Dispatches From America - Part Deux
"It's the Katrina, stupid."
Day 3 - Marietta, GA to New Orleans, LA - 525 miles
I'm playing cat-and-mouse with the police. The deck is stacked against me, as numerous motorists are driving white Ford Crown Victorias. People, don't you know you are driving police cars?
In Georgia southwest of Atlanta, I know that I have officially entered the Bible Belt when I see the first vehicle with the word "God" on it. It is a bus whose side reads "Camelot Bus Lines - Traveling With God's Grace."
I drive through Alabama and then to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Along the coast and into Louisiana, giant pickup trucks bear down on me at very high speed in the left lane. It's all about the oil. Does anyone doubt why we have troops in Iraq?
As I approach New Orleans, I search for signs of Katrina. The only signs I see are broken trees around the shoreline. Days later, I learn that I did not see all the homes south of I-10 that were destroyed, had their wreckage removed and were not rebuilt. The place looks like a lovely preserve. I had no idea that it had been cluttered with residences.
After checking into the pretty Country Inn and Suites hotel, I head to the French Quarter. I cannot believe the age of the buildings, such as Laffite's Blacksmith Shop, and the great shape that they are in. I try to imagine what it was like a hundred years ago, with strumpets in flowing dresses struttin' their stuff. It's so beautiful I want to cry.
I look for more evidence of Katrina. There are some torn signs, and other banners hanging from the second story balconies indicating "We're Back" or "We've Reopened." I walk along Royal Street. It is very calm, with gorgeous art galleries. Then I turn up a side street and, one block away, I hit Bourbon Street. I see drunk people. It's only 8 pm on a Friday night, but they are staggering everywhere with giant green or pink plastic "to go" hurricane cups. It's Las Vegas with humidity. Some guys are negotiating with a couple of women on a balcony to lift up their tops. The negotiation stalls. I make a mental note to return a couple of hours later.
Lots of business people are walking around with giant badges hanging from their necks. I find out that there are thousands of them in town for a huge real estate convention, the first one since Katrina. It looks like many of these folks will be getting into trouble later tonight. Unfortunately, I won't be joining them. I am exhausted from the driving, and, after a mind-numbing stroll through Harrah's Casino, I am forced to turn in early in one of the few places in the country where no one turns in early.
Day 4 - New Orleans, LA to Houston, TX - 365 miles
I begin the day with coffee and beignets at the famous Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter. The menu is so limited that it is written on the metal napkin boxes. Take the following quiz to find out how my tourist credentials showed. Was it that I:
A. whipped out my camera on Decatur street and snapped away;
B. asked the waiter to go easy on the lait in my cafe au lait at Cafe Du Monde;
C. asked the same waiter if they served anything more substantial, such as eggs; D. wore a black shirt to eat beignets outside at Cafe Du Monde; or
E. all of the above.
If you answered E, you are correct. As for the black shirt, black + a quarter pound of powdered sugar on top of the beignets + a windy morning = you do the math, or, in this case, the physics. I had to sit strategically upwind. The woman at the table next to me began a conversation by turning around and asking, "You're wearing a black shirt HERE?!"
Some people told me that New Orleans is a sleazy, crime-ridden city that should be avoided. You might as well tell people to avoid New York City for the crime, London for the rain or Paris for the waiters. New Orleans is a very special place. I'm thrilled that it has bounced back from Katrina and has not lost its vibrancy. I hope every inch of it is a national historic landmark or part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It must be preserved. The levees should be rebuilt in a state-of-the-art manner. Hell, if the Dutch can do it, so can we.
Louisiana west of New Orleans is a stunning seascape into which one is immersed while driving on the causeways just a few feet above the water.
At one pit stop, the graffiti on the wall is French, calling Satan "Le Bete."
As I cross into Texas, the roads are so flat that I think I see the curvature of the earth. I'm a modern day Columbus, watching the Ford F-150 pickup trucks sink over the horizon.
Forgetting that it is Saturday, I mistakenly drift into the Houston Galleria at about 4 p.m. It's a complete mob scene, with shoppers buying Christmas gifts and a 50 foot Christmas tree being lit. Crowds surround the ice rink and the railings several stories above. Out skates a very blonde Oksana Bayul. She spins around a burgundy Cadillac XLR that is perched atop a giant platform in the middle of the rink. I'm worried that she has never trained for Cadillacs on ice rinks and may crash. The Cadillac looks pretty good. So does Oksana.
In need of a pick-me-up, I go to the Starbucks in the mall, but know better than to ask for chicory coffee with beignets. I miss the French Quarter.