Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Two years

Two years. That’s how long its been since some of my favorite places were, essentially, wiped off the map.

I hate cities. Hate the traffic. Hate the attitude. Hate being crammed into a relatively small place with a large number of people. So it was a bit of a surprise to me the way I came to gradually love New Orleans over several years of regular visits. You see, New Orleans is very different from other cities. If you’ve been there pre-Katrina, you understand what I’m saying.

I certainly won’t say that we never encountered a rude person or an unpleasant situation, but by and large the people that we met in New Orleans were friendly and seemed to be happy that we were there. In fact, before Katrina, that’s the word I would have used to describe the city — happy. There was always a good time to be had there — and I’m not talking about the debauchery of Bourbon Street, either. In fact, of all the times that I’ve been to New Orleans in recent years, I’ve never been drunk and I’ve always had a good time. (We won’t talk about the couple of times I went in college.)

Though I think everyone should probably have a hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s just to say they had the experience, there are much more worthwhile things in the Big Easy than booze and Mardi Gras. There are great museums, some of the best live music venues in the country, the zoo, the aquarium, great food. Like a lot of people, I haven’t done any of those things in two years.

What I miss most of all, though, are my New Orleans Saints games. You see, that’s the main reason I visited so many times in recent years. I’ve been a Saints fan all my life, and there are few things in the world I love more than being at the Superdome on a Sunday morning (and for those who know me, and know I don’t like to see anything outside my bedroom until noon or so on most Sundays, know that’s saying something).

Even in an awful year, I’ll put that Sunday morning Superdome crowd up against any venue in the country. It’s a beautiful experience. Unfortunately, I haven’t had that experience in two years, either. It’s a good news, bad news situation for me. I can’t say how happy I am to see the Superdome sold out on season ticket sales alone, but I also can’t swing the prices that the resellers are asking for tickets these days, so as much as I would have loved to have been there for the first game back last year against Atlanta, I had to experience it on television.

That’s one of the reasons I haven’t been back to New Orleans. I also have to admit I have a few safety concerns. The level of violence in New Orleans has been well-publicized, and I’m not sure it’s a place I want to take my family right now. More than anything, though, I think there’s a little bit of fear of what I might see.

New Orleans wasn’t the only one of my favorite places that was hit hard by Katrina. For years, I’ve enjoyed short vacations and weekend trips to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. When I graduated in May, after a year of working more than full time and going to school at the same time, I needed to just relax and do nothing for a week or so. We rented a cabin on the lake in southern Mississippi and decided, on one of those days, to take a ride down to the coast to see how the rebuilding was coming along. I expected to see a lot of new construction, a lot of things going back up. I left the experience a little shell-shocked.

Coming into Biloxi, we could see signs of the storms. The casinos, which of course had boatloads of money to throw at it, were mostly back up and operating. The remnants of the storm were still visible, empty foundations, lots of for sale signs and a lot of things under repair. Biloxi looked positively normal compared to the rest of the trip down Highway 90, though.

We didn’t spend a lot of time in Biloxi on our trips, because we’re not really the casino crowd. On the occasion that I went into a casino, I gambled up my 20 bucks and was done. We tended to stay in Gulfport, Pass Christian, Long Beach, places a little farther away from the mass of people. We looked for those spots on the beach where the small hills partially blocked out the busy highway and you could feel a bit more secluded. Those hills are gone now and those beaches are closed.

All I could do, for the whole trip down the beach, was stare, my mouth hanging open as we passed mile after mile of absolutely nothing. Here was a little hotel that we stayed in, now just an empty concrete slab. There was a restaurant where we ate a few times, no trace of it left. There were those lines of huge gorgeous houses lining the beach, the ones we often wished we owned, now just empty lots, many with for sale signs out front. Heck, even the monstrous brand new Super Wal-Mart we’d stopped in to pick up some things we forgot, vanished without a trace. As we passed over the just-opened bridge at Bay St. Louis, I looked out to catch a glimpse of a small boat, still resting in the branches of a tree.

There were few reminders of the Gulf Coast that I’ve been visiting regularly since I was a small child. Most of those iconic landmarks of my life were demolished. There was the remnants of the green shed that used to cover the Marine Life sea park, which at last visit had certainly seen its better days but was a favorite of my childhood. There was the boat that stood in front of the S.S. Camille gift shop, the one we always stopped at when I was younger. Of the store itself, there was no trace. Of all the kitschy shops that used to line the strip selling shark’s teeth, figurines made out of shells and overpriced beach supplies, only one remained, in a brand new building. The little aquarium that we enjoyed visiting had disappeared. Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis home and library, in shambles.

I kept driving, looking, gasping and thinking to myself, "My God, it’s been two years." All I could do on the hour-plus drive back to our cabin was shake my head, imagining what the area must have looked like right after the storm. We’ve all seen the footage on television, the houses turned into splinters, huge boats and buildings tossed around like my two-year-old’s toys. But it’s different when you’re there on the ground, even two years later. There’s a visceral reaction that you could never get from watching TV, a new perspective on just how destructive the storm was and just how far the people there still have to go to bring it back.

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