Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Crescent City Awakening

I’m up with the sun this morning, and the first thing I do is throw back the drapes. I saw a glimmer of the Mississippi River last night, but this morning I’m stunned. The river cuts through the city like a Chinese dragon, sparkling with scales of sunlit current. Before me is a huge crescent of land, one of many that form in the arches of the giant dragon called The Mississippi.

I’ve been through New Orleans by way of Interstate 10. It was nearly 20 years ago, I was pregnant with my first child, and we were pedal to the metal to get to North Carolina to drop off our truck with my husband’s family before moving to Japan for our three-year tour. New Orleans was only a blur of bridges and a stop for lunch somewhere off the interstate. Waddling around the French Quarter with my big ole baby-bump just didn’t sound like fun. I’m sorry now that I don’t have that memory of what New Orleans looked like before Katrina.

So I’m anxious to get out of the hotel room and into the Crescent City. My husband has a full day of classes, so he takes off to join the rest of the pilots in a night vision goggles training session. Leaving my son still exercising his dreams, my daughter and I head across the hotel to the Riverwalk Mall. I’m saddened to see many of the shops still closed up; some completely vacant, others with signs promising to open soon. We stop into Creole Delicacies, a little gourmet shop and learn why New Orleans is considered the friendliest city in the country.

My son, 17, is with us now. He’s hungry and just a bit growly like teenage boys get when their belly is empty. At the back of the gourmet shop we discover a little dining room and a show kitchen. Although the tables are filled with a production line of gift basket preparation—Cajun spices, pralines, New Orleans memorabilia—the ladies working the basket assembly welcome us and offer us lunch. My son’s had his tongue set for a big ole burger, but the only thing on the menu here is baked Creole chicken, gumbo, red beans and rice, and Marti Gras salad. I ask the woman in the apron what she’d offer a grumbly teenage boy, she nods and tells me, “I know what you mean; I have a 17-year-old son.” So she heaps him up a giant sampler plate with half a chicken it. Jonathan eats, and eats, and eats some more, but not even Jonathan can finish.

We’re the only ones in the dining room, which we learn is really a classroom. Striking up a conversation with the woman in the apron, we learn her name is Saundra and she teaches Cajun and Creole cooking classes right there in the kitchen. She introduces us to Lisette, who owns the store, and before long the stories spill out.

Saundra lost her home and everything in it; trinkets, and trophies, treasures of a life born and raised in New Orleans. She still can’t talk about it without her eyes misting and her voice cracking. Lisette didn’t lose her home, but her mother did. Lisette, who along with her husband Dana, owns Creole Delicacies, lost their stores to looters. All of the Riverwalk stores were looted—all except the Christmas Store. Honor among thieves? Make your own conclusions in that.

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