BACK WHEN I LIVED in New Orleans, in the late 1990s, we emerged one car was gone. It had been a fairly easy target for thieves - an old Toyota wagon you could have started with a toothpick - and we figured it might have been swiped by a gang that lived a few blocks away. The next morning we looked and, sure enough, there it was, parked on a side street, unscathed. The thief bothered to do much before noon. That was the sort of thing that seemed to happen in New Orleans, a place that was languid and lazy with an undercurrent of lawlessness, where every dark encounter became a rambling story with a twisted punchline. For someone who had grown up in the tame comfort of Northeastern suburb - who arrived for a summer job at the Times-Picayune and stayed for half a decade - the richness and the danger were seductive. Last week, Americans learned just how physically tenuous life in New and Bourbon Street - that was mostly for the tourists, who considered it their solemn duty to get drunk. But there were drive-through daiquiri shops and Eve in the Mid- City neighborhood, residents would drag their Christmas trees to the Orleans Avenue neutral ground and start a giant bonfire, then throw fireworks into the flames. A fire truck waited down the street, almost as an afterthought. died in the French Quarter just after midnight, struck by a celebratory bullet complacency carried a social toll, spawning a power structure that was often untrustworthy and untrusted. Political corruption is hardly unique to Louisiana, but the state stands apart for its shamelessness.