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Best Places to Go to Be Left Alone 

Big Rue de la Course has changed, and I'll never write poetry again.

That's an exaggeration, but it contains a hint of truth. I used to write poetry at Rue, before it closed up for a move across the street. I'd take advantage of the cavernous space and the slow lap of the ceiling fans and the persistent aura of smoke. Now the poet part of me will have to find another home -- until, of course, the coffee shop geography of that part of Magazine Street alters again.

As a writer, I move around the city that way, trying to work. CC's on Esplanade is for meeting people for interviews. Ditto nearby City Perk. Cafe Rose Nicaud on Frenchmen Street is a great place to round up downtown activists. Meeting folks at Z'otz, around the corner on Royal Street, is disastrous. I once spent a meeting there perched on an old car seat with a glass of bubble tea balanced on my knees. But there's no place like Z'otz for plugging into the artists and musicians of the Faubourg Marigny. Besides, its library always yields something pleasant -- poetry, philosophy, Marxist theory.

Most of the time, though, I shoulder my laptop-safe backpack and search for solitude. Like writer Sue Halpern, author of Migrations to Solitude, I go out into the world of places filled with people to hear myself better. While Halpern went to monasteries, however, I go to public places: coffee shops, a public park, a downtown bar. It's part of a deal I have with New Orleans that allows us to be alone together.

Different assignments dictate different locations. One of the nicest perches I ever enjoyed was inside the Rue de la Course on Carondelet, just off Poydras. The hearing at Federal Court that I had been covering broke for lunch, and I repaired to a window table at Rue and pulled out the laptop to write my summary. A steady procession of lawyers and office workers came through the doors, many of them talking about the hearing. Their chatter entered the story.

Yet there exists a compact among peripatetic laptop-luggers, and you have to be careful to respect it. As I write this, I am inside the CC's on Magazine Street in the Garden District, flanked by a row of people who, like me, are peering into laptops. We do not converse. The delicacy of this balance is underscored when a woman moves across the room after my blank I'm-looking-for-the-right-word stare alights on her. Some of us wear earphones, doubly isolating us in auras of work and sound. It's nice, like an office with decent coffee. Together we all spy through the windows on people lunching outside at Cafe Rani.

Why is it so comforting to be alone in a crowd? Part of it is escaping the drone of one's own voice. Part of it is tedium and the need to escape from it. Coffee shops may not be the stuff of drama, but they're at least as distracting as your average reality show.

Some writers write in bars, but I find that I repeat myself when I drink. I will, however, repair to Molly's at the Market on Decatur Street with a notebook, provided the window seat is open. But I never stay there long. If I do, I end up doodling caricatures of bar people.

New Orleans offers other places where a writer can repair. My friend Michael likes to pack it up and spend the day at A Studio in the Woods, an idyll of river lowlands created as just such a refuge in Algiers. I like the Sidney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden in City Park, specifically Jesus Bautista Moroles' "Las Mesas Bench" overlooking the water. Seated there, I can gaze across at the spectacular "Mother and Child" by Fernando Botero. The sculpture garden is a good place to go if you're writing about something dispiriting, like the New Orleans public school system. I actually live next door to a CC's, where the baristas spoil me, vying to see who can pull a 19-second double espresso the way that I like it. But frequent a coffee shop often enough, and it becomes an extension of home. And sometimes you just have to leave home.


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