I’ve been to New Orleans more times than I can count, but as I planned my first post-Katrina trip, I wondered how much of its long-familiar landscape would still remain.
My New Orleans ritual has remained unchanged in all of those years. It begins with beignets and café au lait at the Cafe du Monde, followed by a stroll around Jackson Square and a climb to the crest of the levee, where I sit and watch the boats plying the Mississippi.
On this morning as I sit in the cafe, a van pulls up and its two occupants extract from it a gigantic paper-mâché mask of Louis Armstrong.
Both men seem improbably short to be walking the streets with it perched upon their shoulders, but an entourage shortly appears, dressed in Mardi Gras finery.
The mask’s occupant appears and suits up, then the troop sets off down the streets for reasons and parts unknown.
It’s a perfect welcome back to New Orleans.
Jackson Square is always a feast for the eyes. Artists who hang their work on its wrought iron fences are regulars, but the supporting cast of characters is constantly changing.
Today, two mothers sitting in the shade watch over a play date and what can only be described as the mini-van of baby strollers.
Across the square, a group of choir boys files down the sidewalk.
The engine of a motorcycle with longhorn handlebars and an honest-to-God cowboy saddle clicks and cools as its owner sitting nearby with guitar and harmonica, picking out a tune.
Hey, buddy, can you spare some change for gas?
At first not much seems out of place, but after only a few blocks’ walk I come upon my first vacant house marked with the infamous X-code, or “Katrina cross”… which many have mistakenly taken for a demolition flag.
The markings in each of its quadrants actually record the date and time that the house was searched, the identity of the searchers, and a count of people found in the home… whether alive or not.
The Lafayette Cemetery #2 is five blocks off St. Charles St., at the corner of Washington and Loyola, and even though I’ve seen the St. Louis cemetery – the heavyweight among New Orleans burials – on past trips I can’t resist walking its lanes to check out the stories told by its gravestones.
A procession led by a brass band appears, and I realize that I’m about to see my first New Orleans funeral parade.
Although such funeral parades were a widespread practice among both blacks and whites in New Orleans at the start of the 20th century, whites stepped away from the ritual in the years before World War I.
It was not until the 1960’s that it began to spread across ethnic and religious boundaries.
It feels far less like a funeral than it does a wake.
Many in the procession are dressed in black, and the mourners hold pictures of the deceased high.
One woman walks, turtle-like, beneath the weight of an ornately framed painting of a saint with cherubs. From time to time, one or another breaks into dance.
I never manage to learn the name of the deceased, but the rousing and worthy send-off tells me that he’s someone who will be sorely missed by many… and that I can cross one more item off my bucket list.