Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Looking for ghosts

"Memories there are, enough and to spare, of the famous days of old, and of the not less famous men of our own time; but the ghosts have fled."
-- Real Ghost Stories by William T. Stead
The ghosts have all fled, and taken my words with them. This time a year ago, two years ago, the ghosts of the flood crowded around me and compelled me to write, to tell the story of New Orleans and the Federal Flood. At first the fear that my city was lost, then the atmosphere of living among survivors in a ruined city was a constant, palpable presence, leading me through entry after entry of the story of the post-deluvian city like an ectoplasmic visitor leading me around the house in search of the source of bumps in the night.

Lately the haunting presence is missing. The city seems brighter, busier, more the antedeluvian city of memory. Unless I steer myself into the empty quarters, it is possible to slip into a life where I can forget what these streets were like a year ago, two years ago, what some of them are still like today. And I am just too absorbed in life to seek out what I know is just down the Bayou: empty Gentilly. Perhaps it is not the ghosts have have abandoned me. Perhaps I have abandoned them.

The end results is the same. I am not driven as I was for much of the last two-and-a-half years to tell the city's story in honor of those ghosts, of the palpably suffering spirit of this place. This is not a relief. It has instead left a void I'm not sure how to fill. I have had other motivations to write here--anger, pain, sadness. These are difficult to sustain as a habit, and as likely to ultimately consume the person who invokes them as dark magic consumes the practicioner. Few do anger well, and I'll never be able to sustain it with the talent and humor of an Ashley Morris or a Greg Peters.

Some how, at this particular time of the year when the spirits are believed closest to our daylit world, I need to seek those lost spirits out, to reconnect with what best sustained what I do here. I have to do this because, in the end, writing this blog is probably all I am suited to do for my city. I have worked for politicians, but I make a poor one myself. I am a much better lieutenant than captain, and I am uncertain whom I might serve. I am not particularly suited in any way to help New Orleans beyond my commitment to live here. Perhaps that is enough, but part of the void at the center is the nagging sense that it is not. If I have any shred of talent it is what I do here in Wet Bank Guide, and I need to find a way to continue to be a voice in the chorus of and for New Orleans. I need to continue to be a witness, to remember.

Remember. Je me souviens. I need to continue because the story has really just begun. As I wrote only a few months ago, "[t]he scope and time line of our story is novelistic, not episodic in the fashion most suited to the corporatized media of the twenty first century. The big media could no more cover the story we collectively write [as bloggers] than they could serve up the serialized works of Dickens without being filleted and served to their stockholders." And of all of the motivations that kept me pounding away here the sense of a haunting presence, even if only as an internatlized metaphor for some sense of a spatial and temporal dislocation, a dark cousin to deja vu and much more persistant, that is the experience of life in a disaster zone. The ghosts of the flood and memory have been my most consistent themes.

I wrote this in July, 2006, and it sums up well why I have never changed the sub-head of this blog from Remembering Katrina even if I have not mentioned the storm in a year:
Many of us have seen the videos of the 2004 tsunami shot by tourists , have witnessed on a small screen the incredible power of a tidal wave of debris pushing through a crowded neighborhood. There is no such video of the Ninth Ward, nothing like the film shot by a fire department crew in Lakeview shortly after the levee there began to fail. . . I imagine the last images captured by the eyes of the people who lived on those streets, synthesizing my own memory of these neighborhoods with the videos of the tsunami, running a monstrous newsreel of my own imagining. It is as if the victims of the Federal Flood were reaching across and directing the camera, telling me: this is what it was like, what we saw, what they did to us. I can almost feel them crowd around me, the cliche of a haunting image made palpable, whispering as I type: Remember.
Je me souviens. Remember. No one who cares about New Orleans will ever forget, certainly none of those who lost everything, or those who stayed and struggled to survive, trapped in a televised nightmare plainly apparent to everyone except the people who commanded the relief trucks to stop because it might be too dangerous, those who left their dead behind in lawn chairs covered by newspaper or dirty blankets. They might rather not remember, but it will almost certainly haunt them to the end of their days.

I suffered none of that myself. I watched it unfold from a safe distance of decades and a thousand miles. Whatever vicarious pain I experienced was trivial, even if it was enough to upend my family's life and bring us home. I would take some of that burden on myself from the people of the city around me, would gladly be their Judas goat, their ghost eater If I can swallow some of that pain and turn it into words here that tell their story so the world will not forget, can use that dark energy to paint a picture of a city that was, and of a city trying to be again, then perhaps this is not all just some horrible exercise in self-pity. Oh, poor, sorry New Orleans. Look at us. How pitiful.

There are things that deserve to be remembered. Perhaps my ghosts are like the victims of Hiroshima, hiding their scars in shame. Or perhaps, as I suggested above, I have abandoned them, swept away by the currents of life from the places they inhabit. I want the suffering to be remembered, but also the beauty of a city rising out of its ruin like wildflowers from a fire swept landscape; the spirits not just remembered but transformed into something else, something like that oldest of stories, the wanderer's trial by monster and descent into hell on the long road home.

There are heroes here among the shades, and their stories are as inseparable as Odysseus' is from the shades of the heroes of the Iliad he encounters in the underworld. The heroism of the people of New Orleans (not my sorry self, but those who lost everything and came back again) is measured in part by the depths, the darkness from which they are rising up, by the ghosts they struggle to leave behind so that they can live something like the lives they had before. Only by remembering all of the horror and suffering and loss the ghosts of the flood represents can the true measure of their heroism be taken. This is what I must remember, why I must remember, why I must keep writing.

This is why the ghosts are important. That is why, after the candy is inspected and my teenage daughter recovered safely home, I will take a walk through my neighborhood and look for those reminders of the last two-plus years, for the signs of what happened. I will look for the ghosts I once felt hoovering while as far away as Fargo, N.D. or Portland, Ore., and renew the promise in what I wrote a year ago, to honor the ghosts of the flood so that they are not forgotten, but are transformed into an integral part of who and what and most importantly where we are.
We will do this to tell whoever is listening--Our Father, Oshun, Mother of God, ghosts of the Flood--we remember. We have suffered, and we will never forget the Flood and those who did not come through. We are the people who came through and came back. We remember the lost. We remember you.

When we accept and embrace this spirit, perhaps the haunting will end once and for all, will not be a permanent pall over the city, a fearful sound in the night like a howling in the wires, or an unpleasant knotting in the stomach as we pass an abandoned house. It will cease when it becomes instead like the glinting of the sun on white-washed stone above the neat green grass of the cemeteries, just another comfortable part of who we are.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Gotham and the Ghost Town

After five days navigating the electric anthill of New York City, a lunchtime errand through New Orleans' Central Business District seemed like a walk through a ghost town. I vaguely remember a more vigorous CBD, the midday sidewalks full of people moving perhaps more slowly as the climate demands but as purposefully as the people of midtown Manhattan. Those crowds are gone now, like the outdoor clock at the D.H. Homes department store on Canal where people once met on a vibrant Canal Street. I can't be certain how much of the loss was the gradual erosion of downtown as the oil business drifted off to Houston, and how much is due to the diaspora that followed the Federal Flood.

New Orleans is many things, but neither vigorous nor invigorating come to mind. As much as we might enjoy the languor of our warm syrup bath and the inclination to the easy, these are not the hallmarks of centers of industry and commerce. We can't really blame our ghostly downtown on the flood. As corporations feast like cannibals one upon the other in a race to the bottom line, places like New Orleans--where Mammon hides itself discretely behind the doors of private clubs--are left to suck thin soup from the castoff bones the centers of power toss us.

Which is not to say I didn't enjoy New York, or that I blame the pin-stripped masters of the universe for our fate. If anything, my journey through the teeming streets was precisely the tonic I needed. As Orleanians wound their way through the days from 8-29 through to the tail end of hurricane season, the same dim miasma that engulfed the city the same time last year began to overwhelm us all once again. We didn't even have the Saints to cheer us. New York was just the ticket: at once relaxing as a Sunday stroll through Central Park to the museum, and as invigorating as only a plunge into the rush hour subway or Monday morning, breakfast time bagel shop could be.

New York is, along with San Francisco, one of the places Orleanians say they can live outside of the Crescent City without regret. While Manhattan and New Orleans couldn't be more different, I think from my brief visits to NYC and the place that prefers to call itself The City, there is a sense in all of these of a uniqueness, of a pride in their city above all, a loyalty to the polis ahead of any vague concepts such as nationality. The citizens of these cities consider themselves self-sufficient in everything that matters and merely tolerant of whatever is required of the outside world. These cities are also stages where people choose to go to act out lives not possible elsewhere, a place where eccentricities are common place if not celebrated, and there remains a strong sense of belonging not just to the polis, but to one's own tribe within it as well.

All of these cities are places where you might encounter someone as odd as Ruthie the Duck Lady, or the fellow in the pink body suit and unicycle I saw peddling around San Francisco, or the self-proclaimed Mayor of Strawberry fields. Even more fun than the self-consciously odd was the thoroughly modern monk--head shaved and clad in a full saffron-and-purple robe--I saw ducking into the Olive Garden restaurant at Times Square heavily burdened with shopping bags, an Old Navy bag outermost.

In each of these places one can turn a corner and be confronted with a city-defining vista. In San Francisco, I remember walking down the steps from Coit Tower onto Montgomery Street and turning down the hill toward the Transamerica pyramid, or the view my daughter stopped to capture with our camera of a piece of a piece of the east side skyline over the Lake in Central Park, postcard perfect moments that stop you in mid-step and make you remember: I am somewhere special and other.

As a person who lives in a profoundly stereotyped place, I have to say that one of the accepted truisms of New York is patently false. Our experience of New Yorkers was almost universally pleasant. The one man who yelled at my wife when she couldn't quite figure out how to swipe her subway fare card in just the right way was quickly replaced by another who not only helped her, he ultimately just swiped his own card and sent her through the turnstile. While there was no chance the cashier at the neighborhood deli was going to ask after my mom'n'em, there was nothing overbearing or dude, just a brisk and cheerful efficiency that to an Orleanians is as remarkable as any of the landmarks of New York.

My daughter remarked that no one made eye contact, but I am an incorrigible gawker who looks at everyone coming down the street, who can sit endlessly at a table and observe the people around me. Men in New York tended to avoid returning eye contact, but women seemed more likely to glance back, perhaps to smile. I probably flatter myself to think it was something essential to the propagation of the species that made women more likely to return a glance, and occasionally smile; more likely they were thinking to themselves "who's that middle-aged rube in the beret?"

Coming back to the low, green vistas of New Orleans after those few days in the iron gray canyons of Manhattan was like slumping down on a bench in the sauna after a vigorous afternoon at the gym, experiencing a pleasant and refreshed exhaustion. Our provincial downtown seemed as quiet to me as my midweek ramble across Central Park from Natural History to the Met. I have to console myself with noticing that, as we pass 300,00 in the city itself and close to 90% of the metro population returned, Carrollton Avenue on Friday night is as busy as I ever remember it, that as languorous as New Orleans fancies itself, there will be the excitement of dressing for Carnival and the invigorating experience of marching in Krewe du Vieux.

I had once thought I would like to live in New York, when I was young and fancied I might become a writer. Lacking the discipline of either the artist or the scholar, I drifted into journalism instead. At fifty, I don't know that I could now adjust to the hustle and flow of New York on a 365 day a year basis any more than I could cheerfully climb the hills of S.F. day-in and day-out. New Orleans has its own hidden excitements, and in just enough measure to suit my nature and my age.

Still, I find I am secretly rooting for my daughter, who has had the New York bug since junior high where among here best friends were a who wanted to study film at NYU, and an aspiring fashion designer. She dragged me to NYU and Columbia to check the lay of the land, even as her mother reminded here of all of the advantages of universities in less challenging (and expensive) places. If she were to make it into either place, I think I would just have to hock the rest of my living days just so I would have an excuse to return more often to New York.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The River (Redux)

Well, here I am back from New York and still suffering from writers block. Work and life in general have been just too damned hard lately to find the extra hours to keep this up. I find myself sitting on the porch at late at night night thinking about blog posts and end up staring up at the moon humming Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again. So, rather than just let WBG fade away (and in hopes I will find the energy and focus to return to the posts I have half-written), I am going to crib (yes, Peter, again) something I originally posted on a project called Flood Street back in the late fall of 2005 before we came home.

The River

The river is our defining place, the soul of our geography. People ask, why build a city here? The answer is now what it was almost three hundred years ago, when my ancestor debarked a ship and left for the Cote des Allemandes: the River.

I grew up as far from the river as one can get and still be in the city, in a lakefront reclaimed from the lake’s shore in living memory. For me the Lake and Bayou St. John and the great drainage canals were the defining waterways of my youth. These were accessible, and mysterious in small ways.

The old Spanish Fort on the bayou, the antique pedestrian bridge that crossed the Bayou just there, the ribs of a long sunken boat visible just beneath the surface beneath the crumbling brick walls: behind the levees one entered another world. Even the Orleans Canal seemed a bucolic waterway in it’s last stretch before the lake, reached on the east side by crossing a vast park filled with trees and climbing a tall levee, which seemed mountainous to a boy used to an apparent flatness in the world.

In those days before the Moonwalk or the Riverwalk, the river was a distant and mystical presence, often spoken of but rarely glimpsed up close. It hid behind floodwalls and levees; behind the warehouses that lined Tchoupitoulas Street, themselves fortified by ramparts of railroad tracks. The riverside neighborhoods were alien and dangerous, like the Loup Garou, waiting to swallow little boys. The River had at once as much and as little reality as the godhead I was told resided in a tiny wafer of glutinous bread.

The immensity of the River was inflated when revealed from the heights of the bridges that spanned it, the Huey P. Long and the Greater New Orleans Bridge. It was, to a small boy, like a snapshot of a pre-Cambrian world; from something so huge and remote, one expected great monsters to suddenly break the surface, and swallow the toy ships.

When I was much older, and had seen the river up close from the decks of the ferries or from high atop the Trade Mart building, I remember riding the Canal Street Ferry to Algiers with my father, to walk the streets he knew as a child new to New Orleans. His family came up from Thibodaux in the early 1930s, leaving a house where French was the first language, on another Canal Street facing a different bayou than the one I knew growing up.

We strolled through the streets and looked for the house of his early boy hood, and he told us of days when they would swim in the river. Swim in it! I had only heard tales of sucking quick sands along the shore, and of whirlpools that would swallow anyone unlucky enough to fall in, taking their bodes down to great depths peopled by mythically giant catfish, never to be see again. And my father swam in those waters.

On that day, the River entered my life as a force, as something to which I had a connection. It lost none of its mythic proportion. Instead, my father was raised up into a figure out of Bullfinch’s or a character from Twain.

Before that day, my father made the river an indelible part of his history. He had joined the Second Battle of New Orleans, and help lead the fight to save the River from plans to further sever it from the city by building an expressway between the Quarter and the River. He was president of the American Institute of Architects in New Orleans, and had challenged the head of the downtown business establishment pushing for the expressway to debate him on citywide television. The publisher of the newspaper had threatened to without my older sister’s wedding announcement in retaliation, in words that a hundred years earlier would have ended not on WWL-TV, but beneath the Dueling Oak.

My father became the man I think of when I look at the self portrait he painted that hangs in my office, a figure who strode across and not just through the landscape of history, when I learned those tales.


When I came to work for the small newspapers in Gretna and St. Bernard, I became a frequent passenger of the ferries. For a time, my only vehicle was a small motorbike, and I came to rely on the ferries almost exclusively. My working days often began and ended standing at the railing of the lower deck, watching men hand lines as big as my arm, as the pilot let out a blast on his whistle to announce our crossing.

That was when the river really entered my life, when I began to feel myself a citizen of a river city, at the mercy of the currents and the skills of a pilot, planning my day in part by the schedule of the boats, mindful of its floods and the debris that swept past the ferry rail, bound for the sea.

Now, when I take my children back to New Orleans, we inevitably travel to the zoo, and return from Uptown on the riverboat Audubon that travels from the foot of Canal to the Park and back. I point out the bright new container ships and the rusting banana boats, explain the mysteries of the Plimsoll mark, and name the wharves as we pass them like a list of the boats on the shores of Troy.

Now that I hope to come home to stay, I think often of the river. A famous author once wrote of memory and home and a river, and told us that we can’t go home again. The ancient aphorism tells us that we cannot step twice into the same river. I know that they are right. I believe that they are wrong.

The city I return to will not be the city I left. Too much was lost in the flood, swept away by the waters of my childhood, the waters of the lake and the canals I once thought idyllic. But before I had crossed the Parish line twenty years ago, the city in my rear view mirror was not the city I grew up in. Time and commerce had done more to erode the city of my childhood than even the greatest river on the continent could.

What will I find then, when I return to the river and it’s city? I know that when I return, I will go back to the Moonwalk. I will climb the steps that my father helped to build, that are in my mind his great monument, and the river will be there. It will not be the same river he knew and swam in as a boy or fought for as a man; it will not be the river I first saw from high atop the Huey P. Long Bridge or the one I watched from the levee at Riverbend as a youth; it will not even be the river I took my children down just last year.

It will be as much a river of memory, and a river of dreams, as a physical river,. But that, in the end, is the river it has always been, from the time of LaSalle and Bienville until today. I will find that river there, just where I left it, up and across those steps. I will take my children and climb them, and there I will tell them the story of their grandfather and the river.

And I will be home.

Friday, October 12, 2007

On The Road

The Wet Bank Guide will be on vacation to the Isle of Manhattan for the next few days. I had a couple of posts knocking around in my head, but none quite got done. I've been re-reading some of my old stuff here, and decided to bring back one of the first things I posted, from long before most of the people kind enough to come back here had found this blog. This was written on Sept. 1, 2005 after watching MSNBC's endless loop of the helicopter flyover of St. Bernard Parish drowned to the eaves from the levee to the lake.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The tragedy of St. Bernard

I worked for a number of years for a weekly newspaper in St. Bernard Parish. The main community of Chalmette flourished after desegregation, a haven for white flight. This bothered me when I first came out there. The more time I spent there, the less I noticed. This was not Mississippi, some place people raged against their neighbors.

After desegregation, some of us in both communities chose to try to live among each other. Some in both community retreated, and chose to live among themselves. St. Bernard was one of the latter, and its residents unapologetic about it. For all their antipathy toward the city I loved, I came to love St. Bernard and its people.

Today, the Parish is completely immersed in water, its boats and it buildings ravaged by wind and waves, its people scattered or traumatized or drowned. US Senator Mary Landrieu, flying over the parish, is reported to have made one remark: "It's gone", while crossing herself.

The real tragedy of St. Bernard is this: no one should have waited out this storm there.

Everyone knew the next big storm could be a tremendous catastrophe. Members of the Police Jury (the equivalent of a County Commission) knew it. The people who didn't rebuild after Betsy--continuing to live in their government-supplied trailers knowing the next storm would just take their house again--they knew it. The Corps of Engineers and all the experts knew it. Long-time Police Juror Junior Rodriguez had railed for years for some way to close off the MRGO during a storm, knowing the surge that charged up that channel during Hurricane Betsy--causing much of the flooding in the 1965 storm--would one day return even stronger.

They were all right.

Here's is a bit of their story, from the WWL-TV web site new blog:
3:40 P.M. - WWL photographer Willie Wilson: People being rescued from Chalmette were begging for water, wanted to talk to family members. People rescued in Chalmette were ferried across to Algiers. People hot and parched from
days on roof tops.
3:42 P.M. - Wilson: You can't fathom it. I've covered tragedies around the world, never thought it would be here.
3:43 P.M. - Photographer Willie Wilson: Those rescued from Chalmette homes are dazed, don't know where they are going and just asking for water and to find family members.
3:44 P.M. - Tugboat captain who rescued those in Chalmette. "Without more help, many people will die."
3:46 P.M. - Tugboat captain: We have so little help. Send us some food and water immediately!
3:47 P.M. - Man rescued after spending night on Chalmette High School roof for two days: "It's all gone."
3:49 P.M. - Survivor from Chalmette: We spent two days on a roof, swam to a storefront, food was pouring out, we ate it, we drank the water. We had to do something. There's no help.
3:52 P.M. - Chalmette man. I spent 40 hours on a roof then God sent a boat from a neighbor's house floating by and we took it to safety.
3:54 P.M. - Wilson: People were passing out in the heat in front of me.
3:55 P.M. - 40-year veteran photographer Willie Wilson: Maybe one other time in my career did I shoot pictures crying.
Once I knew these people. I know this place. They will come back.

I know that, however great the devastation, I will someday take my children to Rocky and Carlos, and we will eat macaroni and cheese. We will go the battle field, and I will tell them of the Pirates' Lafitte and the Creoles and flat-boatmen who beat the British.

And I will drive them down Highway 300 to Shell Beach, and show them on each side of that narrow road the swamp these people wrested their homes from. We will watch the shrimpers unload, and buy some fresh from the lake. I will take them down the road to The End of the World Marina in Delacroix, and show them the beauty of these waters, so they will not think them cruel.

I want to show my children the beauty in a place they don't understand, growing up in the Midwest. I want them to see people who live with the water the way people in Fargo live with air; people who shrimp and crew towboats and work on rigs in the Gulf and, when the refinery lets out for the day, go fishing; people who chose to live on an island in the middle of a swamp, and not in Kenner or Fargo, ND; people who worked hard and set aside a little and built a place for themselves out of a swamp, a place they would not willingly let go.

I want them to know why I am crying at my keyboard for people who's views on issues of race I could never understand, and teach my children to abhor; people who took me into their homes and fed me sweet tea and told me stories until the stars and the mosquitoes came out; people who chose to live apart, surrounded by capricious waters, an island; people who would not willingly surrender their island back to the waters.

I want them to understand why some people stayed, and why they would come back and start over again.

Friday, October 05, 2007

In the Wilderness

While the strip of New Orleans' City Park that runs along City Park Avenue is looking something close to its old manicured self--the lawns trimmed and the great oaks leafing out-- if you wander far enough to the north (less than a mile in this 1,300 acre urban greenscape, say north of I-610, you leave behind an urban park and enter a feral urban wilderness where wild boars recently roamed.

I remember a time when much of the north end of City Park was such a place, before the north course or the new driving range on Filmore, a time when Filmore did not bisect the park at all. The land north of the West Course and behind the riding stables was a wilderness of tall grass and weedy trees, camphors and Chinese tallow, a place where packs of wild dogs roamed on well-worn paths. I lived just across Robert E. Lee and would sometimes venture just a short way in. Not too far, for I was young enough to bring Tonka trucks to the great piles of earth that rose up as the lagoons and golf terrain of the North Course were excavated. But I heard the stories from older boys, ones who would venture far into that wild place armed with trusty BB guns.

That tangled wilderness is long gone, just like the ski jump that once sat in the lagoon along Marconi before the Filmore causeway was built, back when water skiers were a frequent fixture on that long and narrow stretch of water. Gone as well is the man who used to launch his amphibious sports car at the same ramp used by the skiers. That was another park, another era, a time like that described by Walker Percy in The Moviegoer, when the girl who rode in passenger seat of that water-born car no doubt wore the same sort of tight, one piece swimsuit as the water skiers, the sort of little skirted number you could trace all the way back to the noses of bombers in the 1940s.

Am I really that old? At fifty, enough people who seemed not so old are suddenly dying off like flies. Its the sort of age when you start to look at the obituary page not because you expect to find friends from high school there, but just to start to place yourself in the mathematical distribution of age and cause of death, to look at those pictures that might have been next to yours in the high school yearbook, to see them depicted in the grey and grainy tones of the photos of ghosts.

I've been in such a rut lately--kids to school, into the swirling vortex at work, back to get kids and run them around in the early evening; chores on Saturday then collapse on Sunday--that I rarely get off my well beaten paths. I noticed those lost golf tracks through the encroaching wilderness just as the subject of the article on the lost world of City Park North did, as I crested the Wisner overpass one recent day as I drove my daughter out to Ben Franklin High School at the lakefront. Crowds of track runners passed bicyclists following a path through the tall grass of the newly wild north side. I need to get out there, I told myself, even before I found the Times-Picayune article I missed courtesy of Bayou St. John David.

Driving my daughter to Franklin on Saturday (my wife's weekday chore), I found myself taking a wander through another bit of urban wilderness: Gentilly. As I wandered down Mirabeau on my way over to St. Roch, I was struck as always unrelieved prospect of desolation. So little has changed since I came home last year. Sure, there are new debris piles as I travel around Mid-City and Broadmoor, and yard signs pop up touting this or that contractor along the way. It is not as if I don't know that I live in a disaster zone. Still, I might as well be living on Audubon Place for all I get out into the real Debrisville lately. It would be so easy to stay in settled Mid-City or the sliver by the river and forget just how desolate some neighborhoods remain.

City Park may be hauntingly beautiful in its slow decay back into a natural state, but Gentilly is not beautiful, even in a haunting way: haunted is more like it. I almost forgot how disconcerting those empty blocks can be, ones where sagging houses stare through glassless windows onto unkempt lawns in a scene that seems to repeat infinitely to the horizon like a trick with two mirrors. Has it really been more than two years, and so little done? Did Berlin look like this in 1947? Hiroshima? Is this how far we've fallen in one or two generations, that we leave half an American city to rot, its people scattered? We are not as our mothers and fathers were, not by a long shot. The World War II museum here should close as a matter of general principle, lest the few remaining survivors of that conflict come by and confront what a failure the nation they once served has become.

Some of the city, I fear, will ultimately revert just as the park has. I worry about the hardiest pioneers on the frontiers north and east along the lake. Here from my little atoll of City Park, at the edge of the archipelago of dry spots sometimes called the Isle of Orleans, I wonder as I did a year and a half ago how those who return to the emptiest neighborhoods will cope. The idyllic neighborhood of flowerbeds and children on bicycles they remember are gone, replaced by a wilderness that lacks the beauty of City Park's rampant greenery, but instead offers a parade of peeling sideboards that reminds one of the abandoned farmsteads along rural roads, signposts along a way of life that no longer exists; the greying brick facades which smack of the stone piles by the side of the road one finds in Europe, the leavings of cultures past.

These dark thoughts swarm around me like termites around the glaring lights of Metairie, engulf me sometimes like that first measure of syrupy weather as you step out of the cold airplane just arrived from the chilly north and step into home, into New Orleans. Yes, much of this place is trying to revert to the wilderness settled by our families hundreds of years before.

Still, it is the landscape we know, the one we have glimpsed driving down Highway 300 to the End of the Earth Marina, the barrenness vaguely familiar to those of us old enough to remember when there was were raw new subdivisions west of Causeway but this side of the airport, when the East was the empty land between Chef Menteur and Morrison Road.

It is not the wilderness I wandered in for nineteen years, the place we call America. I've lived in places where culture was an ad in the newspaper listing a half-dozen events in a year at the local college, where the restaurants were all careful clones of someone's imagined Italy or Mexico replicated a thousand times over. Life was safe there, predictable. I could plot my future out with the certainly of someone who knows how many more trips to the store it would take to collect enough Yellow or Green Stamps to claim that RV at the back of the redemption catalog.

It was not terrible there. To suggest otherwise would not be fair to the people who lived there, the ones who marched on St. Patrick's Day in D.C. or danced on Syttende Mai in the Nordic Midwest. To them, it was home. Over time it became to me a flat landscape without relief, the desert of the Isrealites without the comfort of a fanatically certain Moses, or even the wan light of a volcano bellowing a column of fire in the distance.

There is a certain safety in the cities of the diaspora. I know that, having found it a dozen years ago not far from the other end of the Mississippi. But at some point the wilderness will find you, even as it creeps over the greens of City Park or claims abandoned bungalows in Gentilly. Even among the high rises of Atlanta or Houston the same chill feeling the endless steppes of North Dakota sometimes stirred in me will grab a hold of you, will make you wonder why you stay there. Over time the void that can't be filled anywhere else will overpower all the reasons to stay away, and the growing wild places of New Orleans will be reclaimed by those who left, or by their children.

I may not live to see that day, but I am as certain as Moses that it will come to pass--if not for me then for my children. And that is enough.

"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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