Tuesday, August 11, 2009


A cool family we know from the neighborhood is renovating a Craftsman bungalow on a nearby street. The house is lovely and it is really more of a restoration. The other night my daughter and I ducked in through the not-locked front door (we knew they wouldn't mind) and I nearly wept at the beauty of it, mostly because I had a moment where I thought how much I'd love to own it, but knowing I can't possibly afford it, or at least that the opportunity cost wouldn't be worth it. It made me think again about what home means, and that led me to a delicious little book by Julia Reed.

The House on First Street is about Reed's "homecoming" to New Orleans. She grew up in Greenville, Mississippi, but her memories of becoming a grownup are from crazy roadtrips to the city. For the first time in her adult life, she starts to get settled. At forty-two, she marries for the first time, after having what sounds like a pretty good time. The first weekend of Jazzfest in 2003, she went to her favorite city: "It was not much different from any other really fun, fairly debauched weekend I'd spent in New Orleans, except that by the time it was over I'd fallen, hard, for a man I knew I shouldn't have. At one of the wild parties, I heard myself saying I was coming back in the summer to cover what promised to be a historic governor's race. It was three o'clock in the morning, but as soon as the words were out of my mouth I knew they were true."

So she does, but then the affair and the campaign end, and somehow she winds up with a very nice husband, whom she is finally sensible enough to adore. They find an old gem of a house that's endured a partial and very bad renovation, and start work to get it where Reed wants it to be. Since she's been carrying around fabric swatches and paint color names for two decades, she's pretty specific about what she wants, though frustratingly romantic about it all. The contractor she decides is cool turns out to be, not surprisingly, completely inept and then, a couple of months and only partway through, Hurricaine Katrina hits.

Then someone who really hasn't put down roots in her adult life, having lived in New York but never really feeling like she wanted to stay, having rented places all over New Orleans but not ever getting involved in her community, has to make a choice. She decides this is home and throws herself into it in the only way she knows how: with food. She buys barbeque for 800 National Guard without regard to the cost (were that we could all be so generous, but evidently they appreciated it); participates with gusto in every restaurant re-opening in the Quarter; and holds a huge Thanksgiving dinner for her extended family only weeks after Katrina. She remembers the details of every decadent meal, complete with which wines she drank, and it's a delight to be with her. To say Reed writes with a sense of place is a vast understatement, for she loves her city like a person and lets us peer into a window on her life.

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