Where We Went This Year! (22,000 miles of driving!)

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Lower Ninth, The Garden District, Preservation Hall

We felt like we should visit the Lower Ninth Ward at some point on the trip. Especially since Angie had never been to New Orleans at all, and I had been a couple years ago, so I was curious to see what was the area’s current state of affairs.

With some direction from Jess, we headed right for the heart of the worst damage. And of course, on our way there, we were passing through some of the lower income areas and it would have been easy to mistake some of the rattiness as just examples of disrepair that had existed long before Hurricane Katrina ever hit the shores of Lake Ponchartrain. But by the time we rolled into the Northwest corner of the Lower Ninth Ward, there was no mistaking the carnage that storm must have wrought. It wasn’t the boats upended or the skeletal houses or the trash littered in the streets that brought home the message so much as it was the vast fields of no man’s land that exist where whole communities used to be.

I mean – nothing. Fields, identified only as former neighborhood blocks by the fire hydrants, the street signs, the bare electrical poles, the slab after slab after slab that were the foundations of where houses used to be. Hiroshima comparisons would be unfair, but not far from the mark. Since it wasn’t the storm so much as the flooding of the levees that caused all the destruction, it was all the standing water that wore down all the houses. And the particular are we had gone to was one where a barge had broken through a levee and simply wiped out house after house, knocking them down like so much tinderwood, houses which were probably not all that well constructed in the first place.

Every now and then we would see a new or newly renovated house, someone who had either finally gotten through the bureaucratic red tape of their insurance company or who had had their own money or families who could help. And they looked like homesteaders, colonists in an otherwise barren outback. It sounds extreme, but I urge you to take what I’m saying literally. It’s a huge series of neighborhoods, where the devastation spread through, and they are largely wiped off the map. I didn’t even see many FEMA trailers, at least not in the areas we went to. A few, next to construction sites. But it looks like many people have just decided not to return, at least not here, at least not now.

Rebar poles, bent and rusted, stuck up through concrete foundations like so many pipe cleaners. Grasses that may have once been lawns are now shoulder-high fields that resembled the wheat fields of the Midwest. The few remaining streetlights that have electricity don’t bother with red-yellow-green. They just flash red, over and over and over. A beat-up truck might chug by with pipes and materials in such disarray that it’s hard to tell if they’re for construction or demolition. A lone dog will bark off in the distance. And we saw one US mail truck parked on the side of the road. What must his job be like, these days, and who does he even deliver mail to anymore?

To say it was sobering wouldn’t be right. Maybe because I’d already seen images of this before, or maybe because we weren’t expecting a jolly time, or maybe because I’m just that callous. But it drew a picture, in thick, indelible marker ink, of an entire city at a loss of even where, of how, to pick up the pieces. And it made clear how distancing the media reports, with all the excitement and adrenaline of ‘news flash’ advertising, can make the whole event seem like yet another reality show, made it seem like a crisis that had some kind of end, or ought to have. But driving through street after street, for a couple hours, amidst the unremitting desolation, was just a very good way to remind me that while severe tragedy makes for good television, long-lasting banality and numbing sensory deprivation takes a different toll on a person, on a community, on a city. Like having the floor drop out from underneath you. And I cannot begin to imagine what it’s like to have to rebuild your entire life the way that may of those people have. And the way that many of those people have decided to forgo.

Action movies are good at showing the rush of a gunfight or a battle scene. They’re less successful at showing how the dead are buried, how the lifelong injuries are endured, how the broken marriages and families are recovered from, how the window. Likewise, the media coverage showed us every angle of people on top of flooded houses waving to the news helicopters overhead. Showing us the mud-clogged cleanup, the daily brick-and-mortar rebuilding, the making of funeral arrangements, the choking grip of institutional red tape, the becoming used to things being so bad, life being so hard, that it seems useless to try to make them better – these are all things at which it’s much less successful. All that to say – it helps me to make things real for myself.


That afternoon, we took the bikes for a ride along Magazine Street, exploring the other, more opulent side of New Orleans. The Garden District. And opulent it was, though steeped in such history it didn’t feel showy, just very blessed. Lots of great little shops, cafes, restaurants, bars and pubs. And some majestic examples of the finest Historic New Orleans architecture I’d seen. I love the second floor porches that every other house seemed to have. They brought to mind the day when gentlewomen would take in the air and yet still remain on the household grounds, when you entertained guests not in the backyard, enjoying your own privacy, but in the front, where your guests could see and be seen by passersby, where families used to the space of rural life made accommodations to the more cramped living in city life by giving all floors a feeling of the ‘out of doors’ and, in an age before air conditioning, floor-to-ceiling French doors offered the best escape from the stuffy, summer air.

That evening, after a dinner of hotdogs from a cart, we went to Preservation Hall to hear the Preservation Hall Jazz Band – possibly THE New Orleans musical institution. What a throwback. A room no bigger than a neighborhood bar. Wood floors so worn that any coins which might slip out of your pocket are lost forever in between the slats. The only lighting is the original incandescent wall sconces and overheads. There are some benches which hold as many as can fit, and the overflow standing behind them and sitting in front of them triple the occupancy. In fact, packed in as we were, I’m sure they must pay off the fire marshall.

We managed to get a front row seat, literally inches away from the trombone & trumpet player. In fact, Angie and I could look between the tubing of the trombonist’s slide on his lowest notes. And they have fun, fun, fun when they play. The music was great, and the large group of foreign nationals in the audience reminded me how big a commodity jazz is internationally, probably as much or more so now as in the US. There was much stomping, much clapping, and when I turned around, I saw nothing but smiles, all packed together like sardines and enjoying every minute.

Also, you had to love the journeyman sense of all the musicians in the band, the way they simply showed up, plied their trade, and packed up – another day at the office. Afterwards, we saw the clarinet player unlocking his bike, his instrument case slung over his shoulder, and riding away like he had just come into town to buy a loaf of bread. All in a day’s work. We spent the rest of the evening, our last in New Orleans, walking around a packed French Quarter, sampling a few drinks – including some authentic absinthe (it’s legal again, now, supposedly with the wormwood), prepared with all the customary protocol: the slotted spoon, the sugar cube, the lit match to melt it. No hallucinations, though - and an acquired taste, I think - sort of like anisette.

Catching a cab back home, we asked the cabbie if it was always this busy, thinking the holiday must have the streets particularly packed. “No,” he said, “it’s usually a lot busier. The universities are out, people are out of town. It’s real slow tonight.” Which floored us. Us – the New Yorkers – the inhabitants of supposedly the busiest city in America. “It’ll pick up, though. Have no doubt.”

And yet, as we fell asleep in our comfortable bedroom, the ceiling fan swirling around & around, we were content in the thought that our New Orleans experience was all the better for whatever holiday doldrums might have held sway. A perfect break in our drive, and what better way to face the ensuing ten hours of driving ahead, to Tampa the following day.

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