Sunday, September 16, 2007

Drums and trumpets

In the first true cool of an evening in more months that I care to recall, I can hear them drumming. The sound comes and goes on the wind like a shortwave signal, sometimes blaring and other times distant and irregular. In spite of the slightest hint of coolness, I know it is fall not by any outward sign of nature but by sounds of football at Tad Gormley Stadium in City Park.

It is such a reassuring sound. So much was lost in the flood: instruments, uniforms, the gladiatorial gear necessary to field a football team. When I first heard them last year there were still debris piles on the street and the last bits of tarp still fluttered on my neighbor's roof. The sounds of a marching band in the distance was positive vibration in a desperate place.

This year new neighbors are moving into the newly roofed house next door. My immediate vicinity is almost vacant of signs of the catastrophe. And as a lake-chilled zephyr wanders down from the north, along empty streets and through the feral parts of the park, the clear sounds of pop and hip-hop rendered by ranks of brass, woodwind and drum, punctuated by eruptions of crowd noise, is a touchstone of normality.

I never played football and only rarely bothered to attend games in high school. My college--the University of New Orleans--had no football team (lest they steal away valuable players from the flagship school of the system, LSU). My experience of marching bands is tied up with Mardi Gras Parades: the thrill when far down Napoleon when the lead band finally forms up and starts a song, announcing the beginning of the parade. The odd way the instruments sound as they pass in ranks, each dominating the sound as the respective rows pass.

My first thought when I heard the bands last year was: where's the parade? Then I remembered where I was, that I was only blocks--less than a mile--from the stadium. Then I knew what I was hearing. I was hearing the sounds of of thousands of teenagers and their parents. Long before I came home, people remarked on living in a childless city. Few schools were open in late 2005 and early 2006, and so many people were living in tiny trailers or only communting into the city from Baton Rouge or the North Shore to work on their houses. New Orleans looked like Hamlin after the pied piper had taken his due.

In my first Mardi Gras after the Federal Flood, when my wife was already here and we drove down her car, there were not as many bands as in years past. The St. Augustine Purple Knights joined a pickup band of kids from Xavier Prep, St. Mary' s Academy and Redeemer-Seton, all predominately Black catholic schools, to form the MAX Band. Uniforms were lost and the marchers wore gold stickers--one color all the schools had in common. Instruments were what could be found or salvaged, rarely the instrument the student had owned. But they were home and determined to march. Like all of us they were ready to make do as long as they could make it.

At Mardi Gras 2007 the band that stirred the most emotion was that of the Chalmette High School Owls. Chalmette is the central part of St. Bernard Parish, where less than a dozen buildings escaped weeks of water up to the eaves. It was ground zero for the collapse of the levees, and a helicopter flyover from Violet at the east end of the settled part of the parish up to Arabi, looping over and over again on MSNBC, is one of my clearest memories of the blur that was the week of the flood. To see them march was to see the tenaciousness I foresaw in one of my first blog posts after 8-29 proven true.

Now at the start of the fall of 2007, more than two years after the event, life is New Orleans is far from normal. Vast stretches of the city are still largely vacant, the issuance of building permits down at City Hall the strongest sign of life in parts of Lakeview and much of Gentilly and New Orleans east. The pennies-on-the-dollar relief the central government has offered for the failure of its levees continues to barely trickle out of a state bureaucracy that makes one long for something as efficient as, say, the Soviet shoe industry. The city's so-called leaders have bungled the opportunity to stanch the cities violent crime rate and spend most of their time in hiding, behind locked doors plotting bog-knows what: certainly not the city's recovery.

Sitting in Mid-City this Saturday evening all of that seems as faraway as the marching band when the wind shifts and the music is like something heard underwater. The wind clocks and again I can hear the melody clear if distant, followed by an explosion of crowd noise. I have spent enough time in the stadium--high school games, my first concert (the Allman Brother's Eat a Peach tour), Major League exposition games we sold programs to gain free admission to, grade school track-and-field days--that the scene in the stadium is clear to me, if perhaps the dress of the spectators is out of date. The physical details of the place are so clear I can almost touch them as I imagine my walk beneath the bleachers, then up a ramp and into the lights.

Tonight I am not there. I'm not even sure who's playing, but is doesn't matter. Tonight Orleanians in the thousands sit at Tad Gormely and look over the new turf of what is now called Reggie Bush Field and cheer. I sit on my porch on Toulouse Street and wander back in memory to 1963 when I stood as a six year old on the corner of Egret Street and Robert E. Lee Boulevard and strained to hear the distant sound of the Beatles drowned out by screaming girls at that same stadium. Just down the block tonight another six year old is sitting in those stands, hearing a sibling play in the bad or cheer while another gets down in stance behind the ball.

That image gives me some reassurance that forty-four years hence another middle-aged man may sit on this porch and hear the band and the crowd in the distance and be transported into his ownb past, perhaps into this very night; that another generation will be raised here and indelibly marked by the experience and will do whatever is required of them to make it home.



Comments:
Another great post and I've got to say, the weather feels great and the drumming is great.
 
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Marching bands are New Orleans to me. I'm glad I got to be in one, and I wish Lusher had one because my kids aren't getting that part of the standard musical education that most New Orleanians take for granted.
 
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