THE BLOG
11/06/2005 03:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Goln' Back to New Orleans, Pt. One

It was the sound that hit me first, as I boarded a plane in Chicago for my first trip back to New Orleans since the Recent Unpleasantness. The sound, with apologies to Paul Simon, of silence.

Normally, airplane trips to New Orleans are as loud as a commercial flight can get. People are coming down in groups, bubbling with expectation over the good times to be had. My last flight down was with the crowd coming in for the Essence Festival, an R&B-fest over July 4 Weekend at the Superdome, and those folks were chatting and laughing as if they were already two days deep in the groove.

On this flight, people seemed to be alone or in couples, and there was no conversation above a whisper. Whatever they were expecting, they weren’t bubbling about it. One other contrast between this flight and most others into New Orleans: today, almost every passenger was white.
When we made our approach, everyone craned to get a look out the windows, and the first visual that telegraphed the story to come was the sea of blue roofs, house after house on both sides of the lake that had received a blue tarp from somebody--FEMA?--to cover the damaged, or destroyed, roof.

It wss quiet in the airport, too, just because there aren’t a lot of folks flying in and out of town...yet. The display boards you see as you exit the terminal, the ones that always have ads for new drugs or new technical devices (aimed at the attendees to the never-ending flow of conventions), now bear no news of exciting or bewildering new products, just “public service” notices for the Red Cross and other agencies. And then, a reassuring sound in the main concourse: the airport, which always features New Orleans music on its sound system, was playing “You Got the Right Key, but the Wrong Keyhole” by the wonderfully wry Danny Barker.
The woman at the Hertz counter seemed almost overjoyed to see me, and when I asked what happened to the electronic board outside that used to display the location of your car, she uttered the word for the first time on my visit: “It was damaged during the...disaster,” she said softly.

Along the airport road to Interstate 10, the billboards that used to tout the conventions, the restaurants and the gentlemen’s clubs were blank, but there was reassurance on the car radio: WWOZ, the radio home of all great New Orleans music, was back on the air, and so, over on the AM dial, was Tom Fitzmorris, who normally fills three weekday hours talking about food. The callers were interested in chatting about restaurants and recipes, but they seemed equally interested in telling the host how glad they were that this little bit of normal life had returned. At last, somebody was on the radio not talking about FEMA.

Driving into town along I-10, it’s impossible to keep the mental Tivo from playing back those images of people camped out along this roadway. The past always intrudes into the present in this town, and there is still debris scattered along the shoulders--mainly paper and cans, but some more substantial evidence of the sad days when thousands called an Interstate home.
Aside from that, and a bent lightpole or two, the I10 gives you no clue of what lies ahead and benath. I took the French Quarter turnoff, and drove, then walked, around my neighborhood. As everybody knows, the Quarter survived relatively unscathed, although there are still piles of dead trees and banana plants sitting on the sidewalk, along with the occasional refrigerator, duct-taped shut. Many stores are open, the bars and the restaurants and the little groceries, the galleries and bookstores and hat shops, and nearly all the restaurants have big “now hiring” signs up in front. There appear to be plenty of jobs available, if only there was someplace for the workers to live.

As you walk down the still-lovely streets of the Quarter, the smells tell you it’s not quite right yet--get too close to one of those fridges, or walk past a place that’s been recently fumigated, and you spend the next block trying to clear out your nostrils. There are messages everywhere of resilience and defiance, of bringing the city back. Live Music is Back!, says one poster. Another announces a series of poetry evenings in a Quarter bistro.

When all else is stripped away, the capital-unintensive arts endure, as does the place’s irreducible eccentricity.

Most residences, including mine, now sport odd little official notices on white paper, declarations of non-eligibility for the blue-roof program. That’s the good news.