Thursday, May 1, 2008

RS: Laissez les bon temps roulez

She is called the Soul Queen of New Orleans. Standing in the pouring rain in the front row watching Irma Thomas sing at Jazz Fest, I was certain she is both the heart and soul of my beloved city. It is not my home, but it is part of my history. It was a place of firsts: the first city I ever lived in, the place where I tasted alcohol for the first time, had sex with a woman for the first time, lived on my own for the first time, and grew up a little for the first time.

When the levees broke, I wondered if the city would ever recover. It is a place like no other in the country, music its pulse, decadence its past and its promise, Mississippi mud runs in its veins, the air about 80 proof. The very idea that it would not thrive again was sad, the idea that it would not live again was unimaginable.

I experienced our government’s negligent homicide only through pictures and news stories. I was angry. Sad. Not surprised. That our great land, drenched in trails of tears and blood, should saturate to flooding seems mere self-fulfilling prophesy.

I was in New York on 9-11. I remember being so surprised when I spoke to people from outside the city. Hatred leeched through their pores. My experience of the city that day and in the coming weeks was enveloping humanity, the kindness of a population that rarely acknowledged the existence of another on the street, a city of blind eyes Lasiked into caring. The anger would come later, replacing numbness, but then, just then, there was brotherhood and sisterhood—all open hearts and helping hands.

I spoke to a woman who ushered people on and off the Jazz Fest shuttles. She lived directly across the river in a place called Algiers. She told me it was the second oldest part of New Orleans, after the French Quarter. I asked her about Katrina. She said she had a great time, one of the best of her life. I was instantly offended, and she must have noticed because she immediately began to explain. She was safe, she knew early on that she was safe, so she began to help. She rescued pets, pitched in where she was needed, and helped usher folks to the safe side of the river. She also drank, laughed, swam in a friend's pool, and got to know her neighbors—people who’d lived down the block for a decade, completely unknown to her, transformed by a shared experienced into family.

If you spend time in the French Quarter and traveling along St. Charles Avenue, you might not know New Orleans is a city struggling. To be honest, as I drove around, I didn’t see that much of the struggling up close, though I know it is there. I watch it, angrily, on television. But I happened to take a wrong turn onto a street being rebuilt by Habitat for Humanity. There were two blocks of newly built homes, true to the historical architecture, differentiated mostly by color. It was only two blocks, two small blocks among acres of devastation, but they were two vibrant and alive blocks, a flatlined neighborhood rediscovering its heartbeat.

Others are making a difference too. Like so many, my church is working to help rebuild a community there. And God love Brad Pitt, as if I didn’t before. (He is a fellow southwest Missourian, how could I not?) But, not nearly enough is being done. We could do more. I could do more. And without proper repair of the levees, efforts may prove vanity at best.

Bleeding always stops, though. It seems it might have in New Orleans. The patient is awake, alert and alive. I didn’t do much, but I helped. I pumped a bit of cash into the economy—though unlikely to trickle down to those who need it most. That shit never worked, now matter how many times Reagan called it shinola. In addition to the times I was spending, I was thrilled by the time I was spending, resting my head once again in my first home away from home.

Much has changed, but driving the old roads felt familiar, each stop light threatening déjà vu. And the roads weren’t the only thing that felt old. I walk through life feeling about 19. Were it not for mirrors and actual 19 year-olds, I could continue that self-deception completely unchallenged. Walking through the Tulane campus, even my memories felt old—could be because I graduated exactly 19 years ago. But it was revitalizing just being in the presence of youth, lives not fully imagined coming into focus. There they were living in my city, growing up a little for the first time. And there I was growing up a little in that city for the second time. I stayed in a hotel across the street from the two main gay bars. I left those bars years earlier overburdened with Mardi Gras beads, and I got them the old fashioned way. . .I earned them. This time, I didn’t have a single drink in those bars. Dating here in New York has proven most satisfying. It didn’t seem necessary to go trolling in a new city. Who needs instant gratification when constant gratification is at hand? And I bought my first piece of art. My singular piece of durable property.

The city was different this time, mostly because I was different in it—responsible shoes on unsteady feet; but like those kids on campus, verging on possible, the uncertain held definite promise. It’s how I would feel leaving the city. My anger had no place there, I was leaving her in good hands, in the good hands of the people who live there.

About half way through Irma Thomas’s concert, the rain stopped and the sun started to shine. Right before she closed the show with her album After the Rain, her response to Katrina and her first grammy win, she thanked each of us a second time for being there, just being there to support the city as it returned to itself. It didn’t come across as disengenuous or pandering or just one of those things entertainers say but don’t mean. She took it personally and so did I. Whatever New Orleans becomes as she grows up again, I got to be a part of it, both what she was and what she will be. Dual citizenship has its privileges.

1 comment:

The Write Bunch said...

Unfortunately I've never been to New Orleans. You make it sound wonderful! Here's hoping it has seen the last of its troubles. HC