- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 10, 2007

NEW ORLEANS.

Only New Orleans knows how to “put the FUN in funeral.” It’s on a bumper sticker. You can buy your very own jazz funeral, with a brass band to lead the parade taking your coffin to the graveyard, “blowing you home” to the frenzied strains of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

You just lie there undisturbed, giving your friends one last offer of lagniappe, the gift of food and drink included. Death is merely a convenient excuse to let the good times roll.

Errol Laborde, editor of New Orleans magazine, tells of one restored custom. “A longtime tradition among many New Orleanians attending a wake at Schoen’s Funeral Home was, after paying proper respects [to the dead], to cross Canal Street in proper respect of a proper poor-boy.” A poor-boy is a sandwich laden with ham, roast beef, shrimp or oysters, and a poor-boy at Mandina’s restaurant opposite the undertaker was one of the best. The undertaker reopened before Mandina’s and that presented a quandary: “Grief without gravy.” Now Mandina’s is open again, a mile marker on the road back.

The good times nevertheless can’t hide the anger that New Orleans was mistreated in the wake of the storm. The exodus of half the city’s population, mostly poor blacks who vote only for Democrats, suggests that Louisiana without the New Orleans boxes the Democratic pols regarded as ATMs, dispensing votes not cash, should finally tip permanently Republican.

Maybe it will, but George W. Bush is the face of FEMA, and the feds are the archvillains here, blamed for everything bad despite the fact that Washington has committed $123 billion for Katrina relief, adjusted for inflation about what the United States spent to rebuild Europe after World War II. Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Blanco, both Democrats, are villains, too, and Democrats want John Breaux, the former senator, to return to keep the statehouse in Democratic hands. But he stayed in Washington to be a lobbyist and registered to vote in Maryland, and may have difficulty establishing Louisiana residence in time. Sen. Mary Landrieu is in the greatest peril of all. She has to run again next year and probably against Woody Jenkins, whom she narrowly defeated in 1996 after a bitterly contested recount. (Fraud in Louisiana? Say it ain’t so.)

Destruction and debris still litter many neighborhoods in New Orleans. It’s difficult to see how some of them will ever again be what they were. But most of the blue tarps and many of the FEMA trailers are gone. The French Quarter, as brassy and tawdry as ever, was never damaged much, and New Orleans still spreads the table that made it famous. Brennan’s, which serves the most sumptuous two-hour brunch in the world (and dinner, too) in an elegant town house on Rue Royal, is open again. So is Commander’s Palace in the Garden District, with a spectacular new kitchen. “Everybody wants to know how much water everybody got,” says a waiter. “We didn’t get any flooding, but the hurricane blew out all the windows and it rained horizontally for three days. Everything you see is new.”

A downtown neighborhood of old warehouses has been transformed into a lively arts and crafts district, anchored at one end by the new Museum of World War II, commemorating sacrifice on battlefield and homefront, and at the other by Harrah’s, a 26-story hotel with restaurants and casino. The neighborhood abounds in small hotels and restaurants, and visitors are often stopped on the street and thanked just for coming to New Orleans. New Orleans knows who butters the rice. When the visiting restaurant critic for this newspaper dined, as a guest and not a reviewer, the other night at August, the hot new restaurant, the maitre d’, recognizing her, followed her into Tchoupitoulas Street to retrieve her to meet the chef. She walked into the kitchen to a round of applause.

“Some of our preachers said Katrina was God’s punishment for New Orleans,” grumbles one irreverent skeptic. “But why would God punish New Orleans when he could punish Las Vegas?”

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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