris Rose.’ It took a while for me to realize, all these unreturned phone calls … I’m not gonna get a job here. And I had no other marketable skills. For 30 years there’s never been any question of what I was gonna do.”But who is he, really? Chris Rose is a significant specimen. He was the first bona-fide Katrina entrepreneur; the first in a long line of such people to try and monetize a personal brand he built on other people's tragedy.
I say, "other people's tragedy" carefully, of course. The time of the flood affected everyone who lived through it. It changed everyone's lives in radical ways. It profoundly affected our sense of community and our politics. It made physically manifest an existential threat of impending doom we might have sensed before but never directly confronted. It made people take stock of things and decide what was important to them. I wouldn't want to belittle anyone's experience with that.
But what I just described there was pretty much the basic package. If your life was in New Orleans before Katrina, you got one of those. That's not nothing. But it's possible to say that, if this is all you got, then what you got was not especially tragic.
Chris Rose was living in New Orleans at the time of the flood. Personally, he came out of it pretty well. Or, at least he should have. As you can see from the CJR story, he's been through some personal trials but it's a stretch to relate those directly to the storm. He didn't lose his home. He didn't lose his job. In fact, the experience was a boon to him, professionally. He made certain to take advantage of it, anyway.
It's a little strange that Rose should end up such a pariah after all this time. He's far from the only hyper-ego to go about feeling Katrina at you for money. He actually presaged the kind of cynical exploitation that currently comprises a large (although perhaps over-exaggerated) portion of the local economy.*
Maybe, then, we might view Rose as a bit of a cautionary tale. Is personal branding really the best way for us to go about making a living? There were hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians who lived through the same Katrina flood that Rose did. His supposed skill.. "understanding New Orleans in a special way," as the CJR piece puts it, is really no skill at all. Or, at least, there's nothing "special" about it.
Of course he is an OK writer and, at times, a clever wit but really so are most people. And that's a good thing. Obviously not everyone is exactly the same, but within a reasonable spectrum, most ordinary people are pretty smart, or funny, or have something of value to say. None of them is particularly "special" though. Why would you want to be? That sounds pretty lonely.
But the principles of the Perpetual NOLA.com Entrepreneur Week teach us that the secret to success is to always be bootstrappin' in a competitive creative class kind of way. And so we become a whole economy full of Chris Roses forced to sell our adequate but unexceptional selves as "brands" based mostly on the power of their own bullshit self-salesmanship. What does it mean when we find out our individual brands aren't worth very much in a market flooded with many many more similar to ours?
Pretty soon we're all just working at Rouses. Maybe that's for the best.
*Interestingly Rose says all the royalties from his book belong to the Times-Picayune thanks to the copyright provisions of his employment with them. In that case, the packaging and profiteering off of the Rose brand is partially.. or even mostly.. the company's fault. That's probably the worst aspect of any of this. Especially since NOLA.com has become the online Church of Entrepreneurship that it has in recent years.