When I checked messages at the airport, there was one from Mom saying that she hoped we'd had an interesting trip to New Orleans. Interesting Not the usual word that you find in sentences about three-day getaway. Usually you get "fun" or "relaxing" - but "interesting" - that's a hint toward the tone of the trip.
The trip is part of the Long Date, the 4-week period while both boys are at summer camp. Last year was Kansas City. July is a hot time to go anyplace, and New Orleans was no exception.
Our friend Lewis Stirling picked us up for our Devastation Tour, after we'd tucked into oysters and gumbo at the Acme, We prefer Felix, but Felix wasn't open yet. “Not open yet” is a phrase we would hear a lot. Lewis drives a black land rover, with 3 sunroofs and speakers everywhere. He said that during the immediate aftermath, he would put magnetic signs that said "Stirling Properties Disaster Recovery Team" on the side, and drive past every checkpoint. Lewis likes signs.
Lewis was impressed with how much progress had been made, even as we were awed by the wreckage. The streets were clear, and the lower 9th ward near the levee was all cleared vacant lots, not piles of debris as it had been. There was a fair amount of activity, volunteers in groups, and the first sight of a tour bus. I'd wondered whether the devastation tours would be popular. I shouldn't have.
The lower 9th had the most dramatic messes, because of the rapid flow, and the shotgun houses perched on foundations - they were swept off and piled up.
The markings painted on each house were a code for the many groups that had gone through to check after the storms. "One cat rescued - contact us" and a web address for a pet group. "One dead in attic" "Two alive" and more. And other markings we can't translate, about utilities and condition.
Over in Faubourg Marigny, in the Lake Vista area, the damage was, if anything, creepier. Through my sunglasses, the houses looked merely silent, and the streets empty, but when I switched to regular lenses, the brown line through each house was visible, about two thirds of the way up the first floor. The flow had been slower here, as Lake Ponchartrain overtopped the levees and slowly rose, or as the flow came from underground and shot out of the sewers. The neighborhoods were mile after mile of suburban homes, empty. It's been slow getting the water back on, and dangerous getting the gas back on. To add to the mix, there's a drought right now, and the shrinking earth surrounding the pipes in the ground is causing leaks all over the city.
In the Times-Picayune this morning, a story reported home prices down by half for those that had flooded - and up by 20-30% for those that hadn't. But from what I saw, the only things going on were in single-family houses. Apartment blocks and rental property were rotting where they stood, or being cleared off.
Lewis dropped us at the Royal Sonesta and Lynda rested while I went for a walk. Bourbon Street is even stickier by day than it is by night. Larry Flynt seems to have a stronghold on the strip, and I was on the phone with the executive director of Camp Fire when a Hustler model blocked my path, and wouldn't let me pass. It was kind of nice, but as I said to Jean on the phone it was like when Mrs. Fields hands you a piece of a cookie outside the store. Sometimes a piece of a cookie is just the thing.
The telescope guy was still there outside the Cafe du Monde, but the brass bands weren't around, and most of the stores on Jackson Square are only open three days. Hiring is very hard. Wendy's has signs showing $9 an hour, and Starbucks offers full benefits at only 20 hours. But these people all have two jobs, the second one being fixing up the home so they can get out of the trailer. And the town is full of voluntourists – I’m sure I’m not the first to make up that word, but the packs of kids in matching t-shirts, looking a little bit righteous and a little bit tired, are part of the scenery now.
Lewis and Tricia took us to dinner at the Cellar at Culinaria, where a friend who was about to open a restaurant when Katrina had destroyed it, relocated into a cooking school that had failed in the post-Katrina economy. Great food, and a four-item menu, because it's basically a residential kitchen. The biggest hit was popcorn with white truffle oil.
The restaurant is in Lewis' neighborhood, called Amnesia Town by the locals. The garden district was not flooded, and Lewis was back in his house in two weeks, and know the only difference is "the streetcar doesn't run, and they only pick up the garbage once a week." Lewis has a house right on St. Charles, and puts up a grandstand during Mardi Gras with a sign that says "Judges" so that all the bands will stop and perform. I laughed pretty hard at that. He was king of a Krewe once, and takes Mardi Gras pretty seriously.
The next morning I took a ride on the wonderbike, my folding Dahon that goes in a suitcase for trips like this. I went 15 miles through the garden district to Audobon Park, and back to the Quarter on Magazine. First I had beignets and coffee at the Cafe Du Monde, so I was ready to go. Lewis was right - apart from the failed businesses, it was hard to spot the storm damage. Many downed trees, and a couple of holes where houses had burned and there was no water to fight the fire.
Lynda and I took a cab to about 4400 on Magazine Street and walked back toward town, shopping for kitchen lighting, looking in antique and junk shops, and having a watermelon snowball and a fancy lunch at Lillette. We've been to New Orleans a half-dozen times and this part wasn't changed much.
On the way back we went into Martin Wines, owned by a friend of Lewis. He'd said the store wasn't much, a temporary thing, because anyplace with liquor had been looted after the storm. But the store was charming, and Mark Pelletier, the manager, had been to europe with Seth Allen at Vin Divino, Lynda's predecessor at Convito as wine manager. He'd also toured Italy with our cousin Marco. Tiny world. His wife Shannon turns out to be the sommelier at Bayona, so we were all set for diner.
Before Bayona, we were at the oyster bar at Dickie Brennan's Bourbon House, and fell into conversation with Albin and Susan, Quarter denizens who were loading up on oysters before going to "our club" as they called the Bombay Club. So after dinnner, we took them up on their invitaton and found our way to the club.
It's maybe 50 feet off Bourbon, but Bourbon has been taken over by hair rock bands, all power chords and volume, no finesse. The Bombay Club was packed with locals, many sporting a fleur de lis on a lapel. Albin and Susan were at the bar, and had been there for some time, bourbon for him, cosmopolitans for her. They introduced us to Johnny Angel, singing that night and everynight, and his combo. Johnny has a five-inch pompadour and sideburns, and is about five and a half feet tall. His two-tones were gleaming, his fingers were snapping, and his rhythm was off. Way off. But he knew everyone in the bar, and worked their names into the songs, so that was how Albin learned that Carmello was back in town. Since Carmello owns "the only real italian restaurant in the Quarter" Albin had to introduce him to Lynda Jo. Carmello still has his $700,000 wine cellar, because he went to the restaurant with his last gallons of gas, a generator, and a gun. But the restaurant isn't open yet, and he's sold his home. He lives in North Carolina, but he's working on reopening. Carmello is Sicilian, not italian, and he and his friend opened up when they found that we speak italian. So we had our introductions to the chef at Arnauds and the Napoleon house.
We moved over to Frenchman's Street, in faubourg Marigny, and settled in at th back bar at the Spotted Cat. Zach, a 6'10" ex-military policeman, and now a bicycle messenger, was working both sides of the bar, and told me where to ride the wonderbike the next day. The band, Vavavoom, was a two-guiitar and bass sort of Hot Club de Paris thing, with a great sound. We couldn't get a cab company to answer a phone when the bar closed, so we walked back to the hotel and had beignets at the CDM on the way to the hotel.
The next morning, to my amazement, I was awake at 9. We were headed to Arnauds at noon, so I took several advil, filled my water bottle, and got the WB and my helmet and headed for the lobby. While I had my coffee, I met a family that had taken 7 rooms in the hotel, even though they lived in NOLA. They'd been everywhere in the hotel- we'd seen then in the lobby, the pool, the bar. One said she had to get home and sweep some things, since they were coming to do the floors this week. "Are you getting them redone?" I asked innocently, thinking of our renovation project at home. "Honey, there's just concrete right now. We're still in the FEMA trailer."
I headed past the CDM without stopping for a beignet, and down Esplanade toward Lake Ponchartrain. About four miles, Zach had said. The GPS said otherwise, so I turned onto a big street to get to the lake, and through a gorgeous bayou. There was a boat ramp at the levee, so I went over the top, and into the silent park on the other side. It was clean, and the lawn had been mown, but I was completely alone. I rode back through subdivisions in Lake Vista, and block after block of emptiness. At one point there were a hundred cars or so, and I arrived at a church service, being held in a tent next to the ruined church. I paused to look, and an earnest young man with a Book approached and asked if I'd join them. In the background the pastor was explaining how the Jews weren't going to help them, didn't want to help them. So I told him no, I'd be moving on, and take it a little easier on us Jews. A couple of blocks later I saw another tour bus, and a catholic church with a toppled cross.
A long ride back through more of the same, thinking about how quickly people turn to antisemitism when the bible is handy and they need someone to be angry at. Our driver on the way in from the airport, a tiny black granny in an enormous van, was listening to a preacher interpreting Revelations all the way in, and how the antichrist would have to kill two thirds of the jews because that's what it would take before the remainder saw the error of their ways. She drove along, shouting Amen at the appropriate moments, and I saw her in her day-long, rolling church pew, and wondered how I would react if my world were destroyed.
The boys are often frustrated with Lynda's uncanny ability to befriend the maitre d' and the chef, the concierge, whomever is responsible for our happiness. They get mad when they get up to go to the bathroom, and come back to find their mother writing an e-mail address on a napkin for someone's niece who's moving to Chicago. It's one of her greatest qualities, and I hope they acquire even a tenth of it someday, but it's an anathema to an adolescent boy.
So when I rolled through the lobby, and Wayne, the bellman came up and said "now that's my kind of guest - gets home at 3 AM and leaves at 9 for a fifteen-mile ride" I said to him "I suppose this means Lynda's awake?"
We packed our clothes and the WB and went over to Arnauds. It was glorious - it seems the locals have taken over a few places in the dearth of tourists, and there's a huge dearth in July in any year. So it was all straw hats and seersucker and big, big tables of family. And a charming jazz trio, old school, with a stand-up bass, muted trumpet, and a resonator banjo. And you have to love a restaurant where oysters on the half shell are part of the prix fixe. We were feeling large, so we had the bananas Foster.
Wayne got us out of the room, and we took one last tour. We were in a receptive mood, and so we finally found the light fixtures we'd been looking for. The woman in the store said the same thing they all did - "We're so glad you're here, there's 8 families being fed out of this store. Send your friends."
It was very sad, and truly fascinating. So in that sense, at least, it hasn't changed. The mix of joy, struggle, and astonishing warmth is why we'll go back. And soon.