Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Nawlins Twilight

Like everyone else, I've been watching the coverage of the catastrophe in the Gulf and reading about it on the web (as Lex pointed out, the best place for real news and some damn fine writing has been the New Orleans Times-Picayune site at This is clearly the worst disaster in the US that anyone living is going to remember (except for maybe a couple of centenarians with memories of the Galveston hurricane or the San Francisco Earthquake). For now I'll leave speculation of whether more could have been done to prevent the flooding in NO, whether the evacuation plan left the poorest third of the city to their own devices, whether the misadventure in Iraq has sapped resources needed to prepare for and react to this hurricane and whether there's going to be anything to rebuild to others, although I reserve the right to chime in later. For now I'm just going to give the Red Cross some money, get over there and give them a pint of blood, maybe say a prayer or two to a deity that I'm pretty sure doesn't exist, do my best to follow Gov. Easley's request to limit driving and think good thoughts at the poor folks in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida that are having to deal with this.

My experience with New Orleans has been uniformly bad. The first came on one of the great American summer vacation road trips when I was 10 and we were heading down from Nashville to Houston to visit Mom's sister and her husband, who was working at NASA Mission Control. We stopped in New Orleans for a couple of days and Dad got talked into sitting through one of those swampland property pitches in exchange for a bus tour of the city and dinner at some touristy restaurant. The tour was cool, Jackson Square was cool, walking down Bourbon Street with the barkers flashing the unholy sights of the strip joint interiors at my prepubescent eyes was cool, but it was August - a million percent humidity and a million degrees Fahrenheit and so I made the mistake of drinking the local water. This caused two problems - the first being having to hold it in while Dad listened to what seemed like a 47 hour long sales pitch. The second was becoming violently ill and purging at both ends by the time I we got to Lake Charles. I swore I'd never go back.

My only other experience (yes, I broke my promise) was many years later when I went down to New Orleans (again with the August!) for the SHARE users conference. I didn't know anyone else there, but the first night I met a couple of guys from IBM and got talked into going to the Court of Two Sisters for dinner. Horribly, ridiculously expensive and the bastard waiter wouldn't split the check, so I ended up having to use almost all the cash I had (this was before ATMs were ubiquitous) to cover dinner. I basically ate at the hotel (the Fairmont) the rest of the week so I could charge it to the room. I did find a really cool bar - the Bourbon Street Saloon - that despite the name seemed to be where the locals that worked at the other bars hung out after hours. I hung out there a couple of nights, talking to the bartenders and feeling right at home - enough so that I ran back to the hotel and brought 'em a tape of the Pressure Boys one night which they proceeded to play the rest of that evening. But then the inevitable hit - I drank the water, got sick as a dog and woke up miserable the next morning to no water in the hotel and a fucking hurricane on the way. It was Hurricane Danny, which was never stronger than a Cat 1 and ended up hitting between Lake Charles and Port Arthur, but I decided to get the hell out and remember being driven down I-10 to the airport through axle-deep water and near-tropical force winds at a very high rate of speed by a cab driver that spoke no English.

Despite my experience, I've always suspected that if I could get to New Orleans sometime OTHER than August I'd really love it. I hope folks can find a way to rebuild it - primarily because it's a lot of people's home and it's a vital part of the economic machine but also because it holds a pretty unique place in the national consciousness that it would be a shame to lose. I promise that despite my bad experiences, I'll go back and spend some hard earned dollars down there once things are back in business. Just not in August.


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