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Too Much to Love in New Orleans, Too Much to Lose

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 4, 2005

New Orleans finally met a guest it didn't like.

That's always been the thing about New Orleans, the founding principle behind its eternal bon temps mood: Everybody's welcome. Anything goes in New Orleans, and all are invited, even -- especially? -- rascals, scamps and those generally well short on their Eagle badge requirements. Ne'er-do-wells are just more spice for the stockpot, a little more filé in the city's long simmering gumbo of Old South manners, New Wave funk and occasional freaky mayhem. Ask anybody who's been there: New Orleans is the most welcoming city in the world.

Not even hurricanes were shunned, to be honest. Rather than flee them, New Orleanians have been taunting them for years. From its legendary hurricane parties to its crosshairs location in the sump of the Mississippi River, they all but dared those gulf blows to come on in and liven up the celebration. In spite of warnings about the Big One over the years, disaster prep in much of the French Quarter could have been summed up as an abiding faith in Pat O'Brien's to cheer up even a tropical depression.

Until now. Thank God most people took Katrina more seriously than they did earlier storms, or the death count would be even higher. As it is, we still don't know exactly how bad it is, what will be left when the waters drain away and how much will ever return. New Orleans may come back, but it will never be quite the same.

This tragedy is not about travel, not yet. The shocking catastrophe unfolding in the city's more deeply flooded neighborhoods has properly overshadowed reports from the tourists' favorite French Quarter. With refugees still in stadium purgatory and loved ones still missing and a million lives wracked with grief and loss, specific questions about New Orleans's future as a playground for tourists are questions for another day.

But tourism is elemental to New Orleans's being -- both economic and spiritual -- and a little early reflection by travelers on the place's iconic status doesn't have to equal a premature obituary. Does it? It's just impossible for memories not to pour out of a heart that cracks wide open at every new shot of a submerged streetcar or a crumbled fountain or a street where good-timing and joy have been swamped by silence and sorrow.

They say the wall at Antoine's Restaurant came down and I think of all the courtyards -- so coy and secret and still -- bare to the roaring world. Did Cafe Du Monde make it? The Acme Oyster House? Tipitina's? The Maple Leaf? The Audubon Zoo?

The restaurant on Canal Street where my wife -- a Tulane grad and a deep, deep lover of the city -- and I had our engagement party was on the second floor, but does that matter? Could the fairgrounds really be gone, where we and so many thousands reconvened for Jazz Fest year after year? And, oh my Lord, when will there be another Mardi Gras?

There is too much to love in New Orleans, too much to lose.

That's why tourists, in particular, need to help New Orleans find a way back. Not for the good times we hope to let roll there in the future, but for all the big and easy pleasure -- all that fine swamp cooking, all those jumping tunes -- that New Orleans has given us since the first Creole merrymaker put his feet up on a wrought iron rail and said, "Let's just set and enjoy ourselves for a bit."

It's everyone's favorite city. Telling someone you're from New Orleans is like telling them you're from San Francisco or Honolulu. "Oooooh," is what they say. " Love that town." Imagine everybody loving your home as much as you do.

What other city draws such raves from such a miscellaneous audience, from the buzz-cut stiffs in for the Homeland Security conference at the Hilton to the blue-hairs pumping quarters at Harrah's to the bookish literati basking in the dark, damp moodiness of old streets shadowed in Spanish moss?

Where else does an accountant in a convention badge get cheeky with a knockout cross-dresser? Is there any other place on the planet where you'll catch a Kentucky tobacco farmer wearing a necklace of colored beads? The beauty of the Quarter has always been that regular folks and freaks groove together, side by side on the sticky corner of Bourbon and Canal, enjoying the simple pageantry of middle-aged African American men swanning about in elaborate Native American garb.

New Orleans's get-along temper comes from its crossroads birthright: a 17th-century French settlement, handed to Madrid and eventually sold to Washington, all the while collecting cotton brokers, bead traders, Haitian sailors and Cuban rakes. Slaves filled the city, and the age of steam brought smooth gamblers and Sam Clemens. In the centuries since, the city has become a polyglot lure for outliers from around the South: Gay men who feel more welcome on Tchoupitoulas Street than in their small towns -- or even big ones -- in Georgia and Alabama; horn players in search of something more than a marching band beat; creative misfits of all types, artists and writers and cooks and kooks. Everyone likes a party, and New Orleans is the longest-running, permanent-floating fiesta in the hemisphere.

And not just during Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, either. On any given weekend, there's more revelry going on at this bend in the Mississippi than anywhere north of Rio. It's like the old joke about Alaska's absolute supremacy of size: You could cut it in half and make Texas the third-biggest state in the union. Well, go ahead and close half the bars in New Orleans, silence half the combos and stopper two-thirds of the bottles and you'd still have a bash spilling into the streets that would put the blush to all the fraternity rows in Boston.

But flood the place for a month? Can it come back from that?

There's reason to hope, and not just because they can rebuild, no matter how long it takes. After all, San Francisco had its guts burned out in 1906, and is long since back doing duty as everyone's second- favorite American city. And New Orleans has been battered before, including devastating fires in the late 1700s, yellow fever epidemics in the mid-1800s and the killer floods of Hurricane Betsy in 1965. This is more apocalyptic by far, but if they can build a passable French Quarter at Disney World, surely they can rebuild something of the original in its hole alongside the Big Muddy.

But the real reason to hope is because, ultimately, New Orleans isn't just about balconies and wrought iron and brick courtyards and languid oaks. That's just the skeleton, the voodoo bones and fairy houses that give the sprightly soul of the city a place to dwell. New Orleans has always been as much idea as locale -- a lovely communal notion that ambition and striving and all that are fine, but not as fine as talking and laughing and sipping and supping. The fable tells us that the grasshopper played tunes while the ant got busy. This is a city of grasshoppers, which is what makes it so beloved to a nation of ants.

You can't drown an attitude. You can't blow away jazz. You can't swamp the zesty, bayou-born love of visiting and eating that New Orleanians will bring back to their city when the all-clear finally blows. Mondays will be red beans and rice day again some day, even if it cooks in new kitchens. I grieve for every fallen oak, but trees don't make New Orleans. They just provide a little shade for the tarot readers and bucket drummers and street painters who do. Trees grow. Walls get fixed. Tarot card readers come back from their forced sojourn in the Astrodome. They'll scrape the mud off those sidewalks where Louis Armstrong strode in his two-toned wingtips and people will come back to walk on them again -- and this being Nawlins, maybe to sleep on them once in a while.

Here's a bet you'd be fool to take. The first thing those good folks are going to do when they're let back into the Quarter is tap a keg, string some lights and have a party.

I think we should go.

I know we'll be welcome.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company