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New Orleans woke up this morning to an old, familiar anxiety. It showed in the faces of coffee shop patrons just after sunrise, grimly watching The Weather Channel. It showed in a sudden, loud exclamation overheard in a gas station: “If it happens again, if it comes here, we’re leaving and we’re never coming back.” It showed in the headlines of today’s Times-Picayune:

Exactly three years after Katrina drowned the city, another August storm is churning into the southeastern Gulf of Mexico. Gustav is barely a Category 1 on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, but its projected path will carry it across the deep, warm tropical waters that fuel wind and rain. And nobody in battered, beautiful, slowly sinking New Orleans wants to think about wind and rain.

The Perfect Man and I spent a couple of days down on Royal Street this week, taking care of some family business and soaking up creative inspiration in what must surely be the most literary hotel in a city crammed to bursting with notable southern authors living and dead. Hotel Monteleone has been about the business of charming the socks off its guests (famous or not) since 1886. 

Truman Capote was conceived in one of its rooms, and would have been born there if anxious hotel staff had not carried his mama off to a nearby infirmary to deliver him. Ernest Hemingway loved the old place — particularly the revolving gilt Carousel Bar, added in 1935 — and he wrote about it in The Night Before Battle. Likewise Tennessee Williams, in The Rose Tattoo. And Eudora Welty, a regular and beloved guest, immortalized the Monteleone in The Purple HatWilliam Faulkner lived in the hotel for a time during the 1920s, in the early days of his writing life. 

 This grand old place is a time machine, from its wedding-cake facade on Rue Royale and gleaming marble floors to the glass letter chute that starts on the top floor and ends at the big brass mail box in the lobby. As New Orleans struggles to return to its pre-Katrina economy, we continue to find that even the finest hotels are offering bargain rates. The French Quarter crowds are still sparse. In the arts district, some galleries have vanished and others stubbornly hang on while the city’s population numbers creep upward — but there’s a long way yet to go. And another hurricane won’t help.