John Howell Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Streetcars and thunderstorms signal ‘normal’

The streetcars were running frequently on St. Charles Sunday afternoon.

With the June opening of the last leg of the rail line from St. Charles along Carrollton Avenue to Claiborne, these New Orleans icons cover the full 7.5 mile route they traversed before Katrina. Another step toward returning to normal, whatever that once was. We boarded for $1.25 and added another 25 cents for a transfer that would allow us to leave that car and board another that would take us all the way to the French Market, next to the Mississippi River.

With increased gasoline prices more people are riding the streetcars and buses . Some — either tourists or local riders new to public transit — are stumped when the (driver? not really. A driver seems to imply one who steers and streetcars simply follows the tracks. So he or she is the operator) tells them correct change is required.

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New Orleans has long required correct change on its buses and streetcars. I was reminded that I was riding the buses in Memphis when those buses started accepting only correct change after a bus driver was murdered there in 1970 for the coins he carried for change.

But other passengers are willing to break the larger bills and walk to the front of the car to make change for the new passengers holding $20 bills. I haven’t seen anybody miss a ride because they didn’t have the right change.

Downtown is hot, just like it was hot in Batesville. We walked to several familiar shops in the Quarter. Our main purchase was a bottle of water from an ice-filled washtub.

Soon we found our way to the Moonwalk atop the Mississippi River levee to see the progress of the oil spill cleanup. I had expected river traffic to be at a standstill. I was wrong. The ships and barges that constantly plow those waters were nowhere to be seen, but small craft, many powered by duel outboard motors, were everywhere. (The Julia Street wharf where cruise ships dock is very near the broken barge that is leaking the oil. The cruise ships were rerouted to Mobile.)

Most of the small boats were equipped with oil-sucking tubes that extended into the water. Floating booms guarded the shore, but the rip rap at the water’s edge bore a dark sticky coating. Small globs of black oil floated on the surface.

The small boats each carry a device sticking down into the water that sucks in oil. Boats are covered with the same black film at their waterline.

Later that night, news reports said that the river would reopen “within a couple of days.” The nation simply cannot afford for traffic on the lower Mississippi River to remain at a standstill.

In the Quarter and the Riverwalk Mall, the crowds were the largest we’ve seen since Katrina. Not yet overcrowded but filled with people, mostly in family groups, wandering around shopping. The Arena Football Superbowl was scheduled that night nearby in the New Orleans Arena. There’s also a big “Be a Tourist in Your Own Hometown” promotion in this city.

The heat midday continued to build into the heat of afternoon. By the time we stepped off the streetcar for the short walk home, the combination of heat and humidity felt explosive. It was. A late afternoon thunderstorm came rolling in across Lake Pontchartrain from the north.

Lightning crackled and thunder rattled our old house, unnerving the damncats.

It’s serious, dog summer. Real hurricane season is about to start. October is over two Augusts away.