Po-boys And A Rich Following
ARABI, La.--More than the muffuletta sandwiches drew us to Arabi Food Store and Café.
The mom-and-pop has been on the same corner of Arabi for almost four decades and was the first restaurant in the area to reopen after Hurricane Katrina rendered rich and poor alike homeless in New Orleans. When café owners Debbie and Mitchell Smith reopened, they did so without their full staff, many of whom couldn't get back because they had no housing. But the owners said they felt compelled to open their doors as soon as possible.
After all, the people they serve are their neighbors as much as their customers.
Michael and I decided that if there were any place in New Orleans to gauge the impact of the recession, it was here – a local pillar where the owners are personally and professionally invested in the area's return to normalcy. They call their customers by their first names.
Over the years, from the floor of their café, Mitchell and Debbie have watched the evolution of the city's recovery effort. They can tell you who has returned to the neighborhood and who hasn’t, who remains in a FEMA trailer and who has rebuilt a home. They have seen both the economic devastation and financial windfall produced by the hurricane. Their customer base has returned to pre-Katrina numbers, a combination of a loyal local following that has returned and the influx of construction workers who have flocked to the area, seeking jobs amid the rubble.
“Have we been hit by the recession?” Mitchell asked, turning to Debbie.
“I think, but it just hit a couple of weeks ago,” she said, adding that business has dipped, but not by much. “We’ve been holding our own because there is still construction going on.”
It was a sentiment I heard again as I sat at the tables, talking to customers over lunches of po-boys and sandwiches the size of my forearm. Many diners agreed that the city remains caught between a local recovery effort and a national recession. Growth continues, but at a slower pace.
“What do you think, Alden?” Debbie shouted across a few tables to Alden Gaspar, 49, who works on underground utilities. "Has the recession hit us?"
“It just depends on the line of work you’re in,” the field supervisor said.
His crew just installed 5,000 water meters for the city, indicating new construction is still occurring. At the same time, he added, he has not seen entertainment return to the area.
“There’s no theater," he said. "And they used to have a skate rink for the kids -- that didn’t come back."
Fred Schuber, 62, who sat at another table, said what bothered him most were the closed government buildings.
“It’s inexcusable that we have post offices that have not been reopened, that we have police stations that have not been reopened, that we have libraries that have not been reopened,” said Schuber, who runs an insulation company with about 100 employees. "There’s a lot that needs to be done, but not a lot of money to do it with.”
He added that business was booming last summer, but then "the jobs just didn’t follow one after another like they did to begin with.”
He’s not sure if the recession is to blame or if it's a natural plateau. Either way, it was enough to worry his wife Margaret into canceling their vacation in June. They'd been planning to spend their 40th anniversary in Wyoming, but she suggested they stay at their weekend home and charter a fishing trip instead, he said.
“She said, 'I hate to spend that money when things are that bad,'” Schuber said. He encouraged her to rethink her decision, but she wouldn't change her mind. “Can you imagine a wife wanting to go fishing on her 40th anniversary?”
Roy Peterman, 55, who had just finished a ham and cheese sandwich and was taking another one home to his 82-year-old father, said he has not felt the recession at all. Before the hurricane, Peterman was living in Newport News, Va., working for a medical supplies factory. A divorce led him back to the city of his childhood, and since arriving in New Orleans, he has not lacked for work—mostly because he’s willing to do labor most people won’t.
”If you’re not scared of getting dirty, you can make a dollar,” Peterman said. “Jobs have gotten slow, but not to where you can’t find any. There’s something to do, whether it’s washing dishes, mopping the floor, whatever. But there’s something to do.”
He works cleaning Porta-Potties.
“Yeah, I’m the Porta-Potty man. How low can you go?” he said, flashing a smile to show he felt no shame. “No way I can go but up.”
Debbie Smith said there remains plenty of hardship left over from the hurricane, but fortunately, the recession has only shown itself here in subtle ways. Customers who used to come in for sandwiches will now buy loaves of bread and cold cuts to make their own at home, she said.
But the cafe is still crowded at lunchtime. And it seems people are coming for more than just a good muffuletta sandwich.
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