August 31, 2005


The last time I saw New Orleans it was in pouring rain with gale force winds from an offshore tropical storm in October 2004. I remember looking down at the street from my hotel window in the middle of the night, the sheets of rain whipping along the asphalt pavement in the ghost white light, the fleur de lys and stars and stripes flags wrapped around the flagpoles above the hotel awning, the occasional pedestrian hunching along next to the walls of the buildings under a breaking umbrella, the occasional cab splashing up a wave.

I was in NOLA for the weekend with a friend, a wandering poet who had felt compelled to fly in from Paris for a semester to teach in Clarksville, Tennessee. He’d never been to New Orleans, and I’d suggested we take separate hotel rooms in case he wanted to entertain a guest. “This is New Orleans, that’s what New Orleans is for,” I said, but as it turned out, charming and worldly as he is, he was in too unsettled a condition to follow my advice.

I’d come in by car from Texas so we were able to drive around town: through the French Quarter and into the Faubourg Marigny, up St. Charles Street and down the wonderful length of Magazine Street with its endless cafes and restaurants and used bookstores and clothing boutiques. We sat an extra hour in the Café du Monde, unwilling to get soaked on the one-block dash to the parked car, and that place looked like the center of the world, its little round tables crammed with raingeared tourists speaking German and French and Dutch and Portuguese and more, its expert Asian waitresses memorizing everyone’s order even though everyone ordered slight variations on the same thing: café au lait and beignets.

A city as obsessed with restaurants as I am! I could spend an entire vacation prowling from one window-posted menu to another, peeking at the dining room décor and the customers, weighing which places to pass by and which to enter. On this trip I discovered Mother’s, the downtown breakfast spot where you order eggs and smoked sausage and grits at the counter; and a big new seafood place in the Quarter with piles of fried shellfish that daunted even me; and revisited Casamento’s Oyster’s on Magazine Street. And spent hours browsing for that other necessary nutriment: used books, at Beckham’s Bookshop on Chartres Street, and the Faulkner House, and elsewhere. And passed Fleur de Paris, where Susan bought her wedding dress in 1994.

Leaving the city I drove the long raised straightaways of I-10 through the bayou in hard rain and mist, going carefully to stay on the road. What does that road look like today? What has happened to the books in the bookstores, the tables in the restaurants, the sacks of beignet mix in the Café du Monde? I’ve got a guidebook crowded with handwritten annotations and hotel brochures and restaurant business cards – places I’ve been, places I’ve hoped to go someday. If they’re still there afterwards, what will they look like?

I imagine myself as a travel publisher planning the next edition of a guidebook to New Orleans. What do I say?