I was very fortunate last week to have been able to travel to New Orleans for a volunteer trip working on houses for the ongoing Katrina recovery. My intentions have been to write a number of sequential blog posts about the experiences I had in the city and as I always have an ideal in my head, I would have started with a discussion of my flight down and the people I met and then moved into a post about building homes, followed by a post about the culture and food, and finally share my thoughts on the natural beauty of the area that is threatened by the oil spill. Things are not always ideal and the order of my posts may have to be more random than I first imagined if I’m to get anything up.
The images that I’m sharing here are sketches that I did on my one evening in the French Quarter. My travelling companions and myself felt that a trip to the city would be incomplete without a tour of this historic area and at least one bar with live jazz. We chose a place called the Palm Court. It was probably a tourist spot (what isn’t) but we all had a genuinely great time. Moments after we sat down a large group of high school kids from Mississippi came in. They were all part of a Christian high school choir and they walked through the front door right up on stage singing gospel songs (Imagine the Glee version of gospel). After two songs they sat down to eat and then about 20 minutes later they were all up dancing and the restaurant turned into an impromptu conga-line as the band struck up “When the Saints Go Marching In”. Yes, I joined in and made a couple of laps around the restaurant until I saw that my food had been served. Is this a New Orleans tradition, dancing to the “Saints”? I hear it is.
As fast as the students came, they left. A tour bus pulled up, we heard a boy say “Ahhh shoot, it’s the bus” and then literally 90 seconds later they were gone. Best behaved kids of all time.
The rest of the evening was high school free and we enjoyed both some great food and music. The highlight of the night came as we listened to singer Topsy Chapman sing “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?”. A singer with heart is unmistakable and she had it. I think it’s fair to say that music comes easy to New Orleans.
The owner of the restaurant, a tiny british firecracker whose name was Mina (I believe) occasionally got up on stage to thank everyone, the patrons, the musicians, particularly the high school band, and to ask for prayers and support as the city weathers the impact of the spill. Without looking at a map it would be easy to assume that New Orleans is right on the coast, but it’s actually about 80 miles away by any road (probably less if you were to fly directly south over the marshes). While Oil is unlikely to make it’s way that far inland, many issues arise with ships that are covered in oil. The city exists because of the Mississippi. It is a gateway between the coast and every city up north along the river. There is serious concern and one that was echoed in many conversations that the port will become unusable or severely compromised if more ships are covered in oil since these would not be allowed on the Mississippi.
What in some ways astounded me was the fact that people had to keep moving along doing what they are doing even as they knew that the ground was being pulled away from them again. It is not a just a theoretical possibility that drastic changes are happening. In the news last week was the story of P+J Oyster Company, the nations oldest oyster shop, that closed it’s doors and shucked it’s last oyster. The seafood industry is an obvious victim, as are the potential job losses and revenue losses from oil industry money that may move away due to the ban on drilling, but as I kept realizing, the way of life and attitude of the city is very much what’s at stake. Was there something more poignant to the song “Do you Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” because of what happening? Absolutely. On the entire trip I experienced people cherishing the food they were eating, or the music they were singing because it was no longer a given that it would continue to be in that place.
More to come.