Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Cities of the Dead (Slight Return)

"They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at Elysian Fields..."
-- Tennessee William's Blanche DuBois from a "A Streetcar Named Desire"

[Ed.'s note: Originally posted with additional news matter Sept. 21, 2005; slightly revised 10-30-06]

New Orleans has always been a city of the dead. One can't travel far in the city without passing the crumbling walls or rusting iron enclosing entire subdivisions of the dead. Mardi Gras is followed by Ash Wednesday, and our most famous citizens long ago departed our crazing of cracked streets for the ordered rows of Greenwood.

Many neighbhorhood restaurants make at least a part of their daily bread for those from the funeral home across the street. [My family] are buried out of Schoens, and the grieving men stand at the bar in Mandina's, sipping cans of Budweiser and discussing the meals we once ate there with our dearly departed.

If New Orleans is famous for jazz [it] is perhaps most famous for being played in the parade back from the burial. Every parade and party has it's second line, but the second line must scrape the clinging soil of the burial mound off it's feet before it can be found anywhere near Bourbon Street.

I cannot escape the dead. Every day I try to find the stories of incredible survival, of unexpected heroism, of sudden and unexpected reunion. Instead, the dead bob up like so many coffins set afloat by the flood waters. I want this blog to be the beginning of a story that ends in joy, a Dickensian despair relieved by the triumph of a city that survived the yellow fever, the fires, the other hurricanes, where humble people find joy in the simplest circumstances amid squalor and despair.

But we are a haunted city, haunted by the ghosts of slavery and Haiti and Jim Crow, and by the living testemants to that past that permate the city's daily life. We are haunted by our own inclination to mild debauchery, and the secret indiscretions every New Orleanian carries quietly with them like a scapula. We are haunted by famous ghosts who softly suggest to us in the rustling of fallen crepe mertle leaves along the careening sidewalks in the wakeful hours of the night that we have only our past to cling to, and a dharmic whorl of parades and parties to live over and over and over again in diminishing splendor . . .

We are haunted by the past that surrounds us in orderly white rows. We are haunted today [9-20-2005] by the mounting toll that will fill another section of our city, and haunt us for untold time to come. I cannot escape those ghosts. They followed me when I fled a collapsing economy in 1987 and became an emigree in a country to the north called the United States. I feel them crowd around to read over my shoulder as I write.

These spirits are the faces from small paintings in peeling gilt frames of men named Honore' and Omer, the Tete's who fled the slave uprising in Haiti; [the] former overseer of Stella Plantation and . . . his wife we children ignorantly called "Aunt Tante"; my two great aunts who lived in a first floor apartment on Royal Street where I spent Hurricane Betsy and at whose house I learned to love the Quarter; my father who never got the chance to live his dream to hang his paintings on the fence at Jackson Square; my brother the most haunting of all . . .

As far away as I am in years and miles from New Orleans, these ghosts crowd around me and compel me to tell you the story of the dead . . .

Original post of Cities of the Dead with additional news matter from Sept. 2005, when the death toll first passed 1,000.

Yes, and this is why the current ghostly nature of the place bothers me less than it might - although it still bothers me. Will it turn into Orlando,
or some other sort of theme park, or will it be able to incorporate the current deadliness and continue to be itself?
Hey, there is a lot of useful info above!
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"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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