Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?

The following should be read with the caveat that I am not a native of New Orleans. I am not even a native of The American South. But I was fortunate to clerk for a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Because of the way that my judge used his law clerks, I spent about 10 weeks of my year-long clerkship living in New Orleans. My experience of New Orleans was not that of a native. I spent every night in one of its finest hotels (I say, its finest hotel). I ate every night at one of its many fine restaurants. It was a very enjoyable experience, spent with co-clerks with whom I became close friends. The pleasure I received does not make me an expert, and it did not bestow on me the well-rounded experience of a native. All I can claim is that my time spent there meant that, when Katrina hit, I experienced a great sadness and a great frustration on behalf of a city like no other.

This past weekend my judge held a reunion of law clerks. Major reunions are coordinated with a week when the judge will be in New Orleans for a sitting anyway. I had a wonderful time at the reunion, seeing former clerks I knew and meeting former clerks I had never met. This is my report about the state of New Orleans. New Orleans threatens to be our Vesuvius.

Many people have returned. And everyone who has returned is aware of the rapidly-approaching beginning to the 2006 hurricane season.

In at least a couple ways, things are back to normal. Which is to say, any tourist will find himself asking the same two questions he asked himself in pre-Katrina New Orleans: (1) Am I in danger? (2) What is that smell?

But beyond that, things are not normal. On the cab ride in from the airport to the CBD, you can't escape an eery feeling of emptiness. Even with abundant traffic, things seem strange, and only more so because you know that you have come to N.O. to have a good time when it doesn't yet seem right. (And then you justify it in your head by arguing that this is one way you, i.e., I, have to help restore the city.) There are an inordinately large number of cars -- broken down and taken apart -- on the roadway. These are far more than could have broken down in the past 24-48 hours. But it seems that they are not exactly remnants of Katrina, either. Because those remants -- hundreds of them -- are seen stored underneath overpasses. The city has nothing else to with them.

Approaching the city from the airport, the closest large building on the skyline is the Superdome. (Amazingly, it boasts a large banner about reopening in September 2006. I am incredulous.) The city has re-directed exit and entrance ramps to keep cars away from the Superdome as they enter the downtown area. As your eyes pass the Superdome, they see that many of the large office buildings downtown still have windows blown out. Some of these are covered with plywood; some are not. Some have clearly been abandoned. The 15-20 story tall hotel standing next to the Superdome has been entirely abandoned, with no effort made to keep out the elements. I did not see any security around the Superdome to keep people out. Perhaps Katrina was enough so that even squatters will not go there any more. Also apparently abandoned next to the Superdome are the LSU Medical Center buildings. (Louisiana faces a severe shortage of doctors, not just in the present, but in the future as well. Many doctors are still not back, and those who are there are pressed into emergency care. Extrapolating from the past, the only doctors who will practice in La. in the future are those who train there. And we are now approaching the second year in which the only two medical schools in La. -- Tulane and LSU -- are impeded.)

At the hotel, I recognize the head bellman from my pre-Katrine stays. He seems to be experiencing a great strain. (So I tip him $2.) He explained that most hotel services had been restored, although room service was not yet up to 24 hour service as it had been; he expressed hope that when they could get the help, it would all be back to normal. This was very modest of him, because he did not mention his own plight. I later heard that the staff of 30+ bellmen was operating with less than 10.

After arriving at my fancy-schmancy hotel, I quickly went down to meet some friends at a cafe on Jackson Square. The Quarter, as is well known, is among the highest points in the city and did not receive much (or any) flood damage. (But you pass plenty of closed buildings on the way to the Square, from the Virgin Megastore to a local microbrewery.) The Quarter has also long been a congregation point for the rough edges of society. Combining my observation of Jackson Square and later observations of Canal Street, it seems clear that the older homeless people, and the younger African American males who look like they are loitering and up to no good, have returned (if they left at all). There seem to be many more of them, in fact, then there had been previously. It is at least possible -- as some suggested -- that the homeless/gang-bangers are at the same pre-Hurricane levels, but there are not as many tourists in which to dissolve them. In any event, walking through major thoroughfares one begins to wonder -- in the broad light of day -- whether one is about to be mugged. (See question 1, supra.)

The great counter to this is that I have never seen as many N.O. cops in my life as a I saw this past weekend. The force is almost at pre-Katrina levels (1400 out of 1600), while the population and the geographic area requiring patrol is much less than it had been. As a result, greater police concentration. I have no idea how they are paying the cops' salaries.

Speaking of the cops, the cheapy tourist places to buy tchotchkes on Canal are stacked mile-high with tee shirts about Katrina. The two most popular seem to be a shirt that says "N.O.P.D." but instead of referring to the N.O. police department, it explains that it stands for "Not our problem, dude." Also popular is: "Forget Milk. Got Chocolate?"

So after drinking in the cafe on Jackson Square for several hours, I returned to my hotel to prepare for dinner. (I am 99.9% sure I saw a partner from my law firm walking around the Square, but was in no mood to make nice.) On the cab ride to the restaurant, we pass an empty Walmart with several armed security guards standing in front. ("It was flooded," the cabbie explained.) Clancy's, a fabulous restaurant uptown, is going and going strong. It was packed to the gills. The oysters with brie appetizer is as good as ever. My entree, La. drum, was not as good, however, as some other dishes I have eaten at Clancy's. Maybe I was just mad that it was Friday and I couldn't get the filet.

Post-Clancy's, we went by Harrah's, which was packed. (Co-clerk Nora couldn't find a seat at a cheap table.) And from there we quickly went to the piano bar at Pat O's. (I asked the cabbie about the crowds, and he complained that it was impossible to make any money. I take that with a grain of salt, because I believe all cabbies have the same complaint. Nevertheless, he did express hopes to make it through Jazz Fest, to see if that turned things around.) There is a big new picture up in the piano bar of the older black man who used to play the thimbles. It says he died in 2005. I overheard someone say his death was storm-related, but I have no confirmation of that.

(UPDATE: I didn't read the Pat O's website carefully enough. Yes, the man was a Katrina victim.)

Pat O's is in full strength, as are the hurricanes. We left shortly before the music stopped (4 a.m.) and went to Cafe du Monde for beignets and cafe au lait. Thence to bed. Is Cafe du Monde open all night, or did we catch it right as it opened?

The next day saw a need for alka-seltzer and lots of lying down. It also saw a need for a Ferdi (a po' boy) from Mother's. The lines seem to be a little shorter at Mother's. But the service is as rude as ever. (And, no, not in a charming way.) Some poor fellow named Steve asked about the location of his po' boy. The woman behind the counter began her long list of complaints against the customer: "FIRST of all, Steve...."

More lying down was required after lunch.
Then a trip to the courthouse for a gathering. I learned that the imminent moving of the clerk's office to a different building is not Katrina-related. It is part of a pre-Katrina, long-term reorganization of the court's facilities to be a better use of space.

Walking around in the daylight revealed an interesting fact. Apparently all the curbs have washed out. There is a lot of sand around, and I suspect that is from receding flood waters. And there is trash everywhere in the street. I suspect that has accumulated post-flood water. But although there are asphalt roads and concrete sidewalks, there is no curb between them. The road just sort of turns into a sidewalk at the edges. Also gone are all the bus stops. There are some mailboxes (attached to movable concrete slabs). There are also some fire hydrants (strangely, with about 2 extra feet of pipe, so that they are much higher off the ground than usual). But the streets and sidewalks are basically a disaster area.

After the happy hour gathering, another blessed hour of lying down. (I had forgotten what eating and drinking in N.O. can be like.) Thence to quite possibly the most famous N.O. restaurant of them all: Galatoire's. Cocktail hour, then the Grande Goute (crabmeat salad and shrimp). And then the eating and drinking began. Turtle soup, trout amandine (not for me, I finally got a filet), custard and chicory. We had about 75-80 people, so there were multiple waiters. But the woman running the show was a waitress I recognized, one of the judge's favorites from pre-Katrina. (For all my meals there, I have never yet figured out how to read what makes a good Galatoire's waiter and what makes a bad one. I think that female waiters are prized because the men are seen as full of themselves, but I am not sure about that.) She fed updates on the LSU score to our table, until -- after hearing "losing badly" -- we didn't want to hear any more.

An interesting side note about lawyers. On the spot, 35 former clerks delivered impromptu amusing and informative 90-120 second spiels about clerking for the judge. It either shows that lawyers learn to think on their feet, or that lawyers like to hear themselves talk.

Drinking followed dinner, but all back at the hotel, so there is really no story there. Next morning up early (where is that alka seltzer?) to the airport.

So here's my take. I had read statistics showing that middle class families were moving back at faster/higher rates than the drug lords and derelicts. But that is not what I saw. I saw lots of drug lords and derelicts. I did not see crowds of tourists around them. In fairness, middle class families do not live in the CBD and do not live on Canal Street or Bourbon Street. So they could be there, but I wouldn't see them. What is there makes one reach two contradictory conclusions. One, "This ain't right." Two, "Enough has returned to remind anyone who has ever experienced it of all the things that make this city unlike any other." Which is to say, this is a city worth having around for a couple hundred more years.


<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?