LIMRA held its annual life insurance conference April 15-17 in the Big Easy. Throughout the days and nights of the event, I found myself shuffling back and forth between the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, where the conference took place, and Bourbon Street, where all manner of life takes place.
On one hand, I heard about the latest trends in the insurance industry, about topics as complex and difficult to grasp as multilevel alternative distribution channels and macroeconomic modeling. On the other, I stood in the heart of the French Quarter, people watching, listening to every patois of the American language, taking in the movement, the music, and realizing that no matter where I placed my feet in New Orleans, there was something to learn.
On the following pages, I’ve listed three important takeaways from the conference and that other show, the one that can only be found in the French Quarter.
1. The long and winding road to recovery
Mornings in the Quarter glisten. They’re damp from rain, damp from partiers the night before, damp from vendors and retailers who wash it all away with fresh water from garden hoses.
In a coffee shop off Royal Street, an ancient place hidden by a blind alley and bougainvillea, I sip hot tea and eat a greasy bran muffin, wishing for a beignet from Café du Monde instead.
A hipster at a nearby table strokes his fuzzy chin while reading a book on existentialism. One of the Quarter’s many cats lounges on a bench. A triangle of sunlight warms her yellow fur. A tourist waiting for the Haunted New Orleans Tour sits beside the cat, playing with its tail. The cat, chubby and warm, sits up long enough to rip at the lady’s finger, drawing blood, before falling back asleep.
I sip the tea. I keep an eye on the cat and listen to the droning rat-a-tat-tat of progress. Jackhammers break up earth. Men wearing low slung tool belts and steel-toed boots push wheel barrows of rubble.
It’s been eight years since Katrina and it is in these labyrinthine alleyways of the Quarter that I’m most reminded of a line from the poet William Butler Yeats, “All things fall and are built again.”
During a keynote address at LIMRA, economist and Tulane professor Peter Ricchiuti says as much as he talks about the local folks’ resolve.
“We’re back. It’s already happening. The hiring machine is back in gear,” he tells the insurance crowd. He points to programs at Tulane that he has helped foster and some interesting items his research team at Burkenroad Reports has uncovered.
One of those discoveries is the availability of natural gas. “We’re energy independent right now!” he exclaims. If he’d been standing at a podium he might have taken off his shoe and pounded it on the lectern to make his point. He’s that passionate about Americans making the most of what we already have. “We don’t have to import another drop. What people need to realize is we’re the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.”
Not only does Ricchiuti talk about the surplus of natural gas, but it’s affordability as well. Historically the price ratio between oil and natural gas was 6 to 1. Today, he says, that gap has exploded to a 25-to-1 ratio.
“Natural gas can be used to heat homes, power cars, generate electricity.” And then he trails off and rails about another subject that drives him batty about America and its roller coaster of an economic recovery — immigration reform.
“Today,” Ricchiuti says, “17,000 immigrants earn a graduate degree and then are sent back to their country of origin.” They learn how to earn here, then America is taken out of the economic equation by deporting potential high-wage earners. That’s just one of the enigmatic potholes to full recovery, he says.
I find other potholes, literal ones, while traipsing around New Orleans’ Business District. One of my colleagues grabs me by the arm while we cross the street. “If you were in your Honda Fit and drove into that,” he says “we might not ever find you.”
Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. AP Photo: Alex Brandon, File
2. Dead men tell no tales
Death and resurgence have loomed over New Orleans since its inception and “for more than 200 years, people here have housed their dead in small, above ground tombs,” according to Troy Taylor’s book, “Haunted New Orleans.” “(The tombs) are built along streets in miniature cities of the deceased and the forgotten.”
Death in the Quarter is not hidden away; it is embraced. You see it in store fronts. Skeletons and death masks greet tourists with smiles. Those little cities of the dead nudge against favorite bookstores and art galleries.
In a bar named The Dungeon, squirreled away in dank catacombs, signs on the walls declare a warning: “Photos and videos are not allowed. “
We ask a Goth bartender why the need to order cash-paying customers to cut off technology and a chance for cherished memories. This is, after all, a tourist city.
“Because of the spirits,” the bartender says. She has a dozen or so metal pieces, like shrapnel, protruding from around her eyes and brow line. “This ground is watched by the dead.”
Dead. The word itself, the saying of it, is so sudden and final. It does not so much linger in the air as cut through it with the force and precision of a guillotine. We leave The Dungeon with our spirits intact, but talk of the dead stays with us. The next day at the conference the thread continues. But speakers talk of preparing for death rather than the spirits of the already dead.