I walk through the teaming, busy streets of New Orleans, jazz notes always playing, as if the sidewalks themselves ooze with music. It is twelve years post Katrina, and thoughts of the recent California fires, our fires, come to mind. I cannot help but compare the two.
The last time I visited, a year or two pre-Katrina, I walked the streets drunk on happiness: I couldn’t get over how beautiful the city was; I travelled with two close friends I rarely got to see; and every corner of NOLA seemed to hold a new surprise. A palm reader who got it right, a horse that nuzzled my shoulder and made me shriek with laughter, a church steeple shining in a swath of light, small children wearing Mardi Gras masks playing in the park…all gifts.
Fifteen years later, the love affair continues. Not only is the New Orleans I remembered still thriving, there is a pride that comes through when I talk with the locals. They lived through “the storm”, they lost homes, loved ones, and chunks of their city. But here they are. They’re locals, born and raised.
One gentleman confides in me, amongst tales of alligator hunting, fire-fighting and cancer battles. “I’d been through a lot, and that was before the storm. Now I’ve been through a lot more. Hell, I’ll bet there’s more shit to come.” He winks and we toasts the shit coming down the pike, so to speak.
NOLA gives me hope for all the fire-torn areas of California. The wineries will rebuild, the grieving families will slowly heal, the trees will bud again. And we will watch cautiously for the next “storm”, whether it be it a flash flood a raging fire.
My memories of the city do not disappoint: the drinks are still strong, the beignets absurdly delicious, the crowd at O’Brien’s belts out songs while drinking hurricanes, and the mysteries in the cemeteries have only multiplied. Having my daughter with me, who has never been, lets me experience it all as new. We eye the raucous craziness on Bourbon Street warily, and head to Frenchmen, to be serenaded by saxophones. Her eyes water as she downs her red beans and rice.
We’re both amused by the silliness of a mule pulling us through the French Quarter. We race to keep up with a parade, the first of the Mardi Gras season, centered on Joan of Arc, who has a wobbly white steed and a team of humming angels. All ready to face a grotesque, angry Bishop with a misshapen head.
We share the city as two writers. I picture Tennessee Williams as he penned Streetcar, or William Faulkner stirring up trouble in Pirate Alley. I am itching to run into Dave Robicheax in every bar (though he isn’t real, James Lee Burke sure makes him seem to be.) In the garden district, Anne Rice’s descriptions become real on the lush wide streets of stately homes. In the Compaur Lapin bar near our hotel, the waitress makes fancy drinks with rabbits etched on top of the foam (Bre’re rabbit!).
Next we head to the Carousel bar (it really revolves) because Tennessee himself drank there with Truman Capote, and Eudora Welt. You really can’t separate New Orleans’ writers from New Orleans drinkers…and so we raise drinks to all of them.
Finally, I dig around to find the book that shaped much of my thinking about Katrina and which I will now re-read. Wendell Pierce’s The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broke. His eloquent voice tells the NOLA’s story as part memoir and part history, sharing his own path from fourth-generation grandson of a slave into a successful actor. I remember it as lyrical and compelling.
This city is too rich for a blog post, it deserves novels, memoirs, plays and epic poems. Suffice it to say I hope to go back sooner this time, as I can’t ever be “done” with New Orleans. And it will be tons of fun. Because, as they say, if you can’t have fun in New Orleans, then you can’t have fun.