11/08/2005 03:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Goin' Back to New Orleans, Part Four

The most nearly normal moment of Monday, aside from buying some CD’s at the newly reopened Louisiana Music Factory, was dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, Herbsaint. Full menu, full hours, the shrimp and tomato bisque and the shortribs just as delectable as in pre-K days. Then another walk to Frenchmen Street, and again, clubs open, music streaming out the open doors on the balmy night:

the New Orleans Jazz Vipers at the Spotted Cat, minus a couple of front men for the first set (they were busy getting a grant application in on deadline) and John Boutte at Cafe Brasil. I mention these details because I’m clinging to all shards of normalcy in this very un-normal environment.

Earlier that afternoon, I drove through City Park, the huge, lovely park that splits the lakeside neighborhoods from mid-city and downtown. I’d heard it had been flooded, and in what had been the greenest spot of a very verdant city were now large swaths of brown, dead lawn, dying trees.

But on Tuesday morning, driving out to Metairie to stock the fridge, I finally got a glimpse of Trash Mountain, in the neutral ground of Ponchartrain Boulevard. I didn’t drive the length of it, but I’m told it runs from the I610 overpass all the way to the lake. By my observation, it’s at least two stories tall.

I also got to finally nail down one of the enduring questions of Katrina Week: how much of the French Quarter was looted? In a post from that time, I compared the NYT’s report of a looted block of clothing stores with other reports from, among others, Tucker Carlson, who, having eyeballed the district, didn’t mention that block in noting relatively little looting. Tuesday morning I was on that block of Dauphine Street, with five little “Dress to Kill” shops in a row, all boarded up except for one, nearest the parking garage, with its front window still broken and spider-webbed with cracks, and the evidence inside of thorough-going looting. I was on Dauphine to have breakfast at a hotel whose main restaurant had been recommended, pre-K, as a great breakfast place. Now that room is closed, and they serve breakfasts in the coffee shop that fronts on Bourbon St, a street I normally shun because of the crush of tourists and the persistent odor of last night’s drunks’ puke. Now, of course, while the rest of the town smells worse, Bourbon Street smells better. Anyway, the restaurant promised fresh-squeezed OJ and waffles with “vermont maple syrup”. Friends of mine know that not delivering on those promises is usually a capital offense with me, but, with each business reopened being a small miracle, I kept my mouth shut. Back on the subject of looting, there’s widespread talk in town, in person and on the radio, of continued looting of abandoned homes, places where owners come in from time to time to pick up their stuff and notice that, on each visit, there’s less stuff than they’d left.
My friend Jeffrey, who ran a little sound studio in Mid City and documented its devastation with eighteen emailed photos of mucked-up equipment, is back up and running his studio in a downtown building. In the small miracle department, he got his insurance to cover all new equipment, ordered online and delivered with only a few hiccups, and less than the time it’s taking the Mayor to come up with a rebuilding plan.

Those small miracles appear to be easier for the local business owners than for the chain operations: Whole Foods had roof damage in their lone New Orleans store left after they deserted mid-city in a controversial move out to the suburbs earlier this year. Rite-Aids and Walgreens and Starbucks are still shuttered all around town, with a few exceptions, while Dorignac’s grocery in Metairie, and CC’s coffee, and PJ’s coffee, and the pen-and-stationery store on Magazine Street, are back up and running. The latter, the closing of whose Chartres St. branch I mentioned yesterday, is brimming with optimism and hope, including a beautifully lettered and decorated sign: “C. Ray (a reference to the Mayor), think outside the box”.

Magazine Street is buzzing with reopened restaurants and antique stores and the famous Jim Russell’s Records, all the little stores that neighborhood people feared would be endangered by the opening of a Wal Mart nearby. They’re still open, the Wal Mart isn’t. And driving back to downtown, along Prytania Street, you notice that some of that street’s grand old houses stand unscathed, others have their fronts bashed in (probably by trees). Even here, in the Lower Garden District, Katrina left her mark.