They do Easter here. I have a whole week off ahead of me. Call me pagan, but rebirth is about where I can go with it.
I began my dose of resurrection a week ago. It was time. I had a friend from Seattle visiting and we both wanted to go see New Orleans. For me it was time. I work with people who evacuated from Metairie, New Orleans East, Chalmette...and are just now bracing themselves for the bulldozers that will finish the job before our next hurricane season. They've gone back every weekend to salvage their lives from attics, grieve their family members, bury their pets, lament over their pianos and photographs. These stories have real faces for me, and are not just conveniently timed soundbites for me. Yes I recommend seeing New Orleans.
It is UN-BE-LIEVABLE. I came back an evangelist for tourism, before it is gone and too late. You can't fathom it even when you see it.
They are still just opening up businesses in the Quarter, but armed with my tour book and only one day's notice, I found a hotel in the Quarter with a great courtyard for $80. We went down on a Sunday afternoon, armed with a list of "must sees". My next door neighbor is born and raised in New Orleans. Mama owns a candy store. Maman lived in one of those French Quarter balcony apartments. So, I had to find her hang- outs or forever hear about it. Café du Monde for beignets. Tujacque's muffelatta. Tujaque was still closed, opening the next week for Easter.
We took 10 right to the French Quarter. Still so beautiful. High ground. No water damage. But so empty. So many balconies closed up. So many for sale signs. We wanted to give the town some business. We ate at Frank's up on a rod iron balcony overlooking the French Market. I ordered up a pretty pink cosmos. Didn't ever have to wait for a table anywhere. So we ate the muffelatta, did the beignet thing, praline thing, and paid the busker blues guitar girl howling out Neil Young and House of New Orleans. Her smile looked stressed. Her licks weren't the greatest. But you had to admire her persistence sitting in the hot sun, smiling at all who passed by.
As usual when you visit somewhere magic after so long a time away, you miss what was. I don't know if it was Katrina that took away my memories, or just time. The old timers on the street corner playing Dixieland, blues, Creole...was that just some movie I went to or wasn't there live music everywhere? My head just couldn't wrap around it. Where would they live now?
Sunday we took the Grayline bus tour of "Katrina" for 38 bucks. Three hours but well worth it. And shocking. The guide a native New Orleanian, with that Brooklyn accent they got from the steamboat days. The French Quarter mostly suffered wind damage, so you see some plywood windows and piles of garbage here and there. There are still places without electricity even in the French Quarter.
Just a few blocks down towards the high rises Joe points out which ones are still without power, then along all the boarded up storefronts, one after the other, he points out the waterline, ground into the walls, windows and fences, rising suddenly as we dip into the bowl of the city. He points out the pink high rise where he and his family evacuated vertically. It didn't work for them either. They waited for a week for the boats to come. They had no idea what had happened.
But we drive on out into the thick of it, where the river broke the levy here, and here. And the Lake Pontchartrain took out the light house, and the yacht club, and all this over here, and this over here...the used to be story. This used to be full of sea food huts along the lake. This used to be luxury boat houses.
Thankfully some Democrats on the bus. Yankees and Canadians. We are allowed to ask about the relief efforts. The oil profits, or lack of in Louisiana's history. It's really a bay, not a lake, asks the amateur geoprapher. Why do they call it a Lake? It's always been called a lake but you're right, confirms Joe. Terminology aside, the hurricane still swept up the lake and forced it onto land, end of story.
It's deceiving to drive through New Orleans and assume that things are back to normal inside anything that is still standing. Over and over, you hear the same story, this one is fine, that one is gone. Looking at two condominiums standing side by side, it's the electricity in the basement story. One gone, one open for business. Or the sewers are gone so the neighborhood can't support the FEMA trailers. We are reminded that it is pitch black in here at night, and covered with looters. We drive through the neighborhood with the highest death rate. The older residents who wouldn't leave, having weathered through hurricanes their whole lives. The brush and trees still covering their yards. You know they are never coming back. Then you see the lucky ones with trailers in their front yard. I asked about the 9th Ward. The bus wouldn't go there. When I asked, the reply took a minute and was simply put "Toothpicks".
We drive by the roofs with those three foot holes, escape hatches still open, the front doors gone or propped open with caked mud, cars askew, coffee colored lace curtains dyed by the river, still hanging in place but with no plate glass to hold them inside. Empty houses left wide open. We drive through the neighborhood where Joe grew up. I like Joe. He gives us a dose of what was, some politics, personal accounts. He makes it real.
Neighborhood after neighborhood, empty without glass or front door, gutted in the hopes of new drywall, new life, but not a bit of life to welcome you home. I come to hate the red X graffiti on the front of the houses, how many, where, when, by whom. Zero being the lucky number you want to see at the bottom of the X. It meaning no one found inside. My eyes scanning the Xs as the bus rolled by. The search and rescue mark.
Better to see the spray paint calling cards to neighbors with messages to friends and cell phones posted on the front of the house. Occasionally a group of men working on a roof or adding to a pile of debris in the front yard. They call out and wave to us, smiling. We manage thumbs up, and a few call out. We are cheerleaders in shock, forgetting our cheers. We can't find the goal posts.
I don't ask everyone to tell me. They just do. They are clearly still processing this event that has taken their whole world away. The hotel clerk moved into the French Quarter after she got rescued from the second floor of her townhouse. Three days by herself. Her brother, the cop, came to get her in a boat. She had two sticks of chewing gum and a bathtub full of drinking water. They had no way of knowing what was out there. No power, no radio, no cell phones. I asked how fast the water rose and when. Since I'd forgotten or missed those details. It rose fast, within minutes, around noon.
Bourbon Street looked and sounded a lot better to me in the 70s. So we took a quick detour away from the nudie clubs and dodged piles of stinkin' garbage to House of Blues, which wasn't open on Sunday of course. The cops told us there wasn't enough people to pick up the garbage. We wanted to give the town our business so we went into those tourist traps I usually avoid. The hot item being T-shirts with cutesy Katrina Survivor slogans. Katrina survivor magnet car ribbons. FEMA jokes. Katrina Search and Rescue puns.
I wasn't really up for Katrina Kitsch so I stuck to the old French Quarter Jazz schtick and bought souvenirs for my brother, the quintessential jazz buff. We were tourists together thirty years back and hung out with Billie and Dee Dee Pierce at Preservation Hall. $2.00 a night back then. He was too young to go into any clubs and I had lost my I.D. enroute. But it was a blessing to sit at the knees of the old guys, on the wood floor, in the old hall, night after night, just my brother Bri and me. That's where Bri got the jazz bug. Nancy's right, if you want to know anything, just ask the cops on the street. They told us about the jazz clubs to go to and to stay away from right about where we were standing. Thing is, we never did go to any jazz clubs.
But now it's Easter Sunday. A whole week later and I'm back in Lafayette about to do the Mello Joy Boys, Whisky River-Gino, Pat's Steve Riley Sunday thing. Maybe it's just having tasted the devastation or maybe it's my spring break or maybe it's showing my friend what "Let The Good Times Roll" means down here that has me going to every music and dance function I can since I got back to the Hub City. We're heading into Festival Season with Balfa Festival starting next weekend up in Ville Platte soon to be followed by Festival Internationale...Lafayette's version of Seattle's Folklife from what I gather, and free.
Out of the Crescent City for now, but not out of my heart, I still find comfort knowing Tujacque's is serving up a muffelatta, maybe even to my next-door neighbor, right about now.