Born in New Orleans, Kimberly Toms returned to the city for the first Mardi Gras after Hurricane Katrina. She wrote this piece at that time. We are re-running the story, in reflection of the 10th anniversary of the city’s rebirth.
In the diminishing rubble and despite her pain, New Orleans misses us.
Not long after Katrina hit New Orleans my own nightmares about effects of the devastation on that city, the place of my birth, started. I was supposed to have been in the Big Easy at the time of the storm, but luckily was unable to travel due to illness. Despite being safely in the Northeast as the turmoil hit, my little southern city was all I could think about. I felt as if I had somehow let her down by not being there to share in her pain.
Almost six months after the storm I made the trip back to New Orleans, as I needed to see with my own eyes that the city, the people and my heritage were going to be alright. Much like when visiting a sick family member in the hospital, you go not just to assure them you are hoping for their best. You also go to solidify in your own mind that they will pull through the illness and return to their normal state of being.
I made travel arrangements and for the entire week prior to departure had horrid nightmares about an apocalyptic scene, something of a combination of the wrath viewed on television news and an almost lunar landscape. I felt all of New Orleans wailing within my own breaking heart. I had always been so proud of my little history, where I am from and everything about my family that is so deeply rooted within the archives and landscapes of Louisiana.
I invited a friend along for the journey, one who had never been to Nola. I thought she would make a great travel companion and that her sense of humor would help see me through my anxiety, while I could play tour guide and show her some of the nuances my parents had shared with me.
While the plane prepared to land, I looked through the clouds to the terrain below. Just as newscasters had focused heavily upon the tarps covering rooftops of houses in every neighborhood, I noted how drastically the vibrantly colored coverings seemed out of place. The city beneath me appeared like a jigsaw puzzle, one with lost pieces in the place of which a bright blue tabletop peered out through the gaps.
I mechanically led my friend through the little airport and out to a hotel shuttle. I felt overwhelmingly emotional, yet did not want her to see that side of me. After all, who was I to cry when I had a home, all of my family and possessions to which I could return? I had a certain survivor’s guilt, a textbook response of which I felt no motivation to control.
Neighborhood after neighborhood was dotted with those blue plastic coated tarpaulins. But as we arrived onto Canal Street, familiar scenes of pseudo-normalcy started to appear. People were shopping, palm trees budding and the streetcar I rode as a child clanged down its historic path. The waterlines on building fronts were ever-present, yet I could smell a certain vibrancy in the hot, humid, musty air.
As the cab buzzed into the French Quarter there were, of course, signs posted in many windows stating special post-hurricane hours of operation and menu limitations. But restaurants were open and bellhops bustled luggage at hotel entrances. People were actually smiling, laughing and acting quite energetic all around. They seemed to have purpose and a light spring in their steps. I had expected gloom and desperation.
Hallowed Halls of Hotel Monteleone
Hotel Monteleone welcomed us with a regal façade and warmly sumptuous lobby. These front doors have opened to so many legends that you can practically hear the footsteps and conversations of former guests who have adored the “sparkling jewel of Royal Street” since 1886.
Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Truman Capote, Eudora Welty and Ernest Hemingway are just a few of the writers who found inspiration and enjoyment in the now 570-room Grand Dame of the Vieux Carre. Faulkner is written to have called Monteleone his favorite hotel and Williams mentioned the property in The Rose Tattoo. Capote joked he was born in Hotel Monteleone, when in actuality his mother went into labor there prior to transport to the hospital.
Just as the hotel is a literary landmark of days long gone, more recent writers have also found inspiration in her halls and beds, such as Winston Groom of Forrest Gump and Richard Ford, who included a passage about her in A Piece of My Heart. As we checked in, walked to our suite and navigated the intriguing hallways, I warmed to the idea of possibly writing in one of the rooms where such masterpieces may have been born. My friend, on the other hand, warmed to the idea of changing our flight clothes and heading out for a rambunctious night on the town.
Within the hotel walls and as the hot sun gleamed onto our suite’s window panes, I could almost easily forget my apprehension and emotion surrounding a return to New Orleans. But as soon as we turned on the televisions to start prepping for our first evening in town, we were again bombarded by the broadcasted misery and desperation of the landscape and a sampling of residents. We dressed quickly and excitedly, eager to walk the historic neighborhoods surrounding Jackson Square and to talk to some locals about their experiences of the past months.
Rotating and Drinking, Drinking and Rotating
Upon heading out from the lobby, one simply cannot pass the Monteleone’s renowned Carousel Bar & Lounge without stopping in. It is a sophisticated yet whimsical playground for grown-ups, an actual 25-seat carousel bar that turns as you comfortably sit during a slow, peaceful and liquid rotation. Many of the famed and historic authors enjoyed drinks in the unique barroom, among other celebrities of past and present. Those guests have included Liberace, Michael Jordan and Dennis Quaid.
We decided to sit for awhile and my friend turned on her reliable wit and charm as we engaged the bartender and some other visitors in varied conversations. As we sat, rotating slowly and sipping the best Bloody Marys I have ever had, the friend flirted with some gentlemen about 35 or forty years our seniors, dubbing them “Pete” and “The RePetes,” as we couldn’t remember the names of two of the three. We finished our drinks, said our goodbyes and stepped out onto the storied streets of the Quarter.
Exploring the Charms
As we walked, we stopped into stores and more than a few quaint pubs. We kept bumping into Pete and the RePetes, as there were so few people on the pre-Mardi Gras streets that faces became increasingly and eerily familiar. My friend wowed a crowd – myself included – by jumping onstage at a local karaoke bar and belting out a tune. She wanted to experience the much-popularized, wilder side of my city. I wanted to take in the familiar history, sounds of horse hooves and smell of café au lait.
We compromised and combined the two agendas seamlessly over the next several days, strolling through Audubon Park, Lafayette Cemetery and the French Market for me, voodoo and mask shops, hurricane beverage vendors, tee shirt shops and Bourbon Street for her. She even managed to flirt her way into the heart of a very odd character who likened himself to a vampire, albeit with his Bluetooth lodged conveniently in his right ear.
Within the Bubble, Let It Roll!
I was surprised about the business-as-usual appearance of the touristy section of the city, as if it existed within a protective storm bubble. Vague and less frequent reminders of Katrina’s wrath did exist, but they were greatly less noticeable than residential parts of town and outlying areas. We walked everywhere and talked to everyone who would let us speak to them, including tourists on the streets, bartenders, engineers and workers enjoying a night out after reconstructive work of their daytime. We even spent time discussing the storm with bouncers at a couple of adult venues. When we asked, “How are you doing,” the resounding and consistent answer was that of, “We’re doing great. We’re rebuilding and are ready to let the good times roll!”
Laissez le bons temps rouler, “Let the good times roll,” is a familiar cry of Cajun origin in the Big Easy. It is the age-old mantra of revelers, particularly during Mardi Gras. It was odd to hear that phrase repeated throughout our visit. But it echoed the residents’, shopkeepers’ and restaurateurs’ overwhelming desire to revive the pulse of the city, welcome visitors and share residents’ amazing resiliency.
We spent five days in the French Quarter, on Canal Street, throughout the Garden District, even in the famed Ninth Ward and devastated neighborhoods on beautiful Lake Pontchartrain, where my own father proposed to my mother. Many buildings of the Gulf were flattened, neighborhoods vastly destroyed and families devastated. The effects remained clear. But somewhere within the heart of all that is New Orleans, residents seemed to take extreme pride in welcoming outsiders, not just for added revenue from which to aid rebuilding, but because they really miss us.
Desiring a Visit by Old and New Friends
The residents of New Orleans desire for all of us – whether we are from their city originally or first-time tourists such as my friend – to step into their home, however it was damaged. They hunger to bring a smile to our faces. Imagine that. They wish to make us smile.
These residents deeply desire seeing our delight upon tasting of the amazing cuisine, our relaxed enjoyment of Mississippi River breezes while sipping chicory coffee at the Café du Monde. They want to feel our attachment to their rhythms while while we tap our feet to the magical sounds of authentic New Orleans jazz. They want to sense that we enjoy their city so much that we will sink deeply with gratitude into the cool pillow of a sumptuous historic hotel. In all that they have suffered and endured the City of New Orleans is ready, poised and wanting to show others the reality, resiliency and magnetism of their Deep South.
My nightmares gave way to peaceful sleep and nightly anticipation of seeing more of my favorite city. Although she was shaken, heavily bruised and dotted with blue bandages, New Orleans was not going to feign death. Throughout all of the countrywide political arguing, finger-pointing and blame associated with lack of timely and appropriate response to her demise, the remaining residents of New Orleans seemed to quietly bind together in an unspoken, unwritten pact of survival, despite the odds and excruciatingly difficult work ahead.
One by one – as the arguments and extensive devastation continued to grab headlines – cultural venues, sports arenas, shopping centers and corner stores swept up their broken glass and restocked supplies to welcome patrons, tourists and friends. Not all of the former residents, businesses and workers have yet returned. But for the tourist, the majority of what makes Nola an enticing travel destination is awaiting visitation.
As for the remaining damage, politics and watermarks, these are lessons we as humans should absorb, react to and always remember. In combination, the good, delicious, historic, legendary and even the bad, ugly and devastated pieces of post-Katrina New Orleans continue to warmly welcome both new and old friends for a trip, vacation, lesson in life or journey of the heart that one will never forget.