New Orleans East, 4200 block of Chef Menteur Highway
Riding down Chef Menteur Highway, whole complexes of cheap apartments are hollowed out, doorless entryways gaping, dark and obscene. Then there is Dong Phuong Restaurant and Bakery, damaged but reopened in January 2006.
Linh Tran, 29, a University of Texas graduate, moved here a year before the storm, taking over the place when her father died. Business is good, and not just out here among the Vietnamese. The French bread used for Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches is light and crusty. Thank the imperial French. That bread has always made great po' boys too. Tran said many small bread makers around here -- most of her competition -- have gone out of business, and now she finds her bread business soaring.
"I hate to say it," she says, "but Katrina really helped us out."
The way station at dawn
New Orleans East, 12170 Old Gentilly Road
Here is what you find just before sunrise at the Palace Restaurant Casino Snacks N' Stuff, a truck stop/breakfast joint/pool hall/quickie mart/video poker emporium out on the battered eastern edge of New Orleans.
You find dogs in the parking lot, loafing and sniffing through a trash bin. You find truckers hanging by their big rigs with truck driver mutton chops and truck driver hats, plotting their day.
Inside, there's the standard-issue tourist junk for the big rig driver to prove he passed through the bayou or Girls Gone Wild country or whatever: Pat O'Brien's Hurricane Mix, cheap and gaudy Mardi Gras masks, cigarette lighters that double as duck calls. But now, for $4.99, there is the purple, green and gold car magnet in the shape of a ribbon that reads, "Katrina Survivor." A display across the counter from a jar of pickled pigs' feet reads, "Katrina Books -- Great Price -- $9.99." Between the covers: photo after photo of the drowned city two years ago, the city at its worst.
A woman is alone in the video poker den. Her name is Sylvia, and her ruby lipstick stains a disposable coffee cup and the edge of a filtered cigarette. Bloop, bloop, goes the machine.
Sylvia says a good chunk of her house in nearby Jefferson Parish is still screwed up from the water. So she and her family are living in what's left, and doing what they can to rebuild. "We're just taking our time and doing it ourselves," she says. Bloop, bloop.
Melodie Garrett, 34, staffs the cash register. She's got a big, sweet smile and a shiny gold tooth. She moved to New Orleans from Beaumont, Texas, six weeks ago to be with her boyfriend. He can't find work, she said, but she's loving New Orleans. The truck stop job pays her $9 an hour. Her old grocery store job in Beaumont didn't pay anywhere near that much.
She said everybody here has been telling her to get a gun. "Either get you some protection or go back to Texas," they say. But she hasn't had any trouble yet.
Around the corner, under the bright cafe lights, trucker Emile Jackson, 42, has a tall iced tea and a sausage biscuit. He's watching the news about a new tell-all book by Mayor Nagin's former spokeswoman.
He lives around here, in New Orleans East, the sprawling, modest and extremely flood-prone slice of suburbia where blacks and whites and Vietnamese settled for cheap housing and a slice of dream. Jackson, who is black, moved into his house in 1983.
His is a standard-issue New Orleans story, one part epic destruction, one part daily discomfort and inconvenience. His house got eight feet of water. He and his wife have been living in a 300-square-foot government trailer for 18 months. Today he's got his house back in shape; he's just waiting for the inspectors to approve the repairs he made with $75,000 from the Road Home grant program.
It's about time, he says; 18 months is too long for any married couple to be living in a trailer. "I'm 6-foot-4, so you can imagine," he says, laughing. "We just say a lot of excuse me's, that's the rule. A lot of turning sideways. I'm gonna tell you, it's a blessing, but as soon as I have my house together, I don't want to see another one. I don't want to see the inside of another trailer."