Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Katrina Reflections (Part 1)

Ten days before Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, Ed and I enjoyed a day trip to New Orleans. We wanted one last hurrah before the fall semester started, before the daily grind of teaching and grading consumed every moment of the next four months.

Ed had a conference to attend in the morning, so while he networked, I had iced coffee and beignets at Cafe du Monde. I settled in for a literary moment with a novel a friend had given me, and spent at least an hour slowly sipping heady New Orleans blend coffee and trying not to get too much powdered sugar on my black capri pants. A tiny mountain of crispy, chewy Louisiana donuts are capped with half an inch of powdered sugar snow, and there’s no way to avoid spilling the first mouthful down your blouse and into your lap. Pigeons fluttered in the rafters and scavenged bits of beignet from the concrete floor. A balloon artist stood on one side of the cafe, making swords and little mermaids for the kiddies, and on Decatur Street a blues guitarist and his vocalist girlfriend entertained passersby and customers alike. All these distractions kept me from truly getting into my new book, but reminded me of all the reasons I love New Orleans.

Ed and I met for lunch at our favorite restaurant, the Alpine on Chartres. The first time we visited New Orleans, we were drawn to this corner cafe more by the name than by the hired shill standing out front directing diners to the lunch special. In a city that lies below sea level, in a state with virtually no topography, we wondered why on earth this place was called the Alpine (it turns out the original founder was from Switzerland). But instead of continental European cuisine, the Alpine dished up some of the best Cajun and Creole lunches in the Big Easy: buttery barbecue shrimp with French bread, perfectly balanced jambalaya, blackened redfish, oyster poboys. I had my usual Caesar salad with blackened shrimp and Ed and I had our picture taken by the waitress, to remind us of our favorite place to eat. Then it was off to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas on the Mississippi Riverwalk. I’d never been there before, but I love a good aquarium. Using the Shedd in Chicago as my gold standard. I was blown away by the exhibits in New Orleans. Tanks with underwater walkways represent life in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. The rainforest exhibit has tanks of fish and free flying birds. I stood in line with school children to touch the shark and the sea cucumber. But my favorite was the display of seadragons. I’d never seen anything like these seahorse-like creatures with their dangling blue and green appendages that mimicked seaweed. They looked like something out of a child’s fantasy book, and there was a sense of grace and tranquility about them. In the gift shop I found a t-shirt with both the weedy and leafy varieties – the perfect souvenir.

Of course, on August 19, 2005, we had no inkling that a tropical storm would shortly be churning its way through the Gulf of Mexico on a collision course with the Louisiana-Mississippi Gulf coast, and that New Orleans life as we had come to know it would be monumentally disrupted for years to come.

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