A free refill on the café au lait

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_D5C5045brianby Brian Clarey

They hooked me up with a free refill on my café au lait just now at the CC’s Coffee on Magazine Street, here in my favorite city in the world. It plays into this fantasy I’ve been living down in New Orleans for the past couple days: that I still matter in this place.

You should have seen me at the Half Moon on Thursday night, craning my neck like a fool every time someone walked in the door — to see if I knew them, you understand, though it’s been 15 long years since I was part of the life of this bar.

I’ve been gone more than a decade. I missed out on Katrina and its aftermath, and I see only in sporadic snapshots the rapid gentrification that’s taken over the city.

The availability of cheap, storm-damaged property in this northernmost point on the Caribbean circuit, combined with a generous tax incentive for the film industry, instigated a boom — in housing, in education, in employment and a sea change in what had been largely a tourist-based economy.

Now the Bywater, where I should have bought a house in 1997 for about $50,000, is the new Brooklyn, with thoughtful, bearded young men and beautiful women wearing tattoos and eyeglasses jamming up all the boutique restaurants and stylized bars. You should see what they’ve done to Frenchmen Street.

It seems they’ve all brought automobiles to this city of narrow back streets, limited parking spots and wonderful public transportation. Though the population is down by about a third since Katrina, there seem to be twice as many cars on the road. It pisses Big Tiny off. A lot of the new stuff pisses Big Tiny off.

The rent for his half of a shotgun double is three times what it would have been when he moved here 20 years ago. His job at a Bywater wine shop puts him in contact with a stripe of the demographic that he openly disdains. And it looks like the price of doing business is about to go up again.

I drove a stretch of Uptown Freret Street where I once lived, and I remembered having to run home to my apartment after late nights in the library so I didn’t get jacked. Now it looks like Magazine Street. And Magazine Street looks like Royal. And the French Quarter… well, the French Quarter is still pretty much the same as it ever was.

I’ll be down there tonight for the French Quarter Carnival parades, with Big Tiny and the rest of the derelict outfit I’ve once again thrown in with. The difference these days is that we’re trying to figure out how we can get home before midnight with all these white people jamming up the streets.