As soon as it became clear that Hurricane Katrina
was going to hit New Orleans, and for many days after it did hit, I was
asked by various people to write about or comment on the event and, for
lack of a better word, its “meaning.” I was asked because
we lived in the city for about three and a half years, and I published
a small book about that time. The specific nature
of the request varied. Somebody wanted me to talk about “the arts
and culture of New Orleans.” Somebody else wanted me to write something
on the “psyche” of the place, in a way that would “draw
a picture of the world that lives, fatalistically but also optimistically,
with the proximity of natural disaster.” Mostly they wanted an explanation
of what it is that makes New Orleans different. Again: they wanted meaning.
When Katrina’s eye passed just east of the city Monday morning,
I was on an airplane, from Newark to Las Vegas. I was headed to a trade
show for the apparel and fashion industry. I was worried and distracted,
but when I landed, the early word on the hurricane was that, for New Orleans
at least, things looked better than expected. And I spent the next several
hours hustling around the city’s enormous convention center, a strange
bubble where the only news that circulated was about the authenticity
of this hipster street-wear line or gossip about the hottest “urban”
brands. Meanwhile, the news in the real world was changing.
In a hotel room, I watched events unfold on television. People were stranded.
There was looting. By Tuesday morning a levee had failed, water was now
rising through the city, and it was clear to me, at this point, that a
nightmare was unfolding. The looting was getting worse, the number of
people who were stranded was clearly larger than originally thought. It
was at about this time that the requests for an explanation of New Orleans,
its special-ness, and its meaning, began to arrive in greater numbers.
It looked to me that what was happening in the city was that there were
quite likely hundreds or maybe thousands of people who were going to die
in their attics in poor, mostly black neighborhoods; the rule of law was
collapsing; a majority of the city was now said to be flooded; there was
no word on when power might be restored; even the hundreds of thousands
who did get out of the city were now in an open-ended homeless and jobless
limbo. And I did not feel like explaining New Orleans. I felt like crying.
Many times it has been pointed out that New Orleans is different from
most places partly because it is surrounded by water, and has lived for
hundreds of years with the possibility of this kind of disaster. Perhaps,
it is often speculated, there is a connection between this and the city’s
almost un-American joie de vivre; at the very least, there is something
of the fatalistic in the juxtaposition of the good-time life and the constant
threat of destruction. That may all be correct. It may also be correct
that the perfect metaphor for this carnivalesque place is the mask: The
constructed façade that hides another identity, quite possibly
a much less attractive one. So many people think of New Orleans as a picturesque
vacation town, a zone in which to act wild and crazy for a time in an
atmosphere appropriately soaked in the care-free, the possibly dangerous
— and the authentic. The aftermath of Katrina will, I suspect, have
the effect on many people of feeling that they have seen a mask fall away.
Certainly anyone who has lived in or really knows New Orleans already
knew that behind the beauty of the French Quarter and the Garden District
lay a sprawling and sometimes desperate underclass. Generally this is
mentioned only in the “arts and culture” context, as a backdrop
to, say, the creation of jazz, or more recently the rise of several major
rap stars. But obviously it is just as true in a socio-economic context:
The city has long been full of people living in brutal poverty; the city
has long been full of cheap violence.
I was back at home in Jersey City by late Tuesday night, watching with
anyone else who cared just how badly things can fall apart, and reading
reports the systematic theft of guns, of a forklift commandeered to rip
through the metal gate protecting a drugstore, of shootouts, of breakdowns
in basic social behavior. It is likely that as the stories of life in
the Superdome and elsewhere in the city for those days eventually reach
us, they will be ugly and grim. It is hard to believe the idea of the
city that care forgot disintegrating into chaos and misery. It makes me
angry and it breaks my heart.
I have written many words in the past about what it is that I think makes
New Orleans special, different, unique. I have written them in tones of
love, and I have meant them. At the moment, however, I feel that thinking
about what sets New Orleans apart is, while understandable, not the right
thing to do. The reason is that if a mask is falling away, then the attempt
to localize what we see is also an attempt to be distant from it. That
is a comfortable approach to take, but it is also the wrong approach.
It is comfortable to acknowledge brutal poverty and cheap violence in
New Orleans, rather than to acknowledge brutal poverty and cheap violence
in the United States. And it is comfortable to think that there must be
something different about the people of New Orleans because they were
so willing to live right on the edge of mortality; they must have some
strange penchant for denial.
We all live on the edge of mortality. A penchant for denial is the most
un-strange thing in the world. Masks are a routine function of daily life
– and they were of course precisely the thing being sold at that
fashion and apparel convention that I was so anxious to escape. A penchant
for denial is what allows most of us to gossip about fashion or search
for meaning or otherwise go about our business in one city, while the
social contract dissolves and trapped people die of thirst in another.
Disasters, large and small, natural or otherwise, are always proximate.
Learning to live with that is not what sets the people of New Orleans
apart, it is what binds them to us. This – more than any of the
many things about the city that are special, unique, irreplaceable –
is the reason you should care about New Orleans, and its people, and their
• • • • •
September 4, 2005