A New Orleans Diary, part one

This may be the only major city in America where it's impossible, whatever the price range of the eatery, to find a restaurant where the crowd is all white, or all black, or all anything.
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After the human suffering, and the loss of historic buildings by the mile, what hurt the most in contemplating the disaster to this city last year was the potential loss of the canopy--the glorious green umbrella of trees that offers necessary shade in these most intensely sunny summers. The human suffering and building loss continue, but it's summertime, and the canopy has rebuilt itself to a surprising degree. This greenest of cities is once again abloom. The first two days were predictably hot, though the evenings were tropical balmy, and Sunday brought a morning downpour that actually succeeded in lowering the thermostat a few degrees.

I always go back to favorite eating places here, partly to see familiar chefs and waitstaff, partly for familiar flavors, and also because I'll allow people whose cooking I've learned to trust to serve me almost anything. But this trip I've also been discovering more of the remarkable wealth of people who, against all conventional wisdom, have been opening fine new places--new restaurants, new coffee bars--and filling them with optimistic people and (in the case of dinner last night at the Bank cafe, where the rabbit was sublime) great food. A friend asked me on the set of a movie I was working on last week about the racial situation in New Orleans, and I'm glad to report that part of what I told her is still true: this may be the only major city in America where it's impossible, whatever the price range of the eatery, to find a restaurant where the crowd is all white, or all black, or all anything.

So what I'm actually experiencing (with an exception I'll mention momentarily) is making me hopeful. What I'm hearing is not--the media are reporting an increase in crime, people are talking about drug gangs taking up residence in abandoned houses, five kids were shot overnight in an apparent piece of gang business, and an alleged cop-killer who followed that up with two alleged home invasions until he found someone old enough to allegedly hold hostage has been caught. And, given the undertone of all the conversations about crime, it was strangely pleasing to see (given the fact that radio no longer identifies crime suspects and victims ethnically) that this alleged miscreant was a tattooed white guy from Houston. The racial temperature is already turned up, thanks to Mayor Nagin's return to chocolate metaphors in a Chicago appearance. Don't get me wrong, I love chocolate. It's the nuts I object to.

On Sunday, when I normally do my radio show (broadcast nationwide, but probably not aired in your city), big-pipe connections--ISDN lines, and big Internet pipes--seem to have had a citywide meltdown. I'm writing this via a (so help me) dialup connection. And the live feed of the radio show never made it out of the studio, despite frantic efforts by the engineer to connect to DC (where the satellite master control is located) or LA (where my home station is located). This being New Olreans, I slumped in disappointment rather than stormed angrily around the premises, listening to the pleasant cacophony of two bands competing for brunch listeners at the French Market outside the station window. Two hours later, after driving through that pounding rainstorm, I did the show, live for San Francisco, and DC Master Control alerted the rest of the late stations around the country--most of which, I'm nonplussed to say, neglected to catch the late feed and instead ran some old repat broadcast. So most listeners may have missed what may be the final installment of "Bad Days at Black Rock", my long-running series about Dan Rather, which this week focused on his reported negotiation with Mark Cuban, head of the tiny HDnet operation (as well as the owner of the Dallas Mavericks), and the detail in Jacques Steinberg's NYT piece that Rather has seen "Good Night, and Good Luck" five times recently in theaters, once alone. Here it is, just in case you're interested.

Sunday night, though, was more about the cockeyed grace of life here, if you're lucky enough not to be gutting your house or arguing with insurance people. If you're lucky enough to have a house. On the way to dinner, we passed by a big old historic pile that friends of ours bought just months before K. My wife pointed out that they were in the large yard, examining the ongoing repair work in the cloudy twilight, and we stopped and urged them to join our dinner threesome, which they did with alacrity. Other friends coincidentally then took up the neighboring table. By nine o'clock, the dining room was our little party. The evening was capped by the requisite visit to Donna's, mercifully not closed for the summer as an incautious rumor had it. Shannon Powell's weekly jam wasn't as star-studded as on my last visit three weeks ago, but it still had the splendid George French on bass (he probably sang, too, after I left--his voice is one of the great ones in town), and Stanton Moore of Galactic, the local star funk ensemble, sitting in on drums.

There are still people who look like tourists walking around town, and the Library Association is bringing its convention here next weekend (the first big one since you-know-what), but clubs and restaurants seem to be surviving this early summertime by being what they always have been--almost necessary nightly restoratives for a population driven crazy by the days.

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