Friday, June 27, 2008

New Orleans and the boy who has seen it all

The boy with the ball stopped and looked up. Looked me over. Looked us over.

He was playing in the front yard with two or three buddies when we rolled up, all diesel and air brakes, in a tour bus. My fellow columnists and I were having a look at the post-Hurricane-Katrina-flooded parish called St. Bernard, where maybe one out of 20 houses is occupied, even now. The boy's house was one, and he was doing what boys do, tossing the ball around on a sticky June Saturday between thunderstorms, except he was doing it in a ghost town.

Mayberry R.I.P.

I recently joined the National Society of Newspaper Columnists for its annual conference in New Orleans, in an effort to give support to a city which still needs it badly. Nearly three years after "the storm," as locals call it, downtown and the French Quarter look normal, and tourists like us have come back in force, but get out of town a couple of miles and the storybook ending has waterlogged pages. Where one house still stands, 10 others are just cement slabs. Where one house is occupied, 10 more squat abandoned, untended weeds and bushes leaning to the windows like nosy neighbors.

The weekend was an exercise in jarring contrasts. We began it in style, dining at Brennan's in the French Quarter, the kind of place where they give you six utensils. (I have never been able to find a use for two spoons except to play them on my thighs). The meal was capped by their famous, flaming Bananas Foster. Suddenly cameras were everywhere. You would have thought that a bunch of jaded columnists would have seen fruit on fire before.

It did not appear so.

Local journalists who covered the hurricane told us their stories, and we were rendered speechless by a montage of Times-Picayune photographer Ted Jackson's pictures of that day. But our visit was not all grim remembrance. Later we were also led through the streets by a jazz band while playing our own kazoos, after which, returning to solemnity, a man from the city's aquarium told us how 5000 of their animals died after Katrina when the power failed and employees had to evacuate. That's the kind of weekend we had. Tragedy, comedy, repeat. (Probably not a bad description of New Orleans history itself).

But he also let us pet a penguin. Rubbing the penguin was even more popular than the flaming bananas, and led to many "penguin rubber" jokes, the best of which ended with the punch line, "But I couldn't convince it to wear one."

We toured the devastated areas, which are still only sparsely populated. Each place we visited, we heard how the government had failed to respond to the disaster adequately, is still failing, but how people from all over the world, volunteers, have come in droves to lend a hand in rebuilding, how total strangers have restored Louisianans' faith in people.

My mind kept going back to the boy with the ball, though. What intrigued me most was his lack of surprise, like a tour bus coming past his house was nothing big. He just watched us like I would watch a blue jay. Like he had seen it all. Hurricanes, evacuations, floods, abandonment. Like nothing could surprise him any more. Like whatever came, he would take it. Like he was lucky, even.

Then I realized why. Unlike so many others, so many tens of thousands of others, he was home.

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See Ted Jackson's hurricane photos from the Times-Picayune (click the "next" arrow after each one).

Read my fellow columnists' many different perspectives on the New Orleans trip. (On the home page, scroll down to "Blogs and news articles about New Orleans").

For more stories from my trip I could not fit in this column, and my own pictures, click here. (After you click "here," you will need to scroll down past this column).