Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Have Beret, Will Travel

Republished from the Times-Picayune, where this originally appeared on Jan. 17. The following piece "I think she'll stick" incorporates matterabout my wife's decision that fell on the floor while getting down to 700 words.

Expat ready to hang his hat here again
Tuesday, January 17, 2006
Mark Folse
In Fargo, N.D., I'm practically an eccentric, largely because I wear a hat. OK, a beret. And in the summer, I hang that up and take out my Panama. In Fargo, that qualifies as eccentric. But I have a ready excuse: I'm from New Orleans. And now, I'm coming back.

I tell people that my family and I are moving back to the city where I grew up, and they give me this look. Why, they ask incredulously, would I leave a place with great public schools, where my house cost half what it would in New Orleans, where people -- I am told -- would never behave like those people on TV? Why would I go to the devastation and division and uncertainty of New Orleans? They look at the beret, and shake their heads.

I'm coming home because of that beret, the one my wife got me to replace one I wore for years, then lost. That cap belonged to my father who hoped to wear it in retirement, hanging his paintings on the fence at Jackson Square, until Parkinson's stole his dream.

But he was not just an amateur artist with a dream; he was a prominent local architect. Most of his commercial, highly specialized work was done far away, but he left his mark on the city: the Rivergate, Cabrini Church, the striking flat-roofed box of brick and glass on Egret Street in Lake Vista, where I grew up.

Near the peak of his career, as president of the New Orleans chapter of the American Institute of Architects, he was a leader in the fight against the riverfront expressway. Although his firm had important public contracts including the Superdome, he stood up against the city's political and business leadership, challenging the head of the downtown business community to debate him on television. He loved New Orleans, and was willing to stand up and try to save it. He wanted that dream place to hang his pictures, stroke his goatee and be part of the soul of the city.

Now I am at a point in life where one begins to think about a legacy. Beyond a couple of practically perfect children, what mark if any will I leave? Even from the safety of 1,200 miles and two decades, Katrina upended my world and answered my question.

What I want to leave behind me, to leave to my children, is New Orleans.

So last week, my wife accepted a job offer in the city. And we're coming home, with all that entails: finding a safe and affordable house, dealing with the fractured schools, finding a job for me and leaving a safe and comfortable life in the Midwest for the only life I really want, the only one I think worth living for the rest of my days.

We are coming home not just to find an old home and make it live another generation, or because I miss the food and the friends, the music and the parades, or because I want my children to partake of all that.

I want those things, I always have, but the challenge after Katrina is too large for such a simplistic dream.

I'm coming home because I see all of the devastation and division and uncertainty and think, there must be something I can do to make this better. I'm coming back because I see the city's leaders on the verge of losing the treasure, just as they nearly did 30 years ago. But this time it's not just the Quarter. It's the whole city.

I'm coming back because every person who returns makes it that much more possible -- to buy a house that would otherwise sit empty, to add another pair of hands to the immense tasks ahead.

We're returning because I owe it to my father's memory, to my family and to my city. I'm doing it for the friends who've lost houses, jobs, everything, and can't come back right now, to help prepare the city for their return.

The task is so huge; it seems that it's impossible to know where to start.

But that's not true. For us the first step is clear.

We're coming home.

. . . . . . .

Mark Folse lives in Fargo, N.D. He can be reached at his blog, Wet Bank Guide, at http://wetbankguide.blogspot.com.

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