Arriving in New Orleans for Jazz-Fest in May, I was reminded of my first visit to the Crescent City, more than 16 years ago.
I recalled the disorientation I felt then, flying in to meet my future wife's parents.
It was Christmas 1989. We had gotten engaged just the month before. My fiancee's father, Max, drove us down St. Charles Avenue, past stately mansions and winter-blooming camellias, to a 100-year-old shotgun house on Valence Street in Uptown. A couple of blocks away was a drug-dealing juke joint, across the street from a lovely, well-tended home owned by one of the Neville Brothers.
That week was a chaotic blur of delicious food, late-night music, abundant presents and strange weather. A day or two before Christmas, the worst cold snap in decades hit the Gulf region. Florida lost half its orange crop, and New Orleans lost its bearings. Cars littered the streets, abandoned at odd angles. Under houses across the city, uninsulated pipes froze and burst. Christmas dinners were eaten on paper plates.
Since then, the visits and the good times have been many. We lived for a while in northern Louisiana and made frequent forays from our tiny, Bible-belt town to soak up New Orleans' intoxicating food and culture. And on a sultry March day 15 years ago, we were married in a funky little church on Jefferson Avenue and spent our wedding night at an old hotel just off Bourbon Street. But until May, I hadn't been back in about five years.
Approaching New Orleans from the air, the first signs something is amiss are the patches of blue everywhere. In Miami or Los Angeles, the blue patches are swimming pools. In New Orleans, they are tarps covering houses whose roofs have been destroyed.
I arrived on a Friday evening. On Saturday morning, Max gave me the "disaster tour."
I was prepared for the desolate scenes I witnessed in the Lower Ninth Ward and Lakeview. Or so I thought. What most surprised me was not block after block of smashed houses, upside-down cars or tipped-over gas stations. It was the trash. Thousands upon thousands of tons of drywall and roof tiles, torn mattresses and busted TV sets sit by the curb outside destroyed houses, waiting for a garbageman Godot who never comes.
We drove mostly in silence. At one house near where water overwhelmed the 17th Street Canal, a school bus sat in the yard, the water mark clearly visible 5 feet from the ground. A sign read "Allstate paid us $10,113.34 on this house." Walls, windows and supports were damaged or missing.
"Now you know why everyone in this city is clinically depressed," Max said. Eight months after Hurricane Katrina, much of the country had forgotten about New Orleans. And yet, the cleanup and rebuilding has hardly begun.
When 200,000 people are depressed, they have two choices: They can hold hands and jump into the Mississippi River. Or they can throw a party.
At the closing weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, local residents and visitors did the latter. They sang, danced, ate, laughed, swore and cried. Then they did it all again. T-shirts, buttons and bumper stickers proclaimed the sentiments of the displaced and disoriented: "New Orleans: Proud to Call It Hell," "Girls Gone Wild: Katrina and Rita," "Make Levees Not War."
Mardi Gras is the party New Orleans puts on for the world, but local residents know JazzFest is when the city celebrates itself. It is two weekends of the best music created in New Orleans or inspired by the deep cultural roots of the city that gave birth to jazz and was midwife to many other American styles, from blues to zydeco to gospel to rock.
JazzFest is about good times, but even here, reality intruded. Every local had a sad story to tell. Inside a refreshment tent, an out-of-town contractor lectured two women who had lost all their possessions when their house was flooded. Brimming with sunny optimism, he told them that they should see their calamity as an opportunity.
"That's kind of hard to hear right now," one of the women snapped. "When people have lost everything, you need to be a little more sensitive."
But for the most part, the festival was about celebrating the things that have always drawn people to New Orleans: crawfish, jazz, hospitality and partying. In the Economy Hall tent, the past was lovingly placed on a pedestal as one old-time band after another laid on thick licks of ragtime and Dixieland. In the gospel tent, locals and visitors swayed and clapped together and thanked the Lord that they were still alive.
And on Sunday afternoon, as the first post-Katrina JazzFest drew to a close, Paul Simon took to the stage just as the sun began to reappear after a sudden cloudburst. As the New Orleans diva Irma Thomas joined Simon for a duet and Allen Toussaint, a giant on the music scene for decades, took his place at the piano, words from 36 years ago resonated for a new era of pain, grief and -- perhaps -- just a trace of hope for better times ahead:
"When darkness comes
And pain is all around,
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down."
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