Friday, September 02, 2005

Homage to New Orleans

A friend sent this link and it captures some of the history and character of the city. I also recommend "Love Song for Bobby Long" a movie I got from Netflix which steeps in the nostalgia of New Orleans and of literary careers gone wrong--and the redemption thereof.

The Crescent City blues
By Howell Raines, HOWELL RAINES is the author of a memoir, "The One That Got
Away," to be published by Scribners in May 2006.

UNLIKE THOUSANDS of American families, my kin and I received at least one
precious splash of good news from New Orleans. My daughter-in-law, Eva
Hughes Raines, her 3-year-old daughter, Sasha, and the family pets fled town
a full day ahead of the evacuation order. Her husband, my son Jeffrey, and
his mates in the funk band Galactic were performing in Seattle, watching
from afar as Katrina inundated their homes in the USA's most distinctive
city. Soon the little family will arrive here in the Pocono Mountains where
we will wait, for weeks or months, to see if their antique neighborhood of
distinctive "shotgun houses" can be made habitable again.

In the personal realm, there is no relief like the relief arising from the
safety of loved ones. In the civic realm, there is no communal grief quite
like the sorrow of watching as a beloved city is hammered by an unstoppable
malice. Everybody now knows about the inundation of the famous "bowl" formed
by the city's levees. What may need a little reviewing is why New Orleans
has been for generations a golden bowl of memories, both sacred and profane.

In Colonial times, it was the one American city where Afro-Caribbean and
Creole culture enjoyed at least a measure of tolerance under a succession of
masters - Spanish, French, English and American. In 1815, it was the site of
the United States' most complete victory over the redcoats. Even the handful
of Americans who died at the Battle of New Orleans did so in Mardi Gras
style, dancing in front of the barricades.

For millions of Americans who grew up in strait-laced towns, the Big Easy
has always been the place to dance - the one Southern place where the Bible
Belt came unbuckled. A hundred years ago, the Storyville section was
America's best place for the world's oldest profession and the birthplace of
America's best contribution to world music, jazz. Like other young people in
the preacher-haunted South, I bought my first legal drink in the French
Quarter. We went for the booze, and in that world of cobbled streets and
hidden gardens, some of us glimpsed the glory and costs of pursuing art or

This was the place where Thomas Williams of St. Louis became "Tennessee" and
where that much-ridiculed postal clerk from Oxford, Miss., made himself into
William Faulkner, novelist. This was the place where you could come to find
or lose yourself. In the back room of the Maple Leaf Bar on upper Magazine
Street, my classmate Everette Maddox, a poet so precocious he was published
in the New Yorker before he left the University of Alabama, succeeded after
two decades of steady effort in drinking himself to death.

Oh, wondrous city of music that floats from the horn and poems drowned in
drink! Oh, cheesy clip-clop metropolis of phony coach-and-fours hauling
drunken Dodge salesmen, of gaunt-eyed transvestite hookers, of Baptist girls
suddenly inspired to show their breasts on Chartres Street in return for a
string of beads flung from the balcony of the Soniat House - will we lose
even these dubious glories of the only American city that's never been

I hope not. I am 62. If New Orleans is to be pumped out, its soffits
re-replastered, its live oaks replanted before I'm gone, I'll be happily
surprised. For now, we wait and ponder this question: If it's gone or
permanently altered, what memorial would be fitting? Surely it would not be
some monument of stone, but perhaps a political memorial to the city of Huey
P. Long and his fictional iteration Willie Stark, or a spiritual remembrance
of the City That Care Forgot.

Certainly the sacrifices of New Orleans need a kind of national reckoning,
one that would enable the people to see the president who forgot to care for
what he is. Every great disaster - the Blitz, 9/11, the tsunami - has a
political dimension. The dilatory performance of George Bush during the past
week has been outrageous. Almost as unbelievable as Katrina itself is the
fact that the leader of the free world has been outshone by the elected
leaders of a region renowned for governmental ineptitude.

Louisiana's anguished governor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, climbed into a
helicopter at the first possible moment to survey what may become the worst
weather-related disaster in American history. Even Gov. Haley R. Barbour of
Mississippi, a tiresome blowhard as chairman of the Republican National
Committee, has shown a throat-catching public sorrow and sleepless diligence
that put Bush to shame.

This president who flew away Monday to fundraisers in the West while the
hurricane blew away entire towns in coastal Mississippi is very much his
father's son. George H.W. Bush couldn't quite connect to the victims of
Hurricane Andrew, nor did he mind being photographed tooling his golf cart
around Kennebunkport while American troops died in the first Iraq war. After
preemptively declaring a state of emergency, the younger Bush seemed equally
determined to show his successors how to vacation through an apocalypse.

On Tuesday, he urged people to stay where they were, even if their
evacuation residence might be the leaking-roof, clogged-toilet Superdome. On
Wednesday, as he met by intercom with his emergency team and decided to
return to Washington, as Pentagon and Homeland Security promised relief by
the weekend, intensive-care patients were dying at Charity Hospital in New
Orleans. They had languished for two full days because the overworked Coast
Guard helicopter crews available in New Orleans did not have time to reach

The populism of Huey Long was financially corrupt, but when it came to the
welfare of people, it was caring. The churchgoing cultural populism of
George Bush has given the United States an administration that worries about
the House of Saud and the welfare of oil companies while the poor drown in
their attics and their sons and daughters die in foreign deserts.


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