A new breath for New Orleans

March 24, 2021

8  comments

The hush that engulfed the city didn’t feel like a whimpering last breath but was more like the dramatic pause a baby takes as it fills its lungs and prepares to come screaming into the world. 

As I walked through an almost empty Jackson Square, a man, who was just waking up on a bench in front of St. Louis Cathedral smiled and called out, “Hey beautiful” — oh, how I love New Orleans. 

To maintain adequate social distancing, a group of pigeons fluttered between us. I returned the man’s smile and said, “Hey yourself” which made him laugh.

There should have been hundreds of people in the square drifting through the familiar scents of the mules, river, chicory and fried sugary dough. Instead, we seemed to be on an abandoned movie set. 

Having lived across Lake Pontchartrain in Slidell as a little girl, I came to love this city when my parents would take me to this very place on weekends to listen to jazz and wander around the cobblestone alleys.  I was wearing a blue dress my grandmother sewed when a street artist painted my portrait on a page from the Times-Picayune. We saw nuns in long habits and I called out, “Batman!” causing them to giggle. 

On this visit, decades later in the midst of the pandemic, I waited at the streetcar stop where a group of fast-walking exercising ladies came breezing by. One of them called out to me, “Cute shoes.”  I thought I’d definitely be friends with her, if only she’d slow down. 

I took the St. Charles line to the The Garden District Book Shop where I signed copies of my book. The masked passengers questioned why so many people were allowed on the car. “Just last week they were limiting riders, but now we’re crammed in here like a bunch o’ old sardines” said the woman settled on the wooden bench in front of me. The locals helped the few tourists identify their stops and offered advice on where to eat. 

Their conversations sparkled with guarded hope and excitement. Could the end of the mask mandate be near? Had someone approved closer social contact?  Did you hear the bar on the corner reopened? Will you get the vaccine? 

A sampler platter of America, New Orleans has it all. Young, old, rich, poor, Holy, heathen, delicious, disgusting, trusting, questioning, sober, drunk, straightlaced and wacky. It’s the best and worst of American culture all within a two-block walk. 

The following day, three fortune tellers had set up tables in Jackson Square and children laughed and danced around a drum made from a 5-gallon bucket. Beneath an oak, heavy with springtime pollen, a young woman was playing “Here Am I Send Me” on her flute. As I put money in her basket, she stopped long enough to smile and say, “thanks, it’s my favorite song.” 

Catchy advertisements from the Department of Tourism won’t bring people back to cities and help small businesses. Like New Orleans, it will be the laughing man on the bench, friendly exercise ladies, helpful streetcar passengers, dancing children, a spirit filled flautist, joking shopkeepers and grateful waiters. Those who love their home will be the true ambassadors. Kindness will triumph over fear and New Orleans will burst back into the world, robust and screaming like a newborn baby. 

This story first appeared in AL.com newspapers. Mobile Press-Register, The Birmingham News and The Huntsville Times.

  • You can feel it in the air…hope, that we can get out again! I vow not to complain about tourists at least for a little while:)
    I have also vowed to quit reading anything about the vaccine. I got my first one and soon to get the second one. I am just going with it.

    • We all have to make our own choices and I don’t want another round of arguing. I think you’re smart to stick with you decision and not indulge in the constant reports going both ways. “Hope” – my favorite word and once again, you are right. We can all feel it in the air! Thanks Sandy.

  • Hi, Leslie Anne (or should I, with the guy on the bench in New Orleans say, “Hello, beautiful!”), I didn’t realize you had Louisiana in your background. My mother grew up in The Plains north of Baton Rouge, but I was born and raised in Bossier Parish up north near Shreveport. I’ve very happy on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay, but Louisiana will always be where I’m from! Glad you and Bob settled here, too!

    • Hi George, I vote for the “hey beautiful.” We’ll have to have a cup of gumbo together sometime. I’m sure you have a great recipe! It’s a beautiful place!

  • I haven’t been to New Orleans in years, but your vivid descriptions make me want to pack a bag! Hope IS in the air, it’s palpable. South Carolina just lowered vaccine age requirements to everyone 16 or older…herd immunity here we come! Laisser les bon temps rouler!!

  • I love your 2 block description of Nola 🙂 Such an incredible city, and so bizarre to see it empty…I’m glad you’ve been able to travel a bit, I hope you have pretty weather in Seaside!

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