Spring Break in The Big Easy

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Oversize beads hanging from a tree in a sculpture garden in New Orleans.

On a windy Monday afternoon, my friends and I slipped into the Spotted Cat bar on Frenchman Street in New Orleans. We ordered a round of Abita beers and listened to Sarah McCoy’s Oopsie Daisies, a 1940s-style blues lounge band. Sitting on stools in the middle of the bar, we shared a cigar while watching the lead singer in a red dress croon love ballads.

Only in New Orleans could you stumble on such a great band on a Monday afternoon. The town is saturated with great musicians. With the older ones, you get the sense they’ve been playing in New Orleans for decades and long ago passed the line of virtuoso into whatever comes after. You feel that the young ones came because they love music and know there’s no city where they’ll be more appreciated.

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Sarah Mccoy’s Oopsie Daisies perform in the Spotted Cat on Frenchman Street.

You don’t have to worry about whether they’re good or not. New Orleans doesn’t tolerate bad musicians. Even the street musicians are high caliber and play with passion. We saw great jazz bands, blues bands, funk bands, rock banks, and the wonderful Treme brass band, which pulled my friend Liz on stage during their last number after she distinguished herself in the crowd with her dancing.

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The Treme band.

I’ve heard New Orleans called the most unique city in America. Although I’ve been taught to be skeptical of the word “unique,” I think the title is deserved. The city’s past as part of the French and Spanish empires has left it with a perceptibly non-American cultural strain. In most of the United States, houses are decorated modestly, but not there. They paint their houses as if they’re competing to have the most colorful one on the block. They put rococo frills wherever they can, especially on their metal balconies. Even weeks after Mardis Gras, it’s not uncommon to see a tree whose branches are so dense with hanging beads that it looks like it came from the candy paradise scene in Willy Wonka.

New Orleans also stands out among American cities by allowing open containers of alcohol on the streets at any time of the day, which people take great advantage of in certain quarters.

That’s not to say the city isn’t American. The most prominent culture in the city, probably, is African-American. There’s been controversy over the city’s shift toward a whiter population since Hurricane Katrina led to the evacuation of black neighborhoods, but it’s still 60 percent black. The black community has established the blues and jazz core of the local music and seem to make up most of the musicians.

The iconic New Orleans sandwich, the po’ boy, also originated with the community. I wouldn’t recommend eating a po’ boy every day if you plan to live past 40, but they’re delicious in a greasy way, and they do a great job of preparing your stomach for a night of beers.

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New Orleans also has a distinctively southern character. While eating New York-style sandwiches in Stein’s Deli, a place we became addicted to during our stay, we started talking to a pair of older ladies who seemed to come from the southern gentry. The more talkative of them proudly told us that the other lived in the house Jefferson Davis died in (her friend nodded proudly). We confirmed this afterward.

The talkative southern lady insisted on giving each of us hugs after our conversation, even though the four members of our group ran the spectrum from loving hugs to reserving them for weddings, graduations and funerals. This was one of countless examples of extraordinary friendliness we encountered in New Orleans. The night we arrived, a group of twenty-somethings devoted nearly a half hour of their night to giving us advice on where to go. It’s not uncommon while walking down the street for passersby to give you an earnest “good times!”

The supreme act of friendliness was our encounter with Wendell Pierce, the New Orleans native who played Bunk on The Wire and Antoine Batiste on Treme. We read in the Times-Picayune that he would be opening a grocery store on the outskirts of the city in an effort to eliminate a food desert, so we stopped by on our way to see the beautiful marshland at the Jean Lafitte National Park.

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The alligator-infested marshland in Jean Lafitte National Park.

We were bashful about approaching Pierce, who was busy talking to neighborhood folks in the crowded supermarket. We almost left, but then we saw Pierce suddenly standing alone. He shook all our hands (we agreed that his handshake was really soft, but not in a bad way), and asked where we were from. He was happy to hear we were from Mizzou, and asked some sports-related questions I didn’t understand.

Later, we worried that he thought we were in town as part of a charity effort instead of being on vacation. Still, I’ll always remember his generosity in opening the grocery store and taking the time to ask questions of four strangers on that busy day.

I only spent a week in New Orleans, but I think I’ll carry a little bit of it with me for a while. It makes you want to be more passionate about music and to take more out of life, in a friendly way.

Katrina’s Five-Year Anniversary

It’s the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.  The media usually cannot resist anniversaries, particularly when there is powerful film footage to show, and this one is no exception.  This CNN story on the anniversary is typical — a rehash of what happened, some hand-wringing about it, and plenty of retrospective blame being put on President Bush and the federal government, but curiously not much blame being apportioned to the State of Louisiana or the City of New Orleans itself.

I’m not sure what to make of such stories.  With Katrina, the federal government did not cover itself with glory in dealing with an enormous catastrophe, and neither did the state or city government.  People were marooned on the roofs of their homes, were not readily supplied with food and water, and could not be evacuated quickly from the hellish environs of the Superdome.  We learned that the federal government is a ponderous entity that does not move with lightning speed.  Was that unique to the Bush Administration?  Apparently not, because we recently saw a plodding, uncoordinated federal government make a similarly muddled response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.   Katrina also taught us that the Louisiana state government and the New Orleans city governments were corrupt, inept and seemingly hamstrung by politics.  Has anything changed in that regard?

If I had my way, every retrospective story on a disaster like Hurricane Katrina would focus not on what happened — we can safely leave that to historians — but on how things have changed to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.  No blame-shifting politicians or social scientists could be quoted.  Instead, facts would be the focus.  Have the levees been sufficiently strengthened?  Have cumbersome federal bureaucracies been streamlined to better deal with disasters?  Are evacuation plans reasonable and capable of being implemented?  If Katrina were to happen again today, would the results be any different?  If so, why?  Those are the tough questions that “retrospective” stories tend to leave unanswered.

The Competence Question

Peggy Noonan’s column today argues that the oil spill disaster raises serious questions about the Obama Administration’s assumed competence.  I’m not sure that I agree with the notion that people are concluding that the President and his team are incompetent, but I do think the implicit message of the oil spill and its aftermath undercuts the notion that the federal government can be trusted to handle everything.  Even if you assume that the President and his team were “fully engaged” and “totally focused” on the spill since “day one,” you still have to question the cumbersomeness, delay, and miscommunication that seems to necessarily accompany the involvement of the federal government in this kind of incident.  Why did it take so long to unleash the booms?  Where are the people and materials employed to try to keep oil out of the marshes and wetlands?

A quick tour by the Prez and an examination of a tar ball or two doesn’t address the issue of why the federal response has been so painfully slow.