Seeing New Orleans in her current state is akin to catching your Great-Aunt Mamie, whom you've always seen dressed to the nines, in her underwear.
Here is a woman you've known all your life, who is gracious, generous... and one that you know has a bit of a naughty past that the other relatives gossip about. The one who always has on her finery, her flashy jewelry she's received from old lovers, a laugh that is deep and husky from too many cigarettes and whisky, the one with that past... but, she's got this big heart and she danced with you when you were a little girl, and she told you about sex and didn't make it scary.
Sure, you know she doesn't pay traffic tickets, and some of her furniture fell off the back of a truck...and she can be mean at times. She can give with one hand and take away with the other, and her perfume is Tweed, smelly on everyone else, but, it fits her to a 'T'... she's that great, Great-Aunt, the one who combed your hair and pinched your cheeks, you could try on her diamonds and her minks and parade around, who had the house on Burgundy (pronounced BAgundy in New Orleans) in the Quarter and would let you sip a Brandy Alexander at Christmas when no one was looking.
You haven't seen her in a few years, you walk in the house to surprise her and there she is, in her drawers, a girdle and a bra with 14 hooks. No dusting powder on her neck and shoulders, no rouge on her cheeks, not a single piece of jewelry on.... her dress is no where in sight, and she's looking her age. Her hair isn't done up in it's usual style; it's half down, and she's not used that purple shampoo, so, the yellow is showing a bit in the white. Her lips are thin, something you don't notice when her red lipstick is on. She looks...old, tired, kinda broken.
Then, she smiles, and says, "Boo, what cho doing here?" and that voice, with it's kinda Irish channel accent, kinda Cajun, kinda Garden District, kinda Brooklyn, with it's hint of Sicilian and German and Creole and Black and all the people who make up the City comes at you. She straightens up, and pulls on her slip, it's silk sliding over her girdle. "Boo, you were to call me first. And, you know to knock before you come into a lady's boudoir!"
She wears a dress of FEMA blue. Her house is FEMA trailer white. There is a big X on the front door now, showing someone checked to see who was there, if anyone was dead, and when the bodies were removed. The shotgun house, that stood for 150 years is tattered and torn, and the house you played in all of your childhood has been torn down.
Acres of pine trees are dead, waiting to fall with gravity. People can't afford to pay to have them cut down, so, they sit and wait for them to fall. Huge trees, 40 feet tall sit and wait, each one would be $1,000 or so to be cut and cleared. When the city is finally settling property taxes at the real rate, when you find yourself paying $2000 a year on a house you used to pay $200 a year on, and that house is water damaged, and you struggle between the insurance company that says it's hurricane damaged and FEMA who tells you it's water damage, no matter the water came from a broken levee, a levee that was not built to hold back a surge that big... you can't afford to have the trees cut.
People are depressed. They sit on damaged porches and look at the weeds grow. Mold takes hold so fast, you don't realise it's there until you turn around. The heat and humidity here is not like it is in New York. There is no welcoming breeze off an ocean or the East River. The air sits, hot and heavy, and you swelter. I can hear my hair curl when I step outside, and I long for the air conditioned coolness of a home or a car.
The French Quarter remains pristine. The aeons old stench of piss is gone. So are the tourists.
Like your Great-Aunt Mamie, though, the city will get herself dressed, and put on her good dress, and those earbobs.... her necklace that settles in the folds of her neck. Her Cody Red lipstick will be put on with care, rouge applied after she pats her face with a nice loose powder. She'll put her handkerchief in her pocketbook, look around, pick up her keys and say, "Boo, let's take the streetcar downtown."
And, you'll see it's all okay again. She survived, and she can take on anything, and carry on. She's New Orleans. FEMA, Bush, red tape, all of it can't hold her on her knees forever.
She's New Orleans, and the scent of the river and the port and seafood and cannoli and red beans and rice on a Monday... of coffee and chicory with beignets from Cafe du Monde, and eventually of stale piss.... the sounds of street blues singers, of shouts and calls from the stalls in the French Market, the streets that are close to 300 years old, a city that is considered separate from the state it is part of because of the uniqueness that has created it; crime, corruption, Mardi Gras, great food, love of all that is big and loud and good...of all that is this city, the love of it's citizens for this place... she'll come back.
And y'all come down, and ride a streetcar downtown. They'll be glad to have you here.