In the thirteen years that I flew for Petroleum Helicopters, I never landed at the Superdome. Although the heliport is on the roof of a parking structure, it is still surrounded by tall buildings, obstacles and elevated expressways. In other words the approach is challenging. Luckily, I'm not a newbie at this stuff.
As we approached but were still up on the north side of Lake Ponchartrain, we could see a big rain shower directly over downtown New Orleans. The radio guy at the heliport responded to our call with a cheerful, "You're gonna get wet!" But by the time we actually got there the storm had dissipated. They usually do.
The boss and his buddy hopped out and sped off in a cab, leaving me to fend for myself in "The Big Easy," which natives do not call their hometown. (Oh, and by the way? They pronounce it "Nu Orlins" or "N'awlins." None of this sissy "Niew Orleens" stuff.) The Holiday Inn I stayed at was literally within walking distance of the heliport. After checking in, I hopped a cab to the French Quarter, for why else does anyone go to New Orleans?
I was bad hungry, hadn't had lunch. Now, I could've eaten in the hotel, which has a nice enough restaurant. I could've eaten fast food. I could've sought out one of the many faux-Creole tourist traps in the Quarter. Or I could try to find an authentic local place. The cab driver suggested a place called Irene's Cuisine. It's a Creole/Italian place that's slightly off the beaten track. Local - no tourists, he said. Works for me, I said.
"Table for one?" I asked, and they immediately showed me to a table like I was an old friend. Right from the get-go they treated me special. The atmosphere is dark and romantic with small rooms - made me wish I'd brought a date. Yet the table were not crammed one on top of another like they are at our favorite restaurant here in Pensacola, Bonefish.
The wait staff was great - friendly, helpful, animated, and very knowledgable and enthusiastic about the food. While I perused the menu, my waiter brought me over a plate of delicious bruchetta to munch on. During the meal, the waiters all worked together with camaraderie, and none of that "not my table" attitude you sometimes see. Different waiters were always buzzing around, filling my water glass, bringing more bread or clearing away empty plates. But they were attentive without being intrusive, which is what you want. And even though I'm sure they could've used my table for a party of four, they made absolutely no effort to rush me out. It was a fine, leisurely dining experience.
Some people don't like eating in a restaurant alone. They're not comfortable with it...maybe a tad self-conscious or something. Me, I like it. I like just sitting back and being served a great meal that I for once did not have to cook. Plus, the staff treats you better when you're by yourself. They know they won't be interrupting a conversation, so they're more inclined to stop and chat or expand on the menu selections. And me, I love to talk almost as much as I love to eat.
The meal itself was simply awesome, starting with the tomato/mozzarella/basil appetizer and a shrimp bisque that was out of this world. As an entree, the waiter suggested the stuffed pork chop (apples, walnuts and chorizo!). Indescribably delicious! I finished it off with a slice of their famous (and not on the menu) cheesecake and strawberries and some good, strong Community coffee. I finally waddled out an hour and a half after going in, $72.00 lighter (including my cocktails and wine with the meal but not including tip). I had planned on hitting the bars, looking for booze and sex. After that meal, I needed neither. I really do love to eat good food.
I did roam around the Quarter for a while, pretending to myself that I was "walking the dinner off." Heh- yeah I may have burned 100 or so of the 4,000 calories I ingested. I'm sure it helped.
New Orleans is a strange town, very bizarre. In a lot of ways it's like New York...or at least the Manhattan I remember...but a grittier, dirtier, more grimy version. And a whole bunch of young, odd-looking kids who I guess were once or would still be called "Bohemian" (I would just say "dirty hippies"). A shop was selling a t-shirt that read:
I had to laugh. Because there is this permissive attitude in the city that anything really does go. And the t-shirt neatly encapsulated the easygoing nature of the place. I was going to have my fortune told or palm read in Jackson Square, but all of the people who do that were already occupied with customers.
Although Hurricane Katrina was nearly three years ago, New Orleans is still a very damaged city. There are whole areas that have simply been abandoned and will likely never be rebuilt, residents who will probably never return. It's sad. From above, it's deceptive initially. Oh, the houses are still there. But it takes a while until you realize that there are no cars moving down there, no people walking around, nothing happening like you'd expect and that you're looking at a veritable ghost town.
And we're coming into the 2008 hurricane season. Each one brings a sense of dread to the residents of this city that is almost entirely below level, bordered by a huge lake, a river and a swamp, totally dependent on pumps to keep the water out. The area where the main levee broke is stronger than ever. That point will never break again like it did before. Trouble is, the rest of the levee system hasn't been similarly beefed-up. And there are already reports that the levees are leaking in other places.
If New Orleans takes another direct hit, there is no telling what might happen. And I think that nobody really wants to commit to rebuild fully until they can be sure they won't have a repeat of what happened in late August of 2005.
Could you blame them?