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I was the only one of the group to leave New Orleans because of danger, and flew out the next morning on a Delta jet, staying close to news reports until the tragedy occurred.
Better writers than me have told Katrina stories. But, my connection with New Orleans has never been tied to catastrophe. Rather it remains a collection of happy moments and priceless memories.
As a 17 year-old skinny kid from Atlanta, I marched in one of the big Mardi Gras parades, a member of the FSU Army ROTC Drill Team there by invitation. My old M1 rifle became a pole loaded with colored strands of beads tossed from all directions.
I had my first beer afterward. Of course, no ID was asked for. I went to clubs, strip shows, saw a transvestite show, ate at places called Buster Holmes on Burgundy, and had my shoes shined on a Jackson Square sidewalk.
Joy doesn't begin to describe those moments.
Growing up in Atlanta, my father told me of his days after World War II when he became the MP attache for General Jonathan Wainwright, living with the hero in the Presidential Suite at The Roosevelt Hotel, driving the General to restaurants in the Quarter and living for a while the good life. All this after slogging across Europe as a foot soldier with Patton's 3rd Army.
Just prior to my dinner at Arnaud's, I was allowed to visit this same Presidential Suite, examine hotel records and photograph everything. I stopped in the Blue Room where Louis Prima and Keely Smith performed and had a Sazerac, New Orleans' official cocktail in the hotel bar of the same name.
I have been back for great festivals like Tales of the Cocktail and literary conferences, but our dinner before Katrina sticks like glue. I wonder what happened to all the waiters, cooks, street preachers, hookers, hamboners, actors, praline vendors, mimes and other characters who made me so happy for so many years?
New Orleans, with no strings, accepted me while I was a kid, embraced me and never asked anything in return. Here, I was just me: there were no judgements; people were friendly and generous and I grew out of my youth into a young man that had seen and tasted paradise. I would never be the same.
A portrait of Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen, is exhibited on a wall in the Cabildo beside Jackson Square, near the death mask of Napoleon. The Louisiana Purchase with consummated in the same building. William Faulkner lived a half block away. They hold Stella hollering contests on the street nearby and you can still get a real outdoor shoe shine.
Dr. Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother, planned to rescue the defeated emperor from British imprisonment and bring him to this city to live as a welcome newcomer. There's not a doubt in my mind that Napoleon would have loved every moment here.
My heart remains in the French Quarter. Whatever joie de vivres a Deep South American can experience, I enjoyed in this amazing place. It was home when long ago I marched down Canal Street. And it still is.
SPECIAL MEMORIES FROM READERS--
Favorite restaurant before Katrina? After?
Favorite New Orleans book or play? Confederacy of Dunces? A Streetcar Named Desire? Other?
Any Katrina heroes? General Russell Honore? Others?