Saturday, December 24, 2005

a sadly beautiful day in New Orleans...

Back in September I promised to savor a cup of jo at Cafe du Monde this December as a form of "pffffft" to all the doomsday talk I'd heard about New Orleans.
We (Tricia and I) did have that cup of jo just yesterday and it was chicory good. It was a beautiful day and the French Quarter was bustling. We wanted to give as much as we could to one of our favorite American cities for she is reciprocal. So we also had a pint of Abita, a catfish poboy and a white chocolate caramel turtle. All was good, especially that poboy. I do not know why other American cities cannot do bread the way New Orleans can. Maybe it's the same mysterious reason New York pizza is exceptional. Anyway they're still pumping out the good stuff in the Quarter, but we found that this doesn't mean the Big Easy is back.

The Quarter is missing a HUGE chunk of its labor as well as many proprietors. Most establishments had to lessen their hours of operation to stay in business. Many are still closed. All have "Help Wanted" signs. If you ever wanted to work in the Quarter now is the time to get down there, jobs a plenty though you might be doing dishes. It's the working class that's gone missing after all. This sudden vaporizing of labor has spawned some odd stories. We asked our bartender where to get a good po-boy. She hesitated. She wanted to tell us to go a couple of doors down but that was no good because the new unskilled cook they hired burned the kitchen down with his first roux. This upset our bartender greatly (apparently they made a great gumbo). She pulled out a weekly pamphlet that some enterprising local carts around Quarter. It's called "What's Open." She calls this her phone book. "What's Open" started out as a one page flyer but by the time we had one it was a four page pamphlet. It's growth is a good sign but what we saw outside the quarter was anything but.

Coming into New Orleans through the commercial suburbs along Clearview Avenue and then Airline Ave, N.O. doesn't look like a city in crisis. You see a few rooftops with blue tarping, enough so you realize they might've had a good wind storm recently. But the roads are full, just packed in fact. Then you hit Tulane Ave and there's no getting around the disaster. Every store is closed, many gutted. The sidewalks are full of junk, so are the medians. The stop lights are replaced by makeshift stop signs. Even the businesses that don't appear to have been damaged are closed, including the fast food chains. That's when you know you're in a dead city, when Burger King has shut its doors. Then you hit downtown and it's bustling and then you hit the French Quarter and on a beautiful day like Tricia and I found, it's pretty easy to forget the misery you just past.

What's not so easy to forget is an afternoon drive through the Lower Ninth Ward. I've read the papers and I thought I knew what to expect but nothing prepared me for the devastation we witnessed or the sadness I felt passing through an entire neighborhood caked in flood residue, gutted; cars left where the water dropped them maybe a little off the driveway where they were parked, maybe leaning against a parking sign, maybe on the lawn. The lawns gray with flood filth, littered with odd scraps and piled high with destroyed furniture. The houses graffiti-ed by FEMA, SPCA, former residence: "Cat rescued," "None Dead," "Moved to Tuscon (phone number included)." The saddest graffiti reads "We'll be back." After driving through the neighborhood, that sign doesn't read like a brave act of defiance but an act of helplessness. Who would want to live in one of these treeless, lifeless neighborhoods where every single house must be rebuilt from the ground up; with the levy so close almost every house has a view. Who would want that reminder, having lived through it? Not many it is obvious to see. But we did witness people cleaning up their past, living in FEMA provided trailers in their gray front lawns in front of the ugly reminder of their former lives on the smelly lifeless block that used to be their neighborhood. If it was me, I think I'd be off to Tuscon with the rest of the gang.

But it's important to remember that this imagery is of specific neighborhoods and certainly not the city as a whole. The city is bustling along. What a beautiful day we had in the Quarter, can't wait to go back.


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