People from the southern United States have a by-the-numbers routine for topics of conversation. The first topic is always your name. The second is the weather. In no place else and at no other time is weather more important than in the South in the Summer. In New Orleans as the summer ripens, the weather moves from the second to the first topic of conversation.
In the summer of 2008, the weather had not been conversation worthy. In the last days of August, I had picked up the keys to my 1850’s Creole cottage. Giddy and delighted with my new French Quarter home, I unloaded the better portion of an entire house of moving boxes. The summer was almost a fleeting memory. The weather had been calm and uneventful. The promise of the Autumn held so much potential.
Twelve hours after my arrival to my new home I sat quietly with a few friends at the kitchen table. The boxes had been haphazardly repacked and placed on top of cabinets, mantles, and any other high point in each room. A Scrabble board sat abandoned on the tabletop. The words “Katrina” and “Gustav” carefully spelled out the obvious elephant in the room. Never before had tiny tiles possessed the ability to the evoke fear and panic into thousands of residents.
I excused myself from the table and slumped down on the French Quarter stoop. Inside the house the radio cracked to life and the mayor addressed the city residents: Get out now, no one will help you if you stay. The National Guard had arrived and erected road barriers to the French Quarter. The streets were devoid of life, save for a few stray cats. I grabbed my camera and began to roam the empty streets one last time. On a park bench I scrolled through several months of New Orleans images.
There was the hipster crowd in shabby-chic dresses that rode bikes down Magazine Street. The rows of boutique storefronts boasted of vintage records and bohemian coffeehouses.
Down at Audubon Park the ancient willows wept into shallow ponds for bygone eras. The manicured gardens had once been a leisure playground for Southern gentry. Student sunbathers had long replaced the parasol-shaded Victorian ladies of yesteryear, but the trees remained dignified and charming.
There were the antebellum mansions along St. Charles that looked on approvingly as the streetcars dinged down the median. Families with well-groomed canines strolled along the thoroughfare, occasionally visiting the mansions’ front porches for afternoon gossip and cold glasses of lemonade.
Across the freeway, the Central Business District exemplified modern lines; the CBD never dabbled in such frivolities of colonial architecture. The glass and concrete skyscrapers housed nouveau riche in starched and pressed suits.
There was Mid-City that was home to a hardy new crop of residents. Grocery stores boasted hand-drawn signs telling a melting pot tale. New shipments of spices and fruits from Central America sat side-by-side with the local staples of okra and pickled pigs feet.
Down at Frenchman Street the birthplace of Jazz remained a musician’s safe haven. Soulful brass bands beckoned passers-by into bars with nicotine-stained walls. Just next door the Faubourg Marigny residents kept a well-heeled but low profile. Weathered fortunetellers existed in tenant harmony with the mid-west yuppie transplants.
There were the Caribbean-colored houses of the Bywater, the record-spinning funk clubs in the 9th ward, and the rebuilding efforts of blood, sweat, and tears in New Orleans East.
And then there was the French Quarter. At any given hour, street performers on banging around on peeling pianos angled for tourists’ dollars. Crumbled buildings on the National Historic Register shared walls with some of America’s most celebrated restaurants. Waitresses enthusiastically hugged regulars while balancing trays of fresh Gulf oysters. All patrons were lovingly referred to as “honey,” “baby,” and “sugar.”
I peeled myself off the park bench and meandered to the levee banks of the Mississippi River. Research scientists said it was not a matter of IF New Orleans would be lost forever to a hurricane but WHEN. And I had to wonder: WHEN the final hurricane does happen, IF there will ever be another city that has the eccentric, historic, gastronomic, and melodious qualities of my beloved—many people’s beloved — New Orleans.
In the early Autumn of 2008, the first topic of conversation in New Orleans had shifted to whether: whether or not residents would make it back in a timely manner after Hurricane Gustav bypassed the great city of New Orleans.
About the Author: Jackie Danger Crawford graduated from the Tulane School of Public Health & Tropical Medicine in New Orleans, Louisiana. When not practicing her Arabic in the Middle East or traipsing through the German countryside, Jackie likes to experiment with fruit canning recipes.
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