By The Late Mitchell Warren
Searching for the Soul of New Orleans
“Is there still evidence of Hurricane Katrina? Do the Saints still play in that dome?”
A business associate asked me this as I prepared to leave the Mediocrityville Metroplex in Texas in early December. In only a matter of hours I would be exiting the state by way of Interstate 20 and then down to Interstate 49, only to arrive in The Big Easy, New Orleans, Louisiana.
Indeed, whenever Louisiana comes up in conversation, the first question is always on the impact that Hurricane Katrina had on The Crescent City, and whether or not ghosts of thousands of drowned souls can still be seen hovering over the wreckage. What was once regarded as the real Sin City—a place of voodoo, public drunkenness, boob flashing and free-roaming alligators—is now regarded as the City of Sins, the one city that the federal government couldn’t get away with screwing so royally.
When Hurricane Katrina hit The City That Care Forgot in 2005 the levees broke and 80% of the city flooded. It was later determined that the failure of the Federal levee system proved to be more damaging than the hurricane itself. The American Society of Civil Engineers released a statement two years later stating that the failures of the levees were primarily the result of system design flaws. More controversy ensued when the federal government failed to respond to the damage in appropriate time. The delayed response of local, state and federal government to preparation, evacuation and aftermath was appalling and heavily criticized by the media. George W. Bush was even demonized by influential celebrities such as Kanye West who remarked that Bush “doesn’t care about black people.”
For the next few years the city was marked by destruction, death and a higher crime rate. Sin had come to this city and the only tourism activity going on was destructive voyeurism.
In answer the obvious question, in some parts of the city hurricane damage is still very apparent. Scenes of devastation can be seen in the residential areas beyond the French Quarter. To this day, only about half of the city’s population has returned to the city. The tourist friendly areas, however, are intact. The most important sites were on slightly higher ground to begin with and were not as damaged as other sections of the city.
“If you get down to Bourbon Street, I highly recommend the red beans and rice at the Gumbo Shop!”
Another voice assured me as I prepared to see the legendary city for myself. True to form, I did get a chance to sample Creole food (or at least vegetarian substitutes) as well as an abundance of alcohol on Bourbon Street. In case you winos are wondering, New Orleans doesn’t have the same stuffy laws on carrying alcohol around that Texas does. I walked all over Bourbon Street sampling “grenades” and “anti-freeze” and had the rare joy of chugging it down right in front of a policemen who couldn’t care less. I also had the privilege of jaywalking in front of the hot fuzz. Passersby always have the right of way around here and rarely get honked at even when flailing around drunk. The only time I was honked at (and repeatedly so) was when I was driving in the French Quarter and took an extra second to gather my thoughts. Nobody has time to think here…it’s all about getting what the heart wants!
Since I went in the winter season I missed out on some of the most popular feats of debauchery like Mardi Gras and the famous gay pride month. The alligator tour I had hoped to arrange was also cancelled because of a “slight chance of rain.”
However, I was rewarded with many precious images of a resurrected New Orleans culture. Live music played on every other street corner. 18th and 19th century architecture shone with pride. Streetcars ran up and down the quarter and charged $1.25 per five minute trip. Casinos flashed their cash with promises of free parking while voodoo and hoodoo stores offered psychic readings. (I didn’t get one…but I was impressed by the fact that the psychic knew I wouldn’t get one in advance. In fact, she didn’t even offer me one, probably figuring you can’t change destiny)
My hotel room was a particularly interesting bed and breakfast accommodation: an old world 1800s residence painted a sickly banana color. The house was definitely a labor of love to someone or another; each room was hand-painted by an Oscar winning scenery designer.
My wild rose and I chose the Gone with the Wind room. Much to my disappointment, we didn’t hear any ghostly noises or disembodied voices of Clark Gable. We did however hear entire conversations of other visitors from the other rooms, as this place had the exact opposite of soundproof walls.
My welcome to the bed and breakfast accommodation was rushed and the only meaningful conversation I exchanged with the owner was about a play he had witnessed the night before. A one man show about a transvestite that escaped the horrors of Nazi Germany using only his quick wits. He reviewed the play in detail with a totally straight face, not really paying attention to my overly-generous smile. I suppose this was a definitive “You are in New Orleans” moment as good as any other.
While I was determined to see the sunny side of New Orleans, others were far more interested in the macabre. Another touristy couple staying in the same house shared a blasé conversation with us. My significant other made small talk while the husband, probably comprehending little English, giggled to himself and the wife glared at my ghastly table manners, which consisted of consuming a bowl of cereal milk with my bare hands. They would not accompany us on our sightseeing adventure—they had plans to tour the horrors of Hurricane Katrina for most of the day. Do I even have to tell you they were German?
Much of the population was very diverse. At times, it was often difficult to find a black or white person in the French Quarter. Pakistanis offered to give me a free hat (with a donation clause, of course), while Hindus requested that my girl take a picture of him in front of the river.
The art gallery we visited featured some particularly wicked designs, all audaciously parodying Hurricane Katrina damage and of course mocking the federal government’s response. One particularly striking painting was of a black cat named “voodoo” that embraced a deadly snake. “I’ll be damned,” I thought. I have the same cat with a similarly dauntless disposition. The art gallery salesperson had a very congenial tone to her voice. She spoke at a perfect medium length and enunciated her words carefully. Even if she knew the next dozen travelers and I weren’t buying anything, she was rehearsing for the one wealthy customer that would someday make a thousand dollar purchase.
Despite all of the warnings I read about high crime in New Orleans, the prime parts of the city seemed to be ridiculously safe and highly monitored. In many ways, the French Quarter is not the real New Orleans, but an idealized and straight laced vision of perversity.
Policemen were on every street corner, ensuring that tourists would feel welcomed. Despite well reported policeman shortages in the city, “popos” could be found in the quarter and even areas outside the quarter, passing out tickets and dashing through red lights as expected. While I would definitely believe that the real New Orleans outside the tourist trap would be a drive-through only destination, I must confess that the French Quarter and the surrounding areas were rather tame and almost kid-friendly (with the exception of Bourbon Street). I personally was almost strip searched at the “Insectarium” by a security guard who kept demanding I remove all metal pieces of my clothing. Look, I’m not going to steal any ants, okay?
Indeed, the Insectarium was one of the most disturbing features of the trip. As a vegetarian, my interest was piqued at the idea of devouring insects in the bug café part of the attraction. Though a friendly café server tempted me with worm salsa and cricket cookies, I simply couldn’t bring myself to devour anything alive or formerly alive. At least this time, two years sober from meat products, I didn’t feel hypocritical.
The beggars were friendly and respectfully accepted change instead of dollars. One fellow approached us asking the legendary set up, “I bet you I can guess where you got your sneakers.” Upon receiving the cheapskate answer (“I gots them on the streets of New Orleans!”) he laughed and went on to the next sucker.
The strip clubs outside Bourbon Street welcomed passersby, including happily married couples. “Come on inside,” barked a friendly pair of nudity hustlers to my girl. “It’s a family show,” he assured us. “You come in, enjoy the show, go home and start a family!”
Ghosts of New Orleans were non-existent or at least too polite to harass first-time tourists. The gravesites of New Orleans left no creepy feelings, though the notorious Holt Cemetary inside the city did live up to its reputation as the most uncomfortable resting place in America. Tombstones were hardly recognizable. Trash littered the holy land of these “second rate” citizens along with piles of freshly dug dirt and mud. These were citizens too poor or too obscure to deserve a proper burial. Besides that, the land here is below sea level and so whenever it rains, bones not too magically rise up from the grave. I looked for any protrusions of bones and skulls coming from the ground (as is commonly reported on travel sites) but didn’t see anything. It was almost as if over-zealous “Nawlins” tourism promoters came by early and covered up the bones in order to appease uppity visitors. Far more unsettling than the death tours were the swamp lands outside the city, the type of flooded creeks that promises an alligator sighting—only under less touristy conditions.
My first impressions were that New Orleans, Louisiana was a very friendly city. The more I thought about it though, the more it just didn’t feel right to phrase it as such. The New Orleans I read about was a hard-assed and unapologetic city, like Las Vegas before it was castrated. The friendliness I sensed in the air was desperation. A starving, malnourished cry to a country that abandoned it twice—first before the hurricane and then immediately following it.
Even now, as many New Orleans residents are left homeless, and much flood damage still remains unrepaired, the city struggles to save its name from the mass media’s perceptions. The city is seen as a shell of itself, a dangerous and polluted location that has lost its soul. To some, New Orleans the city has become the proverbial beggar that one meets in New Orleans—nothing going for him but a friendly face and a pitch. The attitude is gone, even as the culture continues to fight for its survival. The city is now desperately trying to save its tourism, its history and its community by cleaning up the streets and showing visitors a wonderful—if somewhat forced—good time.
New Orleans bowing to its guests…it just seems wrong.
By the time my bed and breakfast’s black cleaning woman was “mmm-hmming” at me instead of saying hello, I decided it was time to leave. However, despite my search for New Orleans’ soul going unrewarded, I did manage to take away one inspiring memory.
Sunday, December 6th, 2009, the New Orleans Saints won their 12th consecutive game, giving the NFL team an undefeated streak and possibly a Super Bowl appearance for the first time in history. On Sunday, on Bourbon Street and throughout the entire French Quarter, random Nawlins residents and tourists were yelling to each other in uninhibited, unabashed joy.” Screams of “12-0!” and “Go Saints!” were omnipresent.
They weren’t even drunk.
Maybe for the first time in nearly five years, New Orleans citizens, bruised and downtrodden, had something to believe in again. The New Orleans Saints, who went years without a home arena and without much respect, finally won back the country’s attention with a startling achievement. One wonders if a New Orleans victory next year would catapult the city’s tourism back to where it belongs. As only a casual football viewer, even I can’t help but root for the underdog.
Saints are definitely alive in New Orleans, though thousands of unhappy souls continue to aimlessly wander the haunted skies and swampy waters.
UPDATE: The New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl! Congratulations to the great city of New Orleans!