Car dealers have a word for it – a term that accurately describes what New Orleans has become. “Almost walking” is what they call it. When a customer drives onto a car lot in an automobile obviously on its last legs, that’s what the salesmen say – “He’s almost walking.”
You can’t see it from the air. The path into New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong Airport takes you over the northern portion of Lake Pontchartrain, so you get no view at all from above the city of New Orleans. And the cab ride into town from the airport has also been arranged to block any sight of blight, disrepair, abandonment or damage of any sort. All along Interstate 10 they’ve built high walls of beautifully contoured, richly toned cement complete with the famous Fleur De Lais logo. You’ve seen walls like these before on highways in residential neighborhoods. They are usually constructed to block the roadway noise from local residents. In this case, it’s pretty obvious. They’re designed to hide the results of the recent unpleasantness, the ugly residue of Katrina. They have to do that because if you could see it, you’d know.
New Orleans is “almost walking.”
Our first morning there we went to the Café Du Monde down on Decatur Street, along the river, for your traditional New Orleans breakfast – beignets and coffee. If you’ve ever been there you know the Café Du Monde is a huge place, open aired with a roof but no sides, no walls – just a mass of small tables, a bunch of waitresses running around in constant chaos, and a jazz band to liven the atmosphere. The coffee is pure Louisiana – with a hint of chicory, lightened with heavy cream and sweetened just a little too much. The beignets are special – hot from the deep fryer, overwhelmed with powdered sugar, three to a plate. It’s a breakfast fit for kings.
We never even sat down. You didn’t have to be or even remember Doris Troy. Just one look was all it took. What you saw was the dinning room in a nursing home. Walkers, wheelchairs and the “almost walking” themselves were everywhere – to the exclusion of everyone else. At first glance, we thought we had stumbled into an outdoor, early morning Bingo game. So, we hightailed it across the street and up a couple of blocks to a tiny joint I’d been in years before called simply, Café Beignet. The coffee was just as good. The beignets were even better and if there were a dozen people in the place that was a lot. Perhaps, I thought, the Café Du Monde was an anomaly. Could the remnants of the John McCain campaign be holding a reunion? Maybe it was a Billy Graham meeting. But it wasn’t.
All over New Orleans, no matter where we went, it looked like a field trip, an excursion for the nursing home set. In the hotels. In the restaurants. On the riverboat jazz dinner cruise. In the French Market. Everywhere we went. there was the Social Security crowd. Where, I wondered, had all the young people gone? Even the middle-aged were missing.
Among the great sights in New Orleans has always been the young people – drunk, high, smiling, laughing, parading up and down Bourbon Street with painted faces, bare midriffs, halter-tops and scary T-shirts. Not this time out. Bourbon Street was still crowded. They still don’t allow any cars on it. But, the walking wounded looked angry, frustrated, sick and tired, and some just plain mean. The happiness and joy was all sucked out of them. Bourbon Street was noisy with music, but it wasn’t alive; it was different. The music was recorded and most of it was hip-hop. The old joints with their own local bands – the brass bands and jazz quartets, the horn players and blues guitars – all gone. Sure, the sixteen-ounce beers, at three bucks a pop, were still there. The sex-show barkers were still pitching hard. But the context that made it all so attractive once was missing. It was Bourbon Street and yes, it was The French Quarter, but it might just as well have been Pittsburgh or Buffalo, Boise or Tacoma, Little Rock or Albany.
The French Quarter is “almost walking.”
The hotels are open. The lovely, elegant place we stayed at, in The Quarter, had weddings both nights we were there. Two receptions. Two bands in the courtyard. Not a black musician in either band and not a single player under the age of fifty, or so it seemed. The restaurants too are open. The famous ones – Antoine’s, Commander’s Palace, Brennans’s, The Rib Room at the Royal Orleans – they’re all full. But The Quarter is also full of Realtor’s For Sale Signs and hand lettered posters in windows saying For Rent. After a while you begin to notice the enormous number of abandoned residential buildings and when you gaze through the gates back to the courtyards, you see the grass hasn’t been cut and the fountains aren’t working. Nobody’s home. The people who lived there are gone. A truly American culture has been dispersed, perhaps destroyed.
We saw no street musicians, no dancers, no jugglers, no mimes, no painted people, walking works of art, no happiness and no joy. Even the horses fronting the carriages lined up in front of Jackson Square looked like they’d rather be elsewhere, out to pasture than lined up to pull the nursing home crowd around the narrow streets of the French Quarter.
We stayed the weekend. We ate well. No doubt about it. We bought a couple of T-shirts for the grandchildren – realizing as we did that we were as old as most of the others around us. We don’t feel like it – and maybe the other oldsters trotting around New Orleans think of themselves as their younger selves too. I did hear one old man ask the old woman he was with, as they finished their lunch, “Are we ready to rock ‘n roll?” She said, “Yes,” but I’m not sure.
Ernie K. Doe is gone. So is The Fat Man. Donna’s Bar & Grill is closed. You might hear “Stagger Lee” but it’s some fifty-five year old white guy singing it, not Lloyd Price.
I was hoping to see Old Charlie on N. Ramparts and maybe catch some Sunday Cajun square dancing at Tipatina’s. No more. Ain’t it a shame.
New Orleans is “almost walking.”