Three police officers were walking together patrolling the streets of the French Quarter on the afternoon of Halloween 2005. That in itself was not unusual, except that the three were all New York State troopers. As though to not look menacing, they wore pullover shirts with the badge insignia on the chests. I stopped and thanked them for being there.
With the city still flattened from the Katrina levee break, the French Quarter was one of the few places where there was activity, though in a different way. Refrigerators, taped so as to not allow the grossness within to eek out, lined the old sidewalks. That sickening moldy snitch was still pervasive though there was one bit of good fortune along Decatur Street. Café DuMonde had reopened and the glorious whifts of beignets and café au lait added badly needed fragrance to the air. Emergency workers who camped out in nearby tents were drawn by the smell.
Coops Place was one of the few restaurants opened, though serving a limited menu – so limited that nothing could be served that utilized tap water. Greens could not be washed so there were no salads. Fresh brewed iced tea? How about a coke?
Locals were gathering at the Napoleon House, sitting at one of the outside tables when they could, telling their Katrina stories to anyone who would listen. Business throughout the Quarter was, for the most part, non-existent except for one local artist who was gleeful that FEMA workers took a fancy to his work and had been good customers.
There was no denying the despair and uncertainty that surrounded the neighborhood. The streets ware silent in ways that they should not be. There was no calliope song echoing off the old buildings; no rhythm from an approaching brass band, but the people of the Quarter were determined. Only two months after the levees broke there was going to be a parade that night, come hell or, well, whatever.
It must have been around 11 p.m. when we returned to the Quarter where we spent the evening in the apartment of a friend who had found safety in the highlands of North Carolina. While we were away there had been a burst of celebration like an azalea bud suddenly popped open. The streets were littered, but in a good way with beads and confetti. Witches, ghosts, goblins and devils sashayed along the streets weaving into bars from which music bounced. Once again there was life in the French Quarter, and it took the night of the dead for it to happen.
National Guardsmen were on patrol the next morning, some having pastries in the same coffee shop where we were. They were from Puerto Rico. I thanked them. Dressed in full fatigues they might have stood out, except nothing in the Quarter ever seems improbable, especially during Halloween 2005.
Before heading back out of town to our Katrina exile, we joined some friends for a picnic at Metairie Cemetery. Even All Saints Day is a celebration in New Orleans, where the rituals of life and death are so entwined.
I have often wondered what the New York State troopers and the Puerto Rican Nation Guardsmen thought about Halloween in the Quarter. Maybe they learned something about determination. If so, Halloween night provided more hope than fright.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s book, “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2013) is available at local bookstores and at book websites.