SILVER LININGS

by

A TALE OF TWO CITIES

By romantic accident, a trip to New Orleans during the Christmas season became one of our few family traditions. My wife and I had sneaked away to a French Quarter hotel one particular year and found that Christmas, New Orleans-style, was downright cool. In addition to the mild weather and persistent energy of the city, New Orleans goes all out for Christmas. Reveillon dinners in many restaurants, appearances by Papa Noel, a celebration of lights in City Park, and nightly concerts in St. Louis Cathedral are just a few of the unique ways the “Big Easy” welcomes the holidays.

My family has made it a point to find a Saturday between Thanksgiving and Christmas each year to sneak over and enjoy the festivities. We do a little bit of Christmas shopping while we’re there, but we mostly go just for the fun. We enjoy wandering around Jackson Square looking at the beautiful works of the street artists, making a special point to say “hi” to Mr. Maurice, whose pencil drawing of our two daughters’ ranks as one of the first items to evacuate when hurricanes approach. We like to eat a meal at Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Company and order the appetizer sampler platter, and if it’s not too cold, sit out on the deck over looking Decatur Street below. We’re a frequent guest in City Park at the Celebration in the Oaks where, in particular, my youngest daughter enjoys the carousel. It is simply a “must-do” on our family’s list of priorities.

Until this year, that is.

But today, December 14, I at least tried to check in on our behalf.

Kyle graduated from a long and adventurous eight-month school in the Air Force, and needed a ride to the airport in New Orleans to move on to the next stage in his life. I’ve wanted to go to New Orleans ever since the storm, so we made a perfect match. I met him at the front gate of the base at 4:52am this morning, and we made the trip over in the dark. Traffic was shockingly light all the way to the airport, with the only exception the condensing of interstate traffic into one lane to cross the open span over Lake Pontchatrain. Kyle had the airport to himself by 7am, and I headed toward the French Quarter.

The first sign that things were awry came when I got a good parking space for the day for just five bucks. This was very strange, but in a welcome sort of way. Then, like normal, I took off with my camera performing my best speed-walking impersonation. I don’t know why I do this, but I do it every time I go to the French Quarter. I hurriedly walked to all the typical tourist places: Washington Artillery Park, Jackson Square, the French Market, St. Louis Cathedral, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop and Bourbon Street, the wonderful used bookstores of the Quarter (Beckham’s Books my personal favorite), the boardwalk by the river, and beignets at the Café du Monde. All of these places looked the same as always, and with the temperature hovering around sixty, it was a delightful stroll. Most places weren’t open for business yet, which was odd, but they were still there. And I was happy to see it.

There were signs that there had been trouble. There were clean-up efforts going on all around, but I had to chuckle when I realized that even this didn’t seem strange. The French Quarter is always in need of being cleaned-up. There were sirens blaring from time to time, and I had this constant feeling of watching my back for some thug sneaking up on me from behind. In other words, nothing new.

But there was something new, something so different that it was almost eerie. There was much missing. Oh, the landmarks were all there, but there were other significant things missing, namely, people, and music, and the throbbing pulse that is New Orleans.

I sat down in the shade of the overhang of Washington Artillery Park with the breathtaking view of St. Louis Cathedral spread out in front of me. There was beauty and a blue sky like hardly anything else compares, but then again there were no horse-drawn carriages lined up across the street. There were no acrobats performing on the sidewalk in front of me, nor a crowd of people to watch even if there were. There were no street artists or psychics or any other vendors setting up their tables to peddle their wares. There were no clowns hocking balloon animals or motionless people attracting crowds. It was just quiet. And lonely.

As I sat, I tried to drink it in. I felt the cool breeze on my face, and watched several pigeons come close by, including a tiny little baby out on his own for the day. He looked at me like I didn’t belong, and in some ways I felt as if I didn’t. Like I was intruding on something. I watched a few cars pass, not enough to qualify for traffic, and a few pedestrians scattered few and far between.

And then I noticed, rather softly, music. It was nothing more than a simple, peaceful guitar melody, but it was there in the background of the loneliness. I sat in silence and let it sink down deep, adding a melody to the lonely memory recording itself in my mind. It was, for lack of a better word, nice.

Eventually, I got up to make one more trip around the Quarter. I walked toward the Café du Monde and suddenly saw the source of the gentle music. One man, maybe in his forties, in tennis shoes, jeans, and a cheap polo shirt, sat playing his guitar with a bucket at his side. As if often the case in New Orleans, the musician did not appear to be from the upper classes. Or the middle ones either. He was just some guy with a guitar, playing music for a buck or two, if you please.

I did please. I’m about as stingy as a guy gets when it comes to things like this, but not today. No street artists. No clowns. No motionless people. No psychics. But one man playing a tune for all of New Orleans. Just some regular guy. I walked by, made a point to make eye contact, dropped some money in the bucket and said, “Thanks.”

After a few hours of peaceful solitude in the French Quarter, strange as that even sounds to say, I started to leave. I made one final trip by my guitar-playing friend, who had been joined by a fellow with a trombone, engaged in a more lively tune. I took another picture, then I got in my car to leave. I made my few obligatory wrong turns in getting out and then headed over to the Garden District to have a look around. Overall, it appeared to me that the Garden District fared rather well in spite of some dramatic pictures I had seen in national publications. I stopped for lunch, chicken schwarma at a neat little Mediterranean place, and finally headed toward home.

It was then that I made my fatal mistake. Or maybe a fatal blessing. I exited in eastern New Orleans, away from the regular tourist attractions, and saw “the city.” The Lower Ninth Ward. It was awful. I was shocked beyond words when I turned down the side streets off Elysian Fields on the south side of the interstate. I recoiled at the sights of the homes and huge apartment complexes while driving down the service road off Crowder Boulevard. It was breathtaking in the most terrible of ways.

In some ways it wasn’t much different from my personal neighborhood, just much, much larger in scope. Countless street after countless street consisted of the horror of every single house busted open to the world while growing the worst possible cases of mold. Automobiles were everywhere, many with doors forced open, and all covered with thick layers of dirt. Some were covered with something white, like it was by some miracle snowing in New Orleans in time for Christmas, but it was not snow. Probably a layer of sheetrock dust from some of the numerous houses that had been stripped. Unfortunately, not all of the houses had been gutted. Actually, a lot of them hadn’t, and it didn’t take my sense of smell long to figure that out.

I drove slowly down street after street, stopping and rolling down my window to take pictures. No one cared. No one was around. No cars behind me. Just me, and thousands of broken pieces of the American dream. Ever so often I would stop and get out of my car in the middle of what used to be vibrant communities of poor people to try to get a better photograph, and the feeling was chilling. Doors were open all around me, in almost every house and in many cars, too. It felt as if someone was there, watching me from around a corner, like a bad dream where the video game comes to life, where snipers jump out of the house firing. But there was no one there, other than the ghosts of days before the levee broke. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I felt their presence nonetheless.

I drove home afterward deep in thought. Troubled. And somewhere on the drive the melody of that lone guitar player in the Quarter returned to me, at least in meaning. It dawned on me that my day had been spent witnessing a funeral in reverse. It was as if I had listened to the gentle, mournful funeral dirge first, only to go and discover the decomposing corpse later. Once straightened out, it made sense to me why the city was crying, and why one regular guy from among the people was most qualified to perform the song. That was what had died in New Orleans: Not its tourist attractions, but its common people.

What I saw today was a tale of two cities. Not the best of times and the worst of times (I saw only the worst). Instead, I witnessed a city that had died. The other city, the one vibrant with a kaleidoscope of people, I only saw in my heart.

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One Response to “SILVER LININGS”

  1. Sandi Says:

    Al, this was so incredibly sad. I love New Orleans too and it is painful to see the state it is in right now. I do have faith that it will be rebuilt, and while it will never be the same as it was before, will become a rich and vibrant city once again.

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