Romance with New Orleans hard to get over
Published September 07, 2005
Sometimes, writers reach their limits.
I felt like I needed to write about the human aspect of Hurricane Katrina — the enormous amount of human suffering that is now into its tenth day. But I couldn’t. If I can’t get my mind around something, I can’t write about it.
So instead, I am writing about loss on another level. The loss of a grand old city.
Spring break of 1991. Two college sophomores — a strawberry blonde and a brunette — tore out of their Texas college town in a little Toyota Corolla. I was the brunette. (That was several hair colors ago.) The strawberry blonde was my friend Susie. We had big plans. After a stop in my hometown of Beaumont, the two of us were headed to New Orleans.
When we rolled into the city a few days later, the eerie Cities of the Dead spread out underneath us as we crossed the freeways over New Orleans’ vast cemeteries. We drove through mid-afternoon downtown traffic, stopping for clusters of schoolchildren crossing streets in their blue-and-white plaid uniforms. Elegant aging buildings rose up from the congested streets, wrapped in ornate wrought-iron balconies. Despite its busyness, the city possessed a classic, graceful beauty.
We stayed with Susie’s parents in the Maison Dupuy on Toulouse Street, a couple of streets over from Bourbon Street. At night we walked with the crowds down Bourbon, equally repulsed and intrigued by the scene of one of America’s more hedonistic nightlife cultures. Even amid the French Quarter’s party atmosphere, a sweet, ghostly sadness seemed to linger. The city seemed to know that with beauty comes fragility.
Down St. Peter Street, we entered Preservation Hall and listened to the Dixieland jazz that had been played there since 1961. We sat so close to the band that I remember the clarinet dripping on Susie’s shoes.
We walked down Decatur to the world-famous Cafe du Monde, unaware of the fact that the plates of beignets were meant to be shared. Susie and I each ordered our own. That night in the hotel, I awoke to the feeling that the beignets were not going to stay down. I ran to the bathroom to find Susie sitting on the floor.
“I think I ate too many beignets,” she said.
Thankfully, our beignets stayed put, and we sat on the bathroom floor for an hour, laughing at the fact that while many French Quarter tourists tend to drink themselves sick, Susie and I had managed to overdo it on beignets.
That week, we stuffed ourselves with the best Cajun food in the world. We wondered about the mysterious establishments that were part of the city’s Voodoo culture. We ate real New Orleans Po-Boys. We were romanced by the contrasts that lay at the heart of the city’s aura — seedy strip clubs and historic churches that undoubtedly shared the same clientele. New Orleans was a proud city then — proud of its beauty as well as its filth. Both aspects blended to make the city what she was: a place of grime and grace; revelry and redemption.
Last week’s hurricane has brought the debate over whether New Orleans should rebuild. I hope it does. I want to go back and walk its haunted streets. I want to eat too many beignets. I want to see proof that once again, the strongest human desire is to overcome.
That’s something I can get my mind around.
Deana Nall’s column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is