Saturday, December 24, 2005

All I want for Xmas is New Orleans

There is an old convention in journalism that we bloggers, as the New Journalists of the 21st Century, will feel bound to observe: the Christmas piece. As a former reporter, I can't seem to resist the temptation. But it's more than dragging out the fir and lights; it's a deeply ingrained desire to say or do something good at this time of year.

All I want for Christmas is .

How easily this conventional, almost trite sentiment comes to mind. But it is true. Even for a 20-year ex-pat, there is nothing I want more. Outside of my wife and kids, there is nothing dearer to my heart than the home I left behind New Year's Eve 1986. Like most first-generation emigrants (and I have always considered myself an immigrant to the United States from the Republic of New Orleans), I have never, could never break the ties of place to my only real home.

And since I said to my wife back in late September "I want to move back to New Orleans" and she, instead of spitting wine all over herself in convulsive laughter, said yes, its become even more important to me personally, and not just because I was what Dr. John called traumaticalized in a recent Chris Rose column in the T-P.

At an age when my kids are more than halfway grown, and I sit and contemplate what to do with the rest of my life, I can't think of anything I want to do more than be a part of the future of New Orleans. Anything else will, for me, be an excuse for a life, the poet's quiet desperation of hanging on until it's over.

That's not a life.

I have no illusions about what was lost. Hell, the city I left in my rear view mirror nineteen years ago was not the city I grew up in. So much had been lost already to the relentless floods of time and American commerce; so much more was swept away between that New Year's Eve when I left and the flood. But the failure of local stores, as dear as they were to us all, was not a New Orleans problem. It was an American problem, happening everywhere. Losing D.H. Holmes or K&B were a disappointment. But that was not the same as losing the neighborhood bars and restaurants and stores, all threatened in the aftermath of and the flood.

Much that remains the same would not be missed if it could somehow be carried away with the ruined appliances and the moldy drywall: the crime that blossomed in New Orleans just like in every other heavily poor and black urban area, the political division and bickering that separated New Orleanians into warring camps, the corruption of the School and Levee Boards.

And there are the embarrassing headlines about the N.O.P.D. or Bourbon Street bartenders, the remarks sitting in my inbox today from various lists about the people Gretna Mayor Ronnie Harris called "the criminal element" in his 60 Minutes interview. You know who I mean. Many of the people I hear complaining the loudest about Mama D must have lost all their mirrors to Katrina, because they could mostly use a long, hard look in one.

I won't accept just resettling, merely rebuilding New Orleans. Somehow, it must be better, fairer, less poor and less divided, and still every bit as much the city of memory and dreams. Not many cities are presented with the opportunity of starting over from scratch on such a vast scale, being given a second chance to do things right.

The New Orleans of my Christmas wish is not just the town I grew up in, or the town I constantly pine for on some level--the city of food and friends, of music and Mardi Gras--it is for a city where people make a decent living and can afford to own and fix up their homes, where the schools and police and the levees work at least as well as most other places, where the unifying spirit of resettlement and recovery breaks down the fear that divides Audubon Place from Almonaster, separates Lakeview from Lafitte.

It should be a place that is rebuilt for the benefit of it's people, and not at the whims of the market-place that's already left so many of them behind, the invisible hand that turned the last jazz club on Bourbon Street into a karaoke bar, the idol Mammon that would demolish everything to rule over a thousand suburban boulevards lined with box stores, that would be perfectly appeased to make New Orleans into an historic shell for upscale boutiques.

Only if a critical mass of people come home can what is good be saved, and what is not be averted. I understand why some people who lived in crime-ridden neighborhoods would stay in their newly adopted homes, why others who sacrificed the high salaries of elsewhere to live in New Orleans might find it hard to return home to sub-market wages and inflated rents.

Good luck to you all. But you may find, five or ten or twenty years from now, that you have never really been happy living in your new home. The city’s pull will begin to work at you. You will want to go home.

That’s my Christmas Wish, not just to come home, but to be part of one of the great stories, the one about miraculous births and resurrections. There are so many pieces that must fall into place, so many immense hurdles to overcome--multiplied by the hundreds of thousands, once for each of us--it seems only a miracle will do.

But I believe in Christmas miracles. A decade ago, my three-year old daughter fell in love with a character called Rugby Tiger, from an obscure Muppet’s movie call the Christmas Toy. Having Rugby Tiger was her only Christmas wish, the only secret she had for Santa.

Finding Rugby Tiger proved to be impossible. The Christmas Toy is a wonderful show, but not a spectacular of the sort that generates tie-in marketing. The stores at Christmas are full of great piles of stuffed animals, but none came close to looking like Rugby. We scoured the smallish town we lived in at the time, and all the stores of Fargo, N.D. as well. I dredged through catalogs online stores back in the early days of e-commerce, and called every major toy store I could think of. It became increasingly clear there would be no miracle, that the first Christmas my first child really understood would be a failure, a disappointment that would haunt her the rest of her life.

There’s a happy holiday thought.

Then one day, perhaps a week before Christmas, I went into a little mom-and-pop drug store in little Detroit Lakes, MN, and walked past the big pile of stuffed animals I had twice before torn apart. As I came back from the pharmacist with my little bag, I decided to have one last desperate dig. And that’s when I found him.

His tag didn’t say Rugby Tiger, but he was a perfect replica, the very image of the television tiger. Christmas was saved.

I’ve told this story to my children, when they finally asked me about Santa Claus. Yes, I can tell them with a straight face, I do believe in Santa Claus, because once when I truly needed a mieraculous Christmas present for someone I loved, it happened.

Perhaps I’ve used up my quotient of miracles. But I know that belief is more than just a bit of sustaining psychology. I am a poor excuse for a Christian, probably not one at all at this point in my life. But I know there is a power within us and without us that, sustained by belief, can work miracles in this world.

Most miracles are small and personal things: two people meeting and falling in love, a child’s face on Christmas morning when they find a dream come true, the birth on a winter’s night of a child entirely ordinary and no less miraculous. My Christmas wishes for myself and for my city may seem as improbable as the sentiments of a beauty contestant, but they’re not. My wish is for the thousand tiny and entirely human miracles I know are possible.

My wish is that at this holiday, somewhere in America, the separated parts of a family come together in exile--a little more complete—and begin their plans to go home; that somewhere in a line at a government office, two people discover that the other is not a greedy white boss or a scary black criminal, but someone with whom they share memories and hopes; that someone will come home today and, when the tears have finally stopped, they will begin again their life in New Orleans.

I'll see you there.

Comments:
Not only must we keep hope alive, we have to dream big. Thanks for the Christmas memories and the good wishes. I've been blogging about what New Orleans is and what it is becoming, and I have faith in her people to make it good. New Orleans will be here when you're ready to come home.
 
You wrote the perfect ex-pat Christmas wish. I had the very same conversation with my wife in September, and she's tracking down job leads in New Orleans as we speak.

Jobs, schools, and housing. That's all we really need.

Maybe I'll see you back home one of these days.
 
I also have the dream of returning home to New Orleans (and thouroughly enjoyed reading your Christmas wish for 2005 - thank you!).

Although I have a comfortable life now near Chattanooga Tennessee, I continue to yearn daily for the place nearest to my heart. Indeed, I do know what it means to miss New Orleans.

One day, we'll all return home.
 
Great, great post, Mark. It was very inspiring to me and everyone who reads it who loves New Orleans.

I'll see you there, too.!
 
What a great gift! Oddly, I had no desire to move back until Katrina. Now, it's all I think about. Best of luck to you, bra.
 
Really useful piece of writing, lots of thanks for your article.
 
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