NEW ORLEANS It was an ill-advised journey to a moribund city, the place of my birth and upbringing. Family and friends, all living elsewhere, begged me not to come here. My wife, Mary Anne, feared that I would become depressed. My doctors worried that the city lacked the medical prowess to take care of a patient who had had two kidney transplants. And there were all of the stories of fetid conditions -- water-rotted houses and their unusable contents, piles of trash, abandoned and decrepit streets in my old 9th Ward, Gentilly and East New Orleans neighborhoods.
My family, friends and doctors were right. But I came anyway. I had to come. I had not been here since 2004, a year before Hurricane Katrina washed away what had long been falling apart.
Besides, I had an appropriate business excuse. Chevrolet was a major sponsor of the Essence Music Festival, which was returning to New Orleans for the first time since Katrina. New Orleans loves to party. The city is the nation's madam. You can come here and lose your inhibitions, and everything else if you aren't careful.
Ostensibly, I came to see Chevrolet's latest lineup of cars and trucks, displayed in all their grandeur at the Morial Convention Center, which had been the scene of a substantially less joyous gathering as Katrina's waters were rising. I had a plan. I would get Chevrolet to allow me to test-drive one of its vehicles on a memory tour of my old neighborhoods. I chose the 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe LTZ. The reason was simple: Wimpmobiles could be a handicap where I was going. I needed a tough truck.
At this juncture, it's important to note that there have always been two cities called New Orleans. One is white. The other is black. One has jobs and something approaching affluence. The other has existed so long at the economy's bottom that many of its inhabitants had claimed the bottom rung as their rightful place. One remained reasonably dry during Katrina. The other drowned. One, which encompasses the convention center, French Quarter and the Garden District, is the moral equivalent of a theme park. The other New Orleans, the much larger one, is the Dead Zone.
I took the Tahoe LTZ into the Dead Zone, which is where all of my old neighborhoods and family houses were. I was accompanied by a bevy of Essence festival attendees who heard that I was planning the tour and who wanted to trip along with a New Orleans native. Seven of us piled into the LTZ, an accomplishment made easy by pushing buttons on either one of the vehicle's center pillars to automatically flip and fold the center seats, allowing quick access to seats in the rear.
We exited the theme park region via North Claiborne Avenue and then turned left onto St. Bernard Avenue at the corner where the old Circle Food Store, now a shambles, once proudly stood. We were entering the Dead Zone.
I wanted to see my old high school, St. Augustine, on A.P. Tureaud Avenue. It appeared to be in relatively good shape, largely thanks to the good offices of the Josephite Fathers and Brothers, and the many St. Augustine alumni worldwide. I privately vowed to give more money to the school.
But everything around St. Augustine was a washed-out disaster, a disheveled collection of tiny Federal Emergency Management Administration trailers and block after block of rubble and ghost houses. The chatter inside the Tahoe LTZ ceased. We crossed into the upper 9th Ward.
The Tahoe LTZ is available with rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive. After crossing the overpass, I thanked God that we had taken the four-wheel drive model. The Dead Zone streets were worse than anything I had experienced in Brazil, rural Russia or Kazakhstan. But the Tahoe LTZ handled the abuse nicely. Our psyches didn't.
Someone from the back of the vehicle shouted: "This is America? How can this be America? We're the richest country in the world and this is all we've done for our own people more than two years after that hurricane? I can't believe this!"
I could. Some of the streets we traveled -- my old streets of Clouet, North Roman and Eads are examples -- were no worse after Katrina than they were before it. They were always buckled, rutted, potholed and bereft of adequate drainage. The only differences now were the weeds growing in the gutters and the legions of ruined, vacant houses, including several my family once owned, lining those streets.
Silence again reigned in the Tahoe LTZ's sumptuous cabin. But, suddenly, there was a shout of joy. "What are those?" someone asked. We were still in the upper 9th Ward, near North Miro and North Dorgenois streets. There was an outcropping of pretty pastel-colored new houses built on stilts, apparently constructed in the manner now required under hurricane-proofing building codes. The homes, with neat little lawns, were put up by New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity, an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International.
The tiny, inadequate FEMA trailers plopped in front of water-ruined ghost houses were provided by the federal government. The real houses for real families with real needs and dreams were provided by privately funded organizations -- helpful, but not nearly enough to give the Dead Zone a long-term chance at life.
I turned into the driveway of the W hotel and quieted the Tahoe LTZ's big 5.3-liter, 320-horsepower V-8 engine, which can run on four cylinders or on all eight, depending on power needs. I had a migraine headache and the beginning of a painful infection in my left hand. Coincidence? Perhaps. But I could hear Mary Anne saying: "I told you not to go." It was time to leave.
NUTS & BOLTS 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe LTZ Complaints: The Tahoe LTZ makes no sense as a daily urban commuter. It's too big. But it makes perfect sense in a place such as the New Orleans Dead Zone. Drive, acceleration and handling: It rides and feels like a truck, but with a certain measure of sophistication that softens the bumps and helps to retain driver control when a front or rear wheel is swallowed by a giant pothole. When needed, all eight cylinders of the vehicle's big engine can haul you away from trouble quickly. Head-turning quotient: "Hey, you in front my cousin's house. He ain't there, but he be back. You can't take his house. You ain't gonna bulldoze it. He be back," the old man said on Clouet Street. I told him that I was just passing by, just looking at the house that once was ours. He looked at the fancy Tahoe and then back at me. "You ain't takin' my cousin's house," he said. "He own it now. He be back!" Body style/layout: A front-engine, full-size, luxury sport-utility vehicle on a truck chassis available with four-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive. Engine/transmission: The Tahoe LTZ comes with a 5.3-liter V-8 engine that develops 320 horsepower at 5,200 revolutions per minute and 340 foot-pounds of torque at 4,200 rpm. Half of the engine's eight cylinders automatically deactivate at low speeds and under light loads. The engine is mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. Capacities: There is seating for up to eight people. Maximum payload is 1,776 pounds. Maximum towing capacity is 8,200 pounds. The fuel tank holds 26 gallons. Mileage: The federal mileage rating is 15 miles per gallon in the city and 20 mpg on the highway. Safety: Electronic stability control and anti-lock brakes are standard. Head-curtain air bags are optional. Side air bags were not available. Price: The Tahoe LTZ is a sporty version of the Tahoe LT, which has a base price of $38,545 and a dealer's invoice price of $35,269. The LTZ equipment group adds $8,860 to that price. LTZ price as tested including a $900 destination charge is $48,305. Dealer's price as tested is $43,523. A $2,000 customer rebate is available. Prices sourced from Chevrolet and www.edmunds.com. Purse-strings note: A good truck that makes more practical sense, especially for people living in gentle climates with good streets, as a rear-wheel-drive Tahoe LS or LT.
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