In the middle of the faded splendour of the garden district, where the foliage of colonial balconies casts shadows on cracked pavements below and palatial mansions stand shoulder to shoulder with dripping trailers and piles of wreckage, I came across a collection of children's toys. They were carefully arranged on a row of steps leading up to a house that disappeared with Katrina. Dozens of teddy bears and dolls sunbathed on the granite, offering no explanation for their presence. It was one of the strangest, eeriest scenes I've ever encountered, and I stood staring at this army of silent creatures in the early evening sunshine until I heard a voice behind me.
"Sure is a strange sight, ain't it," a man said. He was short, brown and had pulled a weather-beaten blue cap down low over his face to shade his wrinkled eyes. "Somebody told me these were the toys they found after the storm, rottin' in the water. I don't know if that's true or not, but I don't know where else they came from."
Don was clutching two carrier bags which, it transpired, he was living out of. With his family holed up out of state, he had returned to New Orleans to find work and rebuild his shattered house. Despite the supposed availability of FEMA assistance, Don claimed to have nowhere to stay and was living on the streets west of the French Quarter, amongst the shadowy pillars of a monolithic interstate highway that destroyed Basin Street, site of the legendary Basin Street Blues.
If there's one commodity New Orleans is not short of at the moment it's employment, and Don had found a temporary job that very morning. He was celebrating with a cold coke; the next day he would be joining the legions of Hispanic workers who are burgeoning in the city as it seeks to rebuild. For now though, we simply stood quietly and gazed at the lines of animals, a twisted monument to playful emptiness and lost innocence, before going our separate ways.