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Then I Stumbled Into the Moonlight: 11.24.07

When you begin to feel a connection unwind between yourself and city you are just visiting for the first time, it is a lot like the similar process with a person you've just met and click with. It's invigorating and calming all at once. Because when you click with a person or a place it is like finding the key to the lock after going through a whole slew of misfits on the ring. You feel that electric fizz of exciting discovery from the first fit of the teeth into the lock and then the comforting turn and - click. So neat and perfect. A fit. That click.

In the last few months I've visited a trio of mid-sized cities for the first time. First, Austin. I got it--the whole longhorns, UT, burnt orange tinge to the town, the zesty sting of a perfectly salted adequately lime-juiced margarita, all that tex-mex. E and I toddled through the LBJ library with the roaring UT-Kansas State game just behind the place, rambled down 6th Street once or twice and ogled the standard issue drunks. We went through our own (now classically tried and true) stand-off at the Alamo and rode it out on a spin through a little swath of Texas Hill Country, and simmered down fully over a steak and some short-ribs. It was cute to hear people actually say they are "fixing" to do this or that, and folks were good and friendly. I had a delightful cupcake and gazed wistfully at baby blue cowboy boots on South Congress. All fine and well, but the city was like UT's loss in their big rivalry game that weekend--it just trailed off to no big finish. Nothing doing, Austin.

Then, Providence, RI. The Rust Belt's tarnished grandiose industry. The nasal drawl of the New England accent--is like a pretty girl smiling only to reveal every third tooth or so is missing. (Consonants? What consonants? God help any child of New England who grows up as a phonetic speller.) The former town mayor imprisoned for his mafioso ways striding through the lobby of the gilded age glory of the Biltmore Hotel. The trip (in the service of the job that time) was short and sweet--with the emphasis on sweet. The Italian bakery I managed to duck out to for coffee and dessert could have left Mulberry Street, NYC and North Beach, SF easily in its sweet confectionery dust.

And just now-New Orleans. Visiting New Orleans for the first time is like meeting that very interesting person with a secreted inner life--go ahead, scratch the surface, put yourself out at a slight disadvantage to your ego and tightly constructed assumptions--that you feel yourself clicking with.

I'm at a little bit of a disadvantage with New Orleans. I somehow missed out on the entire saga of Katrina, save the horribly drawn out aftermath. I was down in NC that week, didn't even know it was happening. But, of course now I know--and in a way it was all I knew of New Orleans. Katrina gave away some of the uglier secreted life of that city. The underbelly, unsavory and unsightly, of the city was turned over in the wash of the storm surge and exposed. But we knew, or should have known, it was there all the time, among us all, from the homeless we walk by on city streets to the beat up family sedans parked outside strip mall public service outposts in small towns. We know the poor and disenfranchised, we just rest safe in the knowledge they don't really know us. And can't turn to us in proffering some solution to their circumstance. So it was unfortunate for us all when Katrina flipped New Orleans' poor atop the flood waters and onto roofs and their neighborhood flotsam and ultimately into the stadium spectacle and then across the states, scattered in hopes someone else might pick up the gauntlet. Which never happened, of course. It goes on, in every city, unnoticed by a national media wave and the public eye that became the center of New Orleans' storm. And we all know in the eye of the storm is where it is most quiet.

So I was not given that window onto the city in my actual visit, and it wasn't a secret I had to learn. I only frequented the lovely, nice parts of the city, untouched by the storm two years ago. I walked in the near deserted French Quarter past the stuttering light of the gas lamps, craning my neck to take in the iron galleries and tiered balconies. When I walked out onto St. Pierre after my dinner of mueliere almondine and perfectly whipped sweet potatoes, it was so quiet I could hear footfalls from the next street over. (Until the Pie Lady rounded the corner. The Pie Lady? Exactly my reaction. She seems to roam the Quarter with her eerie call of "Meat Pies, Fruit Pies...Pie Lady!" the last syllable of which kicks up about 3 octaves and sent banshee shivers down my spine.)

And the next night when I took the street car up to the Garden District, I walked for blocks on empty streets peering through iron gates at dark porches and dim pillars. It was already feeling good to be there in New Orleans. The temperature was perfect, everyone I had spoken to for the last 24 hours had been mind-numbingly nice and unpretentious and interesting to cap it off. I'd seen Tennessee Williams' house and a place where Faulkner lived, paid double for the bored ghost tour guide to point out a few suitably creepy landmarks, eaten well, drank cheap, and felt fine. And then I stumbled into the Moonlight.

(See? That's just the kind of perfect phrasing New Orleans allows you. It was just a cafe--with food and beer--but when you put it like that...that's got nothing on a streetcar named Desire, if you ask me.)

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