I went to hell last week. It's currently in a place called New Orleans.
New Orleans is a beautiful place, replete with Southern gentility. But an evil specter hangs over the city. Katrina's hand still weighs heavy on the area.
In some places you can see the physical damage. Empty office buildings with broken windows, store fronts still boarded up. These scenes are dotted amongst thriving businesses. How did some survive and others die?
In other places, you can feel it.
As I walked through downtown on a bright, sunny day during the middle of the week, I kept noticing one recurring thing -- there were virtually no people. Sidewalks were empty, parking was available on the street and traffic was light.
I travelled to New Orleans with Andy to visit an old college pal, Billy. (Interesting that these two mid-40 year olds still go by child-like names.) Billy's an assistant professor at one of the universities and Andy and I travelled from up North just to see him action.
When I asked Billy where all the people were, he told me that "they just didn't come back." What an eerie thought, but I suppose that's true as I heard many communities of transplants have settled in Rhode Island, Arizona, Texas, and one family was even living with Larry David in southern California.
There were three conferences going on throughout the city while we were there, and still no people. It was strange knowing the city probably lost half its population during the storm. Some died but the others just fled in the exodus.
Walking through the French Quarter turned out to be a civilized trek, even along Bourbon Street. There were no offers to exchange beads for flesh, no Hurricane drinking youth carrying their elongated drinking glasses, no vomit and no lines. The last one turned out to be to our advantage as we were able to secure tables at some of the finest eating establishments without a wait.
As I mentioned, we came to see Billy teach, but that never happened. It turned the day we were there, his role was only to be a silent participant in the 200+ lecture hall. And his class started in the morning, so just like we acted in our own college days we weren't going to make it.
New Orleans is a city of dichotomies. We found this out when Andy and I signed on for a Segway scooter tour of downtown. It was the first time I ever road this two-wheeled, gyro-balanced modern contraption. It's also the first time, I was led on a tour by a 66 year-old, white-haired, former Navy woman, named Crystal. She could barely walk, but boy could she ride.
I highly recommend trying one of these machines out. A lot of fun, especially when you ditch the tour leader and try and figure out the town on your own.
The other dichotomy occurred when the three of us went out for a cocktail in the late afternoon. Billy found one of the oldest bars in the Quarter, Jean Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop. It pre-dates our nation's independence and pretty much looks like it was when it was an operating blacksmith shop. From the outside, it looks like it should've been condemned. Inside, it's dark, wooden and lit by candles. Managing the bar of this antiquity was the hottest, blondest, firmest, 20-something-ist around.
Our one drink turned into many more as we sat in the tavern for over three hours, just staring like panting dogs at Laura. A brief smile from her direction was all we needed to keep coming up for more drinks. And, having her take off her jean jacket and expose us to her tank top clad body didn't hurt either.
The only reason we pulled ourselves up from our seats was the realization that we needed solid food. But we promised each other that right after dinner we would stumble back in to see Laura. If only Laura knew. It's amazing what can drive some men to drink hard liquor.
We went for a fantastic dinner at Nola's where everything we ate just mesmerized our mouths. (BTW, drinking Bourbon certainly helps everything taste and feel better). We finished our desserts and then headed back to Jean Lafitte's.
It was a lengthy walk, but, of course, the streets were not crowded and we had our mission to fulfill, so the walk seemed to fly by. We raced down Bourbon street to Lafitte's corner location. It was the first time I viewed a bar as a sanctuary. We made our way into the darkened room, almost feeling transported back to the early 1700s. We were looking for our wench. We approached the bar. And now, standing behind the wooden counter was Ralph, a tall bearded gentlemen, with a tattoo and piercing.
We gave up drinking after that and headed to the casino where we gave up money and dignity as well.
I was glad to have visited New Orleans just for a while. Any longer would've been hell.