Postcard from New Orleans, April 2010

by Brian Clarey

The clouds hang lower in New Orleans. I don’t know why this is, maybe because it’s a bit closer to the equator or far enough below sea level that… well, I guess everybody knows by now what happens when a major storm hits New Orleans.

Anyway, the clouds hang low and they move fast, looking like they might catch on the downtown skyscrapers as sure as a tuft of cotton on the teeth of a comb.

And from our view on the 28 th floor of the hotel near the foot of Canal Street, it seems as if we could reach out and pinch a bit of each one for ourselves if we wanted.

How, you ask, does a man like me score a hotel room on the 28 th floor of a luxury hotel with nothing to pay for it but free-room coupons? The same reason there are still bars in town where my money’s no good and people who will show up when I call — because New Orleans has a long memory.

How do you measure a short trip to the city where you lived for nearly 15 years, the one that still lives in your heart? You can count the days and nights, like any hoople wandering Bourbon Street, or document it in cases of beer consumed like the visiting frat boys over in the bars at the University District. You can enumerate the number of fantastic musical acts you saw or great bars you hit or fabulous meals you ate. You can tally up all the wonderful friends you touched while you were down here. Or you can just count the hours in those low-hanging clouds that drift by overhead.

I take all of these things into account, plus a few more. From up here on the 28 th floor we can see the Mississippi River making its turn to the right and the hazy shoreline of Lake Pontchartrain on the horizon. We can see the canals and industrial bridges that border Gentilly and the line of Canal Street until it hits Mid-City. And if we squint, we can even see the balcony of our old French Quarter apartment near the corner of Burgundy and Gov. Nicholls streets.

But you don’t get a feel for New Orleans by looking down upon it from 28 stories up. You got to take it to the streets, so within a few hours of landing we found ourselves at the bar at Igor’s, that nasty little joint in the Garden District that was once so much a part of my life they still have pictures of me on the walls.

That’s the way it goes down in New Orleans: When you’re trying to find someone, first thing you do is call the bar he hangs out in. That’s how we knew Big Tiny would be at the Kingpin later that night, and that we would find Marcus at the Maple Leaf later still. In hindsight, hitting Snake & Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge at dawn may have been a mistake.

But the city of New Orleans forgives mistakes as graciously as she gives excuses for making them — for every jilted lover there is another waiting in the wings, for every hangover a great cup of coffee, for ever missed turn a new and exciting path.

The city has even forgiven the combination of foul weather and human ineptitude that conspired to drown it in 2005. Most of New Orleans looks sensational, some of it even better than it did before Katrina. The Uptown sidewalks are even and level and the roads — some of them, anyway — are now smooth enough to ride a skateboard on. Loyola University, where I matriculated in 1993, has added a new library and dormitory, among other new buildings. A drive down South Claiborne Avenue revealed almost no garbage blowing across the neutral ground and gathering in the gutters. And the Magnolia Projects, over on Louisiana Avenue by where Brown Sugar Records used to be, have been almost completely razed. A neighborhood of gleaming white townhomes with emerald lawns stood in its place.

Astounding, really. But there are still whispers of the dilapidated 9th Ward, a few homes with spray-painted Xs on ravaged shingles, plenty of empty bank accounts waiting for insurance money that may never come in.

But even transgressions like this can be forgiven on a beautiful Wednesday afternoon in Lafayette Square when the liquor and music flow like liquor and music should, or in a Faubourg Marigny barroom while the washboard scratches a rickety beat, or on the Mississippi River by the French Quarter where the biggest and best free festival I’ve ever been to kicked off on Friday morning.

That’s where I saw my old friend Coco Robicheaux, just upriver from the Crescent City Connection twin spans, make his funereal plea: “When I die, burn my body/ don’t you dare put it in the ground. Throw my ashes on the water/ let the Mississippi River take me down.”

And the low clouds skate across the sky.