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New Orleans
   by Kelley Thompson

My love for New Orleans began as a teenager reading Anne Rice novels. The New Orleans she had created was mystical and transcendent, full of decay but itself immune to death. Her novels had created something so real to me that my first time visiting was like coming home. I knew the warmth of a cup of café au lait on a cold night, the blare of trumpets on street corners, even the stench of the French Quarter.

The remarkable thing, though, is that she had not really created any of it--New Orleans is exactly as she described it, ghosts and all. New Orleans is alive the way a great song is alive, the way the memory of a loved one is alive. The city self-narrates and her tragedies only deepen her stories vitality.

Nine months after the storm hit, I got the chance to return to the Crescent City for four nights. Friday night, I got in late and chose to rest for a long day ahead. The airport was empty and my cabbie on the way to the hotel was very forthcoming in showing me the wounds left behind by the storm. The only deep scar I could see was the citys emptiness. Lots that should have been full of cars were empty, save for flooded vehicles left to the sides of roads and parking lots to be gathered for collection. The cabbie told me the city finally inked a deal to ship the vehicles out to junkyards across the country. He mused that letting the people loot the cars instead of arresting them would have, in the end, cost them a lot less.

Saturday I woke up refreshed but reticent. I avoided assessing the city until I had a better viewpoint but I could not help but notice that the majority of vehicles in the streets were service trucks and pickups filled with supplies. In the daylight, the glut of cars abandoned last summer stung me as all I could think was, people once owned these cars. People I talked with in Atlanta two months before could have owned one of these cars. I finally began to understand the gravity of displacement and I knew I would only see more on the days first activity: the Gray Line Katrina Recovery Tour.

I usually try to laugh with my guests but there is not much to laugh about on this tour proclaimed Mary, our tour guide for the morning. She was a funny elderly woman with a dry wit and a knack for storytelling. She took us through the neigh-borhoods of Lakeview and others surrounding Lake Pontchartrain, showing us the reality that not only poor people lost their homes.

Boats that once docked at the shoreline were left abandoned. The ones that were left in tatters were cleared long ago but those left roughly intact were piled in a makeshift ship graveyard, waiting for owners to reclaim them. I thought of the cabbie--these boats might have long ago been cleared away if police did not stop people from gutting the ships of their usable parts. Left whole, they were useless stark reminders to the people of what they had lost.

As the group was led through the various neighborhoods, we could see some houses being gutted by volunteers. Mary told us that volunteer groups, many through their church, have been coming to the city performing double duty as volunteer workers and as tourists since the recovery effort began. Typically, they would spend a day or two gutting a house and the rest of their time enjoying the city. The tourism sector, Mary confirmed, was never the problem. With barely an inch of floodwater, the French Quarter, Central Business District and Garden District never received more than a little wind damage.

After lunch, which consisted of turtle soup and French bread in the Quarter, I headed to the swamp for Jean Lafittes Swamp Tour. The airboat, led by a man who grew up five minutes from the spot we toured, took our group to spots, he admitted, were new to him as well. The week after the storm, he said, was spent relearning the routes that boats could take, as the land atop the swamp had shifted. He mentioned his gratitude that the wildlife and vegetation were coming back in such abundance. Its getting back to where you cannot really tell it [the storm] came anymore, he mused.

Meeting colleagues in the evening who happened to be in the city on their own business/pleasure getaway, we went out to enjoy the nightlife. The Redfish Grill was a nice start to the evening and, we noticed, a popular spot for bachelor and bachelorette parties. This restaurant would be a perfect place to start for groups who have never tried Cajun food before, having the size to accommodate large numbers and a menu that carries both Cajun favorites and milder Italian dishes.

Heading from the Redfish Grill to the Hotel Monteleone, we sat down for a beer at the only rotating bar in New Orleans. It was a little strange at first but not as disorienting as one might think.

Our next stop on our tour de la Rue Bourbon was an adventurous one. It was late in the evening when we decided to walk to Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, several blocks past the louder bar and restaurant sector. Three women walking at night is never the best idea but we put on our toughest struts and hauled it to the famous bar. The building was built sometime before 1772 and was run by the pirate, Jean Lafitte, and his brother as an actual blacksmith shop. Inside, there is no artificial lighting but every table has at least one tea light. The bar was once recognized as the most romantic bar in New Orleans and draws a good number of both locals and out-of-towners.

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