“Medical knowledge tends to expand during wartime, and 9/11 was no different. The science of DNA identification grew up on the back of 9/11,” Shiya said, adding that despite the lab’s distressing address on Furnace Road, Bode had the best chance of making an analysis of the aged and desiccated lampshade cutting. “Nobody can do what they do.”
From the start, Bob Bever, the head of research at the Bode lab, was fairly certain that any meaningful DNA identification of the lampshade would be of the mitochondrial variety. There are two kinds of genetic material to be found in every cell. The vast majority of information is in the nucleus of the cell. This is the “nuclear DNA.” However, as Bever made clear, nuclear DNA is relatively fragile, susceptible to degradation in the face of excessive moisture and sunlight, which was a problem, since if there is something New Orleans has in abundance, outside of go-cups and midnight shootings, it is heat and humidity.
This left the mitochondrial, or mtDNA, a hardier brand of genetic material but far less detailed in its information. Bever said he hoped to “amplify the mito” in the sample, multiplying the remaining DNA sequences, but even then, “We’re likely to only get the species, not any secondary characteristics, like ethnicity,” Bever said. “We might find out it was a person but never know what kind of person.” To even get that far, the sample would have to be cleaned to eliminate “contaminates.” Who knew how many individuals might have touched the lampshade in its conjectured journey from Buchenwald to New Orleans? The shade would have to be bleached and bleached again. This was a laborious process, Bob Bever said. It would also cost a bit of money.
I told him to go ahead. I wanted to know. And I had to confess, I wanted it to be “real,” i.e., to have once been part of a walking, talking human being. It was a sick thing, I had to admit, but it wasn’t only me. Everyone I spoke to about the lampshade said, given a choice, they would be disappointed to find out it was made from a goat or a pig’s bladder. Here, even in the age of 9/11, after a century of genocide from Armenia to Rwanda, there was a desire to possess the unthinkable.
One thing I needed to know was how, and where, Dave Dominici had gotten the lampshade he sold to Skip Henderson.
By this time, I had discovered quite a bit more about Dominici. He was something of a local celebrity. “I am the famous cemetery bandit. The most hated man in New Orleans,” he said, opening a battered leatherette valise and pulling out a handful of crinkled clippings from the Times-Picayune. “These are all about me,” he said. There were a dozen or so articles, with headlines like “Stolen Artifacts’ Worth Could Run Into Millions” and “Cemetery Thief Pleas Guilty.”
“Local color writers” have been milking the spiked treacle of New Orleans’ seedy hoodooism for more than 150 years, but this was hard to beat. Dominici, in the role of an aging subtropical Fagin, had rounded up a dope-fiend krewe and entered into a compact with a number of French Quarter art dealers to steal and sell a large parcel of the city’s most treasured commodity: the dead, or at least the accoutrements of the dead. A six-foot-tall statue of the Virgin Mary missing from Lake Lawn had been selling in a French Quarter shop for $5,200. Other items taken from Orleanian cemeteries began turning up in antique stores in Los Angeles and London, some priced at as much as $50,000.
Dominici flipped through his cemetery-bandit clippings with a mix of regret, nostalgia, and bravado. “I know I shouldn’t have done it, and I don’t blame these people for getting upset. I’d feel the same way if someone stole from my gramps’s tomb. But I was broke and I had this habit, so do the math on that … You think it’s easy running through a pitch-dark cemetery with a 150-pound marble angel under your arm? You just can’t walk in there and start loading up, grabbing the first thing you see. You got to know the value of things, what they really are.”
That was how he knew about the Nazi lampshade. “I got an eye for antiquities, spot them right off, ” Dominici said. But when it came down to it, Dominici said, “the lampshade came from Katrina. That’s how I got it. From the storm.”
To hear Dominici tell it, the hurricane had left him in a “state of shock … a temporary insanity.” Yes, it was true, he and his girlfriend were so wasted they’d slept right through Katrina, but that just made it worse, waking up to a ruined world. “We get up, and we’re totally out. Nothing. Talk about your dope-sick nightmare … I didn’t hear anything about the levee breaks, I didn’t know about the floods. I just know I got to see Momma Hilda. She was an old black lady with diabetes who sold syringes for one dollar. To her house is just a straight walk up Piety. I done it a thousand times. But now, as I go, I’m swimming through tree branches, shoes, eyeglasses, a whole damn shed went by.