When I have visited New Orleans, I have usually stayed in the French Quarter, or in one of the big new hotels along the riverbank. What a place! Jazz pouring from doors that seem always to be open, people in the bars every hour of the day and night, the warm sweet smell of beignets mixing in the air with the smell of stale tobacco and whiskey on your morning walk. The homes and favorite watering places of some of America's best writers. The lacy iron grillwork of the second-story verandahs on the old buildings on the winding 18th century streets, that sign with the mechanical showgirl kicking her leg up and down. The Court of the Two Sisters, Jean Lafite's Blacksmith Shop, which hasn't been a blacksmith shop for a long time.
There are two of every city, of course -- the prosperous, exciting one that shows its face to visitors, the city's best foot forward, and the other one: the city of the poor. The tour buses don't go to their neighborhoods -- There's nothing to see there, the driver would probably say if you asked him. Ah: nothing. The people and the buildings in those neighborhoods are nothing. That explains a lot.
I have seen less of the other New Orleans. Most visitors don't see it, either, any more than they see Bushwick or East New York or Mott Haven when they come here. There are streets in your city that visitors don't see, either. There's nothing to see there.
The Southern Decadence Parade, long scheduled for yesterday, went on as planned, with 12 participants instead of the expected 90,000. Now that must be something to see! But Bourbon Street was almost empty as they passed; just about their only audience were National Guardsmen on patrol. The bar that never closes didn't close this time, either, and it's pretty full, though ice is a bit scarce, and it is a center for news and aid for whomever comes along. A bar? A parade? At a time like this? But then you remember what a New Orleans funeral is like, how the mourners march soberly out to the cemetery to a dirge and then dance back home to the sound of Dixieland jazz: the dead are in heaven and heaven is a good place. And, while we're still here, we're still here.
One of the luxury hotels is still using up all its wonderful food and wine for the 31 employees and two German tourists who remained -- I understand they had beef stroganoff and a good burgundy Friday evening, taking turns guarding the padlocked door, and that they stayed cool by swimming in the still-pristine swimming pool. None of the hungry or homeless were invited in to occupy any of the many empty, dry rooms, or to partake of the lovely dinner. Or to have a swim.
Or maybe that's unfair. Maybe they were invited, and just failed to RSVP.
Everyone who has ever visited New Orleans has loved it. Wanted to go back. Did go back. They've loved it so much that the rest of the Gulf Coast, hit hard, many worse, the little towns swept off the face of the earth forever, has seemed like an afterthought. They were like the neighborhoods of New Orleans we've not visited, I guess. Nothing to see there.
Visit Episcopal Relief and Development at http://www.er-d.org/ to make a donation to Katrina Relief or Episcopal Migration Ministries at firstname.lastname@example.org to volunteer to assist displaced people with housing.