Whatever else you can say about this town, New Orleans was built for the nighttime. My first night in began with an opportunity to dine at an old favorite restaurant, Upperline, with a dear friend who was having her first civilized dinner in town since the Big Affair began. The drill in NO restaurants right now is: no reservations, limited menu.
Fine by me, as long as the limited menu includes the ineffable duck and andouille gumbo we both ordered, before diving into yet another cup of same. “The perfect roux”, my friend, a born-and-bred New Orleanian proclaimed, in what may be the city’s highest compliment, certainly higher than “a good mayor”.
Then I walked over to Frenchmen (correct spelling) Street, long home of the finest strip of music clubs probably on the planet. No online music listings were available, so I was just seeing if anything was open, and anyone was playing. The answers were yes, and yes. Joe Krown’s organ trio was playing at dba, and the poor patrons who crammed the club had to undergo a few songs with me sitting in on bass, but the groove managed to survive quite well. Just down the block, the sublime Phillip Manuel was singing his ass off at the city’s prime jazz club, Snug Harbor.
Phillip’s crowd was largely comprised, it turns out, of volunteer psychotherapists from around the country who were doing rotating two-week shifts caring for the youngsters of the fire and police workers living on the two Carnival cruise ships (the same ones for which FEMA is paying standard cruise prices). It just gets weirder and weirder here. I asked one of the therapists, a lovely woman from Rockaway, NY, how the kids were doing. “They’re pretty messed up, angry and confused and scared,” she said, before returning to her primary topic--how much she loved New Orleans (this was her first visit), and how determined she was to come back. I thought to myself, if you love it now, you should have seen it when it was alive.
Monday began with lunch at another just-reopened restaurant, Bacco. A guy at the next table struck up a conversation: “Were you here when they had the plastic knives and forks?” Apparently, this was the establishment’s first day with the silver back on the table. The same guy told me of another New Orleans diaspora--the doctors. He knows dozens of them who have relocated, not to return. Is it because there aren’t hospitals for them to work at, I asked. Yes, he said.
I took another walking tour of the Quarter, noting the presences--Senators meeting at the grand Courthouse on Royal Street to discuss their reactions to their quickie tour of the devastation--and the absences--the wonderful little pen-and-paper store is gone from Chartres Street.
Then I drove into the Bywater, the working-class neigborhood downriver from the Quarter, which largely survived--like the Quarter and the Garden District, it owes its life to proximity to the river, which equals distance from the lake. A friend just back in town told me of his trip the day before through New Orleans East and Lakeview and asked me if I’d done that tour yet. I hadn’t, but he gave me my afternoon agenda.
Across the Industrial Canal, New Orleans looks like what you’ve seen on TV, only like an Imax version of it--there is so much more devastation, stretching out for so many miles in every direction, than even a widescreen television can encompass. Parts of it reminded me of the old neighborhood in Los Angeles which was abandoned when the airport added a runway: for a while, the streets and the streetlights remained, even after the houses came down, and you could drive through it, ruminating on the temporal nature of our stuff.
New Orleans East is block after block, street after street, of shotgun houses and modest one-story cottages standing, with the famous spray-painted X code on the front, of cars parked, of piles of debris in front of each house, and of no people. Almost no people: every once in a while, someone’s sitting on a porch, or dragging crap to add to his or her debris pile. Some of them wave at me driving by, some of them just stare. Is this to be their future--extras on the New Orleans Disaster Tour?
And then there are the troops: still guarding the entrance to devastated St. Bernard Parish, only allowing residents in, still manning barricades to keep anyone out of the heart of the Lower Ninth Ward.
And I drove on, through parts of town whose lack of street grid and/or gritty reputation had made them unfamiliar to me: through lower Gentilly and some of the lakeshore neighborhoods, and here’s where you begin to see the destroyed houses become larger, two-story cottages. And the debris piles are, if anything, larger, too. I didn’t quite make it all the way out to the locally famous 50-foot debris mountain in the neutral grand of one of the boulevards that takes you to the lake. But after an hour and a half, the scene stops making you gasp, and starts leaving you numb.