Jewish World Review Sept. 6, 2005 / 2 Elul,
New Or-leens, Land of dreams
You can hear it even now, the words of this generation to a future one: "You just can't imagine what New Orleans was like before Katrina . . . ."
And will never be again. That's not to say the next New Orleans won't be brand new and shiny. That's not to say it won't be bigger and better. It just won't be the same. Not that it would have been the same even if Katrina had passed the city completely by, even if the levees had held, even if there had been no hurricane, no flood, no disaster. For everything changes.
But without Katrina, New Orleans would have changed the way a living thing does. It would have aged rather than collapsed. That was the secret of New Orleans' youth: It aged.
Even if you could rebuild her just as she was, every cobblestone and lamppost in place, it wouldn't be the same. For there is no replacement for time, the one indispensable element that adds a unique luster to everything well aged, even the simplest things, like a cobbler's bench used for 40 years, or your grandmother's thimble.
Anyway, how could you exactly replicate the mold in the courtyards, the cracks in the sidewalks, the old trees trellised over the streetcar tracks on St. Charles, the great oaks lining the broad paths through Audubon Park. . . . The best you could hope for would be some kind of Disneyfied imitation. It is lost, lost, all the fruits only time can bring to full, over-ripe fruition in a one-of-a-kind city. Drowned.
Now, when I call up Orleans Parish on the Web, where I could always find live cam shots of Bourbon Street, the Quarter, the View from the Bridge . . . , they all read the damned same: This cam is out-of-service due to Hurricane Katrina. Pretty name, Katrina. I hate it now.
But maybe that, too, is only a New Orleans thought, a kind of despair suitable for framing. The Quarter isn't the hard-hit Ninth Ward. Maybe it will rise up from the sea; it's on slightly higher ground. Hope springs, even in, and about, New Orleans.
I heard of New Orleans long before I saw it. The way people said it in Shreveport, there was a kind of magic, a longing, in the very words, New Orleans.
And then there was the late-night music over the radio from the Blue Room high atop the beautiful Roosevelt Hotel in downtown New Orleans . . . .
But I didn't get to New Orleans till my teens, when my older brother's engagement to a New Orleans girl was announced. As soon as we drove into town, I understood that New Orleans was . . . different. It was like my first sight of Paris a few years later the sidewalk cafes, the leafy boulevards, the narrow old streets. Coming into Paris, you could almost hear the accordion music in the background. In New Orleans it was a tenor sax.
At my brother's wedding in New Orleans, I was the 15-year-old Best Man; the bridesmaids were in their late teens and early twenties. I was, as any 15-year-old boy would be, smitten. By all of them. In a word, consumed and too young to realize I was being teased. Every mascot believes he's a Prince Charming.
Where, oh, where, are they now, those young belles in that wedding party? One, I know, spent her declining years in the same house she'd grown up in, moving from one room to the next as each one deteriorated, till she was marooned in the center of the house, refusing to leave, sending an old black retainer out for her groceries till the money ran out, convinced They would get her if she ventured into the streets . . . until finally a police SWAT team had to extract her. A very New Orleans story. Something right out of Shirley Ann Grau. New Or-Leens, Land of Dreams and nightmares. City of Hurricanes at Pat O'Brien's and other ones called Katrina.
The visitor always loved New Orleans; he could leave before it turned real and there was a mortgage and a job and all the rest of it to deal with. But on arriving, the visitor's dreamy first thought was always: Hey, I could get lost here. No questions asked, no answers demanded. One of my first thoughts when I flunked the orals for my Ph.D., and clearly my life was over, was that I could always go to New Orleans and get lost no questions asked, no answers demanded and just live.
My wife, a Texas girl, once told me a story about when she was a student at Sophie Newcomb. One day she got a message from an antique dealer in the Quarter who seemed to know who she was. She agreed to meet him for a drink, and, after a long and interesting discussion about the Empire style and the Impressionists, she asked the charming, older man how he knew about her.
"I'm your cousin," he said. A cousin she'd never heard of. In those days, a young man who, as they used to say, wasn't interested in girls might be sent off and never mentioned again no questions asked, no answers demanded, just to live. In New Orleans, of course.
Some things about New Orleans will not change. That's an article of faith for all those who, whenever the city is mentioned, get a certain look in their eyes, no matter where they are, and begin telling New Orleans stories. Not so much to entertain others, but just so they themselves can hear them again. They may be standing in a doorway, or at the office water cooler, or doing nothing in particular, but they'll slow down, maybe slouch a little, and a certain dreamy look will come into their eyes. And as they speak, it's almost as if they're trying to taste the past, to conjure it up again.
But now there may be no recapturing New Orleans, not physically. The streets and houses and places that are gone weren't just backdrops; they were characters in the story. Architecture shapes us as surely as people do more, sometimes.
When the water goes down, and it will, and the city rises, and it will, what will New Orleans be like? It won't be what it was, but it could be Bigger and Better. It could thrive be another Houston or Dallas without all those crooked streets and other impediments to commerce and industry that its critics always deplored. "It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed," to quote House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois.
After all, how much sense does it make to spend billions to re-create a city below sea level? The Speaker has a point: The existence of a New Orleans never did make any sense. Which of course was why it was New Orleans, and why we loved her. Speaker Hastert's comment has all the romance of a balance sheet, of a profit-and-loss statement, of a loan application. He keeps talkin' like that and he's gonna give damnyankees a bad name. What ever happened to compassionate conservatism? This isn't even conservatism. Far from conserving one of the most distinctive cities in the Western hemisphere, the Speaker sounds ready to sprinkle salt on the ruins.
Yes, once we've bulldozed New Orleans, we can rebuild it sensibly. The way it should have been built from the first. Think of Kristina as your modern urban planner. Imagine the great city that can rise on the ruins: clean, modern, efficient, urban, orderly, positively German. Think of Preservation Hall reborn as a huge new chrome auditorium with theater seating and stereo sound instead of that creaky little hole-in-the-wall it used to be where only old guys played anyway . . . .
Not before now did I realize how beautiful the word antediluvian could sound.
Bulldoze New Orleans? How do you bulldoze a dream? Not all the bulldozers in the world can kill the music, and as long as the music lives, New Orleans will. For nothing, not even a hurricane, can destroy a dream, especially when it is sealed in the past, like a lost love, and you can put it to music. Which is why people sing the blues, and why the blues are a source of strength, not weakness.
There's a little book about New Orleans, a great little book, "The Lives of Saints" by Nancy Lemann, and there's a little passage in it, a great little passage, about what the heroine is thinking one night when she's down, really down, and thinking about the wasted years and the source of whatever strength she may have left at that point in her life:
New Orleans may have been destroyed, Mr. Speaker, but she ain't finished. There's a difference. Even at her weakest, she may be stronger than you think. Nossir, no way is New Orleans finished. Not yet. Only your soulless kind can finish her off. And we won't let you.
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