You can read, or see video, of all the devastation — the flood waters, the bodies in the streets. You can see the refugees from the path of the storm, right in your own community. You can participate in debates about whether New Orleans should be rebuilt, and if so, how. But sometimes it’s the little things — the truly insignificant things, really — that tell you just how far gone a once-vibrant, unique city has gone compared to what it was.
To many people, the beverage associated with New Orleans is bourbon. But I haven’t been there since I lived there in junior high school, so I have a different association. To me, New Orleans is about sitting in front of the Cafe Du Monde and drinking coffee with chicory while looking out across Jackson Square. In fact, since about a year or so ago, when I suddenly realized I could get it over the Internet, that’s what I’ve drinking at home. I’ve been wondering whether I’ll have to give it up, but that’s seemed hardly worth talking about in light of all the real suffering out there.
(Cafe Du Monde already had nostalgic associations for me when I first discovered it at that young age. That’s because the cafe itself — or something that looked just like it — was used in the logo of French Market brand coffee, which my grandfather had sold when I was even younger. It meant a lot to me to be sitting in the actual place in the picture.)
But this morning, I heard this report on NPR. To my shock, an actual denizen of the city — a columnist at the Times-Picayune — stated on coast-to-coast radio that the four hours each day that Starbucks is open is "the best four hours of the day." The point of his commentary was to portray the extent to which his city is no longer the home that it was. Nothing could have communicated that idea more completely to me than that one detail — that someone actually OF that city, where distinctive coffee is a part of the community’s character, could speak so wistfully of the Wal-Mart of java. Hey, I’ve been known to drink Starbucks myself — even to go out of my way to get some, knowing that I have the true stuff at home. I suspect that, to paraphrase an old Mike Myers line, they put an addictive chemical in it that makes you crave it fortnightly.
But I don’t live and work in New Orleans. When someone who does is reduced to standing outside McCoffee waiting for it to open each day, you have to wonder whether the place will ever be anything like what it was, ever again.