A few years ago, we came up with a great idea on how to handle Thanksgiving break with both of our children in college. Instead of bringing them home to stuff them on Thanksgiving Day – and then not see much of them for the rest of the weekend – we decided to rendezvous in a great American city. This year, in a family ballot, we selected New Orleans (previous winners were New York and Chicago).
Rest assured that New Orleans wasn’t chosen out of sympathy for the calamity they suffered from Hurricane Katrina. In fact, the people of New Orleans would never ask for our commiseration, nor do they think they deserve it. They believe that New Orleans is America’s finest city, and I suspect that they pity the rest of us for only getting to visit every once in a while. Where else in American could an open-air restaurant (Cafe Du Monde) be packed 24 hours a day while only serving beignets?
New Orleans always appealed to me because of my interest in Jazz, but I truly fell in love with the place during my first visit there in 1983 for Mardi Gras. There are hundreds of enduring memories, but two stand out. The first was a torrential downpour that occurred while I was driving on a freeway. I found a convenient exit, spotted a movie theater, and pulled my vehicle into their parking lot – only to find that the water level had reached the bottom of the car door. The second was attending a parade in the French Quarter, where the American Bar Association was having a meeting. I’ll never forget the sight of dapperly-dressed attorneys and their spouses diving for the trinkets thrown off the floats from the Krewe.
The last time I was in New Orleans took place with my wife before our children were born, so we decided to hire a guide to give us a full overview of the area – including the French Quarter, the famous Garden District and the 9th Ward, which suffered the worst damage during Katrina. Our guide, 76-year-old Jerry Neff, was a self-described raconteur and a Crescent City native with an accent to prove it. This man had more careers than the French Quarter had bars, including being the catcher in a trapeze act. To state that we received a true taste of New Orleans from Jerry would be an understatement.
Until you enter the 9th Ward, you can’t really grasp the depth of the damage that was done or the magnitude and challenge of the recovery. A local sculpture tells the story of how high the water reached: it is composed of a series of blue circular tubes that start at about two feet high and gradually step up to about twelve feet. Only then do you begin to understand the fear that these people faced. We then looked at the waterway that runs next to the area – and imagined the destructive power of the surging water.
We drove through an area that prior to Katrina housed 17,000. Only 6,000 people have returned. It’s a challenge to come back because there are still, five years later, very few services. Neither the drug store, the bank, the dry cleaner, the grocery store, the churches, the local Popeye’s, nor any of the other restaurants have reopened.
The debris – which included hundreds of large trees and abandoned cars – has been cleared, but the area still looks like a checkerboard but with very few checkers. You can see the outlines of the demolished houses on the ground, but very few have been rebuilt – and those are being constructed on raised foundations about three feet high just to stave off the normal downpours. You can also see some homes built by a foundation dedicated to house musicians, just so they would return to the area and bring New Orleans back to life. We stopped in front of the rebuilt Fats Domino home and took a picture. Unfortunately, the music legend was not there to greet us. The homes being constructed are beautiful and colorful, and provide passionate hope for the future.
We spent our days roaming the French Quarter and eating some of the city’s finest food. There is no way to leave New Orleans without being well-fed. We spent our nights on Frenchmen Street bobbing from one club to another while listening to Jazz, Blues or Funk. No deejays are allowed here – only real live musicians. One evening, we visited the most famous club on Frenchmen, Snug Harbor, to hear a fabulous 16-piece big band led by two Marsalis brothers (there are four in all). The cost was $15 a head. Where else can you get a deal like that?
When I think of New Orleans, I think of Cajun, Creole, Jazz, Zydeco, Louis Armstrong, Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, Catfish, Crawfish, Po Boys, and Beignets. I hear musicians on the street playing all kinds of wonderful music. I feel a vibe that no other city in America has to offer, and I taste flavors and see colors unique to a distinct community.
America has many special places, but New Orleans is at the top and thankfully it’s on the way back. It is a national treasure that helps to make this country the majestic gumbo in which we all live.