Of N'Awlins

So this week, I have a lot of tomfoolery planned for the Nateblogg leading up to my journey to Ohio on Friday, but before I get to it, in light of Katrina and her aftermath, I'd like to share a few thoughts...

When I was six years old, I took my first road trip. My grandparents loaded me in their sweet white Cadillac Eldorado Biarritzand we went to the 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans. We went with Aunt Barbara and Uncle Wilson, and their daughter Barbara Ann. I remember having a wonderful time. In fact, my experience on that trip is almost certainly one of the reasons I enjoy travelling so much - it whetted my appetite at an early age for going to new places and trying new things. A sampling of the adventures I enjoyed on that trip:

1) The trunk cracked open while we were rolling on I-10 through the swamp, and I pointed out the warning light on the hi-tech (and often-used) information center on the dashboard. Not terribly exciting, especially considering that the Eldorado routinely had things go wrong, but understand that I was six, and that this whole situation appeared terribly dangerous to me. For the rest of the trip, I was assigned to watch the dashboard for warning lights, and I can say with pride that I carried out my duties enthusiastically.

2) When we reached downtown New Orleans, my grandfather had trouble navigating the labyrinth of one-way streets to the hotel, at which point I looked at the map and more or less directed us to the Holiday Inn that we stayed at. Why was I able to do this at so tender an age? I guess I would chalk it up to my innate sense of direction...

(Go ahead. Groan if you like...)

(By the way, this is how I remember it, but I was six, so this story may be somewhat apocryphal...)

3) At the World's Fair, the only thing I remember seeing is the Kid Wash, a large playground contraption that shot hundreds of jets of water everywhere. The fact that this is all I recall either means that the Kid Wash was extraordinarily memorable, or that the World's Fair was not that impressive. Seeing as Expo 1984 was the only World's Fair to ever go bankrupt, I would lean toward the latter...

4) ...but New Orleans itself didn't disappoint. Here's the best story from the trip...

All of us went out to dinner one night at the Court of Two Sisters, a famous restaurant in the French Quarter. My grandmother dressed me in a cute outfit and everyone dressed in a suit and tie. When we arrived, the Maitr'd informed us that all of us were welcome to come in except me, because I was wearing shorts, and they were a jacket-and-tie establishment. Not keen on leaving a six-year-old alone on the street for two hours, or on suffering a fool for that matter, my grandmother demanded to talk to the manager. A few minutes later, a kind-looking bald man (who was actually the owner of the restaurant) came out into the vine-covered courtyard, took one look at me in my outfit, and said "No, he is just fine." The man then proceeded to seat us at the best table in the restaurant (near the band and the fountain in the photo at the hyperlink above), and had his best waiter personally attend to me throughout the meal. My grandmother reminds me of this meal often, and loves to tell this story.

I returned to New Orleans nineteen years later with my friend Tommy to watch the Horns in the Final Four, and seeing the city through more mature eyes, I saw a more complete picture. The boisterous buzz of Bourbon Street far exceeded anything I ever saw on Sixth Street in Austin. The Jackson Square area was stately and a little funky, and housed the Cafe du Monde. On the walk from the French Quarter to the Superdome, I saw dozens of homeless people, and a pimp shout to a crowd of hundreds of tourists to inform them that he had a product to offer them. The poverty in some areas reminded me of a third-world country. In fact, over a lunch of boiled crawfish, I told Tommy about the very scenario that the city is experiencing now: Large hurricane causes Lake Ponchitrain to overtop the levees and flood the city, making escape and survival difficult for everyone stuck inside the city. It was one of those conversations you have over a pitcher of beer with your friends - you mention it because it's interesting, not because you ever expect it to happen.

For all its problems, there was good reason that so many people come to New Orleans for Super Bowls, big events, conventions, or just for vacation (My brother and his wife took their honeymoon there in February). As illustrated in my experience at the Court of Two Sisters, the city was as welcoming as any place I have ever been. Everywhere, the city seemed to express, "Enjoy some good old-fashioned Southern hospitality. Eat some good old-fashioned fried Cajun cuisine. Drink some good old-fashioned hard liquor. Walk through these old neighborhoods and feel their history seep into your bones. Do it all to excess if you like - it's okay with us. Liassez les bon temps roulez!" For all its problems, New Orleans certainly had some redemptive qualities. I hope that they will help to redeem this city in the months and years to come.

For the time being, I guess we can show our appreciation to New Orleans by showing its displaced residents some good old-fashioned Southern hospitality wherever they've gone (I think we have over 200,000 of them in Texas right now.). We can feed them, give them something to drink, and open up our cities to them. In light of what New Orleans was, it's the least we can do. I don't think I've met anyone who won't do something to help these people out - many of my friends are thinking of taking a leave of absence from work or school to go down to Louisiana or Mississippi to help out. That is an encouraging thought.


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