Sunday, February 18, 2007

The New Orleans Post

It's been just under a week since I returned, and I still haven't lived up to my promise of "much more later". Try as I might, I haven't been able to lasso the whole experience into one theme or one point, and I don't feel right about just picking a little piece of it out and letting that represent what I did and saw. So I'll break it down in vignettes - pick and choose what you like, and leave the rest.

First off, let's get one thing out. The city is back for visitors, and it might even be better than ever. The restaurants are open serving local oysters, the crawfish are great, the daiquiri stands are open, the tourists are there with their hurricane glasses, the street performers are fantastic, and the city hums with vitality. The people making it all happen are there because they want to be there - they love New Orleans, and moved back because they want to be there. Everyone there either came there after the flood, or returned after the flood.

It was the first weekend of Mardi Gras - what a fantastic thing to see! The whole city turns purple, green and gold. Our hotel was on the main parade route, and people would line up hours before the parade with chairs, coolers, and, most amazingly, ladders with wooden boxes on top for their children. They looked like precarious perches for little ones, as drunks and kids chased the floats around them, but it's a part of the local flavor and tradition of New Orleans.

Off the beaten path, off the main roads, you can still see the devastation. Flying in, you can see the FEMA trailers still in people's yards, and you can see the bright blue temporary roofs everywhere. Branches still rest on cars that have never been moved. Their owners may have died, or they may have left New Orleans behind entirely. Ali talks of the heartbreaking sadness of emptying houses of belongings left behind, and dumping framed photographs on the curb. Many, many houses have the FEMA X's still painted on their doors or pillars - coded messages of when the house was inspected, whether corpses were found, etc.. When I say that New Orleans is back, and better than ever, I don't mean that it is unscathed or that the signs of the storm have been erased. The city is damaged, and the signs are everywhere. The fact that it still lives is one of the things that makes it all so amazing and special.

New Orleans has always been trashy and it always will be. Katrina is a part of it now.

We drove past the Convention Center, and I could see where that woman was left in her wheelchair. Driving down roads, you couldn't help but wonder if this was the place that you saw that body floating face down, or that person was photographed taking food or drink (looter if black, salvager if white). New Orleans was full of voodoo and tourist ghost tours when we visited the weekend before Katrina. Now, there are new ghosts in New Orleans, and they are spooky.

I went to Mass at St. Louis Cathedral, the glorious, historical church that served as a Disney-like backdrop when George Bush did his pathetic press conference in front of the statue of Andrew Jackson and focused all the electricity of a struggling city on himself. That building has stood through hurricanes and even a terrorist attack. The majesty of the Cathedral dwarfed the small man who did so little for New Orleans, and has shown himself so incapable of dealing with challenges.

On Sunday afternoon, we visited the Tulane Emergency Room, near the French Quarter. (No, the reason for our visit involved neither alcohol nor priapism.) An elderly, shabbily dressed black man was in a wheel chair, waiting for hours to be treated, and introduced himself as Robert. He knew everyone in the place. A young white man, probably in his early twenties, came in with a friend who had overdosed. As the young kid waited for his friend, Robert approached him to ask what had happened. The conversation meandered for a while, until the kid began telling him that he had been "jacked for two bills" a few nights before, and that "I normally would have killed the fucker that fucks with me like that." In fact, he bribed a local guy who knew the perpetrator to bring him to a place where the kid would be lying in wait. In the meantime, though, the kid has a bit of a religious awakening, and decided that "vengeance belongs to the Lord, and he will extract it seven-fold, which means that the Lord is going to be coming after that dude for fourteen hundred bucks."

One day, we had coffee and beignets from Cafe Du Monde, muffuletta sandwiches from the Central Grocery, and dinner at K Paul's. New Orleans is the best city in the world for eating.

It was great to see Ali and her friends. Bright, talented young women facing the baffling array of majors and career choices - you can tell that they are kind of frightened to be facing a world so ripe with possibilities. You can't really be helpful, so the best thing to do is shut up and enjoy them.

Ali thinks she might want to stay in New Orleans after graduation. I can understand why.


Blogger Abigail said...

We were down at Mardi Gras the same weekend. A group of us had gone down to Gonzalez during Rita to help with a Humane Society temporary field shelter.

We decided to visit NOLA this year to pay our respects and to have fun watching Barkus, a dog Mardi Gras parade.

I had never been to the great city. It was one of my favorite trips; I will be going back next year.

Cafe Du Monde was fun, as was Yo Momma's (a biker bar with amazing crawfish), Envy (a coffee shop/bakery/bar), the Blacksmith (a bar with live music), Bourbon St. Oyster House, Crescent City Brewhouse (great beer!; we were mad that they were not open on Monday for lunch as our farewell meal), well just about every meal was fun and memorable. We stayed at a converted mansion/boutique hotel on Esplanade just across the street from the French Quarter. We felt like we were in "real" New Orleans, but close to the nightlife.

New Orleans is the perfect city for people watching, food, music, and drink. (And the first weekend of Mardi Gras was relatively tame). We invite KCMO travellers to take on our motto, "rebuilding New Orleans one drink at a time."

2/26/2007 10:06 AM  

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