As I write these words, I feel as though my heart has been ripped from my body. My dear old friend, New Orleans, appears to be dead. After dodging hurricanes and flooding ever since her founding in 1718, the "Land of Dreams" succumbed at last to Hurricane Katrina. The storm ripped holes in the levees, putting 80% of the "City That Care Forgot" under water.
It may well be that an obituary is premature; Orleanians are notoriously tough, and a resurrection may well result. But, the revenant that emerges from the ooze will not be the city that submerged. Certainly, much will be salvaged—perhaps more than anyone can conceive at this moment. In time, should this occur, Katrina will recede into the memory in the same manner as the Blitz has for London, or Yellow Fever for the Crescent City herself. Even battered and once-dissected Berlin has staged a comeback. But it will not be the City I remember.
For me, this is a very personal tragedy. Obviously, it is far more so for those who are actually living through the experience. For those who know the City only by reputation, it is a great loss; never, save in books and reminiscences, will they experience the New Orleans that inspired such writers as Tennessee Williams, Lyle Saxon, John Kennedy Toole, Anne Rice, Walker Percy, Frances Parkinson Keyes, and many, many others. Music lovers will search in vain for the ambience that produced Louie Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Jackson Teagarten, Fats Domino, Wynton Marsalis, and, to be sure, every jazzman that ever lived—whether he knew it or not. Perhaps, please God, they will be able at least to show their palates at Antoine's, Galatoire's, Tujeague's, and the rest—why New Orleans reigned supreme in the world of cuisine. But even so, it will not be the same, by a long shot.
New Orleans gave me an alternative America, more Latin and Catholic than anything I had ever been exposed to in my native states, and yet deeply rooted in this country.
When most people think of New Orleans, they think of Mardi-Gras; but they see that bacchanal purely as a matter of louts and loutesses drinking until sick and exposing various portions of their anatomy to each other. What they do not (and perhaps, may now never) grasp is that Mardi-Gras was so much more.
The intricate network of Krewes, from the aristocratic Comus, Momus, and Rex, down to the fun-loving Black Zulu, were a subculture all their own. The balls and parades, the "Indians," the legends and wild tales (such as the hubbub back in the 1950s as to whether the Duke of Windsor would actually bow to the King of Rex at that Krewe's ball—His Royal Highness, did, as it happened) could and did fill any number of sociological books and studies. But above all, it was fun.
One of the highlights of this writer's life was being introduced to Mr. McIlhenny, of Tabasco fame, at Rex's "den" (the locale where a Krewe made and stored its Mardi-Gras floats in preparation for its parade; the viewing of these floats by members and guests prior to use was an important Mardi-Gras ritual). As a fervent lover of the stuff, I lost my reticence and said to him, "I live in Los Angeles, but I'm going to say something to you I've never said to any star: O, Mr. McIlhenny, I'm such a fan!" His reaction was one of quiet amusement.
The juxtaposition of fast and feast was central to the ethos of the City.
Mardi-Gras was an entire life style for many of its participants, who spent the whole year preparing floats, balls, costumes, and so on. The ceremonial arrival of the King of Rex by boat on the preceding Sunday at Gallier Hall (New Orlean's first city hall), whereat the Mayor would present him with keys of the city—symbolizing the commencement of Rex's rule—officially kicked off the event, although balls and parades alike would begin after the Epiphany on January 6th and continue with increasing frequency until the actual day.
Lundi-Gras featured an enormous procession with the Boeuf Gras, an enormous plastic cow symbolizing plenty. The events would close when the King of Rex, although head of the "ruling" Krewe, would leave his own ball at one end of the Fairmont Hotel, and make his way across the building to the Comus ball at the other end. There, he would seek out the King of that Krewe—the oldest, having been founded in 1867—and toast with him in champagne at the stroke of Midnight. Mardi Gras thus ended, and Ash Wednesday and Lent, with their penance and rigor, began.
Outside the hotel, police rode through the streets warning the revelers to go inside (some doubtless continuing their parties in private, others entering into the spirit of the thing and going to bed). The next day the Catholic churches would be thronged with ash-seekers, many the worse for wear. This juxtaposition of fast and feast was central to the ethos of the City, at least until the 60s and 70s—and much survived even to the present. Alas, it looks like my lifelong hope of attending the Comus ball may never be; but the richness of Mardi-Gras is an incalculable loss for all of us, even if we do not know it.
The rest of the year boasted its rituals as well: my heart aches for Christmas Midnight Mass at St. Louis Cathedral, followed by a reveillon, a supper (or breakfast) of café au lait, escargot, oysters, and turtle soup at the Fairmont Hotel; the St. Joseph's Tables on the March 19 feast day of the Foster Father of Jesus, a little feasting to lighten up the penance of Lent-introduced by the Italians, picked up by the Blacks, and in latter years tending to merge with the Irish St. Patrick's day in the popular mind; the placing of candles in the cemeteries on All Saints' Day; eating sausage, red beans, and rice on Monday; and many, many more. Will, I wonder, any of these return to the Crescent City?
This was a city so much richer in living than a tourist could conceive from a short stay in the French Quarter, Hurricane in hand and listening to street musicians—not that that experience was not also a part of New Orleans' unique manner. Many a Southerner from less pleasant parts indulged in his first legal drink in the Quarter, at Pat O'Brien's, the Napoleon House, the Old Absinthe House, or any one of a hundred other bars. Indeed, New Orleans played for the entire South a role analogous to that New York has played for generations of Yankees, being at once the heart—and even the soul—of the region on the one hand, and yet delightfully foreign on the other.
It is that very foreignness that was the root of my love of New Orleans; as might be guessed by my name, I am of French descent—French Canadian, to be sure, as anyone who hears me speak my ancestral tongue knows straightaway. In my father's native Massachusetts, this was not a mark of distinction to local society at large, back before we were assimilated; a great deal of Jack Kerouac's angst emerged from this. Since the language and culture were, to a great degree, lost in the 1960s and 70s, we have counted for even less (this deracination occurred at the same time Quebec was going through its Revolution Tranquille, during which time la Belle Province surrendered both her religion, her culture, and her birthrate, while holding on to her language). Having been born in Manhattan and spent most of my life in Los Angeles, English and Spanish are the languages and ethoi that shaped my environment. I am comfortable with both, to be sure, but neither are my own.
Mardi-Gras was so much more than louts and loutesses drinking until sick and exposing various portions of their anatomy.
But New Orleans! Ah, there was something different. Although, unlike the neighboring Cajun country (whose denizens are, in many ways much as French-Canadians once were) the French language is nearly extinct in the Crescent City, many of the attitudes remain. A lack of admiration for labor for its own sake, coupled with a love of it and its products when beautiful or useful; an acceptance of death as a hopeful reality (as evidenced by funeral customs and the aforementioned All Saints' Day activities) rather than something to be ignored or hidden; a very public display of Catholic piety; and, despite the paucity of native French-speakers, the many shop signs in the Vieux Carre declaring ici on parle Francaise; in some cases it was even true. Unlike any other major city in America, being French gave one cachet.
This was my introduction to the history and culture of the Creoles—both the aristocratic Francophone Whites to whom the term was first applied, and the descendants of the Gens de coleur libre, the "Creoles of Color," who, unlike their Caucasian relatives, remain a dominant force in the city today—or at least in the city that existed before Katrina. I learned of men like Charles Gayarre, Rodolphe Desdunes, and Alcee Fortier, who fought to keep New Orleans' French culture alive in the 19th century, and Roger Baudier and Pie Dufour, who chronicled its decline in the 20th. Certainly, French left a mark on Orleanian English: "fixing" or "making" groceries, the common term for shopping, was an obvious translation of faire a magasine, and the sidewalk curbs are still called "banquettes." Even the pronunciation of New Orleans by the locals-Nyoo Awlins, Noo Orleeuns, or what have you—set them apart. Noo Orleens, unless used in a song, was the mark of the outsider. Of course, natives pronounced the name of the Parish in which the City sits as Orleens, and never seemed to notice the incongruity!
But many others followed this initial discovery, because New Orleans is much more than just its French origins. Before Miami even existed, the city was America's gateway to Latin America and the Caribbean. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela's perhaps sarcastic offer of aid to the areas affected by Katrina was certainly warranted, given that Simon Bolivar and many other revolutionaries sought refuge in New Orleans while plotting the overthrow of the Spanish Crown in this hemisphere. The Irish, Germans, and Italians all made major contributions to the city's culture—not least of which was the "Yat" accent of their working class descendants in such areas as the Irish Channel, an accent that bears a resemblance to Brooklynese. Not surprising, really, given the settlement of that borough by the same groups.
But there were American influences also to be explored—primarily of an Anglo-Southern nature, as the Garden District, Christ Episcopal Cathedral, and the Confederate Museum (with its picture of Pope Pius IX and Crown of Thorns given by that Pope to Jefferson Davis while he was imprisoned after the War Between the States-since Pius has been beatified, said Crown of Thorns is now a second class relic; if the museum survives, it may be attributed to his intercession). The agony of war and Reconstruction is also a part of the City's history, and gave me a much deeper understanding of those conflicts then I could ever have possessed as a Californian.
So too with its Black population. Apart from the Creoles of Color, the Blacks of New Orleans possessed an endlessly fascinating culture. Catholics form a large part of the population there, and the bridge formed by our common religion gave me a window into a world entirely foreign to most Whites. The prism of race in America is a distorting one, and neither side of the color bar really understands the other at all. Despite their many feuds, Black and White Orleanians had much more in common with each other culturally than either did with the nation at large—however much they might try to ignore that fact. Regardless, New Orleans was a community, despite its divisions.
New Orleans played the role of being at once the heart—and even the soul—of the entire South on the one hand, and yet delightfully foreign on the other.
Of course, food and drink must be mentioned. The Sazerac Cocktail was a revelation, as were the Ramos Gin Fizz and the Hurricane. It has been my privilege to dine in many fine restaurants around the world: Maxim's in Paris, Drei Husaren in Vienna, Rule's in London, Keen's in New York, John's Grill in San Francisco, Bookbinder's in Philadelphia, the late and very lamented Haussner's in Baltimore, and on and on. But of them all, Antoine's will always be my favorite. A dinner of Oysters Foch, Potage d'Alligator au Sherry, Noisettes d'Agneau Alciatore, and Pommes Souffle, all washed down with a Nuits St. Georges or a Chateuneuf du Pape, with Café Brulot Diabolique to follow will always remain culinary paradise to me. Randy Guste, the then—proprietor, and Henri Alciatore, the headwaiter, made the place at once formal and familial; where but at Antoine's could one expect, as I encountered one pleasant evening in 1990, to have the cover of one's latest book reproduced as a Baked Alaska on the spur of the moment? As of this writing, I have no idea of how Randy, Henri, their families and staff have fared, but I pray God they are safe and well.
In a nutshell, the best of New Orleans gave me an approximation of an alternative America, more Latin and Catholic than anything I had ever been exposed to in my native states, and yet deeply rooted in this country. A might-have-been, as you might say.
But alongside this rosy picture was a much darker one, which the events of the past weeks have held up to scrutiny by the nation and the world. Unwise planting of low-income housing in old, established neighborhoods in the 1960s and 70s had the same effect in New Orleans that it did in the rest of the country's major cities: the flight of the White working class to the suburbs, leaving a city that was 67% Black; of these, 20-30% lived below the poverty line. With its tax base eroded, New Orleans had to turn to tourism to survive.
Now, tourism is far from a bad thing in itself; generations of outsiders have been lured by the City's unique culture, cuisine, and architecture, and it is good that it is so. But the feeling of liberation so engendered led to the sorts of excesses that drive ministers wild. In comparison to most of the country, New Orleans had always been free and easy; but the 60s and 70s saw the Quarter turn into a priapic playpen. On the one hand, locals—unless their employment demanded it—generally avoided the Vieux Carre during Mardi Gras, especially after the parades were removed from it due to the threat of fire in the 1970s. But on the other, the City desperately needed the revenue such folk provided. So it was that, this Labor Day Weekend, the City planned to host the Southern Decadence event—billed as a Gay Mardi Gras. Katrina, however, intervened.
City administration has been notoriously corrupt in New Orleans; Mayor Nagin was elected as a Reformer, pledged to sweep the rot out of City Hall. How well he succeeded may be debated, but what is certain is that this has played a part in the current disaster, as well as the lackadaisical attitude on the part of City and State officials to the problem of the levees. To be fair, however, regardless of what studies showed, few Orleanians in or out of government could really believe in their hearts that what happened could happen, however much it nagged the backs of their minds, as fears of the Big Earthquake nag us Angelenos. And, of course, stories of the heroism of many city workers, police, and firemen, abound.
Underlying all of this was the racial problem. A large, mostly Black, underclass festered on the margins of society, as it does in many of our big cities. In New Orleans as elsewhere, many Black neighborhoods were unsafe for residents and visitors alike, and the single leading cause of death among young Black men was other young Black men. Although not quite as bad in New Orleans, the destruction of the Black family and community that has characterized the past four decades in America, even as their political rights have been reinforced, was a mighty factor in this development. Here as elsewhere, civic leaders of all colors have criminally ignored this problem. But it contributed mightily to the breakdown of public order in Katrina's wake.
Despite their many feuds, Black and White Orleanians had much more in common with each other culturally than either did with the nation at large.
That having been said, however, heroism abounded in the disasters. Looters were deputized to rescue the stranded by passing police, and while the media captured frightening images of murder and rape, they were generally not on hand for acts of bravery and kindness that crossed racial and income lines. The television camera's eye could not penetrate into the isolated hospitals where medical workers gave their food to patients, taking their own sustenance from glucose I.V.s.
And what now? I believe that New Orleans will revive. Despite the fatuous remark by the Speaker of the House of Representatives that the City ought not to be rebuilt (as his breaking ranks with his party's voters over stem-cell research shows, he is not a man of fixed loyalties), simple economics require it, because New Orleans is the second largest port in the country. The French Quarter, the Lower Garden District, and the Audubon Zoo survived, and will be the focus of the new city; it is ironic that the Vieux Carre, where the city began, will necessarily be the place of its rebirth. It will not be, in so many ways, the City I knew and loved; for one thing, survivors who could not afford to leave New Orleans in the first place will probably not be able to afford to return, especially if a year or more passes before they are permitted to do so. In that time, they may very well start new lives in their places of refuge.
Who, then, will return? People who love the City enough to go back, and have an economic stake in doing so, or are simply in love with New Orleans—some of the "White Flight" may be reversed; people from all over the country with a pioneering spirit; and the folk who work at the port. It may be a much smaller city than it was, at least in terms of population. Perhaps the old spirit will be regained, or else it will be a sort of Cleveland South, attached to a Disneyfied French Quarter, entirely maintained for tourists. I certainly hope it is the former.
Then again, all such hopes may be in vain. If it is so, I will always revere the memory of New Orleans, as I would that of a loved father or grandfather—as a town that taught me much about life, literature, and the art of living well. To switch metaphors, she will always be to me like the Creole girl in the haunting ballad, The Lakes of Pontchartrain, which I first heard years ago in an Irish pub in the French Quarter:
So fare thee well my Creole girl
I never will see more
But I'll ne'er forget your kindness
In the cottage by the shore.
And at each social gathering
A flowing glass I'll raise
And I'll drink a health to my Creole girl
And the lakes of Pontchartrain.