The crowd at the boarding gate for the flight from Hobby Airport to New Orleans had the feel of a group of friendly commuters who already knew each other. The man standing next to us in Group “B” kept using his cell phone to notify friends and loved ones that his wife was having labor induced on Monday (this was Friday). Before long, several people in our preboarding queue were chatting with the anxious and proud father-to-be about his wife and the baby and how they were glad the child would be born in New Orleans. Earlier in the week, New Orleans historian Douglas Brinkley said in a radio interview that his wife, expecting their third child, had no intention of having the baby in N.O. because the infrastructure was just too quirky. Instead, she was flying to California to join her parents for the event. Those contrasting baby reports seemed to set the tone for the rest of the weekend—optimism juxtaposed with dark doubt.
New Orleans is a deeply self-regarding city, and its absorption with its past, its present, and especially its future has never been more profound. The national press might have moved on, but the prize-winning Times-Picayune still has a front page full of Katrina stories: The Sunday paper featured a handsomely illustrated two-page timeline that traced which levees leaked when. This was the weekend of Mother’s Day and of graduation at Tulane and one week before the runoff between New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu, a local race with national impact.
Cynthia and I were there as wedding guests. Both principals lived in Brooklyn, but the bride grew up in N.O. She had been planning the wedding right around the time that Katrina hit; after the storm, she was determined to have the wedding in N.O. Her large extended family, the Bouchons and the Smiths, went out of their way to make everyone happy to be in the land of dreams. We got there in time for the rehearsal crawfish boil, held in the courtyard of a very old convent on North Rampart, close to Esplanade. (The bride’s mother, known to everyone as Miss Ava, was living in one of the convent’s upstairs apartments while she waited to learn the fate of her house in the 9th Ward.) The heaps of succulent corn, potatoes, sausage, and crawfish were devoured by everyone—especially the sizable group of young hipsters from New York, who were seemingly born to pinch off the heads and suck the tails.
Racial matters in New Orleans are often on the blunt side, and it appeared that the bride and groom were unprepared for the questionnaire they were presented with when they applied for a marriage license at City Hall. The application required the couple to state their race—just like the old days in Huey Long’s Louisiana. This presented a quandary for the prospective bride because her family—the Smiths and the Bouchons—run the skin color palette from dark mahogany to freckled pink, as is often the case in large Creole families. She finally decided to mark “colored” on the form, which delighted the prospective groom, a white boy from Austin.
We stayed a few blocks away on Dauphine Street, just a block off Bourbon. The French Quarter seemed the same as always—except for the topical messages on the T-shirts in the ubiquitous shops: “FEMA’s Evacuation Plan: Run, Motherfucker, Run” and the more understated “Rebuild New Orleans.” We also noticed the haphazard pattern of which businesses were open and which were not. Up on Iberville, a block from Canal, the Acme Oyster House was doing its usual stand-in-line-for-30-minutes-on-the-sidewalk business. Just across the street, Acme’s fine competitor, Felix’s Oyster Bar, was closed tight. Two eminent eateries, Brennan’s in the French Quarter and Commander’s Palace in the Garden District, were both closed until further notice. On the other hand, Galatoire’s, located on an unlikely block of Bourbon Street, was going full tilt, crowded with Tulane graduates and their prosperous-looking families. The venerable waiters scurried around with bottles of champagne, warm sourdough bread and butter, very fine whiskey sours, and what I would consider to be the definitive fried soft-shell crab.
The Louisiana Music Factory, an excellent local record store on Decatur Street, was crowded with tourists spending money plus a couple of local musicians who had played during JazzFest the previous two weekends. At the register I asked how JazzFest had treated the store. Pretty good, considering, the owner responded. The waiter at Galatoire’s said virtually the same thing: Weekends were bustling, “but you should see us during the week.” At Napoleon House, an ancient bar on Chartres Street, I was nursing a beer when a girl wearing a Tulane cap and gown walked in to join her family. In an eager embrace of optimism, the entire bar applauded.
The night of the wedding was cool and clear with not much humidity for South Louisiana. The ceremony took place outside the Latter Memorial Library, a big, beaux- arts building out on the way to Tulane and Audubon Park. The library is set up high, and from the rise you have a commanding view of St. Charles Avenue, where the clattery wooden streetcar was no longer running. The streetcar tracks looked intact, but as if someone had come along with a pail and shovel and patiently covered them up with sand.
White chairs were set out on the side lawn, and a long expanse of white fabric was laid out on the grass for the flower girls and the bride, who was accompanied in the traditional way by her father. The ceremony itself was a mix of the traditional, embodied by the African-American Baptist preacher, and the modern, embodied by a groomsman who read from marriage vows that he had found by Googling “celebrity weddings.” They were the marriage vows of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, who, he pointed out before he read them, were a celebrity couple that had been married once (to each other) for 48 years.
The processional was played by a young New Orleans brass band that paraded in front of the wedding guests, all of whom had been given a white linen handkerchief to wave as they danced behind the band. The food was set up on the porch of the library building, and the DJ, who played funk records, was in one of the big rooms off to the side. Miss Ava led the dancing and saw to it that everyone—regardless of their age—fully participated.
The next day, the Times-Picayune analyzed the mayor’s race as being too close to call; the crucial thing to watch would be how many black votes went to Landrieu, the son of the last white mayor of New Orleans, the wonderfully named Moon Landrieu. At the wedding, the bride’s grandfather (Miss Ava’s father) told me he thought that he’d vote for Nagin because the mayor needed a chance to prove himself after the disruption of the hurricane, which after all was an act of God. He also told me that in the flood he had lost most of the 10 small houses he owned as rental property and that his good clothes were all lost except for the jacket he was wearing that night. He felt blessed that his family was unhurt and said that everyone was grateful to the cities in Texas that had been hospitable to the evacuees and that he hoped to visit two of his daughters who had decided to stay in Dallas. Back in our hotel room, I looked again at the brochures advertising Gray Line bus tours of the Bouchon/Smith family’s devastated neighborhood. For the bargain price of $35 you could view the destruction on a big bus with a guide.
On our last day in New Orleans, we walked down Bourbon Street, which smelled like it always does early in the morning: a sour combination of spilled beer, powdered sugar, fried food, and vomit. We found a good bookstore on Pirate’s Alley, tucked behind the cathedral on Jackson Square. The annual Tennessee Williams Festival had taken place not long before, and the bookstore had participated, just as it always did. It’s the kind of store where the books seemed to have been personally selected by someone who knew exactly what the customers needed to read. If you inspect the walls, you’ll find framed letters from Flannery O’Connor and inscribed photographs of Eudora Welty.
On the plane back home, I felt the way I always did after a weekend in N.O.—like I had gained a dozen pounds and had a hangover that would not go away anytime soon. I took out a book I had bought, a little paperback that had been prominently displayed at the bookstore, and started to read. It was Joseph Conrad’s short novel, Typhoon, about a vicious storm that comes out of nowhere and destroys everything in its path.
Dick Holland is a senior lecturer at the University of Texas-Austin in the Liberal Arts Honors program where he teaches classes on Texas culture, American music, and the ’60s.