"Don't touch that. No! Leave that alone. Stay away from the mud."
We are in front of our old house in the Lakeview section of New Orleans, four days before Fat Tuesday. I've been back to the city post-Katrina for multiple visits, so I'm watching my sons Evan and Quinn while my wife Cindy is out back, seeing for the first time how none of the garden she planted a decade ago survived the flood. She's looking at the slab where the garage once stood and the 50-foot tall live oak tree that fell onto our neighbor's porch. All that's left back there is a faded swing set and some of the bricks from the courtyard we built after a year of Saturday trips to salvage yards.
The front door and all the windows are open, and there is a bottle of Absolut Vodka and assorted liquors on the front stoop. Contractors, or did the couple we sold the house to leave them there? Downstairs has been gutted down to the studs. Across the street, Ray's red minivan is an Aug. 29 time capsule, its windshield covered with the bizarre ashen frost on the thousands of other vehicles that went under 10 feet of water from Lake Pontchartrain. Ray and Debbie's son Andy was a smart, polite kid who skateboarded and loved Harry Potter books. Daughter Madeleine was a sweet young girl who rang the doorbell about three times every Saturday and Sunday to see if she could work in the garden with Cindy.
Where are they now? Baton Rouge? Atlanta? Houston?
There are a couple FOR SALE signs on the block. Two cars drive by in the 30 minutes we're there, but no other signs of life. We walk up to Frank and Amy's house, where we'd congregate regularly after work. Their boys Colin and Bradley would blow bubbles, make dirt piles and play baseball with Evan.
Frank and Amy have been in Lafayette since the flood, staying at Amy's mother's property. The five of them ' mom and dad, 5-year-old Bradley, 4-year-old Colin and 2-year-old Anna ' are now living in a FEMA trailer in Amy's mother's backyard.
We walk back down the deserted sidewalk, and the boys keep asking questions.
"No, you can't go in because we don't live here anymore. No, you can't go upstairs, because the stairs probably aren't safe. Stay on the sidewalk."
Something catches my eye in the mud. I lean down and read the typed information on the laminated card: Victor A. LeBlanc. It's our former neighbor Mr. André's voter registration card from Orleans Parish. Mr. André is 80 years old now and always gave the boys gold dollars for Christmas and their birthdays.
The voter ID card is worthless now; Mr. André has family in Lafayette and has been here since Katrina. He lives in the Chateau Des Lions complex off Johnston Street and seems content in his furnished apartment. But when we talk on the phone or he comes over for lunch occasionally, I hear the hitch in his voice sometimes and know he wants to be back on Vicksburg Street, where he lived for more than 40 years and raised his sons and daughters.
Being back in front of our old home triggers random memories. One night we had our neighbor Susan Cowsill and her then-husband Peter Holsapple over for dinner. Susan's brother Barry came over, too.
Susan lost most of her possessions from the first floor of her house in the flood. Peter lived in Arabi and lost everything. Barry went missing after the storm, and his body was found near the Chartres Street wharf in New Orleans four months later. I can still picture Barry in our living room wearing his fedora hat and drinking a 40-ounce beer.
One of my favorite photographs was taken in that living room. Evan was almost 2 years old, sitting on the floor and strumming a guitar. Our dog Sam ' a stray rescued from under the I-10 and Canal Boulevard overpass ' is laying blissfully in the faded green wingchair behind Evan, and the French doors that opened to the outdoor side porch are visible.
Sometimes after I fall asleep, I see the picture as if it's frozen in a slide show. Then I see brown water rising up around them, and I wake with a start, my heart racing.
That's why we've come from Acadiana to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. The land of dreams never deserved to become the land of nightmares.
We're meeting our longtime circle of New Orleans friends for Mardi Gras, but no one really knows what to expect. Jimmy and Renee are coming, but we won't be staying at their house; they evacuated to Cleveland and had their first baby there in late September. We'll be with Michael and Tami, who now live in Illinois but haven't sold their Uptown house yet. I hope to see Jim, who's living in Nashville.
The frayed emotional landscape of the city's residents is inescapably intertwined with the battered physical landscape of the Crescent City. While hard-hit areas such as the Ninth Ward and Lakeview continue to command most of the media attention, it's almost incomprehensible how many other neighborhoods remain in similar states of devastation. Gentilly, New Orleans East and parts of Tremé and Bayou St. John are crippled.
Much of Mid-City still looks like a post-air raid bomb shelter: remnants of gutted houses remain on the sidewalks, and there's no electricity, cable or phone service. All the Mid-City parades won't be going down their traditional Canal Street routes this year, heading down St. Charles Avenue instead.
There will be no traditional Endymion turkey fry and party at Scott's Mid-City house, which took on 4 feet of water. Scott and his wife Shelley and baby Tierney stayed with us in Carencro for four months after the storm, and now they're back in New Orleans, living with friends in the Garden District while they continue to argue and plead with FEMA and insurance adjustors.
As we drive on Jeff Davis Parkway and head through Broadmoor, where David and Beth and their 2-year-old daughter Claire lived, the air is still and silent. Cindy stares out the passenger window.
"I can't believe the water came this far," she says.
Evan and Quinn are mostly quiet, and it's hard to imagine what's going through their 3- and 4-year-old brains as they survey the landscape. Then Evan asks, "Why is there an X on that house?"
"That's the sign that the rescue workers used when they checked all the houses to see if there were people or animals trapped inside after the flood."
"What do the numbers mean?"
Don't answer that question.
"It's just the code they use when they were making sure people were safe."
Quinn is happy to hear this. For the rest of our drive to meet everyone for dinner, every time he sees the markings, he yells excitedly, "Xs and numbers mean everyone's safe!"
On the dry "sliver by the river," the section stretching along the Mississippi River from Uptown to the French Quarter that didn't flood, it's easy to be lulled into the notion that at least one section of town is operating normally. Coffeehouses and retail shops are open, joggers make their rounds in Audubon Park, and Magazine Street hums with traffic.
We arrive at Felix's Oyster House on Prytania Street at 5:30 p.m. since we have nine people in our party and don't want the kids to have to wait too long to eat. No one goes out that early in New Orleans.
I can't remember the last time I saw a restaurant so packed. People wait in lines five rows deep to order a drink from the bar, and we were told there was a 30-minute wait for a table. It was closer to an hour, and after we were seated, it was another 20 minutes before the waitress even came to our table.
But no one cares. There isn't one sullen or disgruntled face in the restaurant. Six months after the storm, it somehow feels like a small miracle to sit at a table with friends and drink cold beer and eat raw oysters and fried shrimp. And tomorrow the parades will come, as super krewes Endymion and Bacchus will roll back-to-back for the first time ever.
Sunday morning the sky was a royal blue. No rain forecasted through Mardi Gras day, which contributes to the elated mood of the three families congregating in one Uptown house. The kids are playing with trains and eating slices of king cake the size of their fists, while the adults are drinking industrial-size mugs of coffee and Dr. John's version of "Don't You Just Know It" blasts through the stereo. We load up the parade ladder, wagon, food and beverages and head toward St. Charles Avenue for the start of the first 11:30 a.m. parade.
Ten minutes later, we are in the middle of a sea of humanity.
Every side street near the parade route is teeming with people and cars, and there isn't a parking spot to be had for a mile. When we finally set up camp, the neutral ground is a tapestry of blankets, tents, ladders, barbecue grills and Port-o-Lets.
How many children will be here?
An estimated 50 to 70 percent of the city's 460,000 residents still haven't returned, and only 20 public schools out of 128 ' after a state takeover ' have reopened. In the first months after the storm, fears of New Orleans being a childless city were all too real as the housing and employment hurdles faced by so many families were compounded by environmental concerns and the tenuous state of the health-care system.
So there is no sight more joyous today than kids everywhere. Babies, toddlers, teenagers of all sizes, colors and shapes. They are running, blowing bubbles, napping on blankets and playing soccer and basketball; a number of them are in costume as fairies, lions, clowns, you name it.
The first parade, the Krewe of Thoth, doesn't disappoint them. More than 1,000 float riders throw stuffed animals, Frisbees, footballs and beads into small hands with overwhelming generosity, eliciting wide eyes and beaming smiles.
Lafayette resident David Legendre is a New Orleans native who has rode with the Krewe of Thoth for the past 15 years. "Of the 33 guys that I ride with, only two of us have homes," he says. "These guys are all from Chalmette and St. Bernard Parish. Our float lieutenant is living up in Tickfaw: he lost his house, his mama's house, his business, two daughters' homes. But he was out there riding with us. The prevailing feeling for these guys was they needed this to happen. They needed to be up for once. For a lot of them, they're just glad to see familiar faces. That was a relief to them, that on some level they're going to be OK."
The dual tragedy and comedy masks of ancient Greek theater that also symbolize Mardi Gras were never more appropriate. There's a palpable collective emotion of laughing to keep from crying at every turn, and New Orleans' irreverent humor reaches new heights through Fat Tuesday. Caricatures of Gov. Blanco and Mayor Ray Nagin ride a float atop a wedding cake, joined in unexpected matrimony on Aug. 29. "You loot, Cheney shoots," reads one sign. And revelers push a "Katrina Deli Limited Menu" cart through the streets, offering menu items like "Cauliflower au Rotten," "Sheet-Rock Candy," "Crawfish Evacuee," "Pigs in a Blanco," "Furniture Upside-Down Cake" and "Levee Leak Soup."
A number of New Orleans residents and evacuees don't find those things very funny. They argue that having Mardi Gras this year is inappropriate in the face of widespread disaster and the loss of life, and it sends the wrong message to the rest of America. That's why I am grateful to see an NBC news truck at the corner of Napoleon and Camp streets during the daytime parades on Sunday, hopefully showing the rest of the world that Carnival isn't about Bourbon Street and breasts for 99 percent of Louisiana residents. It's about upholding tradition and being with family and friends and living in a city and state where indigenous culture, limitless imagination and marching to the beat of a different drummer are not a once-a-year party but a way of life.
I never feel that connection more strongly than when I put Evan and Quinn on my shoulders for Bacchus and Endymion, and they became breathless play-by-play announcers as the floats approach: "A giant spider! â?¦ A fire-breathing dragon! â?¦ A king! â?¦ A queen! â?¦ A train! â?¦ A giant alligator with beads in his mouth!"
The world's biggest storybook is coming to life right before their very eyes.
You were both born here, boys. As you get older, I hope you always remember that no hardship is insurmountable.
When we walk 20 blocks back to the van after the Sunday night parades are over, I get an unwelcome surprise. New Orleans' city government, even after laying off half its workforce and operating on a shoestring budget, has still managed to give us a $75 ticket for parking on the neutral ground.
For Lundi Gras, we go to the French Quarter during the day. There are a number of encouraging sights. Legendary po-boy restaurant Mother's on Poydras Street has a line of 50 people waiting to get in at noon. The Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club is throwing its annual Woldenberg Park festivities, and the sounds of fiddler Amanda Shaw float toward the Mississippi River, with the Pinstripe Jazz Band due up later. New Orleans jewelry maker Mignot Faget's store in Canal Place is open, and I get Cindy an anniversary gift. She'll just have to wait six to eight weeks to get it; Faget has been overwhelmed with customers, and her supplies can't keep up with demand.
That's part of a refrain that's defining the post-Katrina business landscape in New Orleans. Residents are keenly attuned to which shops and proprietors got up and running quickly to help people resume some sense of normalcy ' and locally owned retailers are earning fiercely loyal customers. In Uptown, gas station/convenience store the Tchoup Stop is the place to go for fuel and beer, while Clement Hardware & Variety is a second home for storm repairs. Meanwhile, some national chain stores like Starbucks Coffee are scorned for having a number of stores shuttered while homegrown coffee shops like Rue de la Course are welcoming customers.
Independent record store the Louisiana Music Factory, which specializes in Louisiana music, is one of the best examples of a business reborn. Prior to the storm, the Decatur Street shop competed against national chains Tower Records and Virgin Megastore in an area that draws a lot of tourists. Water from Katrina damaged some of the store and its inventory, and owner Barry Smith had severe doubts about its future.
"Before the storm, one of the things that always used to disappoint me was the lack of local customers and thinking maybe we were taken for granted," he says. But Virgin Megastore isn't reopening, and Smith has been taken aback by the reception he's received since he reopened the Louisiana Music Factory. "I'm seeing customers I've never seen before, and people are telling me how appreciative they are that we're here," he says.
Heading back Uptown, it doesn't take long for a sobering reminder of the challenges still facing the city. Underneath a Dunn & Sonnier florist's sign at a building at the corner of Jackson and Magazine streets, plywood still lines the windows emblazoned with the message, "LOOTERS WILL BE SHOT."
How long is it going to take before someone ' anyone, please ' takes that sign down?
The crowds are considerably thinner than yesterday at the Orpheus parade that night, barely occupying a quarter of the neutral ground. The kids are thrilled, because they're thrown even more toy footballs to take home. But something doesn't feel right.
Then I realize that all the displaced New Orleans families that came for the weekend have a new workweek and new towns and responsibilities and anxieties to return to, and their kids have school to attend. In the dark last night, they were leaving in their cars or on planes, wondering when ' or if ' they'd be coming home again.
While everyone else is sleeping, I wake up at 5 a.m. on Mardi Gras day to drive around town with a friend and watch the city wake up on Fat Tuesday. In that morning hour where the night is dissolving and the sky has turned blue, there is still one bright, dazzling star visible in the sky.
We only have an hour or so before we have to make it back home to get ready for the Zulu parade, and everything flies by in an impressionistic blur. The Lucky Dog vendor is already (or still) out on Bourbon Street at 6:30 a.m., steering his cart between piles of empty plastic fluorescent green Hand Grenade containers, most likely consumed by out-of-town college students lured by the promise of Bourbon Street's most powerful alcoholic drink.
Under the Claiborne Avenue I-10 overpass, where the downtown Mardi Gras Indians often make an appearance Mardi Gras morning, all the flooded cars from the storm remain. Yet people are already setting up grills and portable sound systems between the barren automobiles. The late legendary eccentric New Orleans singer Ernie K-Doe's lounge face still peers out from the mural adorning his Mother-in-Law lounge ' which is also covered with rescue markings. A handwritten sign advertising "Katrina Tax Facts and Help" with an arrow pointing left leads to â?¦ a building that's collapsed. Radio station WWOZ 90.7 FM is broadcasting live from the Backstreet Cultural Museum in Treme.
We jump out of the car at Washington Street, the traditional launching spot for Pete Fountain's Half-Fast Walking Club. They're lined up in front of Commander's Palace, which still hasn't reopened and is blanketed by scaffolding and a sign from the Brennan family that says, "We know what it means to miss New Orleans."
Pete Fountain is ill and couldn't make the trip down from Biloxi. But one of his greatest disciples, clarinetist Tim Laughlin, is leading a full band through an up-tempo Dixieland song on a trolley car float. All those glorious brass notes are blasting through the neighborhood air, and an elderly couple is dancing on the sidewalk. I almost burst into tears ' but we still have to find a king cake and there's no time to break down now. I finally find one at a Magazine Street bakery and it costs $27, but I don't care. We are heroes when we arrive back at the house with a king cake for Mardi Gras morning ' and everyone is ready to see Zulu.
This year, Zulu is a spiritual lifeline for New Orleans' African-American community and anyone who cares about New Orleans culture and its future. The primarily African-American krewe has skewered the city's aristocracy since 1909 and subverted racial stereotypes by dressing in blackface and carrying spears. Louis Armstrong reigned as King of Zulu in 1949, and the painted coconuts thrown by the krewe are the most coveted Carnival prizes. Throughout the year, members donate time and money to African-American schools and organizations, and their gospel choir performs throughout the city. And with so many African-American New Orleans residents now displaced, the krewe is symbolically carrying the weight of a community with its 2006 parade.
Zulu's traditional beginning route on Jackson Avenue is an impoverished area that flooded heavily, and a body floated in the street for days. There was initial talk from city officials of moving Zulu's starting point onto the St. Charles Avenue parade route, which the krewe shot down. So after parking near Magnolia Avenue in close proximity to the troubled Magnolia housing projects, we walk to Jackson Avenue. There's a city block roped off by yellow police tape, but no one pays it any attention, as it's an uncrowded spot to see the parade. Behind us are two side-by-side burned-out houses charred beyond recognition, nothing left but their frames.
It's crazy, but it feels right to stand here.
Early in the parade, a number of Zulu warriors from Africa come down the street, playing large drums and wearing feather headdresses. It's the first time they've ever been to Mardi Gras, and their presence hammers home an undeniable truth: so much of New Orleans culture stretches back decades to Africa and the Caribbean. If the fruit of these roots ' cuisine, music, language and so much more ' is scattered forever outside of the Crescent City, then a large part of New Orleans' identity will be lost.
Consider the ReBirth Brass Band. We have the good fortune of ReBirth stopping right in front of us during a Zulu parade delay, and it plays non-stop for five minutes. The band's been together for more than 15 years, shared stages with mainstream acts from the Grateful Dead to Ani DiFranco and long could have pushed aside New Orleans for national festival stages and greener pastures. But despite the lure of more lucrative gigs, the band never forsakes its humble beginnings and second-lines with neighborhood social aid and pleasure clubs. Band members take to the street for multiple Mardi Gras parades, marching and blowing their horns for hours on end. And for the thousands of people ' black and white ' lining Jackson Avenue for Zulu, there could be no more appropriate band to hear than ReBirth.
Zulu's riders seem to be the most generous of all the parades we've seen. Quinn clutches a large round red ball that's handed to him. Evan gets a ball-and-bat baseball set. We get two Zulu coconuts: one that lands at our feet, another handed to us by a rider. One for Evan, one for Quinn.
The parade ends with a float with no riders on it.
Back home at Carencro later, the boys are asleep, and I'm exhausted, randomly switching television channels. CNN is broadcasting live from the French Quarter, and there's a COPS rerun from Bourbon Street where some idiot with a Texas Aggies shirt is getting arrested for public drunkenness. I turn off the TV.
Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. Many of the out-of-town reporters who came to New Orleans to cover Carnival will leave. New Orleanians ' and southwest Louisiana residents affected by Hurricane Rita ' will return to the daily challenges of gutting their houses, trying to get a FEMA trailer, wondering if the federal government will approve more funds for recovery efforts and praying that the Army Corps of Engineers fixes the levees before hurricane season begins on June 1.
Mardi Gras helped keep those tribulations at bay, for a brief moment. For the last three nights, and when I drift off to sleep tonight, I don't have any nightmares.
But I don't know what tomorrow night's dreams will bring.