As many of you know, my daughter and her husband (a native New Orleanian) recently moved to Boston after living in New Orleans for the past four years — med school for him, grad school for her. Following is a post she wrote and put on her blog today, which she (reluctantly) gave me permission to post over here. As long as I didn’t identify her by name.
She prefaced the link to it on her Facebook page by saying:
We’ve been asked a lot up here about New Orleans and how it is doing. Like any decent story about New Orleans, this one begins with food and ends with music, with a bit of struggle in between.
New Orleans on My Mind
I’ll never forget my first poboy. It was May of 2007 and my first visit to New Orleans. Adam insisted we get poboys. I didn’t really understand what this meant, and Adam couldn’t really adequately describe it. A sandwich, kind of like a sub or hoagie, but with fried shrimp instead of deli meat, and bread unlike any other sandwich bread in the world. If it’s not on Leidenheimer bread, it’s not a true poboy. Could I put cheese on it? No, he said, I absolutely could not. Cheese on a shrimp poboy?? No. You get it dressed. What does that mean? Lettuce, tomato, mayo. But I don’t like tomatoes on sandwiches, can I get it without that? Won’t it be dry without cheese? He just looked at me and shook his head. There sure seemed to be a lot of rules regarding poboys. I was unconvinced. So he drove us to some nondescript building out near the lakefront, which outwardly did not look at all like a restaurant, and ordered a large shrimp poboy, fully dressed, with some Crystal on it too, please.
We got back in the car with our poboy-laden brown paper bag and drove through what I was told used to be a beautiful neighborhood. The houses were still beautiful, they were just in varying stages of repair, as was their landscaping, and the streets. We took a short detour to stop by his friend’s mom’s house, where we could still see the waterline from the hurricane, above my head. I pressed my face to the window to look inside, and it was definitely not suitable for habitation. She was living Uptown now while she figured out what to do with this house. Is this the same friend who lived with your parents while you were in school in DC after the storm? This is his mom’s house? It was. I stood there looking at the house, feeling almost like I wasn’t even allowed to be sad because none of this happened to me. This was not my pain. This wasn’t even the worst of the pain suffered here. Someone was sharing their story with me, though, and I was saddened.
We got back in the car, turned the radio to an upbeat station, and continued out to Lakeshore Drive along Lake Pontchartrain where we parked and walked until we found a suitable bench on which to eat our fully dressed fried shrimp poboy with Crystal, sans cheese. As he rolled it out from the layers of paper wrapped around it, wafts of shrimp emanated outward, and several of the golden bite-sized prizes that the poboy was stuffed to the brim with toppled off the bread back onto the paper. The wind coming off the water blew my hair into my face as I tried to hold my napkin on my lap while taking my half of the poboy from Adam. Not yet a believer in poboys, I lifted the top half of the bread up to inspect what was going on inside my sandwich. Plenty of mayo, lettuce and tomato, more shrimp than the bread could hold, and streaks of red-orange hot sauce. Here we go.
I think Adam probably expected to eat some of my half too. Not a chance, buddy. The bread was unreal. Crispy, soft and fluffy all at the same time, melt-in-your-mouth kind of bread. The shrimp were tender and juicy on the inside, crispy golden on the outside, and full of flavor. The “dressed” aspect of the poboy was perfect, complementing the bread and shrimp to create a holy triumvirate that now ruled as benevolent overlord of all other sandwiches in my world. I gobbled that small piece of heaven up so fast I got hiccups, lamenting that we didn’t each get our own poboy. I leaned back on the bench, finally able to take in the view of the lake before me, satisfied and happy. Eating was believing.
My first trip to New Orleans followed that general pattern. Exposure to new and wonderful things, having a fantastic time, interrupted periodically by scars from Katrina that prompted serious and sad conversations of what happened during and after, and then we carried on enjoying the many wonderful things the city had to offer, because in New Orleans you enjoy life. Since moving to Boston, we have both been asked “How is it down there since the storm?” when we say we moved here from New Orleans. Multiple times. This is strange. It has been nine years this weekend since Katrina, and I guess we assumed that meant people were done asking that question. It has been at least four years since anyone has asked Adam that question whenever it comes up that he’s from New Orleans when we are outside the state of Louisiana. But now, during job interviews, meeting new coworkers, meeting neighbors, talking to patients, people want to know how New Orleans is doing since the storm.
During my four years living in New Orleans, Katrina got mentioned all the time. This is where such-and-such used to be pre-Katrina. When was that Thanksgiving that no one remembered to make oyster dressing, was that before or after Katrina? You see a lot more fluers de lis around the city than you did pre-Katrina. The Marigny has more young people living there than it did before the storm. I’m excited for Christmas because my cousins are coming, they went to Houston after the storm and never came back so now we only see each other on holidays. And so on. It’s like the narrative of the city has subtly changed, and the storm became the central point of reference when describing things and telling stories.
We had a few tropical storms and hurricanes form in the Gulf while I lived there. In the days leading up to landfall, when the weather folks are still showing that wide prediction cone for the path the storm might take, when there is still a lot of water to cross that could potentially strengthen the storm, the mood of the entire city shifts. The tension is palpable. People don’t really wonder out loud if the storm will head towards Mobile, veer towards Houston, stay straight, or just fizzle out. Not the way we openly discussed storm path possibilities growing up in NC. There’s not a whole lot of detailed conversation, no one really wants to voice their fears, but everyone is keeping a close eye on the weather channel. Nothing really gets accomplished in an efficient manner at work. Everyone is wondering if and when they should leave. Everyone who lived there in 2005 is quietly reliving trauma, and those of us who didn’t are respectfully quiet and sensitive while we wait to hear what the storm is going to do.
Driving around New Orleans now, you won’t see the physical scars unless you know where to look. Most of the city has been rebuilt, and it looks great. It really does. It has come back enough to host the Superbowl. In addition to fixing what was damaged, there is a lot of completely new stuff, like the new section of the National WWII Museum and the bike lanes. Tulane is getting a football stadium. The city is getting a shiny new hospital complex that spans at least 6 city blocks. New grocery stores are opening all the time, and new schools are getting built. Some parts of town were rebuilt more than others, and a lot of work remains to be done in the areas that were worst hit. For the areas where houses were torn down and are now just a patchwork of overgrown green lots, there is nothing but the driveway entrance past the sidewalk to indicate where a house once stood. The houses that haven’t had much of anything done to them don’t look a whole lot different than blight you might see elsewhere, so it’s not immediately apparent the damage is from the storm as well as nine years of neglect. It’s not immediately apparent that the families who left those houses, and couldn’t come back to the city or perhaps just not to that specific house, suffered. On the majority of those houses the FEMA x-code has been covered up with paint or boards, but it is still visible on others. Some houses that people have come back to and are living in, some of those families chose to leave the x-code on their house when they rebuilt. It is always jarring to drive around and see a refurbished house with the x still on it.
Progress has been uneven, but progress continues to be made, and life goes on as it must. People are focusing on addressing larger social issues that don’t have anything to do with the storm. Madri Gras is still Mardi Gras. The food is better than anything you’ll find anywhere else. Crawfish boils abound in the spring. The music is fantastic, the impromptu dance parties in front of brass bands in the street being my favorite. The festivals are seemingly endless. The people are the friendliest I’ve ever met and the architecture is colorful and vibrant. Second lines still stop traffic. The moments when memories of the storm displace the joie de vivre that pervades the city are fewer and fewer as time passes, but the storm is still woven into the fabric of the city. If you want to know how New Orleans is doing, you should really go and find out for yourself. I promise you’ll fall in love.
About that Superbowl. As part of being host city, New Orleans set up free concerts along the Mississippi River, one of which was Trombone Shorty. He is my absolute favorite. At one point in the concert, he started up the Who Dat chant, and the crowd went nuts. Absolutely nuts. We were all screaming “who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints” while the Ravens and 49ers fans stood confused and lost. The band then proceeded to play a mash-up of New Orleans-themed songs, including Fire on the Bayou, the Mardi Gras song, When The Saints Go Marching In, Iko Iko, and others I can’t remember. The band was one with the crowd, all of us caught up in our love for this city, and our blatant disregard for the feelings of the fans whose teams were actually competing that weekend. This was our city, and our team might not have been playing, but we were still going to celebrate because we knew this place was one of a kind, and we knew the collective love we felt for the city was more important anyway. We waved anything white we could find and danced freely. We were New Orleanians.
But we can’t say all of that to the Bostonians who want to know how New Orleans is doing. So we say the city has come a long way and is doing well. Because it has. And it is.