New Orleans was a whirlwind. I can barely remember all the things I saw and did.
My parents introduced me to some friends they know through their yearly work trips down to New Orleans. In case you weren’t aware, the citizens of New Orleans are still rebuilding eight years after the hurricane. Unfortunately Connie would be out of town while I was going through, but Mark was ready and able to play tour guide. He works as a chef for a nearby school, so his time is fairly free during the summer. When I arrived at their house at 7PM, Mark was putting the finishing touches on the four different dishes he had “whipped up” for dinner. Everything was absolutely delicious, and I got to meet their daughter who was spending the weekend there in order to study for her nursing exam.
After dinner, Mark insisted we get cannollis at his favorite local Italian bakery and began to tell what would be the extensive and reoccurring story of his family in the city. His grandfather owned an Italian import company in New Orleans back in the 1920s, helping to bring Italian goods like olive oil into the city. He also made traditional Italian soups, and in 1925 he merged with a fellow importer to form a new company called Progresso. Yes, that Progresso.
The next morning Mark decided we should take his convertible out for a drive, insisting it was the best way to really see the city. We stopped for beignet and coffee at the cafe in the park, then went down a few main drags to check out the architecture while Mark related the city’s history to me. He was constantly pointing to buildings and parks and statues, saying, “That’s another one we rebuilt after Katrina.” We stopped in one of the nicer areas of town to visit Mark’s mother and see the house he grew up in. You know, the giant one across the street from the French Consulate. It was a gorgeous place that fortunately wasn’t subject to any flooding during the storm. There were solid marble tables and gold leaf on the built-in closets. His mother was a real treat, too. She talked about being a little girl in her mother’s store, and how she once saw Helen Keller come into the shop. She described the way Helen picked up objects to feel them, and said she ended up buying a china cup from them. Mark had never heard this story before.
We drove into the city where we had lunch at Mother’s, yet another fine establishment with a line out the door. Mark insisted I get the combination platter so I could try the red beans and rice, gumbo, jambalaya, etc. He got a fried shrimp and oyster po’boy specifically so I could try that too, and lamented that he couldn’t get me a fresh oyster as it wasn’t the season.
The IMAX theater was playing a short film called “Hurricane on the Bayou” that Mark recommended we see. Originally the filmmakers meant to tell a story about musicians and the wetlands, but Hurricane Katrina hit during filming. As a result, they have some amazing before and after stories of local musicians who lived through the storm, and the devastating effect it had on their homes and lives. Mid-way through the movie Mark leaned over to me, pointed to the screen, and said, “That’s our house.” And there it was, six feet under water with a boat going down the street in front of it.
We saw the house where Jefferson Davis died, walked through an old above ground cemetery, and rode the rail car into the French Quarter. That night the Summer Lyric Theater at Tulane University was performing A Little Night Music, and we managed to snag some pretty good seats despite purchasing them at the door last minute.
The next morning Mark convinced me to stay a bit longer before heading east, and we went to the Bastille Day celebrations at the French Market. We stopped at Central Grocery, an Italian place that still has old empty olive oil cans lining the walls from the days when Mark’s grandfather was importing them. At Mark’s insistence I tried the Muffaletta, a sandwich that I truly enjoyed despite normally hating almost every ingredient. There was a free walking tour of the city which we gladly joined, and I actually managed to run into someone I already knew. The morning I left Memphis another couch surfer had just arrived. Her name was Michelle, and she was traveling the country alone by train. Our host had picked her up at the train station before work, and I offered to take her back into the city that afternoon on my way out of town. We stopped for coffee and talked a bit, swapping stories and relating the way everyone seems so worried about women traveling alone. I said goodbye and figured I would never see Michelle again, until she was standing at the base of the Joan of Arc statue in the French Market waiting for a free walking tour.
After the tour Mark bought the three of us Snow Balls to help beat the heat, and Michelle eventually retreated into the local museum to grab some air conditioning. Mark showed me a bit more of the area before driving us back home. And everything I just said feels like it encompasses maybe half of what I did while in New Orleans. I know there were so many places we went, so many things we saw, so much history that Mark explained. New Orleans is alive and well, as it’s historical reputation would indicate. I had been to the city once before as part of an ecumenical conference. I remembered taking a bus tour of the city, and there was so much devastation even though it had been more than a year since the storm. You could still see the spray painted circles high on the houses that were left by the national guard boats. The circles were a system to indicate which houses had been searched, and if they found anyone inside. One corner of the circle was for the number of living people found, another corner was for the dead.
But all of that is gone now. Even in the 9th Ward, which never really recovered, there are no destroyed houses, simply empty lots. And most of the city has been rebuilt to be better than it was before. According to Mark, “Katrina was the best thing that could have happened to this city. There were so many things that needed to be fixed that would have never been taken care of if it wasn’t for that storm.” It is a much better New Orleans to keep in my memory than the one I saw before. It is a city again. It still needs work, probably more than most people outside the city know or would like to admit, but it’s not longer a site of devastation.
And selfishly, it’s nice to hear my name attached to a positive sentiment again.