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Reporter reflects on ruin and rebirth of New Orleans

 / Updated  / Source: TODAY

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Julia Reed went to New Orleans in 1991 to cover the reelection of former (and currently incarcerated) Gov. Edwin Edwards. Seduced by the city's sauntering pace, its rich flavors and exotic atmosphere, she was never entirely able to leave again. After almost 15 years of living like a vagabond on her reporter's schedule, at age 42 she got married and bought a house in the historic Garden District. Four weeks after she moved in, Hurricane Katrina struck.

With her house as the center of her own personal storm as well as the ever-evolving state set for her new life as an upstanding citizen, Reed traces the fates of all who enter to wine, dine (at her table for 24), tear down walls, install fixtures, throw fits and generally leave their mark on the house on First Street. The following is an excerpt from Chapter One of "The House on First Street."

When I was a child, maybe eight or nine, every few months the phone would ring and I would answer, and on the other end a man named Noel Parmentel Jr. would be playing a bugle into the receiver. He would be drunk, of course, and my father would take the phone and laugh a lot, and my mother would roll her eyes. She was not a big fan of Noel, who always stayed too long when he came to visit. Later he turned out to be at least partial inspiration for the rather dissolute character of Warren in Joan Didion's “The Book of Common Prayer,” and reading that book in the cold light of adulthood, I can certainly see my mother's point. At the time, though, I thought Noel was just about the coolest human being on the planet, and, at the time, Noel lived in New Orleans, a place I imagined was full of a lot of heavy-drinking, horn-playing bad actors just like him. I could not wait to go. But even in my childhood fantasies, I had no intention of staying — it was clearly a place to visit.

In those days, pretty much everybody I knew visited a lot. They'd go down and eat well and drink too much and generally live it up. They might go for the architecture or the music, and they almost always brought stuff back home: old cypress mantels, jumbo lump crabmeat, evening sandals from Maison Blanche. They might step back in time, or out of it altogether, but nobody ever stayed for good. It would be too dangerous, too indulgent. Even Noel didn't stick around long. The only person I knew who did was Walker Percy, our neighbor's brother, but he was a writer after all, and, more to the point, one on a search.

I grew up in the Mississippi Delta, in Greenville, a once-thriving port city 442 miles up the Mississippi from New Orleans. We were linked by commerce from the mid-1800s until just after World War II, steamboats brought everything from fine chandeliers to sacks of oysters upriver and toted countless bales of cotton back down as well as tragedy (both cities were devastated by the 1927 flood). There was also a certain worldliness, marked in part by an easy consumption of whiskey, along with a shared isolation from the rest of the Deep South with all its morals and mores. In "King Cotton," a history of the Delta's heyday, Robert Brandfon writes that by the end of the nineteenth century, the expanded railroads made the trip from the Delta to New Orleans faster and far more convenient, a development that nurtured the Deltans' already healthy "sense of cosmopolitanism," as well as our feeling of separateness from (or, more accurately, superiority over) the rest of the state.

The Delta's legendary economy and lifestyle were attributable to the fact that the land was the richest alluvial flood plain in the world. Well into my adolescence, there was a distinct if sometimes laughable Gatsby-esque quality to some of the social doings there. One of my more entertaining childhood duties was the morning-after collecting of evening bags lost so often, and so far from where they should have been, they required "If found, please call" notes safety-pinned onto the satin linings. But whatever we got up to — and we got up to a lot — New Orleans was always our far more storied older sister to the south, a genuinely cosmopolitan city, and one where everything, from world-class restaurants to transvestite hookers, was available. By the time I was born, steamboats and railcars had mostly given way to small planes and automobiles, but the traffic was just as dense and the field reports endlessly interesting. My father went to a towboat convention with his friend Johnny Kirk and returned with one of my favorite artifacts, an eight by ten of the two of them taken with, not by, the pretty girl photographer on the patio of Pat O' Brien's. One of the running "jokes" of my youth involved the fact that every year my best friend's grandfather flew Mississippi Senator "Big Jim" Eastland to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl, and every year — diverted, apparently, by the more interesting goings-on in the Royal Sonesta bar — they missed the game.

Things happened in New Orleans that didn't happen anywhere else. Walker Percy wrote, not entirely in jest, that he moved across Lake Ponchartrain to Covington, for fear of falling victim to "a variety of French flus," the symptoms of which included "turning few and pottering about a patio," but there were far greater dangers. The beautiful Maury McGee got married in the Delta and during the course of the reception, a great many guests decided to accompany the bride and groom on their honeymoon. When they woke up, hung over, in New Orleans, the next morning, they found themselves barricaded in their hotel rooms. A sniper on the roof of the nearby Howard Johnson's had already killed eight people and the whole area was in lockdown. A Greenville lawyer trying a case in New Orleans celebrated a particularly triumphant day in court with a prostitute who shot him in his room at the St. Louis Hotel just before taking all his money. He told his wife he'd been an innocent victim of foul play, but our local paper — and everybody else who knew anything about it — dropped plenty of hints as to what actually happened, a story confirmed years later by one of my husband's law partners who had been with him at the defense table.

To me this kind of stuff only added to the city's allure, but no more than descriptions of slightly tamer stuff — a jacket set on fire by a tipsy waiter serving flaming cafe brulot at Arnaud's, say, or exotic breakfasts of powdered sugar covered beignets and chicory coffee at Cafe Du Monde. The suppliers of all these details — my parents, their friends, just about everybody I grew up around — were not visitors to New Orleans so much as regular out-of-towners. Just like the locals they ate their oysters either at Felix's or the Acme but would never patronize both; they had their own waiters at Antoine's, where I longed to try the souffled potatoes and baked Alaska, and at Galatoire's, where I was determined to learn, firsthand, the difference between trout and Marguery. They knew that everybody still called the Fairmont Hotel the Roosevelt even though the name changed in 1965, and they were well known in the hotel's Blue Room, where you went for music (Benny Goodman, Peggy Lee) and its Sazerac Bar where the cocktails included, naturally Sazeracs, which were said to have been invented there, along with excellent Ramos gin fizz made with real egg whites.

Julia Reed grew up in Greenville, Mississippi. She is a contributing editor at Vogue and Newsweek, and the author of the essay collection "Queen of the Turtle Derby." She lives in New Orleans.

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