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.