Friday, August 28, 2009
Do You Know What It Means?
New Orleans is much in the news now. Something about anniversaries makes us pay a bit of attention; but not so much that anything gets done about it.
So it goes.
I'm no expert on the city, I have no special insight into the situation, other than having made a brief stop there a few weeks ago. It was the end of a long car trip, returning from Brooklyn, in fact, and we were all tired and anxious to be home. If I hadn't paid for the room already, I think we'd have all gladly added the extra hours to the day just to sleep in our own beds that night. So maybe that colored my impressions of the city. That, and I hadn't been there in more than 20 years. My last visit was long before my daughter was born, and I was younger and more feckless and my memories of the visit are both hazy and rose-colored. But the city seemed infinitely sad to me, broken in a way that almost couldn't be repaired, and certainly wasn't being mended.
We drove in from the east, and I was too busy paying attention to traffic to pay attention to the surroundings. I don't know that area from before Katrina, so I couldn't say that it had changed. I-10 doesn't exactly take you through the 9th Ward, either, so I didn't get an up-close view of the devastation. We drove into the French Quarter, and stayed the night there at a lovely hotel just off the square where the St. Louis Cathedral is, and walked around the block to Tujaques for dinner that night. Maybe it was because it was August; maybe it was because of Katrina; but even the Quarter seemed devastated, lost, broken, discarded. It's always been a fabulous invalid, a squalid and wonderful Grande Dame, as only Tennessee Williams could capture it. I remember it from decades ago, my last adult trip there, and even then, while it was seamy, it still seemed like an adult Disneyland. This time, it seemed like a Disneyland for adults that the owners had abandoned. The restaurants, the tourist attractions, were still trying to put a brave face on it, but it was like everyone knew: if this place isn't dead, it's dying.
The Quarter, from what I understand, was relatively untouched by the flooding of New Orleans. It was on higher ground; when the waters rose, they didn't rise that high, because much of the rest of the city was below sea level, but the Quarter wasn't. But the rest of the city fed the Quarter, fed it in ways both real and substantial, and without the rest of the city, the Quarter is very much an invalid, but no longer so fabulous. It was like a bell jar had been dropped over it, in an attempt to preserve what was no longer there. Before, it had seemed vital if decaying, alive if left behind, dazzling if seamy. Now, it just seemed sad; infinitely, terribly broken, and sad.
There were a lot of variations on this theme in the shops: on T-shirts, especially. But it was almost like no one was listening. There were people in one shop wearing UCC T-shirts advertising a clean up they'd helped in, a storm recovery. I don't know if it was current or ancient history, and they were back to see how things were, or in the Quarter taking a break from their labors. Either way, 4 years later, and still handfuls of volunteers doing what they could, or remembering what they did: what could be sadder, while at the same time so hopeful? That's how New Orleans struck me, the last time: an admixture of sorrow and hope, of memories of the glory days of the 19th century, and anticipation of what could still come. The anticipation is still there; but it's also still cleaning up the mud. 4 years later.
What have we learned? When will we ever learn? What have we become?
I still don't know.
Posted by Rmj at 9:15 AM