Somewhere in the city there’s insanity around
That’s what you get when you bury above ground
The water that flows on past Magnolia Mound
Is what keeps us lost, and we’re never to be found.
We flew into Louis Armstrong International Airport on Thursday morning, the day before the second weekend of the 2006 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
From the air, New Orleans looks like anywhere else that’s had an encounter with a powerful hurricane in the recent past: blue tarps on roofs, swaths of downed trees, the occasional mass of twisted sheet metal where a warehouse or business has collapsed. I’ve lived in hurricane country for most of my life, and to the eye, approaching from the north, NOLA reminded me of similar damage I’d seen in Orlando, Fort Walton Beach, Panama City.
The drive in on I-10 revealed more destruction, more crumpled buildings, more bent signs, but at interstate speeds (we hadn’t yet experienced one of New Orleans’ now-infamous post-Katrina rush hours), a lot of the sights were still oddly familiar. I’d been through 1995’s Erin and Opal from a waterfront apartment in Fort Walton, and Veterans Boulevard in Metairie today looks a lot like FWB did that fall.
And then, of course, we followed I-10’s eastward curve towards downtown and the French Quarter, and suddenly there it was, the city’s enduring symbol of grandeur, folly, hope and horror.
Up close, you can see recovery work on the Dome is underway.
You try to think about what it was like before the storm. You try to recall how it looked for a bowl game or a concert or a Mardi Gras ball.
You try not to think about what happened inside, the last time it was filled to capacity.
Off the interstate, on to Claiborne Avenue, heading towards Uptown and breakfast, and then you really start to see not just the damage, but the aftermath. In my lifetime, Claiborne has never been what you’d call upscale; it was a rough street trending towards shabby, but it was still alive. The stretch of Claiborne between the Superdome and Napoleon had vitality. People were everywhere, at all hours, commuting, conducting business, passing the time, doing God knows what.
Now Claiborne is dead, or the next thing to it.
Left on Napoleon, you pass the familiar old houses in various states of repair, or disrepair. In standard New Orleans style, this was an upscale neighborhood, right on the brink of the now-famous Ninth Ward. Take a right on St. Charles, and it all really starts to hit home. The old oaks lining the avenue mostly survived, but the streetcar obviously hasn’t run since the storm, and it will take many more months of repair before the line is fit to carry trains again.
And then another thing, an almost-trivial thing, in a city full of boarded shops. The old K&B drugstore (yes, I know they’re all Rite-Aids now, but this one will always be “the K&B”), just a couple of blocks from my college roommate’s first house, closed, boarded, vacant.
We picked our way up St. Charles to the end of the line, dodging utility trucks and the odd bag of garbage. It was nearly ten AM, and I was more than ready for breakfast at Camellia Grill. But Camellia Grill wasn’t ready for breakfast, or lunch, or the late-night grease it’s so justly famous for. Camellia Grill is closed.
And that, friends, was the first thing that really shook me up.
In a million years, I never would have dreamed that Camellia Grill would still be closed, nine long months after Katrina emptied this city.
Isn’t that a hoot? Hundreds of thousands of people get run out of their homes, most of them won’t ever have homes to return to, a thousand souls are gone, and what gets to me? I can’t have breakfast in a diner.
Oh, granted, Camellia Grill is (was) the best damn diner in the world, but we’re just talking about eggs and burgers and maybe a milkshake here (don’t forget the pie, either). It’s not like a closed hospital (there are plenty of those). It’s not like a wrecked home (they number beyond count). It’s not like a dead body in the attic.
But it shook me to the core, all the same.
We got back in the car, and drove back down St. Charles to the French Quarter. Neither of us had the heart to take pictures on the way in, least of all of Canal Street. I’ve known Canal in all its shabby glory since I was a boy, but today it still looks a lot more like the immediate aftermath than I care to think about. One terrible image is frozen still in two words about a boarded storefront: Foot Locker.
By then it was too late for breakfast, but still a little too early for lunch. We parked the car and went to Cafe Du Monde for coffee and beignets. As we settled into the vinyl seats, a trumpeter on the sidewalk played Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World,” slow and haunting, and very quietly, my wife began to cry.