Friday, March 24, 2006

Lunch in New Orleans

Were it not for the fact that I had a credit voucher with Southwest Airlines which I was only told last week was due to expire on March 24th, I would never have gone to New Orleans for a one day trip! After all, I will be there for a week in June.

I had to wake up Thursday at 3:30 AM to get to the airport in time for my 6:55 AM flight. This is the first time I took the airport shuttle which at $28.00 including tip is half the cost of taking a taxi. I should have taken a taxi. My scheduled pick up was at 4:10 AM. Much too early!

Arriving in New Orleans at 7:30 AM, (there is a one hour time difference) I took a taxi into the French Quarter at a cost of $32.00 including tip.

The actual ride into New Orleans shows little destruction in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. There were few houses with the "blue tarps" on the roofs and I did see a handful of FEMA trailers being used as temporary housing while homes are being repaired. I also saw a lot full of unused trailers... unused because there is no land to put the trailers on.

The most disturbing part of the trip occurred when the taxi driver reminded me that we were crossing the bridge where (as we saw for days on television), people had tried to cross to escape the flood waters but were stopped mid-way across by police and also with those who were eventually denied admission into the Super Dome because it was filled to capacity. All the images of those horrible days (crying children, angry parents, the elderly, the the sick and dying} came back to me and left me with an overwhelming sadness and chills throughout my body.

As we approached the Super Dome, it appeared much smaller than the dozens of times I had driven by on previous visits to New Orlean. I couldn't even begin to imagine those thousands of people locked inside until is was safe to come back out into daylight.

I decided to exit the taxi at the entrance of Louis Armstrong Park. It was only 8 o'clock and the park was empty. The once beautiful park has been badly neglected. I understand that at this time, the park is not a priority.

Louis Armstrong Park

I walked into the French Quarter and there was almost no one on the usually busy streets. The air was still.

I always make the Bourbon Pub my first stop when I visit New Orleans. Many of my acquaintances are medical professionals who work the midnight shift at the local hospitals. After working all night, 8:00 AM is happy hour and they stop by the pub for a "wind down". This morning, I was the only person in the pub. I had my usual Bloody Mary, extra spicy. I spoke to the bartender who reminded me that many people have not returned to New Orleans and the hospital staff is overworked due to shortages of qualified help.

The streets remained empty, most shops still closed as I made my way to Harrah's casino. I pumped $20.00 into the slot machine, won $113.00 and left making my way to Jackson Square. This square (where Bush had made his speech after Katrina) is beautifully maintained. The several benches usually filled with interesting if somewhat shady characters were empty. I asked the one person available where all the people were and he said they were scattered throughout the country. He had been taken to central Louisiana and had just returned this week. He was uncertain how many people would return but told me that some were slowly coming back.

It's now 11:00AM and the streets are slowly coming back to life. I encountered my first friend who was on his way to a job appointment. He is the first black person (with the exception of a few casino employees) I've seen so far. We chat for a short while, he tells me he, his girlfriend, their child and his parents had been relocated to Colorado Springs and he is the only one of his group that has returned to New Orleans (he hated the cold weather); the others choosing to remain behind and start a new life.

The Quarter has not changed much. Most of the galleries, restaurants and gift shops are open but they are empty of shoppers. I stopped at a hat boutique and purchased a baseball cap (black with a gold embroidered fleur de lis across which is embroidered the word REBUILD). Spoke to the two ladies working in the boutique and both were uncertain of the future. The three of us were crying as I got ready to leave. The Quarter is back in operation, but there are few customers.

At noon, I went to Maspero's for lunch (golden fried oysters). Today, there were no long lines waiting to get in. The usually full restaurant had only three tables occupied. I spoke to the wait staff who (depending on tips) were uncertain how long they could pay the rent on their apartments.

The black population has not returned but the streets are now becoming filled with Mexicans brought here to work for minimum wages, living several per room in outlying areas of New Orleans. Today, there were many just "hanging around" drinking cans of beer disguised in brown paper bags.

I stopped by Le Croissant D'Ore for dessert. There was only one other patron. I ordered Tiramisu and coffee in the courtyard. The pastry chef bakes exquisite pastries but few enjoy them now. The comment from my waiter was that the people brought in to help rebuild the city aren't interested in or can't afford french pastries.

I speak to several more people as I make my way to the French Market. Most tell me that many areas are still not habitable and have no clue when they will be. Most tell me that there are still houses in the middle of streets, cars piled three high one on top of the other, two more bodies had been found this week.

Most think all of the candidates for mayor are crooked, looking to benefit from contract awards. Most will not vote for Nagin again, they feel he let them down. Many think former residents will not return, and they are afraid.

For now, the "flava" is gone. Missing are the young tap dancing boys, the jugglers, the clowns, the mimes, the tarot card readers, the scam artists, the hustlers, the strangely dressed characters, original art hung on the fences surrounding Jackson Square ........ the street singers and musicians, the jazz. As I watch the now obvious professional white middle aged businessmen quickly walking back to plush officed from lunch, I think that the city has lost its SOUL...... It's all just too sad!

My taxi driver is a young woman from Ethiopia. She lost her home, was evacuated to Houston but returned two weeks ago. Most times, her calls to FEMA are put on hold and after waiting for long periods of time, she becomes impatient and promises herself to try again later and later and later. In the meantime, she stays with friends.

I'll be back with in less than three months. I want to tour the devastated areas, I want to put a little money back into the economy. Maybe some of the soul will return. One can only hope.

The government, so far has not made significant advances.

It broke my heart to be there, it broke my heart to leave.


sttropezbutler said...

Thank you dondon for the update.

The reality of this tragedy is so wide spread and so not on the radar any longer.


BostonPobble said...

I want this comment to be wise and thoughtful and deep ~ and I just can't come up with the words. Hopefully, you know what's in my heart. I'm glad you went. I know you are, too.

Blogzie said...

Brilliantly written, my dear.

I was with you every step of the way.

This is truly a love letter to your most favorite city.

You should submit this to a magazine.

Best writing you have ever done.


Like you!


nancy =) said...

what blogzie said...

BostonPobble said...

Ps ~ If your Don Quixote ever needs a Sancho Panza, let me know. ;)