There’s a whole new meaning today to that old Louis Armstrong favorite, “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?”
We know all too well.
As we write this, we don’t know if our homes are standing, what has happened to many of our friends or what is left of our city. Should we write its obituary, or just a love letter to a city that despite poverty and decay, despite corruption and decadence, was always so vital and carefree?
They didn’t call it “the City that Care Forgot” for nothing.
We have loved it for its insouciance, for the giant live oaks lining majestic St. Charles Avenue, for the funky shops along Magazine Street, for the music and scents that drifted from every bar and restaurant in the French Quarter, for the ferns that sprouted from the sides of neglected old buildings.
We have loved it for Mardi Gras, both the raucous revelry of the French Quarter and the more sedate but still crazy parades that wound along St. Charles, past City Hall, onto Canal Street.
We have loved it for JazzFest, for the tens of thousands drawn to the Fairgrounds each spring for jazz, zydeco, African and Cajun tunes, bowls of saucy crawfish Monica and ice cold beer.
We have loved it for the alligators and barred owls that prowl swamplands, some of them within the city limits.
We have loved it for its coffee, so rich and dark that anything else seems like tinted water. For cafe au lait, tan and sweet, and beignets that get powdered sugar all over you as you watch the tourists wander past.
We have loved it for its language, strange and different, sort of Brooklyn with a drawl. Waiters ask if we want “ersters” — raw, of course. People don’t shop for food, they “make groceries.” We walk on banquettes, not sidewalks, and drive down broad streets divided by “neutral ground,” not medians. The store clerks call you “hon” and “dawlin”’ and tell you, “I saw you on the television — right up next to the pope!”
We have loved it for the Saints, even though they never win — and even though we covered our faces with brown paper bags when being a fan was too embarrassing.
We have loved it for the police who took pictures of women flashing their breasts on Bourbon Street, or dressed in drag to prowl for Halloween drug sales in the Quarter, hauling up their skirts to pull handcuffs out of their pants pockets.
We have loved it for the drunks, the nut cases, the punks, the vampire wannabes drawn by the Gothic romance of Anne Rice.
We’ve even loved it for the warning we gave visitors: If someone bets he knows where you got them shoes, don’t take the bet; they’re on your feet.
We used to give that warning. We may not need to for a while.