Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Summer 2006

The creator of Toonopedia -- author of last issue's "Roe vs. Wade" - returns to his native city.

 

Rebuilding New Orleans, One Party at a Time

Don Markstein

I just got back from an unexpected trip to New Orleans, my first since the Great Disaster. My brother Robert drove there for the Jazzfest, and I hitched a ride. I stayed with Justin and Anne Winston, and it was great reconnecting with them, as well as with the city itself.

Despite limited Internet access, I managed to get a little work done (even wrote four Toonopedia™ articles), and kept up e-mail with GiGi. The bulk of this issue will be a heavily edited version of my side of that correspondence, plus a few pictures I took.

I'll start the editing by tossing out everything from the way there, which took three days. We went sightseeing in Roswell, NM (a one-industry town, as you might guess) and Austin, TX (where I lived for a year a long time ago), but you don't want to read about them.

By the way, the whole time I was there, I didn't eat a single hamburger or pizza slice. Why? 'Cause I was in Noo Awlins, Dawlin'!

 

First E-Mail from N.O.

I'm at an Internet cafe a few blocks from Justin's house, as close to facing a wall as I can get, so I don't make too big a spectacle of myself with the tears and all. Their neighborhood looks awful, with trash all over, and damaged This is a picture of a cat sitting in the window -- 4 dead cats inside.houses and stuff. A few doors down is a house with "4 dead cats" spray-painted on the front. FEMA graffiti.

We came in on the coast road. Rob got pulled over for speeding, but talked his way out of a ticket. The cop gestured at an empty expanse across the highway, where they'd hauled away most of the debris, and described the houses and stores that had been there. I don't think we saw a single undamaged building until we got a few dozen miles inland.

We crossed the River into the metro area on US90. The bridge (named after Governor Huey Long) is structurally sound, I'm sure, or it would have collapsed by now, but looks amazingly dilapidated. And the huge, shady live oaks you see as you cross the city limits are trimmed within an inch of their lives. Elsewhere, where the flooding was worse, I understand they mostly drowned.

Streets are in amazingly bad shape. Potholes to the point of Great Chasms. Apparently, the floods damaged them underneath. I guess there are higher priorities than fixing them. But the city is very much alive -- vibrant, even. There's life everywhere you look. Damage, too, but it's still New Orleans. It just may not ever be quite the same. Some so-called experts expect the population to level off at about half what it was, which, if nothing else, will make a lot of infrastructure expansion unnecessary. I heard speculation that in a few years, Baton Rouge may be the biggest city in the state.

Trash is everywhere. The whole city looks trashed out, and I haven't even seen the bad parts yet. Corners that I remember as bustling with business now look like a war zone. Not too much garbage, though -- looks like they're staying on top of that, which I take as a sign (one of many) that the city hasn't given up on itself.

The Second

Right now, I'm in a quaint little Internet cafe in the heart of the French Quarter, where they're charging me by the hour. Fortunately, I wrote this stuff early this morning, when (as usual) I was the only one up.

After sending off yesterday's letter, I walked along Carrollton Avenue to the River. It got better the closer I got -- better neighborhood, though still not a wonderful one. The houses are gorgeous, but the inhabitants have de-gentrified over the years. This area was a separate town as recently as 1873, and a lot of it goes back about that far. The St. Charles Ave. streetcar, only line left as of about 1964 I think, made a turn onto Carrollton at the River, then went as far as what used to be a major drainage canal, now covered over (though the canal is still underneath) by Claiborne Ave., aka US90, the road we came in on.

Anyway, the streetcar line (survivor of the 19th century New Orleans & Carrollton railroad, by the way) isn't back up yet. But I saw buses of several different lines along the way, not one of which came along that route before. (Carrollton Ave. is grand and broad, but there's only room for one lane plus parking on each side of the neutral ground, and every time they talk about widening it, even by making the neutral ground smaller, people count how many of those beautiful, ancient live oaks will have to come down, and anyway, who wants more traffic on their neighborhood street?) I'll probably hop on one of those buses today and go downtown, then look for a hot spot to send this and do my business and stuff. I'd like to see Downtown. Last I saw of it was those people on TV, in front of the Convention Center.

(By the way, let me mention something FEMA is doing that actually does help people. They're picking up the transit tabs. It's going to end soon, but for now, anyone can hop on a bus any time, and FEMA will pay the fare. Which may not sound like a big deal, but a lot of people lost their cars and can't buy new ones.

Justin, Anne and I went out to dinner last night, at one of those bar-and-seafood neighborhood dives that are so different from the neighborhood dives anywhere else in the world. I'd never been in this particular one before, but it was still perfectly familiar.

I ordered a Dixie, and was shocked when they didn't have it. Everybody in New Orleans has Dixie. This place even has signs for it. But the brewery, it seems, was under six feet, and hasn't come back yet. They say they're going to, but no word on when. Can Dixie Beer actually die?

The Katz & Besthoff drugstore chain did die, several years ago. They'd already closed their soda fountains, but I'm still pining for one of their trademark Nectar Sodas. It may be that other places have the flavor, but I wouldn't know how to ask for it. Last time I saw the city to any great extent, a couple of other local soda fountains had picked them up, but now they're gone too. I understand they can still be had at a few local restaurants, as dessert, but I want to just sit down at a counter and drink one.

I did drink a Barq's root beer in its traditional long-neck bottle (their own distinctive design), but it wasn't the same -- tasted like Barq's does everywhere else, whereas real Barq's used to be available only in Louisiana and Mississippi. Cross a state line, and it was different. Now, even New Orleans gets the licensed version. Used to be, they marketed T-shirts calling it "Your New Orleans Heritage", and did TV commercials (some pretty funny) where people argued over whether or not Barq's was a true root beer.

D.H. Holmes and Maison Blanche, the Macy's and Gimbel's of New Orleans, are gone too. But even so, everywhere I've looked so far, New Orleans is still New Orleans. Time does march on, and it's very damaged, but the people I talk with are still New Orleans people. I even remarked to the waitress last night about what a pleasure it was to pronounce "mayonnaise" correctly (in telling her not to put it on my oyster loaf) and not have her look at me funny.

People really curse the Army Corps of Engineers, and everybody seems to know detailed technical stuff about how the destruction of the wetlands has made the city vulnerable. But then, people would get informed in a situation like this. And of course, the destruction is still going on -- they haven't learned a damned thing, or maybe they don't care.

This is a picture of Frostop
This joint has been there about 50 years, but the root beer mug used to be on top.

Third

After I closed off at the quaint little Internet cafe in the heart of the French Quarter (just wanted to say that again), I undertook the long trek back to Canal Street. I'd walked that far down Chartres Street, past St. Louis Cathedral, following directions I'd gotten at several places where I tried for a connection, only because downtown New Orleans doesn't seem to have any Internet cafes and none of the many hotel lobbies have connections for anybody but paying guests, even a guy willing to pay a reasonable amount of cash.

But the walk wasn't a total loss. Halfway back, I stopped at The Napoleon House (est. 1797) for a muffuletta. It appears they now make the best in the world. When I lived here, it was one of my regular haunts. I once remarked it was third best, after Central Grocery, which invented it, and Progress Grocery, Central's first plagiarist; and a waiter indignantly corrected me. Second, he said, tied with Progress. Well now, Progress is gone and Central, a waiter assures me, has declined horribly (he detailed their deficiencies, wrinkling his nose), so they're #1. All I can say is, it sure did taste good.

Then I walked back via Bourbon St., and felt like such a tourist, walking up Bourbon St. and snapping pictures all over. Interestingly, the first block, which used to consist of a blank wall (the side of a block-long Woolworth's) across from another blank wall (side of a block-long Holmes department store) is now more like the rest of Bourbon St. And one of the new businesses located there is a Krystal hamburger joint (White Castle imitator) with the word "Internet" plastered all over the front. >groan< I'd walked within a couple dozen steps of it, two or three times, and never even turned the corner.

Canal Street is recognizable only in outline. The only businesses I noticed, that I recall from before, were the Walgreen's at Canal & Baronne and Rubinstein's at Carondelet. There are even more gift shops now. But they're better, with more local-themed stuff, whereas many from before were the kind you can see in any mall. Downtown is bustling, as always, and the Quarter is very much like it always was. The city is alive, all right.

This is a picture of the Camellia Grill.
The Camellia Grill, an ancient Uptown institution, not (yet?) re-opened.

Fourth

I spent the day with family (three siblings, an in-law and a nephew, all temporarily in town like me). We went out to a section I hadn't seen yet, the Lakefront. Maybe I spoke too soon about survival. There, it's mile after mile of empty houses. The only people actually living there are in FEMA trailers, and those are only where they have electricity. At least, though, former residents are working on their houses -- in every block, there are one or two small construction sites, where people are taking whatever time they can spare, and trying to make them habitable again.

Of course, some are lost causes, just as some cars look okay after an accident, but the insurance company totals them. It was both hopeful, seeing people work on restoration, and depressing, to realize how much restoration won't be done. But on the other side of the nearby levee, things look almost normal. We ate lunch at a surviving Bucktown restaurant, Bucktown being a very non-scenic region just across the parish line that has a lot of places to eat pretty well but usually not too expensively.

We got a huge platter of seafood for the table. Oysters, crawfish balls, shrimp, catfish, with a couple of soft-shell crabs on top. They listed those Nectar Sodas I mentioned as a dessert, so of course I had that. Turns out somebody's bottling the soda like a soft drink, and they just poured one of those over ice cream. Not the same at all. I guess the real Nectar Sodas are gone. Glad I tried it, though.

After some more disaster tourism (I assuage my conscience with the fact that I wasn't getting in anyone's way), the others wanted to carouse all night in the Quarter. Being an early-to-bed type, I asked them to drop me off. Justin was about to go out and pick up Anne, who had gone to the Jazzfest and was at a party in the neighborhood, where she was hanging out until the traffic went away. Since he doesn't like to stay up late, I figured it was safe to tag along, and hoo boy, am I glad I did

Anne introduced me around, mentioning the Toonopedia™, and one guy got really interested -- he's a fan of it. Discovered it looking for Col. Bleep and has since been all over the site. (Later, I Googled Col. Bleep, and sure enough, I'm #1.) He had no idea they knew me. What an absolute pleasure to meet him! We talked and talked.

It's the first time that's happened -- just running into someone who never knew me personally, likes my stuff, and met me just by chance. A couple of people there thought they were the lucky ones, getting to meet this, like, minor celebrity or whatever, but no, the pleasure was all mine, and I made sure they knew it The Toonopedia™ is just this thing I do. I know there are strangers who like it, but to actually meet one by accident is really something. This wasn't a con, where you kind of expect that sort of thing, creators meeting fans. It was just a party.

Best thing about it, I think, is that this party wasn't full of waitresses and bank clerks, though that would be good enough. Justin and Anne hang around with creative, interesting people. This guy (name of Tom Hackett, by the way, and that's him at right) is a graphic designer who works on costumes. A lot of the people there are members of a Mardi Gras marching club (i.e., they walk along a set route through the French Quarter on Mardi Gras) called The Ducks of Dixieland, which is reasonably well known locally, so this isn't Joe Fanboy off the street -- he's got fans of his own!

That section of town (near Bayou St. John) survived as well as my own Uptown. And so did many of the old, established ones, which tend to be on higher ground (because the relatively dry outlying areas got built on first). So the places where the neighbors have lived there for a dozen generations, which, to a native like me, constitute the real New Orleans, tend to be the ones that are still there. Except, of course, the Ninth Ward (or as it's pronounced around here, Nint' Wawd), which is where so many of the TV pictures come from.

Being back among New Orleans people, after so long an absence, made me realize something. Black, white and in-between, we're a distinct ethnicity. Sociologists don't realize it, and probably never will, but we are. If they ever do catch on, this will be remembered in history as the Great New Orleans Diaspora.

The Jazzfest still has a day to run before shutting down for the week, but I wasn't planning on going. After all the walking I've done, I didn't feel like paying $40 so I could walk some more. But my sister is getting free passes, so at least the price is right.

 

Fifth

Well, I went. And partially as a consequence, I didn't make an Internet connection all day. Sorry, but if it's any consolation, I had a great time!

The Jazzfest is held at The Fairgrounds, which is usually a racetrack, in other words a large tract of land. Must've been a dozen or more stages, and the place was big enough that they didn't interfere with one another. Great music wherever you went. I think my favorite was The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, a regular around town (fixed location in the Quarter, but they also go on tour), consisting of old black men playing old-time jazz. Maybe I liked it best because it was inside a tent, with chairs, but I also like the music a lot. But the rest was really good too. And the crowd was the friendliest I've seen since my last Mardi Gras. New Orleans people know how to have a good time without interfering with anyone else's.

One of the younger acts had a new song, a bittersweet thing about Katrina, and I just couldn't hold the tears back. I can't hold them back now, thinking about it, but at least nobody's around me (It's 6 in the morning at Justin's house, and he and Anne have already gone to work). The audience was about 60% local (estimated from the number of hands that went up whenever a performer asked, "anybody from out of town?"), so at least I wasn't the only one. The singer was very obviously addressing her own people.

And the food! The place was jammed with booths selling practically every kind of New Orleans dish. I ate mostly crawfish, though I also had a big plate of chopped-up alligator (not bad, but very chewy). One of the things I ate was a crawfish enchilada. I also had crawfish strudel, if you can imagine such a thing. A sign touted crawfish beignet (ben-yay). I can't even guess what that is since beignets are basically puffy bread with powdered sugar, and I couldn't check it out because they were closed. Portions were small, but prices were in the $4-6 range, so it was possible to try a variety. And lemme tell ya, I did. All packaged to eat while walking around, of course. It seems like half the people I saw on the walkways at any given time were eating.

This is a picture of the streetcar tracks
Streetcar tracks after months of disuse.

But when the place closed down at 7 PM, it really closed down. You couldn't even buy a bottle of water. In fact, walking to our meeting place just after the close of the act I was watching, I was aiming toward a nice little place where you could walk through a fine spray of water, then past a large fan, and they cut off the water just before I stepped in.

Afterward, we stopped for a glass of wine at The Columns Hotel on St. Charles Ave., far, far away. It's a striking building, even by the standards of the neighborhood, which is full of striking buildings. I've passed it countless times, by foot, bike, automobile or streetcar, but this was the first time I'd sat on its porch and had a glass of wine. The four "old folks" had a great time talking about family stuff, with the one next-generation guy trying to soak up the info.

We stretched out that "one" little glass of wine (actually, we went through about three or four bottles) much later than I usually like to stay up, and that, after a tiring day. So I'm wiped out today. My plan is to take a leisurely stroll to that Internet cafe on Oak Street, send this off, tool around the Internet until my battery runs down, then stroll back and take a nap while it recharges. Tomorrow, it's headback- home time.

 

Afterward

That concludes the e-mails, or at least the parts of them that are worth revising and publishing.

I'm really glad to have re-connected with Justin and Anne. He's one of the most intelligent people I've ever known, with a sideways way of thinking and talking that I always did relate to. This is a picture of damaged street signsAnd Anne is as sweet and as fun as ever. What great people!

Leaving town, we passed through the Ninth Ward, and it was awful! Nowhere near as many people working on their ruined houses, though there were some. (Maybe that's because the damage was worse, or maybe because their economic resources are nothing like those of the Lakefront folks.) It's not an area that used to be on my regular tracks -- in fact, I'd have been afraid to walk through parts of it even in broad daylight -- but it was a vibrant, thriving neighborhood, and now it's just plain dead. And now I'm getting all weepy again.

~*~*~

Don Markstein's Toonopedia is the best reference to comic characters on the web. Check it out at www.uncadonald.com.

 

 

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