Seeing the seasonal decorations appearing around town reminds me of Halloween Night 2005 in the French Quarter. The night was bizarre even by the standards of Halloween … and the Quarter. Part of the old neighborhood still had the stench of mildew that was permeating the entire city two months after Katrina. Only the smell of café au lait and frying beignets from the just reopened Café Du Monde provided a counterbalance to the odor along the riverfront. The Quarter had not flooded much but there were signs of wind and rain damage. The already cluttered sidewalks were narrowed in spots by cast out refrigerators, taped and made vile by electricity being cut off for so long, Benefiting from the eau de café were the relief workers whose outpost was a city of tents set up along the riverfront.
At the Napoleon House, activity was somewhat normal except for shortened hours. Over a beer, patrons could watch miscellaneous maskers walking by even before the bewitching darkness set in.
Public safety that evening was provide by two forces: the Puerto Rican National Guard whose troops patrolled and steered Humvees over the old streets and a delegation from the New York State police dressed in non-threatening pull-over shirts. Neither had any serious crime to worry about; the locals were instead trying harder than ever to have a good time.
What I remember most about that evening was going to a party near the Garden District and while there, feeling the beginnings of a cold. On the way back to the Quarter where we were staying in a friend’s house, I wanted to stop at a store for cold medicine but as we bumped along St. Charles Avenue nothing was open and it was not yet 10 in the evening. I thought to myself that were we back in tiny rural Marksville – where we had been staying and where there was a casino, gas station and Wal-Mart, all opened 24 hours – there would be more retail places to go that night than in all of New Orleans. Along the avenue, the fallen city seemed so sad.
Not so in the Vieux Carré where the sidewalks now glittered with the remains of a Halloween parade. Less manpower was needed to open bars than restaurants, so the drink joints were busy. The place seemed genuinely festive.
There was a mood that night that reminded me of Mardi Gras 1979. A very bitter police strike had caused all the parades in New Orleans to be cancelled that year. By the morning of Mardi Gras, all the damage had been done so there was nothing left to do but enjoy the day. Once again there were no city police – instead protection was provided by the Louisiana National Guard and State Troopers, both of whom were challenged not to be seduced by the celebration. There is a spirit that runs loose in the Quarter and that captivates its people especially in the face of hard times. That spirit speaks to the forces of bad and says we’ll be damned if you can keep us down.
Those soldiers from Puerto Rico and troopers from New York must have had lot of stories to tell about Halloween in New Orleans. Surely they realized that it’s hard to keep a good city down.
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